Thursday, February 03, 2011

"Shifting Tides"

Arlene Kushner

It's still not possible to call with any measure of certainty what the end result of the unrest in Egypt will be, but the picture is looking different today.

What we see is that Mubarak and his military had decided at the beginning of the major protests not to be confrontational. It is for this reason that the ruthless and much-hated police were pulled back, and that the army took their place, with a pledge to not shoot at demonstrators. The plan was to let the demonstrations play themselves out peacefully -- the expectation being that at some point the people on the street would tire of yelling and go home.

Thus some 250,000 protestors (not a million) were able to come to Cairo's central Tahir Square yesterday, unimpeded in their gathering and in their vociferous demands. Last night, Mubarak gave his talk on Egyptian state TV. He said he would finish his term, which ends in September, and then step down.

“My priority now is for a peaceful transfer of power to whoever the people choose in the election,” he said, explaining that the law would be changed to allow for a more open competition for the presidency.

“In all sincerity, regardless of the current circumstances, I never intended to be a candidate for another term.” This might be interpreted as a defiant poke at the demands being made, but may well be the truth, as he is a sick old man.

Responding to the demand that he leave the country, he said, "I was born in Egypt, I defended Egypt, and I will die in Egypt."

Obama then communicated that the transition had to start now. Clearly, he would like to see Mubarak step down tomorrow, and would be quite content to see El-Baradei moved into his place. He even says that the Muslim Brotherhood can have a place within the new "democratic government" of Egypt. (More on this below.)

The Foreign Ministry of Egypt has since responded with a statement that transition would not begin until the president's term was completed. The US and the EU were advised not to meddle.

As for El-Baradei, he said that Mubarak had 48 hours to leave the country, and that if he didn't he wouldn't just be a lame duck president, he would be a "dead man walking."


This morning, a couple of new elements were added to the dynamic on the street.

First, the army told the anti-government forces to go home: Speaking on state TV, a military spokesman said, "Your message has arrived, your demands have become known. You can now bring normal life back to Egypt." (Read, we gave you your time without interruption, but enough is enough.)

And then, members of Mubarak's National Democratic Party -- which has a total membership of some three million -- started coming out on the street by the tens of thousands. Protestors had formed a human chain so that the pro-Mubarak people would be unable to get to Tahir Square, but they broke through. There are reports of some people who came in on camels and horses, swinging whips and sticks. As was inevitable, the pro- and anti-Mubarak groups began violently clashing. The pro-government people have torn down protest banners and signs. There is punching, hitting with sticks, and throwing of stones.

Some tear gas has been shot into the crowd, but I expect it will get worse before it gets better.

Egypt protests - AP - Feb 2, 2011


It would be naive to imagine that these two events, described above, were not synchronized. I see these as the warning shots from a beleaguered regime that intends to fight for all it's worth. There have been suggestions (impossible to verify) that some of those "pro-government" people are police in civilian clothing.

As I write, the army is still standing aside and has not intervened. At some point it is likely they will.

There is speculation that this violence might spark a civil war.


Quotes from Barry Rubin's latest piece on Egypt:

"...I would estimate that for everyone on the mass media (experts or journalists) who is saying the Muslim Brotherhood is a radical, pro-terrorist, anti-American group, there are 10 saying the opposite.

"It is rather frustrating to know the Brotherhood's history, see how extremist are its statements (including calls for Jihad against America by its leader), and then be portrayed as some marginal loony for holding that view. One major television network called the Brotherhood an admirable courageous organization fighting for the poor...

" It is one thing for Egypt to have a revolution that might well lead into chaos and a regional disaster; it is quite another to see the US government supporting this event.

"One of the many amazing things left out of the current discussion is the irony of a US government that came to office apologizing for past exercises in American engaged in...bullying action...[Obama] has dismissed a[n]...Egyptian ally after a few days of demonstrations...

"...The White House spokesman on January 31 said the United States would accept the Muslim Brotherhood in [the] government if it rejected violence and recognizes 'democratic goals.' Funny, that was the US government position on Hezbollah (which now rules Lebanon) and Hamas (which now rules the Gaza Strip). How did that work out?

"What does 'violence' mean? They won't need to use violence against the government if they control the government! They will advocate violence against US forces in Iraq, against Israel, and to overthrow the remaining (they seem to be shrinking in number) relatively moderate regimes. Hamas...terrorists will be trained at camps in Egypt. The Egypt-Gaza border will be open and weapons will flow steadily every day.

"Then, of course, it will be too late..."


Elaborating just briefly: While Obama declined to help those in the street protesting against the Iranian regime -- which presumably the US very much wants to take down -- because he said he did not want to interfere in the affairs of another state, with regard to Egypt he was quick to intervene against someone who has been perceived as a long-time ally of the US and a lynchpin of American Middle East policy. So what's going on?

It is unlikely that the US will be trusted again. Most certainly not by the rulers of the other relatively moderate Arab states -- who know now that Obama might turn his back on them, as well. And not by Israel, who is likely to be asked to "trust" him with regard to certain promises on a "peace" deal.


For a thoughtful essay on democracy in Egypt, see Sultan Knish (Daniel Greenfield):

"The chaos in Egypt has brought forth pious praises of democracy. 'So what if the Muslim Brotherhood seizes power,' the pundits ask, 'as long as there are democratic elections.' But what is the virtue of democracy anyway?

"The one fundamental virtue of democracy is that it is the widest possible means of distributing power within a system. And that leads to a system that is only as good and bad as the sum of its voters. It is possible to have a democracy of cannibals, so long as the majority agrees that's the way to go...So long as that is the expressed will of the majority.

"Democracy is a tool. It is a means, not the end. During the Bush Administration, democracy was treated as an end. The embedded assumption was that the average Arab-Muslim wanted the same things we did. A condensed version of the American Dream with jobs and freedom for everyone. And when given a chance at a voting booth, tyranny and terrorism would blow away like smoke, as a liberated electorate would choose leaders who would give them these things...

"The American system makes it very difficult for even democratic elections to undo Constitutional rights. But the Constitution of the Muslim world is the Koran. And it can only be temporarily repressed, not undone. It is always waiting around the corner, promising an answer to everything...The Koran with its narrative of tribalism in the service of Islam defines the Muslim, as much as the 4th of July with its narrative of armed independence against government authority defines the American. In times of turmoil, it is to Mohammed, and the Koran's narrative of him as a religious visionary fighting against a corrupt leadership, that the Muslim turns to. Is it the model that is embedded in his culture and will always be there in his politics.

"The idea is simple enough. Hand over power to the right divinely chosen leader and sit back and watch society get put in proper order and the infidels cower. In societies with widespread illiteracy and deep rooted cynicism about politicians, the Islamists always seem like a good solution. Figuring out what political parties actually stand for is difficult, especially if you can barely read. But all the Islamists have to do is wave a copy of the Koran. Even if the average Egyptian has hardly read the Koran, he is for it. How could he not be for it, it is his religion. Given a choice between a tangle of Arab Socialist parties and the Koran, it's not much of a competition. The Socialists and the Islamists both promise family benefits, and the usual bread and circuses. But the Islamists also promise to restore morality and honor by putting everyone from independent women to Christians to Israel and America in their place. That's how the Koran spells a winning ticket."

© Arlene Kushner. This material is produced by Arlene Kushner, functioning as an independent journalist. Permission is granted for it to be reproduced only with proper attribution

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