Sunday, 30 January 2011

Cracks In The Dream Palace

The dream palace of the Arabs, a termed coined by Fouad Ajami in his brilliant book of the same title, is finally beginning to crumble. Unlike previous cracks in the façade this one can not be blamed on some external agent.

Previously, Egyptian leaders could always blame outsiders for whatever ills befell their country. It was Israeli aggression, Saudi conniving, British duplicity, American blundering, terrorist scheming, outside agitators in general trying to upset the calm and security of Egypt. The recipe for dealing with disasters was always the same; blame someone else and lower the price of bread to keep the masses quiet. It is no wonder that Ajami reserves his severest criticism for the Egyptian regime.
Now the challenge comes entirely from within, from the Egyptian people who no longer can be bought off with cheap bread. There’s no convenient outsider to blame this time. Even the jihadis seem to have been caught off-guard by the vehemence and spontaneity of the protests. The regime and all its supporters have seriously underestimated the pent-up anger and frustration of ordinary people who will no longer tolerate their pretend democracy and a government that does not begin to answer their frustrations.

The only surprise with the Egyptian uprising is that it didn’t happen sooner. The situation has been building for decades. While the macro economic numbers aren’t bad, they don’t begin to meet the demands of a population of 75 million and a labour force of about 26 million. The official unemployment rate is close to 10%, but no one dares to count the number of under-employed people. University graduates consider themselves fortunate to get a job as a porter in a building. Many graduates simply fill the ranks of the unemployed literate discontented mass that is now filling the streets of Cairo.

The authorities can no longer control access to news as easily as they did previously. The internet has given people easy access to information from all over the world, and they start to compare their situation unfavourably with others. They start to ask that most dangerous of all questions, ‘Why?’ Why does Turkey, a Moslem country with the same population as Egypt, have a Gross National Product triple that of Egypt? Why does Turkey, a country with a fraction of the oil and gas reserves of Egypt, have a per capita income double the Egyptian per capita income? And, more fundamentally, why is the Turkish democracy with all its flaws so much more developed than Egypt’s?

Simple questions, perhaps. But questions that up to now have had few, if any, convincing answers.

The old appeal for stability has no meaning now. Too many people associate that term with the stability that comes only with brutal suppression. The Mubarak machine was very good at either marginalizing any independent voices or throwing them in prison.

Now that the façade has been torn off the regime the key question is what comes next. Conventional wisdom has always said that nothing happens in Egypt without the approval of the security services. Now that the head of those services, Omar Suleiman, has been appointed vice president we shall see if that wisdom holds up.

A major part of the problem or solution, depending on your point of view, is the army. It is the largest in the Arab world and has traditionally supported the regime that returned the favor with large amounts of money. The army could ease Mubarak out of power and try to control the transition to a more representative government. Or it could support Mubarak to the bitter end by trying to crush the protests. This step could very likely rip the country further apart and open the door to the fundamental Islamists. Mubarak could do worse than to read the history of the last few years of the reign of Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. He might understand the bitter consequences of remaining fatally stubborn in the face of massive popular unrest.

The re-appearance of Nobel Prize laureate Mohammed El Baradei on the Egyptian political scene adds a new piece to the puzzle. Will this learned former Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) who earned the severe displeasure of the American neo-cons be able to channel the Egyptian protests into real democracy? Will he be able to satisfy all the contending forces in that large and diverse country? Will his lack of political experience be a plus or a minus? More fundamentally, will he become Egypt’s Kerensky, merely keeping the chair warm until a more dynamic, forceful figure imposes himself on the scene? The initial steps offer hope as he is now supported by the Moslem Brotherhood, long a fixture in opposition Egyptian politics.

The stakes are very high. It is one thing for a small country like Tunisia to overthrow a long-time dictator. But Egypt is an entirely different story. The largest country in the Arab world, it has long considered itself a leader. It has produced brilliant intellects, poets, novelists, and several business leaders successful on the world stage. Many of the leading political movements in Arab history have their origins in Egypt’s struggle for independence from British rule. An Egyptian is the head of the Arab League. In short, the established, ruling forces in Egypt will not easily roll over and go away. Mubarak may go, but the issue is whether this would result in real change or mere window dressing.

The United States is in an awkward position. It has long supported Mubarak and Anwar Sadat before him, but at the same time has tried to introduce elements of real democracy by sponsoring NGOs that worked with various groups training them in how to make a democracy work. Egyptian authorities often took a dim view such activities and either severely restricted them or shut them down entirely. The last thing the United States wanted was a fundamentalist take-over in Egypt, and as long as Mubarak was seen as the best bulwark against that development he got massive amounts of American support and aid.

But now there is a different alternative. The fundamentalists may not be the only alternative to the Mubarak regime. The demonstrations have not been co-opted by the fundamentalists, and have been genuinely broad based. It is much too early to tell how all this will play out, but the United States has to calculate very carefully how much, and when, to reduce its support of the Mubarak regime and simultaneously find some group emerging from the demonstrations that it can openly support.

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