Category Archives: Egypt 2011

J. Alterman on America and Egypt

Jon Alterman has an op-ed in the NYT that has some good sense in it but also some very troubling ideas and policy prescriptions.
Alterman is quite right to note that by far the most important thing that’s happening in Egypt right now is not the confrontations or lack of them in Cairo’s very visible Tahrir Square but the electoral process that is unfolding, with almost painful slowness, all around the country– and the negotiation that will subsequently unfold between the election’s victors and the country’s now-ruling military council, the SCAF.
(The piece doesn’t mention the SCAF’s recent actions against US-funded NGOs in the country. That was probably because it was written a few days ago. But anyway, his basic thesis that it is the election and the subsequent negotiation that are the most important story, still stands.)
He is also right to note that the Islamist parties that between them are now showing a clear lead in the elections are doing so for good reason– because they have built up serious, nationwide political organizations. He writes:

    Islamists have grasped that the game has moved beyond protests to the mechanics of elections, and their supporters are motivated, organized and energetic. By contrast, the secular liberal parties are virtually absent from the countryside. Judging from posters, billboards, bumper stickers and banners, the two major Islamist parties have the field almost to themselves.

However, he was unnecessarily patronizing and wrong when he prefaced those remarks by writing ” For Americans, it is hard to imagine that religious parties could win almost 70 percent of the Egyptian vote… ” What? I have been “imagining”, indeed predicting, this for a very long while now. I’m an American; and so are many others– from a broad range of viewpoints, who have “imagined” it.
Why does Alterman need to make it seem as though only he understands what is really going on? (And isn’t he an American, too? Or has he, like Michael Oren, suddenly transformed himself into an Israeli?)
Well, that is a relatively small quibble. The more serious problems occur at the end of his piece, where he writes:

    Many in Israel and America, and even some in Egypt, fear that the elections will produce an Islamist-led government that will tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, turn hostile to the United States, openly support Hamas and transform Egypt into a theocracy that oppresses women, Christians and secular Muslims. They see little prospect for more liberal voices to prevail, and view military dictatorship as a preferable outcome.
    American interests, however, call for a different outcome, one that finds a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians. We do not want any one side to vanquish or silence the other. And with lopsided early election results, it is especially important that the outcome not drive away Egypt’s educated liberal elite, whose economic connections and know-how will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.
    Our instinct is to search for the clarity we saw in last winter’s televised celebrations. However, what Egyptians, and Americans, need is something murkier — not a victory, but an accommodation.

Let’s look at that first paragraph there. It is factually accurate that “Many in Israel and America, and even some in Egypt” harbor the fears he describes. Though why he should put the fears of a subset of Israel’s actually tiny– and often paranoid– population before those of Americans and some Egyptians in a piece that purports to speak about American and Egyptian interests, I don’t know… But more importantly here, he lets the substantive scenarios described in those fears stand as quite possible outcomes without making any mention of the assurances that the MB’s Freedom and Justice Party and even the salafist Nur Party have given re not tearing up the peace treaty with Israel; and the assurances the FJP has given re the other “feared” scenarios that he lists.
As someone who claims to be a knowledgeable, evidence-based “realist” rather than an alarmist, wouldn’t that be information Alterman should include in that paragraph, rather than letting those “scare” scenarios simply stand?
Moving on to the last two paras of his piece… I feel pretty sure that Alterman would define “American interests” in a way that is in some portions the same and in some portions different from the way that I would define “the true interests of the American people”. However, let’s assume we’re talking here about roughly the same thing. In my definition the true interests of the American people would require that our government and all its appendages, including its sneakily misnamed, government-funded quangos like NED, etc, stay completely out of Egyptian politics, and take only those actions toward Egypt that are clearly requested by the new government that will emerge from the ongoing electoral process.
Realistically, that government will only emerge and stabilize itself once presidential elections in April, as well as the current lengthy round of parliamentary elections, have been completed. But the parliament that emerges from the current elections will have a leadership that will be in a position to negotiate with and make demands of not only the SCAF, but also the SCAF’s main financial backers, that is, the U.S. government.
So Alterman is arguing for an outcome “that finds a balance — however uneasy — between the military authorities and Egypt’s new politicians. We do not want any one side to vanquish or silence the other.” Say that again, Jon? Um, in democratic theory there’s this thing called civilian control of the military. Surely, anyone who claims to want to see greater democracy in Egypt should aim to have that principle firmly implemented there! It’s not a question of “vanquishing” or “silencing”. It’s a question of who’s in charge.
In the next sentence, he seems to giving another reason why “we” Americans should seek to see the power of Egypt’s elected leaders curtailed: “it is especially important that the outcome not drive away Egypt’s educated liberal elite, whose economic connections and know-how will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.” His clear implication here is that an Islamist government (a) would not be able to mobilize any– or sufficient numbers of– “educated” people with “connections and know-how”, and (b) would “drive away” the country’s liberal elite, whose fabulous attributes “will be vital for attracting investment and creating jobs.”
This argument is nonsense on stilts! It is based on incredibly condescending views of observant Muslims and the Islamist parties that grow up in their communities, to the effect that they really do not have sufficient education, know-how, or connections to run a successful modern economy.
Turkey, anyone? (Or come to that, Iran– and the impressive abilities its technicians showed recently when they hijacked the US military’s allegedly “stealth” RQ-170 drone… )
But the argument Alterman is making is also a sly one. By placing his “concern” about Egypt’s “educated liberal elite” right there alongside his argument for the military to still retain a say in national governance, he sis clearly implying that the military can be a guardian for the interests of the liberal elite.
Actually, that too is a pretty stupid argument. True, there are some in the “liberal elite” who strongly indicated in the past that they would be happy to see some form of military guarantee, or counter-balance, to protect them from the programs and policies of the Islamists; but for quite a while now relations between the SCAF and the liberals have been far, far worse than the relations either side has with, say, the MB. But I guess Alterman is adducing this argument here as a way of making the support he is expressing for a continued strong military role in Egypt more appealing to Western liberals…
Anyway, in his’s last paragraph, he states his position clearly: “what Egyptians, and Americans, need is … not a victory, but an accommodation.” That is, he doesn’t want to see a true victory for a democratically elected civilian leadership in Egypt, or for the important democratic principle of civilian control of the military; but he wants to see a continuing strong role for the military in Egypt’s governance.
Describing his own policy preference as a “need” for both Egyptians and Americans” is, of course, colonial, patronizing, and quite unwarranted. Let Egypt’s voters (who include, of course, all the members of the military) define their country’s needs on their own behalf. They don’t need Jon Alterman to do it for them.

My piece on Egypt and Gaza, at ME Channel

… is here.
I rather like the title they put on it, “Tahrir’s journey to Palestine”. In fact, the journey that the “spirit of of the Tahrir uprising” has to make before it gets to Palestine is just about as long and difficult as the journey that anyone needs to make to get from the outside world to the Gaza portion of Palestine. We can see the terrible and in one case at least, potentially lethal) measures that someone (presumably Israel) has been taking to prevent the current “Stay Human” flotilla from reaching Gaza. And we saw the lethal (and very intentionally mendacious/libelous) lengths to which the Israel “Defense” Forces were prepared to go in this regard on May 31, 2010.
If you can’t get to Gaza by sea, then you have to go either via Israel, through the Erez checkpoint, or via Egypt through Rafah. Erez has long been closed to everyone except a small group of humanitarian-aid workers and a very small number of Gaza Palestinians requiring urgent medical care at hospitals inside Israel. (But the medical patients are have very frequently been required to become informers for the Israelis as a “quid pro quo” for being allowed to transit Erez, as PHR-Israel has documented in detail.)
Passage through Rafah is almost equally as difficult, whether for “Gaza residents”– that is, that small portion of the Palestinian people whom Israel graciously “allows” to reside in, or visit Gaza– or for anyone else.
It is quite outrageous that an entire population can be collectively punished with illegal restrictions on their freedom of movement and freedom of association in this way. Bill the spouse and I were only able to respond positively to the invitation we received to visit Gaza because we had high-level backing from the Egyptian government. But if a school or community group in Gaza wants to invite anyone they want from Egypt, other Arab countries, Europe, or the United States, to go and take part in a seminar or to sit on the beach with them enjoy the fine Gaza sunset, they can’t do that! Why?????
Because Israel has long had carte blanche from the U.S. government to kick around the Palestinians in any way it wants, with no accountability required.
Time for a change.
Let’s bring the spirit of Tahrir here, to the United States!

Chirpstory on Egypt

Okay I get it. Some of you don’t like my Chirpstories. But I do not have time to blog about everything I might want to, so tweeting is a good, quick substitute. And actually, I rather enjoy the speedy interactions on Twitter and other aspects of the system like hashtags.
So for those of you interested in my quick impressions from the few days I spent in Cairo after (and before) exiting Gaza, here they are:

Post-Tahrir Cairo, Day 1

Bill the spouse and I had an informative, short conversation today with the longtime MB spokesman Dr. Esam El-Erian, who is also the deputy head of the newly emerging, MB-backed Freedom and Justice Party. (You can find descriptions of interviews I conducted with Dr. El-Erian in early 2007 and early 2009, and a lot of other useful background on the Muslim Brotherhood and other aspects of Egyptian politics, here.)
The Muslim brotherhood were major participants in the democratic uprising that toppled Egypt’s 30-year president, Hosni Mubarak, from power back in February. From 1954 until the end of last February the MB was banned from operating as a political movement. Sometimes its people were “allowed” by Mubarak to run in the notably constrained “elections” he staged– but they had to do so as independents or in the framework of another party. Meanwhile, his regime launched successive waves of arrests, financial expropriation, and other grossly abusive and intimidating acts against the MB. Dr. El-Erian is one of many MB leaders who spent many years in Mubarak’s prisons– that, though the movement definitely renounced the use of violence back in 1982.
The most intriguing points in today’s conversation were:
~ Some of his observations on Egyptian political developments in the run-up to September’s parliamentary elections:

    “We’re hoping to go into the elections with a broad coalition of the forces from the revolution… Yesterday we had a good meeting with the leader of the Wafd Party…
    “We face a number of very big challenges. The role of the military is a big one, but we are delaying dealing with it because they were our partners in the revolution. Secondly, there’s the role of the police, who were the main supporters of Mubarak for the past ten years. We have to figure out how to establish a new form of policing appropriate to a democracy. The first challenge that we’re able to deal with is to get all the politicians together in a new coalition. It’s true, we will need to discuss this with the military. Currently, they hold the presidential powers, but they’re going to have to step back and allow a new face in… And we need to find a better balance between the presidency and the parliament…
    “Turkey’s president, Abdullah Gul, was the first head of state to come and visit us after the revolution. He told us in a meeting I was in that he thought Egypt could have an even better democracy than the one they have in Turkey– because, he said, at least in Egypt the military was with the popular movement, not against it…
    “I have not had much contact with the military leaders here– there was just one meeting I was invited to. But on the ground, out around the country, the brotherhood has good relations with the military. For example, right now, the tawgihi (school-leaving) exams are being held nationwide and with the collapse of much of the police, security would have been a big concern, except that we and other parts of the popular movement cooperated with the military to keep the whole process safe.”

~ A degree of opposition to the policies of the Saudi government that I found surprising:

    “Without a change in the policies of Saudi Arabia, these current revolutions won’t succeed… In Egypt, Saudi Arabia is the main force of counter-revolution. They’ve been pushing and pushing to keep Mubarak out of prison. He was a pillar of their policy. But Mubarak will go to prison…”

~ A nuanced form of outreach to Western countries:

    “I am asking Europe and America for an apology. For the last 150 years they have blocked any development in this area… We believe that we have a lot to contribute to world civilization in terms of spirituality and values, but we want the help of the west in allowing our democracy to flourish. We want an apology that they supported dictatorship here for so many years, and then when the revolutions challenged the dictators, they tried to find a safe exit for some of the dictators…
    “So please don’t intervene in ways that corrupt our new politicians. Westerners corrupted so many of our local NGO’s and even human-rights organizations in the past. (But I want to note that Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch did a great job! They are my friends!)”

El-Erian said the Brotherhood, which has long been shunned by many Western countries, has started since the revolution of January-February to have some contacts with European parliamentarians, diplomats, and business executives. But he was eager to strengthen its contacts with Americans, too, and made a special pitch for American tourists to return to Egypt in large numbers.

Bayard Rustin understood Palestinians

I just came across this great, short piece of writing, quoting the African-American, gay, Quaker activist Bayard Rustin:

    In 1968, American civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin wrote, “We would be mistaken to think that the only desires of young Negroes today are to have a job, to have a decent house, to be well educated, to have medical care. All these things are very important, but deeper and more profound is the feeling of young Negroes today—through all classes, from the lumpenproletariat to the working poor, the working classes, the middle classes, and the intelligentsia—that the time has come when they should have power, a voice in the solution of problems which affect them.”

This observation is absolutely central if anyone wants to understand the situation and aspiration of Palestinians today. This point has been eloquently made by Laila El-Haddad– both in her recent book Gaza Mom, which my company had the honor of publishing, and in her appearance on Tuesday at this great Capitol Hill briefing (which, as it happens, I had the honor of chairing.)
As Laila says, “What the Palestinians in Gaza are suffering from is not restrictions on their food, it is restrictions on their freedom!”
Interestingly, I got that Bayard Rustin quote not directly from my own reading but from this late-January blog post by the great Egyptian blogger Baheyya. Bayard Rustin to me, via Tahrir Square. Neat, huh?

Noha Radwan on being assaulted by pro-Mubarak thugs

Dr. Noha Radwan, a professor of comparative literature at U.C. Davis, was in Cairo during the height of the counter-revolution unleashed by the pro-Mubarak forces on February 2. She got caught by the pro-Mubarak, baltagiyeh thugs as she tried to cross the “front line” that divided them from her friends in “liberated” Tahrir Square.
Here’s her account of what happened next:

    From behind me I heard someone cry, “She is with them. Get her. Get her!” Before I realized what was happening, my arms were seized by two musclemen who walked me away from the square. All I could hear as the mob closed in on me was: “She is with them… with them… the agents…the Americans… Baradei’s dirty supporter.” Many thugs pulled my hair while others volunteered slaps and slurs. In a matter of seconds my shirt was ripped open and my mouth was full of blood. We passed an army tank and I saw the officer on top. “Help!” I screamed. The soldiers were waiting for his orders. Bystanders called on him. “They are going to kill her,” someone said. All my energies were focused on staying conscious, putting my head up for air and down to avoid further hits. I wrapped my jacket around my body and my shoulder bag, which had my ID and my camera, and cried for the officer’s help again. Finally he ordered the soldiers to jump into the crowd and pull me up. They led me into the inside of the tank where I joined a few other soldiers. They pointed out that my head was bleeding. I had not yet registered my head injury, which must have been caused by a rock projectile. I also had not registered that my phone was stolen out of my back pocket and that a gold chain had been yanked off my neck. One of the soldiers offered me a big kerchief to staunch the bleeding and another held out his water bottle. I could hear the crowds raging outside. Two other young men, one of them a journalist, were brought into the tank a little later. Both were badly injured. It was not until darkness fell, about two hours later, that the officer felt that it was safe enough for him to call an ambulance to take us to a nearby hospital. My injuries were less serious than those suffered by the two other protestors and as I learned later, there were others who suffered much more serious and even fatal injuries. Men and women were brutalized. A young woman, Sally Zahran, died of brain hemorrhage after an attack not far from Tahrir. Mubarak’s thugs unleashed their ugliest face and to top it off, they resorted to their familiar technique of sexually abusing female protesters.

If you read the whole of the wonderful, moving article in which Radwan recounts this testimony, you will read how common the use of sexual violence against anti-regime protesters (and random sexual assaults on women in general) had been for several years, in Mubarak’s Egypt. You will also read how wonderful Radwan found the solidarity and respect that she and other female protesters experienced during the long, joyful hours they were able to spend inside Tahrir Square.
This is a really useful antidote to all the Islamophobia that’s been unleashed around the reports of the recent sexual assault on CBS correspondent Lara Logan by a mob of unknown affiliation in Cairo last week. For an excellent counter to all the Islamophobes’ argument, read this piece by Maya Mikdashi, also on Jadaliya.

Foreign policy goals of Egyptian democrats…

Many U.S. commentators have tried to “sanitize” the foreign-policy impact of Egypt’s still-ongoing revolution, by claiming that Egypt’s current democrats have no foreign policy goals (unlike all those “uncivilized” Egyptians in the past who had dreams of Arab nationalism and such.)
As’ad Abu Khalil points to this video from Tahrir Square’s million-person gathering in Cairo yesterday, where the slogan repeated over and over was “To Jerusalem we’re going, to be martyrs in our millions”.
Honestly, why not? The Israeli government keeps on talking about how Jerusalem is so “open” to believers of all faiths. So why shouldn’t a million or two Egyptians– Muslims and Christians– simply organize a convoy and drive there to worship at their holy sites?
From the logistical point of view, getting to Rafah/Gaza is the hard part: Four-five hours of driving. Once you get to Rafah, it’s about 30 minutes to drive the length of Gaza and then only about 50 minutes to Jerusalem. Hey, they could take with them some of those many Gaza Palestinians who have never in their life had the chance to leave the long-besieged Gaza Strip, let alone to visit and pray in their national capital in Occupied East Jerusalem.
Oh, you say the Israelis would block this convoy? Where, and using what what means, I wonder? (Maybe that’s what the “martyrs in our millions” refers to.)
On the other hand, 40 years of a completely U.S.-dominated “diplomacy” have done not one thing to bring Palestinian Muslims and Christians the ability to worship at their holy sites in Jerusalem. Indeed, since the conclusion of the Oslo Accord in 1993, the freedom of Palestinian Christians and Muslims to worship in Jerusalem has become far more restricted than it was beforehand.
And U.S. “diplomacy” has brought a whole Calvary of other disasters to Palestine’s Christians and Muslims, too. Including the metastatic growth of those that settler-colonial project that Amb. Susan Rice protected with her veto yesterday.
An American friend has described the chants in Tahrir yesterday as “bellicose”. What is bellicose about saying you’re going to pray at your holy sites in Jerusalem, and you’re prepared a die as a martyr if necessary to get there?
Don’t western Christians have a long history of understanding and respecting the concept of martyrdom, that is, being prepared to die for what you believe in? (As 365 of Egypt’s pro-democracy activists already have.)

Egypt’s reform process: What, who, and how?

I am trying to follow– from the very great distance of central Virginia, USA, what is happening regarding the very necessary and WAYS overdue process of political/constitutional reform and rebuilding that Egypt so desperately needs if the democracy revolution of the past few weeks is to be able to survive and thrive.
Here are some notes I wrote on that to some friends this morning:

    This ‘transition’ has barely begun yet; also, the vast bulk of what happens will not be in Tahrir Square or even in Cairo but in the countries’ scores of other large cities, and its towns and villages. (Though Egypt has been a very centralized state for 8,000 years, so Cairo remains crucial.) I’m sure that all around the country, people who’ve worked with or kowtowed to the NDP overlords for so long are now busy repositioning themselves (like the police in Cairo– organizing that ‘protest march’!!!) and there is huge potential for disorder, vengeance-seeking, and other forms of social breakdown such as we saw in Iraq, but luckily without at this point the potential for analogous ethno-sectarian cleavages.
    We should not underestimate either on the one hand the huge damage that social breakdown (“fitna”) inflicts, or OTOH the fact that Egyptians are very aware of the risks of it occurring and might overreact by cleaving ‘too’ tightly to the forces that promise stability.
    These are all, of course, entirely their choices to make. But the United States government, as the main outside funder of the Egyptian military is uniquely positioned to influence that side.
    What is happening– I hope!– at the heart of the regime is a serious negotiation between the army bosses and the combined forces of the opposition over all the terms and modalities of a transition to civilian rule that will, inevitably, be one that is ‘managed’ by the military. I imagine some forces in the army don’t want to run the country directly; other may want to try. But I think it’s important that we and they all remember that they did NOT wade in and shoot the demonstrators on Jan 25, 26, 27, 28, etc; so I hope they recognize the very limited political utility under present circumstances of their military and coercive power?
    It’s important, too, to note that the former ruling party, the National Democratic Party, has largely collapsed. It never had anything like the ideological strength and wide network of “true believers” that, for example, the Baath Party used to have in Iraq. It was never more than a cynical patronage machine.
    In terms of an ability to ‘manage’ the transition to a post-NDP era at the grassroots level nationwide, I think the Muslim Brotherhood is streets ahead of any of the other components of the opposition in having a nationwide network, a fairly clear social vision (much of which is good, some bad), links to all sectors of society from business owners to professionals to small business owners to fellahin (peasants), and considerable organizational heft. Wael Ghonim, the much-lauded Egyptian-American Facebook exec, seems pretty clueless about politics and most of the other ‘Facebook youth’ also seem to have eschewed politics for so long that they also now seem a little politically clueless?
    It is crucial, though, for all the components of the Tahrir Square movemt to stick together and form a joint team to negotiate this out with the generals, if possible. Otherwise, very evidently, the generals will try to pick them off one by one. That was one reason I was so surprised to see Wael and the other youth go in to meet the military on their own on Sunday– UNLESS that was part of a plan that had previously been agreed with the rest of the opposition.

After I wrote those notes, I learned that the MB has agreed to have a representative on the constitutional reform committee that the generals have set up.
Their Ikhwanweb website says this:

    A constitutional reform panel has been commissioned by the military council to change the same six articles in the Egyptian Constitution that ex-President Hosni Mubarak’s constitutional reform commission identified.
    The abolition of Article 179 which restricts people’s freedoms and rights in the name of security will be considered along with amendments to articles 76, 77, 88, 93, and 189…
    On Monday the military appointed panel members selecting former judge Tariq al-Bishry as chairman. Opposition groups are divided however as to whether amendment reforms will be sufficient, and are contemplating whether a new constitution should be created.
    Constitutional scholars have advised the military to create an interim constitution and Muslim Brotherhood lawyer Sobhi Saleh has was chosen to be part of the panel.

The liberal daily Al-Masry Al-Youm reported some concerns in some quarters about the composition of the panel:

    Ousted president Hosni Mubarak had issued a similar decree concerning the same articles before he resigned on 11 February, but his move did not appeal to protesters, who preferred a new Constitution.
    The military appointed the panel members on Monday, selecting Tarek al-Beshry, a moderate Islamist and former judge, as chairperson.
    The panel includes Sobhy Saleh, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest Islamist opposition group. The selection of Saleh has caused some concern among the country’s Copts and secularists.
    Coptic activists also expressed reservations over the choice of al-Beshry, saying that his stance toward Copts is causing them some anxiety over the potential amendments.

What I’m looking for– commenters who can supply this would be most appreciated– is information on two things:

    1. Who else is on this panel, representing which trends?
    2. Will there in fact be two processes of constitutional revision– an “interim” process to tweak it, addressing only those long-infamous six articles, plus a longer-term project of rewriting the whole thing– or only one (the tweaks)? This is not yet clear.

If I had more time, I’d go into the Arabic sources to find out more.
I’ll just close by noting two final things:
1. Issandr has the text of a well-crafted Transition Plan pulled together on February 12 by the Forum of Independent Human Rights Organizations. It’s here.
2. Remarkably little sign of any public activity in the crucial past few days from the group of so-called “Wise Men”. Their spokesman Amr Hamzawy had a piece in the WaPo on Sunday that was sadly behind the curve. The “Wise Men” group seems to have been pulled together only very hastily and at the last minute. It does include Amr Moussa, who has real political heft credibility in the country, and Naguib Suwairis, the country’s absolutely largest business owner (and fwiw, a Copt). Those individuals and the others identified with the “Wise Men” (sexism alert!) group will doubtless play some part in the ongoing negotiations. But it does not necessarily look as though either they or the “Facebook youth” have the nationwide organizational heft to act as any kind of serious “counter” to the MB (which is what, I believe, the Obama administration is now desperately looking for.)
Ah well, interesting times for Egypt. I wish them all good luck with this process!

Quick notes for a quickly changing world

Just 30 days ago, on January 14, I was making the 3.5-hour drive down from Charlottesville, VA to Greensboro, NC, for the Quaker conference held to mark the 50th anniversary of Pres. Eisenhower’s prescient 1961 warning about the dangers of a ‘Military-Industrial Complex’ arising in the U.S.
As I drove, I was listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the day’s events in Tunis. That was the day the growing but determinedly peaceful anti-government demonstrations there were (amazingly!) able to ‘persuade’ Pres. Zein el-Abideen Ben Ali to leave the country.
The conference was really good. I got to speak after lunch on Saturday, with my designated topic being the MIC in the Middle East. I reminded the audience that for the past 15-20 years, the MIC’s project in the Middle East has been far and away its biggest (and costliest) overseas project; and that the situation there has been used by the bosses of the MIC back here at home to continue to justify the obscene amounts of spending they get from U.S. taxpayers.
But I was also able to share with them the good news that (1) In the Middle East more than anywhere else, the actual utility of military force had been shown to be either nil or negative. What did the US achieve, of lasting geopolitical value, with its invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan? What did Israel achieve of lasting geopolitical value with its obscene assaults against Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008?… and also that (2) The events then unfolding in Tunis were demonstrating for all to see that the MIC’s vast, sprawling project in the Middle East was beginning to crumble– and the crumbling would doubtless continue.
I told them that the two key places to watch for further crumbling of the U.S. MIC’s Middle East project– “within either a shorter or longer time frame; but almost certainly within the coming months”– were Egypt and Jordan.
And then, the heroic pro-democracy activists and organizers in Egypt achieved what they achieved last Friday. Far faster than I had dared to hope.
Of course the democracy movement has a lot further to go– in those two countries, and elsewhere around the globe. (Including here at home in the United States, folks. Wake up!)
But today I am just feeling so joyous to be able to witness this.
Honestly, I never thought I would live to see this day. Throughout all of the 35-year-plus professional life that I have devoted to a study of foreign affairs, and principally Middle East affairs, the situation in the Middle East has been gloomy and getting gloomier. Autocracy was becoming ever deeper and deeper embedded in many countries, including in Egypt which is truly for that whole region “Um al-Dunya” (The mother of the world.) Periodic wars wracked the region, culminating in George W. Bush’s obscene invasion of Iraq.
… Which, remember, had come after a period of 13 years in which the U.S. and Britain forced the U.N to maintain a punishing sanctions regime against Iraq which resulted in the deaths of perhaps 500,000 of the country’s most vulnerable citizens. And no other government in the Arab world wanted to (or was able to) prevent those atrocities from happening.
Egypt’s Pres. Mubarak was at the heart of Washington’s imperial planning for the region. As were the two successive kings of Jordan and the monarchs of Saudi Arabia. Tunisia’s Pres. Ben Ali was also a small-scale, but loyal, supporter of it.
Plus, throughout all these years, successive governments in Israel– Labour as well as Likud and Kadima– continued their longterm project of implanting their illegal settlers into the heart of Arab land in Palestine, including in the heart of occupied East Jerusalem.
Since 1993, Washington has taken not one single effective step to rein in Israel’s settlement-construction program. Indeed, in the way it implemented the Oslo Accords, by insisting on building (and even having the US taxpayer pay for) big new highway systems for the settlers, they gave the settlement-building project a massive new shot in the arm.
And Washington covered the vast, multi-pronged support it gave to Israel in every field during these years with this thin fig leaf of a myth that there was some kind of a meaningful “peace process” underway. (That myth was also cited as a justification for stamping down on Palestinian democracy when it dared to raise its head in January 2006: We can’t allow anything to damage the peace process,” they said, as they armed Mohamed Dahlan’s coup plotters and helped him in his ugly coup attempt against the Palestinians’ elected leadership, in 2007… )
Pres. Mubarak and his intelligence sidekick Omar Suleiman were big players in every single one of those imperial schemes.
Now they are out. And Washington’s policy in the Middle East is going to have to change. A lot. And rapidly.
Hallelujah! What a day of joy!
As I’ve noted here many times before, it turns out we’re no longer living in the 19th century! We’re not even living in the 20th century. The crucial change in world affairs, as the 21st century progresses, is that the global information environment has become so transparent and so inter-connected that any more major wars or invasions (such as what we saw the Bush administration launching against Iraq in 2003) are becoming increasingly unthinkable.
Already, during those fateful days in March 2003 when the invasion was launched, we were having real-time blogging from within Baghdad, in searingly beautiful English, telling us of the horrors of how it was to cower under that bombardment and live through the terrors of the civil collapse that followed.
(And what did the U.S. “achieve” for all those expensive bombs dropped, and all those expensive soldier deployed?? Nothing of any lasting value except the destruction of an entire society there in Iraq… An “achievement” that surely will continue to haunt us for many years into the future.)
Yes, I was part of the emerging global blogosphere back then: Reading, sharing, and interacting with the work of fabulous Iraqi writers like Riverbend, Faiza, or Salam/Pax. That already felt heady enough.
Then, this past Thursday and Friday, I was spending most of my time on Twitter (@justworldbooks). It was amazing. There, we were having a strange form of free-form “conversation” about what was happening, in real time with fellow tweeps who were on the ground in Cairo and elsewhere in Egypt, and with people around the world who were also glued to the situation.
In Twitter, in case you don’t know about this, there’s a simple content-aggregating tool called a hashtag. They always start with what Europeans call a hash-mark. So there has been #Tunisia, #egypt, #jan25, #tahrir, etc. If you put that hashtag into your tweet, the tweet then shows up in the relevant aggregator. And if you want to see what everyone else has been saying about that same subject, you just search for the hashtag.
On Thursday evening (U.S. Eastern time), everyone around the world was waiting and waiting for the speech that, several hours earlier, Mubarak had promised he would be making. As we were all waiting, someone came up with the idea of launching the hashtag #reasonsmubarakislate. And it took off like wildfire!
All the contributions to it were jokes, including some that were very childish. (“#reasonsmubarakislate The situation in his pants is very fluid”, etc.) Others were very clever– but always within the 140-character limit.
So for an hour or two there, as we were waiting, we were sharing these jokes– with people from all around the world, most of whom were unknown to each other.
And then, finally, Mubarak came onto the screen and gave his terrible speech. People immediately stopped feeling jokey and excited, and the hashtag died almost immediately. If you have a Twitter account– and you should! follow me there @justworldbooks! –go and read the RMIL hashtag. You’ll see the most recent entry there is from Feb. 10.
This amazing ability of the internet to help create a single, inter-connected international public is one part of this story.
The other is what happened in Egypt when the government “turned off” the internet and all cellphone coverage for a couple of days there: The large “modern” portion of the economy got stuck in its tracks! Routine banking or commercial transactions all, with the flick of a switch, became impossible. Tourists, travelers, and millions of Egyptian family members all lost the connections with each other and the outside world that they had come to rely on.
Of course, regime apologists immediately tried to lay the blame on the protesters: “These protests are costing our economy billions of dollars a day and causing chaos and uncertainty in our lives!” But everyone in Egypt knew who had turned off the internet and the cell-phones. It was not the protesters. (And the behavior of the protesters– non-violent, orderly, well organized, dignified– was not seen by any observers as having sowed any chaos.)
After two days, the government decided to turn the intertubes and cell-phone service back on again.
Autocrats everywhere, beware.
Everything is changing with dizzying speed. It turns out the long-feared Israel is now “just a small, slightly troublesome country off the northeast tip of Egypt”, not some massive and all-powerful global behemoth.
True, it still has something of an iron grip on the “thinking” (or more to the point, the campaign financing) of most members of the U.S. Congress. But in the American public sphere, there have been remarkably few voices echoing the strong advice from Netanyahu and Co. that “all of us in the west should support Mubarak and Suleiman because they are ‘our guys’.”
Of course, many people in the United States have a lot of questions about the role the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists might have in the next Egyptian government.
Of course, voices have been raised warning that the democratic euphoria that followed Mubarak’s departure on Feb. 11, 2011 might soon turn to dust if “the mullahs” come into power in Egypt as they did in the years that followed the Shah’s departure from power on Feb. 11, 1979.
This is natural. Most westerners don’t know anyone associated with the Muslim Brotherhood or with other Islamist organizations. We have all been subjected in recent years to repeated barrages of anti-Muslim, anti-Islamist hate speech. Many of us (self included) do have some very deep and genuine concerns about the practices of the current Iranian government– as, of course, those of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban.
There has been, in the general discourse here in the U.S., remarkably little ability to discern the differences among these different forms of Islamist organizations. In my life and career, I have had the good fortune to meet and interview representatives of many different kinds of Islamist organizations; and I have tried to do what I can to explain the differences to my readers and the general public. One distinction I always try to make is between organizations that are deeply rooted in the societies in which they operate and are willing to participate in fully democratic, one-person-one-vote elections, and those (like Al-Qaeda) who share neither of those attributes.
And we are all very lucky today that there is, in the Middle East today, one democracy in which a moderately Islamist government has held sway for nearly a decade now– and has performed very well in that role, in both the technocratic sense of delivering good services on a sound basis, and the civil-liberties sense of respecting and strengthening the rule of law and the democratic basis of society.
This is the AK (‘Justice and Development’) Party in Turkey. So it is not the case today that the only possible “model” one could point to of a republic dominated by an avowedly Islamist party would be Iran under the mullahs, or Afghanistan under the Taliban. Hello! Go to Turkey, people! See how things are proceeding in the politics and society of that vital NATO member!
Also, neither I nor anyone else can tell you what the political favor of a freely elected parliament in Egypt will be. The MB have said they won’t run for the presidency, but they will likely run for parliament.
All I’m saying here is that even if they end up with a strong showing in the next government, this is not the end of the world. (And to understand more of my reasons for reaching that conclusion, go read the piece I had on ForPol’s Middle East Channel about them, back on January 31.)
Egypt’s economy and society have some way to go before its 83 million people can catch up with the living and economic standards of Turkey’s 75 million. In Turkey, businesses and industrial conglomerates from throughout the country have been building up huge operations throughout the whole of the former Soviet space, as well as in the Arab world and have pulled the country’s per-capita GDP up to about twice the level in Egypt. But if Egypt’s businesswomen and -men can be freed from the terrible yoke of corruption under which they’ve labored so long, they’ll be able to compete soon enough.
Many of my Egyptian friends are saying that if westerners really want to support Egypt’s democracy, the best thing we can do is go and take vacations there. Well, I guess I can support that (and yes, I am really eager to come back!)
But I think maybe the very best thing we can do is to stop using our taxpayer dollars to provide completely illegal subsidies to the U.S. Big Cotton cartel. Here are some resources I quickly gathered on this issue: 1, 2, 3. The last one notes that,

    According to the Environmental Working Group, American cotton growers are among the largest recipients of U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies. They receive a total of more than $3 billion a year in payments each year.

And the vast majority of that money goes to just 2,000 Big Cotton companies, not to family farmers…
The first source I link to (the FT, from summer 2009), has this:

    In Egypt, the area to be cultivated with cotton this season has shrunk by 10 per cent to 300,000 acres, its lowest ever, says Mefreh El Beltagui, a cotton exporter and an official of Alcotexa, the Alexandria-based association of cotton exporters.
    “If the US were to remove its cotton subsidy, they would not be able to compete with us,” he says. “Here there are no subsidies for cotton exports. The state needs to intervene, because here we have mostly small farmers who cannot deal with price fluctuations. Also because we need to preserve our [international] customers for Egyptian cotton. Once you lose a customer it is hard to get them back.”

Of course, the other thing we need to do to help the Egyptian democrats is scale back our aid to the Egyptian military considerably, and divert it instead to an Egyptan-controlled fund to support the social reconstruction the country so badly needs after the deformation it has suffered as a result of 35 years of being integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex.
A fund to support the rehabilitation of the thousands of Egyptians (and others) tortured in the U.S.-supported prisons in Egypt run by U.S. (and Israeli) ally Omar Suleiman would be a fine place to start that project.
Democracy and national self-determination in Tunisia and Egypt: What a beautiful idea!
I have such a lot of confidence in all my friends in both countries that they can do this: That they can rewrite their constitutions to the degree that they all agree on; that they can figure out the rules they want for free and fair elections; that they can fashion new and fairer rules for their economy; that they can define and pursue a role in the world that is both dignified and consonant with their values.
Some people here in the U.S. have been worried, regarding Egypt, about things like “What will become of Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel? What will become of the ‘peace process’?” I think those are so far from being the first concerns of Egypt’s democrats today. (The very first one, of course, is to preserve their revolution from the machinations that anyone else– including the Mossad— might be planning to undertake against it.)
The army has said they will stick by the bilateral peace treaty. And there is no current ‘peace process’ in existence. So what’s the bother?
As Egypt does generate its new, much more transparent and accountable system of governance, we can all be certain, I think, that it will be one that is much less willing to see Cairo act as a cat’s-paw of Israel and of the AIPAC-dominated U.S. Congress, and much more determined to stand up for Palestinian and Arab rights.
Deal with it, Israel.
And if democracy and national self-determination are such a beautiful idea in Egypt, are they not equally beautiful in Palestine, as well?
The whole region– and the whole world– is changing. That region-spanning Apartheid system that Israel and its friends in the U.S. Congress have been running for so long– the one in which “Egypt” and “Jordan” and to some extent “Saudi Arabia” were all just treated like little subservient homelands within Apartheid South Africa– is starting to slit apart at the seams.
The era of human equality and an end to war has been brought 100 times closer by the stupendous events of the past month.
Thank you, thank you, the Tunisian and Egyptian people.

D. Levy: Also too little, too late?

Daniel Levy is an engaging and energetic young Brit-Israeli who first made a name for himself helping to organize those– as it turned out ill-fated, and perhaps all along misguided?– “Geneva Accords” and who in recent years has been making quite a splash at Washington DC’s New America Foundation. His values and worldview are generally excellent. He has been honest and courageous in describing various aspects of the Palestine Question as they really are (and let me tell you, in the often completely toxic, AIPAC-dominated echo chamber of Washington DC, that is something that takes real courage.)
Today, Daniel has an article in Haaretz in which he argues correctly that in the wake of the Revolution in Egypt,

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