Monday, February 21, 2011

Looking at the Egyptian uprising

It all began in a rural Tunisian town. Mohamed Bouazizi, who sold fruits and vegetables on the streets to make a living for himself and his impoverished family, was publicly humiliated on December 17 by a policewoman Fedya Hamdi. Hamdi slapped Bouazizi in the face, spat at him and forcefully confiscated his goods and weighing scale. An angry and distressed Bouazi­zi, who often suffered harass­ment and abuse at the hands of the local police, went to complain his grievances to the local municipal officials but failed to get any recourse as the officials just refused to meet him. As an act of desperation, Bouazizi doused himself with inflammable fluid and set his body on fire outside the municipal office. The plight of young Bouazizi became the catalyst that sparked off massive anger against the regime of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia since 1987 with an iron fist. Thousands of furious Tunisians came out on the streets to protest against police brutality, the corrupt power structure, soaring unemployment and unending poverty. Weeks of violent demonstrations followed as protesters clashed with the state security forces. Members of the police force clubbed the unarmed anti-regime protesters and open fired on them killing dozens. Sensing the enraging public mood, Ben Ali visited the bedside of Bouazizi in an attempt to draw public support. He also dissolved the government, promised legislative elections within six months and assured to take meaningful steps toward political reform. But his entire attempt was all but too late. On January 4, Bouazizi succumbed to his injuries escalating unrest and further violence. On January 14, president Ben Ali fled the capital Tunis with his wife Leila in a private jet to Saudi Arabia shortly after the army general Rachid Ammar refused to back his orders to keep shooting on the protesters. According to French agencies, the 74-year-old dethroned president suffered a stroke and is now lying in coma at a Saudi hospital.

The success of the Tunisian uprising, the first of its kind in an Arab country, has completely surprised every section of the Arab society. Within a few days, popular discontent inspired by the Tunisian example expanded to other authoritative regimes of the Arab world. In Algeria, food riots broke out in several towns over the sudden price hike of food staples such as flour, sugar and oil. The unrest over soaring food price and unemployment prompted the Algerian government to announce necessary plans to pro­tect the citizens from the rising cost of living. Demonstrations against price increases, anti-people economic policies, as well as high unemployment and poverty levels have also been echoed in Jordan. In an effort to rejuvenate his re­gime after protests exploded in Amman, King Abdullah of Jordan fired his present government. Facing demonstrations demanding his downfall and political reforms, President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen who has ruled the country since 1990, had to publicly promise that he would not attempt to pass the presidency to his son, Ahmed. From January 25, a spontaneous uprising of the masses from all walks of life exploded on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and other Egyptian cities against President Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt and instinctively repressive political regime. The eighteen days of momentous popular uprising have created history by forcing out Mubarak of power.
The uprising in Egypt
The early developments in Egypt were sending out mixed signals. The uprising first broke out in the streets of capital Cairo and the port city of Suez. Riot police cracked down on the protesters with teargas, water cannon and rubber bullets when thousands of protesters defied the night time curfew in Cairo and turned their anger on symbols of the state, torching police cars along with the ruling National Democratic Party headquarters. Army tanks rolled into the streets, the government blocked cell phones and Internet access. Facing an unprecedented resentment of ordinary Egyptians who came out in support of the uprising in large numbers, 82-years-old Mubarak appeared on national television to sug­gest that he will never willingly resign. As a pre-emptive gesture to appease the masses of protesters and tamp down the unrest, he fired the present cabinet, hastily reshuf­fled the deck and appointed his long serving intelligence service chief Omar Suleiman as the new vice-president.
Mubarak’s decision to appoint Sulei­man as vice-president was an embar­rassing retreat from his earlier plan to promote his younger son Gamal for the post. The presumptive heir apparent was widely perceived as a hate figure for his close connections with the fabulously wealthy and corrupt business elite. Mubarak explored all viable options to save his regime including desperate efforts to reach out at his closest ally, the US government for escorting him out of the volatile state of affairs. He was clearly killing time so that the protests fizzle out natural­ly. But nothing really worked in his favor. The unrest swelled following a violent counter-demonstration mounted by organized pro-Mubarak mobs on the peaceful protesters. Even the army he had nurtured so graciously did not come to his rescue. Blasting the myth that the Arab and Islamic worlds are inapt for peaceful protests, thousands of brave Egyptians across the country and on Tahrir Squareincluding significant numbers of women and childrenremained peaceful but determined with a single message for the hated president: Irhal! (Leave!) On 11 February evening, Omar Suleiman appeared on television to announce Mubarak's resignation and the transfer of the powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. The people of Egypt have finally won their battle.
How did the Egyptians who had failed to rise in the past three decades suddenly revolted in such a fascinating way? How did they maintain their nerves for eighteen long days to courageous­ly resist each and every reactionary attacks of the Mubarak regime? Mubarak was essentially a military man with all the qualities required for an authoritarian dictator. He had established a mechanism that allowed him and the ruling elite to exercise absolute control over the Egyptian society and successfully sustained the regime for thirty long years. One of the tools of state repression was a draconian Emergency Law, which has been in force since 1981, the year he became president after Anwar Sadat’s assassination. This notorious law allowed the government to crack down on political critics; thousands of civilians were harassed, arrested and imprisoned without any war­rants. Public gatherings of more than five people without prior official permission were termed as illegal. Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on January 30, 2011 which observes that, “…law enforcement officials have used torture and ill-treatment on a widespread, de­liberate, and systematic basis over the past two decades to glean confessions and information, or to punish detainees. The United Nations Committee Against Torture has con­firmed the systematic nature of torture in Egypt.” The re­port further stated that the nature of torture constitute “an epidemic of habitual, widespread, and deliberate torture perpetrated on a regular basis by security forces against political dissidents, Islamists allegedly engaged in terrorist activity, and ordinary citizens suspected of links to criminal activity or who simply look suspicious.”
Therefore, when Mubarak tried to retain his own grip on the presidency by securing a transfer of power to Omar Suleiman, the strategy didn't work. The peo­ple of Egypt don't trust Suleiman as the man who can bring democracy to the country. After all, Suleiman is known to be a CIA point man in Cairo, favored by the US for his loyalty and effectiveness. As the chief of the intelligence service, he has negotiated directly with top CIA officials and played a significant role in CIA's in­famous “rendition” program – a covert plot under which terror suspects are kidnapped from around the world and secretly detained in “friendly” countries like Egypt to in­terrogate and seek actionable intelligence. Ron Suskind's book, The One Percent Doctrine has exposed how Suleiman had considerably helped the Bush administration to build up the case for America's invasion of Iraq. Ibn Sheikh al-Libi, an al-Qaeda suspect who knew Bin Laden personally was captured in Pakistan and rendered to Egypt for questioning. While in the custody of the Egyptian intelligence service, Suleiman's team bru­tally tortured him to give a false con­fession that Saddam Hussein was in the process to provide biological and chemical weapons to al-Qaeda. To justify the invasion of Iraq, this was precisely the kind of information that the Bush administration was looking for. Libi's confession was brought into play as one of the key evidence to make a case for war by then-Secretary of State Colin Powell in his February­ 2003 speech to the United Nations. Omar Suleiman is also a favorite to Israel. He was instrumental for Egypt's efforts to demolish the tunnels that have been used by Hamas to smuggle weapons and foodstuffs into Gaza Strip. The Mubarak regime was extremely hostile to Hamas, which is an offshoot of Egypt's strongest opposition movement the Muslim Brotherhood.
US in dilemma
Hosni Mubarak has been the most indispensable US ally in the Middle East. Over the past three decades, the US administration has aided and supported the puppet regime to maintain their strategic benefits in the region. Egypt became the second biggest recipient of American aid after Israel. “Aside from some leftover Soviet equipment from the pre-Camp David era (before 1979), the Egyp­tian military is virtually made in the USA,” wrote William Hartung in an article for Huffington Post. Under the US Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, the US Department of Defense has generously bestowed the Egyptian army with around $1.3 billion in mili­tary aid every year in return for Egypt’s support in America's pro-Israel policies, for isolating Hamas and for helping to pin down Muslim fundamentalists. The aid, however, came with a condition. Egypt was bound to spend the entire funds to purchase equipments only from the US arms industry. The brilliant deal ensures that the funds go back into the US economy to subsidize one of the country's most powerful political lobbies. US aid to Egypt also includes funding for international narcotics control and law enforcement; nonproliferation, anti-terrorism and de-mining; combating weapons of mass destruction; counter-terrorism and security sector reforms. (Source)
At the beginning, the US was clearly supporting the Mubarak government and continued to keep a friendly dialogue with the regime. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, who considers “President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family,” was quite sure that, “the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people”. In response to the question whether Mubarak is a dictator, US Vice-President Joe Biden said in a PBS interview: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things and he's been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interests in the region […] I would not refer to him as a dictator”.
When the protests swelled, the same leaders tried to backtrack and urged for his swift departure, expressed sympathy with the protesters, advocated democratic reforms and peaceful transition of power. They changed tone again after Mubarak was dethroned and started eulogizing the uprising by throwing their weight behind the pro-democracy movement. President Barack Obama promptly discovered the power of human dignity and began to sing the praises of democracy. “For Egyptians have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day,” he remarked in his charac­teristic “saying nicely but saying naught” style.
However­, it must be taken into account that the same leaders did absolutely nothing when they were well acquainted with all the facts about the corrupt, repressive and authoritarian regime. Do we have to believe that they were not well informed about the regime's resistance to democratic reform? Superbly revealing the US hypocrisy, Noam Chomsky has said in a recent interview: “... there have been many times when some favored dictator has lost control or is in danger of losing control. There's a kind of a standard routine [ ... ] keep supporting them as long as possible; then, when it becomes unsustainable - typically, say, if the army shifts sides - switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to re­store the old system under new names. That succeeds or fails depending on the circumstances.” (Emphasis added)
The world's only “superpower” which has turned into a powerless spectator after failing to anticipate the process of change or to influ­ence the course of events in the Arab world is definitely worried today. US plotters have always tried to obstruct promotion of democracy in the region fearing the emergence of Islamist regimes. What will they do now? Washing­ton's Middle East policymakers will run into deep trouble if the Arab world now progress towards genuine democracy and start resisted their rapacious poli­cies.
The “neutral” army
Egyptians generally view their corrupt and often torture-prone police force as bult­agia, or thugs. In sharp contrast, the Egyptian Armed Forces command wide respect and influence over Egyptian society. There are definite reasons behind this popularity. The Egyptian army is enormous in size. It is the world's 11th largest force with a troop strength of 468,500 soldiers. Being a direct beneficiary of the huge American aid, the bureaucratic army organization has been the real powerhouse in the decisions on how the US provided funds are spent. Calling the Egyptian armythe largest corporate conglomerate in Egypt” Professor Robert D Springborg wrote in The Independent, that “the military is central to the narrative and historical reality of the emergence of contemporary Egypt.” He further explicates that the sprawling economic empire of the army is not limited within the military industry but has also extended deep into civilian domains. It produces a vast array of consumer goods and has ventured into profitable businesses like road and housing construction, shopping malls, beach resorts and even sports event management. The military economy has continued to expand since “formerly state owned civilian enterprises being handed over to military control.” (Source)
By refusing to level their guns in defense of the President or applying forces on the protesters, the army's image has further improved in the eyes of the ordinary people. But how neutral is the army which is now the de facto rulers of Egypt and is supposed to carry out the proc­ess of democratic transition? Isn't it the same force which was closely tied and controlled by the presidential palace since October 1981, protecting the corrupt political system of the regime from behind the scenes with absolute loyalty? In return, the ruling regime has immensely subsidized the army and made it a wealthy, influential economic force. Only a few days back, the army bosses were extremely close to Mubarak politically and personally. Though the army Supreme Council has promised for free and fair elections under a revised constitution, it will not be wise to presume that the Egyptian army has suddenly turned into a pro-people's force. Citing human rights activist Hossam Bahgat, The Guardian has reported that since mass protests against President Hosni Mubarak began, the army has secretly detained, interrogated and severely tortured hundreds, and possibly thousands of anti-government protesters as an organized campaign of intimidation. The pattern of arrests confirms that “the military had been conducting a campaign to break the protests.” According to the report, Human Rights Watch has “documented 119 such arrests of civilians by the military but believes there are many more.” (Source)
What gave Mubarak the final push is still not clear. Several reports have confirmed that the rank and file soldiers who were sent into Tahrir Square were sympathetic to the people on the streets. Some reports have even suggested that there was a prevailing mood among a section of the soldiers that if they were ordered to shoot the people, they might not hesitate to shoot whoever issued the order instead. Contrary to some media observers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces that posed as neutral observers during the developments has actually reacted in a clever and calculated way. Rather than standing behind a weak, isolated and undermined President, they have figured out that it will be far more beneficial for them to protect the status and credibility of the army by pretending to be on the side of the people and democracy. This “neutral” role will raise their authority among the people and help to consolidate their grip on power when a power vacuum opens up by the uprising.
The fragmented opposition
To diminish all challengers to his rule, Mubarak had harshly suppressed all opposition parties and potential rivals in a systematic way. So it was not unexpected when Mubarak was re-elected in the first contested presidential election with 88 percent of the vote in September 2005. This was for the first time that the stifled opposition parties were allowed to file nomination against him. It was also the first time when Egyptians were able to vote for multiple candidates.
The noticeable absence of a strong political leadership was one of the salient features of the recent uprising. During the eighteen days of demonstrations, it became pretty clear that none of the anti-Mubarak opposition parties were in charge of the protests. The massive state sponsored repression has fragmented and weakened all opposition movements in Egypt including the oldest and strongest movement, the Muslim Brotherhood. Mubarak's regime was deeply hostile to the Brotherhood and in the last few years, has heavily cracked down on its leaders. Hundreds of them have ended up in jail after been falsely charged with political offences. Fearing further suppression from the ruling regime that would threaten the movement's existence, the Brotherhood leadership restrained from political activities, concentrating more on social-welfare programs like providing cheap education and health care to the poor masses. The Brotherhood was able to sustain its considerable support base among the poor masses through these social-welfare programs. The group had reacted to the popular protests with caution, did not formally endorse the protests or contributed to organize it. Despite the hesitant approach, its leaders have encouraged the supporters to join in the demonstrations and are credited for protecting anti-Mubarak protesters when they were attacked in Tahrir Square by the violent pro-regime mob.
Former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel laureate Mohammad ElBaradei, who has returned to Egypt from his Vienna home to join the protests, is widely respected by almost everyone involved in the anti-Mubarak movement. He has founded the National Association for Change – a coalition group of the opposition and has developed useful relations with the Muslim Brotherhood. However, ElBaradei represents the minority middle-class anti-regime circles, is inexperienced in politics and does not have enough influence on the ordinary masses. It will therefore not be easy for ElBaradei to rise above more than a transitional figure. Leaders and members of the liberal democratic Wafd party and the moderate socialist party Tagammo have joined the Tahrir Square demonstrations with other opposition groups. But both the parties are weak and do not have much authority over the people. Other opposition groups like the Egyptian Movement for Change or Kefayah (Enough) which comprises Islamists, Marxists, nationalists, liberal and secularists or the leftist April 6 Youth Movement which comprises educated and young Leftists, socialists and pro-labor people were actively involved with organizing and mobilizing demonstrations in Tahrir Square. The April 6 Youth Movement which started as a Facebook page in 2008, has planted the seeds of the revolt by extensively using the cyberspace. Though undervalued by the western media, trade unions and unofficial workers organizations have also played an important role in the anti-Mubarak demonstrations. However, other than the Muslim Brotherhood, no other opposition group stands to benefit from the situation as none of them have much credibility among the workers, men and women, the youth and the poor. They neither have a well-organized political party to influence the course of events after the dust settles. (Source)
The cyberspace revolutionaries
The western media went gaga to spread the myth of a true “Facebook revolution” in Egypt. They have excitedly described the pivotal role of the Internet generation for accelerating the protests through social media sites but have rarely stressed that these powerful tools cannot be an alternate to physical mobilization and mass organization. The cyber revolutionaries of Egypt must be applauded for successfully drawing in thousands of Egyptians and for consolidating their anger against the ruling regime. But any movement that center around the cyberspace is often found to be leaderless and chaotic. Nicholas Thompson in The New Yorker has rightly asked, “…are the charismatic people who are best at leading protests really the people you want to lead your country after the government changes? […] if a government falls, who, then, will run it?” Google executive Wael Ghonim or blogger Amr Salama are world-famous now for their innovative cyber activism. The duo met the army generals recently, discussed on reforms with them and returned convinced by their commitment for democracy. This absolute faith on the army generals seems a bit naive. On the same day, a spokesman for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has found criticizing the wave of strikes staged by public sector workers across Egypt for better pay and permanent jobs. The army considers that the strikes, clearly inspired by the mass movement that has toppled Mubarak, will “lead to negative results”. Al Jazeera has reported that the army leaders are reportedly planning to “ban meetings by labor unions or professional syndicates, effectively forbidding strikes.” (Source)
Cyber activism alone is incapable of giving the necessary organized expression to a movement which a well-organized political party can. Neither can it sustain the revolutionary spirit of the masses under brutal state repression. Without underestimating the role of the cyber revolutionaries who have ignited the movement in Egypt, can we respectfully ask them, what if the armed soldiers, instead of putting flower in their gun barrel, had trained their deadly weapons and start firing bullets at the people? Will the anti-Mubarak demonstrations still have continued to expand through cyberspace or slipped out of their hands? In Moammar Gaddafi's Libya, the armed forces have reacted differently. The anti-government demonstrations have been harshly suppressed with a combination of armed militias and elite forces. It is the ordinary people on the streets who are courageously resisting the fierce state crackdown in Libya, Bahrain and elsewhere in the Middle East. Without the protection of a mass movement cyber activism is powerless.
Moustafa El-Gendy, former independent member of Egypt's parliament and part of the opposition Wafd Party has emphatically said in a recent interview with The New Yorker: “The people in Egypt love the Army. Of course, we understand that we cannot go to the Army and say, ‘Okay, now you go away.’… No, we don't want this. We want the Army to protect the constitution that we will write all together. […] the real power is the Army.” The weak opposition political parties are unable to take the risk to openly criticize the army because, as Professor Springborg has observed, “such criticism would not strike a chord with most Egyptians.” Instead, it seems to be a more practical way out for them to “strike a deal with the military to retain some power”. Professor Springborg has further pointed out that, “…under the Egyptian constitution, neither the legislature nor civil society can exert any meaningful control over the military”. Due to the information embargo that has been successfully imposed in the country for a long time, civil society “has no access to relevant information about the armed forces.” This is what every democracy seeking Egyptians should be alarmed about. The army cannot be a solution to the Egypt crisis.
Revolution is a sweet little word. Genuine revolution comes only after smashing the existing state power, not by toppling the head of a regime. The almost “Gandhian” revolution in Egypt therefore cannot make us too excited, though we wish to remain optimistic. Cosmetic reforms will bring no real change if the basic structure of power and repressive state apparatus remains intact. When the euphoria settles down, Egypt will have to counter the uphill task to define and shape its future. There are difficult days ahead for this beautiful country.
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