Thursday, February 03, 2011

Is Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen Part of Huntington's 'Fourth Wave?'

The Economist takes a satellite view of the current violent unrest in Egypt and elsewhere:
Mr Mubarak was right in a wider sense, too. It has been on his watch, and in part because of his policies, that Egyptian society has ripened for a sudden outburst that now threatens to blow away his regime. This is true not only because he failed to improve the lot of Egypt’s poorest very much, because he throttled meaningful political evolution, or because he let his police humiliate victims with impunity. Some of Mr Mubarak’s modest achievements, such as improving literacy, keeping peace with neighbours, extending communications networks and fostering the emergence of a large urban middle class, have also sharpened tensions.

This is one reason why the unrest in Egypt and Tunisia echoes resoundingly across the region. Most of the other countries there, whether monarchies or republics, also have structures that seem increasingly anomalous in the modern world. Since the 1950s the Arab social order has been run by paternalist strongmen, bolstered by strong security forces and loyalist business grandees. Those below have been marginalised from politics, except as masses to be roused for some cause, or as a rabble with which to frighten a narrow and fragile bourgeoisie. They have been treated as subjects, rather than citizens.

But much as in southern Europe in the 1970s, when authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Spain and Greece fell in a heap, or later in Latin America, where juntas collapsed like dominoes, Arab societies are changing in ways likely to provoke a sweeping political reordering. Because of the extreme violence of a radical fringe, much of the outside world’s concern for the region has focused on the rise of Islamism as a social and political force.

The role of groups such as Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is important. But it is underlying social changes that affect all, rather than the ideological aspirations of some, that are jamming the mechanics of authoritarian control. Islamists in both Tunisia and Egypt may soon emerge as leading political actors. So far, however, they have taken a back seat.

The Economist then does a play-by-play of events that were sparked by a vigil on January 25th Day of Rage for an internet aficionado in Alexandria beaten to death by police. But the Economist has a good spin on Mubarak's speech on February 1st, widely derided by the howling mob in Tahrir Square.
Knocked back, Mr Mubarak replied with the skill of a seasoned general. In a masterful speech that night, he declared that he had never intended to run for a sixth term this September, without explaining why he had never revealed this before. He also said he would revise articles in the constitution, inserted by himself, that narrowly restricted the field of presidential challengers. He restated his willingness to negotiate with the opposition, and reasserted his paternal concern for the people. “I am a military man and it is not my nature to abandon my duties,” he said gravely. “I have defended the soil of Egypt and will die on it, and be judged by history.”

To protesters camped in Tahrir Square, who had spent days screaming for his departure, this was again far too little, too late. But many other Egyptians, particularly the elderly and the poor, saw it as a dignified way out of the impasse. Amid a backlash of pro-Mubarak sentiment the next day, foreign newsmen were attacked by Egyptians accusing them of plotting to undermine stability. In Alexandria and Cairo large pro-Mubarak mobs of youths, some reportedly fortified by plainclothes thugs and paid criminal stooges, tried to storm the protesters’ camps, leading to mêlées in which dozens were injured.

After tut-tutting the pro-Mubarak forces' duplicity, the Economist continues to see a silver lining.
As Egypt’s powerful state regroups its forces and continues to capitalise on fears of insecurity, Mr Mubarak’s men may have their way. Still, even within his army, which has so far remained loyal to the president, many may believe that only Mr Mubarak’s departure can Egypt’s streets. The president could possibly announce an early retirement on health grounds. But if there is one quality Mr Mubarak has shown during his three decades of rule, it is stubbornness.

Whatever the outcome, it is already clear that Egyptian society as a whole has evolved. Despite the ugly clashes of recent days, the change has mostly been peaceful. Egyptians have graphically demonstrated that they will no longer accept the old rules. They are moving, in the words of Fahmi Huweidi, a popular columnist sympathetic to the Muslim Brothers, from pharaohism to democracy.

Even if protests fizzle for the time being, a certain pride of reclaiming possession was vividly in evidence. Protesters in the notoriously trash-strewn megalopolis of Cairo swept and tidied the squares they occupied, and ordinary Egyptians cheerfully and quite efficiently directed traffic or joined neighbourhood patrols in the absence of police.

Robert Springborg sees the Mubarak regime as having turned the corner on Feb. 2nd with the camel and horse riders swooping through Tahrir to confront the anti-Mubarak protesters:
While much of American media has termed the events unfolding in Egypt today as "clashes between pro-government and opposition groups," this is not in fact what's happening on the street. The so-called "pro-government" forces are actually Mubarak's cleverly orchestrated goon squads dressed up as pro-Mubarak demonstrators to attack the protesters in Midan Tahrir, with the Army appearing to be a neutral force. The opposition, largely cognizant of the dirty game being played against it, nevertheless has had little choice but to call for protection against the regime's thugs by the regime itself, i.e., the military. And so Mubarak begins to show us just how clever and experienced he truly is. The game is, thus, more or less over.

The threat to the military's control of the Egyptian political system is passing. Millions of demonstrators in the street have not broken the chain of command over which President Mubarak presides. Paradoxically the popular uprising has even ensured that the presidential succession will not only be engineered by the military, but that an officer will succeed Mubarak. The only possible civilian candidate, Gamal Mubarak, has been chased into exile, thereby clearing the path for the new vice president, Gen. Omar Suleiman. The military high command, which under no circumstances would submit to rule by civilians rooted in a representative system, can now breathe much more easily than a few days ago. It can neutralize any further political pressure from below by organizing Hosni Mubarak's exile, but that may well be unnecessary.

The president and the military, have, in sum, outsmarted the opposition and, for that matter, the Obama administration. They skillfully retained the acceptability and even popularity of the Army, while instilling widespread fear and anxiety in the population and an accompanying longing for a return to normalcy. When it became clear last week that the Ministry of Interior's crowd-control forces were adding to rather than containing the popular upsurge, they were suddenly and mysteriously removed from the street. Simultaneously, by releasing a symbolic few prisoners from jail; by having plainclothes Ministry of Interior thugs engage in some vandalism and looting (probably including that in the Egyptian National Museum); and by extensively portraying on government television an alleged widespread breakdown of law and order, the regime cleverly elicited the population's desire for security. While some of that desire was filled by vigilante action, it remained clear that the military was looked to as the real protector of personal security and the nation as a whole. Army units in the streets were under clear orders to show their sympathy with the people.

In the meantime the regime used the opportunity to place the military in more direct control of the government while projecting an image of business as usual. In addition to securing the presidential succession to Gen. Omar Suleiman, retired general and presidential confidant Ahmed Shafiq was sworn in as prime minister, along with a new cabinet, in all due televised pomp and ceremony. Gamal's unpopular crony businessmen supporters were jettisoned from the cabinet, with their replacements being political nonentities. Mubarak himself pledged that the new government would focus on providing material security to the people.

The stage was thus set for the regime to counterattack the opposition through a combination of divide-and-rule tactics, political jujitsu, and crude application of force. The pledge by Mubarak not to offer his candidacy, the implied succession to Suleiman rather than Gamal, the commitment to revising constitutional provisions that govern the presidential election, and the decision to suspend parliamentary sessions until courts have ruled on contested candidacies from the November election succeeded in convincing some opposition elements that they had gained enough to call it a victory and go home.

Now commences mopping up the rump of protesters [unless Friday mosque can generate a new dose of rad rage]:
The stage was thus set for the regime to counterattack the opposition through a combination of divide-and-rule tactics, political jujitsu, and crude application of force. The pledge by Mubarak not to offer his candidacy, the implied succession to Suleiman rather than Gamal, the commitment to revising constitutional provisions that govern the presidential election, and the decision to suspend parliamentary sessions until courts have ruled on contested candidacies from the November election succeeded in convincing some opposition elements that they had gained enough to call it a victory and go home.

As for those elements, including the coalition formed around Mohamed elBaradei, that deemed these concessions to be insufficient sops intended to preserve the status quo, the regime offered further provocations. Mubarak described them as opportunists and called their patriotism into question, implying that they were stooges of the United States and that he was defending the nation's independence and dignity. This was classic political jujitsu, for the enraged crowd now redoubled its efforts and demands, using much more insulting language to describe Mubarak himself. This in turn paved the way for the regime to unleash its goon squads to attack protesters.

The military will now enter into negotiations with opposition elements that it chooses. The real opposition will initially be ignored, and then possibly rounded up. The regime will do all possible to restore a sense of business as usual. Cell phone and Internet connections have already been re-established, and automatic teller machines are functioning, though banks remain closed so there can be no run on them. Businesses will be encouraged to reopen, and all possible will be done to ensure a flow of essential supplies into Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez.

What about the jug-eared tyro infesting the Oval Office?
The Obama administration, having already thrown its weight behind the military, if not Mubarak personally, thereby facilitating the outcome just described, can be expected to redouble its already bad gamble. Fearing once again that the regime might be toppled, it will lean on the Europeans, the Saudis, and others to come to Egypt's aid. The final nail will be driven into the coffin of the failed democratic transition in Egypt. It will be back to business as usual with a repressive, U.S.-backed military regime, only now the opposition will be much more radical and probably yet more Islamist. The historic opportunity to have a democratic Egypt led by those with whom the U.S., Europe, and even Israel could do business will have been lost, maybe forever. Uncle Sam will have to eat yet more humble pie, served up by the dictator who has just been insulting him.

MERIP has its own long and lugubrious description of the ebb and flow of events inundating Cairo:
It was clear that Mubarak was no longer calling the shots before his broadcast statement on February 1, in which he promised to step down in September. The previous evening, it was not he but his newly named vice president, ‘Umar Sulayman, who appeared on state television to announce the latest government measures, chiefly an offer to negotiate with opposition figures over the direction of a political transition. The opposition -- that is, the heads of the various half-dead parties that the regime has allowed to exist, though not to organize, for the last three decades -- wisely declined. They said they would negotiate, but not until Mubarak had resigned the presidency and left the country. In this move, they relied upon the staying power of the crowds in Cairo’s main Tahrir Square and cities and towns across the country, which, with ups and downs in the number of participants, have pressed that same demand for seven days and counting. The “march of millions” on February 1 would seem to have sealed the octogenarian dictator’s fate.
With Plan A obsolete, Plan B for the regime and its backers in Washington is to ride out the uprising with their basic authoritarian prerogatives intact. Sulayman and his entourage intend to stage an “orderly, peaceful transition” (to use the Obama administration’s phrase) from the reign of one arbitrary autocrat to another, adorned with the trappings of more liberal democracy. They have offered up Mubarak as a sacrificial lamb, as they did Interior Minister Habib al-‘Adli and before him Ahmad ‘Izz, the ruling-party bigwig and chief crony of Mubarak’s son and presumptive heir Gamal. The army, thus far, is solidly behind them, its protestations of sympathy with the people to the contrary. The wild card, therefore, remains the exuberantly angry crowds in Egypt’s streets, who received Mubarak’s address with scorn. The outcome of their massive uprising hangs in the balance.

The MERIP crew praises "the agility of the crowd," but goes on to note that the deck is stacked in Mubarak's favor:
The other half of the story, however, is the clear regime manipulation of both the situation on the ground and the narratives disseminated about it. Mainstream media coverage, especially in the United States, has been filled with misleading tales. With help from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and pro-Israel commentators, the regime has distracted many outlets with the arrant nonsense that the popular protests presage a takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brothers. The Muslim Brothers, yes, are the largest and best-organized political force in the country, and their cadres are indeed present among the crowds, even serving as marshals in places. But the Islamist party was late to join the protest movement, having declined to endorse the January 25 Police Day gatherings that inaugurated it, and has subsequently made no attempt to lead it or shape its discourse. Tellingly, the Brothers endorsed a secular figure, ElBaradei, as a possible interlocutor between the protesters and the regime. Speculation about the Brothers’ future role is just that -- speculation.

The looting and random shootings that Mubarak ascribes to unnamed “political forces pouring oil on the fire” are by all credible accounts the work of the regime’s own security services, some of whom did not even bother to don civilian costume. On the evening of January 28, day of the hugest demonstrations until the “march of millions,” the security services and police (even traffic cops) disappeared from their outposts, many of which, in any case, had been torched by bands of protesters. Only the Interior Ministry headquarters itself remained staffed, at least by snipers who eyewitnesses and doctors say shot dead tens of unarmed youths agitating outside for the regime’s downfall. Meanwhile, gangs of regime-recruited thugs (baltagiyya) roved around Cairo and other cities, smashing shop windows, stealing goods and terrorizing passersby. Human Rights Watch adds that the multiple prison breaks reported on the same evening are “unexplainable” without state security complicity. The clear goal of the baltagiyya and jail emptying operations was to frighten protesters into hurrying home to protect their families. No less important an end was to scare the other mass of Egyptians who are sitting somewhat uneasily at home and who the regime hopes might turn on the uprising. There is anecdotal evidence from reporters in Cairo and Egyptian-Americans calling relatives that the operation was at least partly successful in this aim. Part of Plan B, indeed, rests on the hope that relatively comfortable Egyptian citizens will soon chafe at the shortages of food, gasoline and commercial goods, as well as the total disruption of everyday business. Egypt faces a “choice between chaos and order,” Mubarak reminded this audience on February 1. Train service was canceled countrywide that morning to underscore his point in advance.

The role of the army is perhaps the most poorly interpreted aspect of the events. As soon as the tanks rumbled into Tahrir Square to a rousing popular welcome, much of the reporting has uncritically relayed the army’s self-presentation that “we are with the people.” On January 31, the military brass underlined this message by dubbing the protesters’ demands “legitimate” and vowing not to shoot at them as they continue to shout in the streets. In fact, and as should be expected, the army is with the most expedient route to restoring the stability that it and its Washington business partners crave -- and that road is the one laid out by Mubarak’s speech.

The president will stay in office until September, date of the previously scheduled presidential contest. In the meantime, he will pick up the pace of “reform,” offering amendments to Articles 76 and 77 of the Egyptian constitution, which concern the rules for running for president. At present, Article 76 stipulates that candidates must be members of the highest council of existing parties that are “legal” (not the Muslim Brothers, in other words). This provision, one can expect, will be altered to allow Sulayman or fellow generals, who cannot belong to political parties at present, to throw their beaked caps into the ring. Article 77, governing presidential term limits, will likely be revised in order to impose such a limit (it presently permits the chief executive to run as many times as he pleases). Such was the sole substantive concession in the speech.

The widely rumored split between the army and the Interior Ministry forces is very likely overblown. In fact, for all practical purposes, it appears thus far confined to the regime’s decision to part with al-‘Adli, who as interior minister supervised the most passionately hated elements of the apparatus -- those that torture Egyptian political prisoners -- and is thus an obvious scapegoat. On January 31, the police and security services that had vanished some two days earlier reappeared with seemingly equal magic, their discipline intact, ready to reassure anxious property owners of the restoration of law and order. And there were very few actual confrontations between the army and the Interior Ministry forces even before the police again showed their faces. An Associated Press story on the January 29-30 showdown at the Interior Ministry building in downtown Cairo is revealing: At one point, tanks positioned themselves between the protesters and the snipers, even creeping forward while demonstrators took shelter behind them, but ignoring the protesters’ pleas to shoot back.

Obama, the dissembling Kingmaker

The Obama administration has disavowed any role in the ongoing drama. Its phalanx of proxy spokespeople deployed in the waning days of January to assert repeatedly that “it’s the Egyptian people’s time.” Some normally astute observers have published articles arguing that the US could not exercise any influence in Cairo at this stage, even if it wanted to. The events of February 1, however, showed that Washington is entirely seized of the matter, despite its public shrugs in preceding days. As journalists waited for the “march of millions” to assemble, news broke that Frank Wisner, US ambassador to Egypt from 1986 to 1991, had disembarked at the airport and would meet with top regime figures, including Mubarak himself, to “nudge” the dictator into earlier-than-desired retirement. In Egyptian elite circles, Wisner is regarded fondly. Following his diplomatic service, Wisner went to work for insurance giant AIG, among other major corporations, and his business ties in Egypt are reputed to be considerable. The Obama administration’s priorities are clear: While the current US ambassador, Margaret Scobey, was conducting “active outreach to political and civil society representatives,” including a parley with ElBaradei, the White House’s special envoy was breaking bread with the generals.

But it was President Barack Obama himself who shed the brightest light upon the US attitude when he gave yet another special briefing to the American public about Egypt little more than an hour after Mubarak spoke. As in his remarks on January 28, he expressed the requisite admiration for the protesters’ perseverance, before stating that he had spoken by telephone with Mubarak to convey his “belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful and it must begin now.” The Washington Post headlined its initial story on Obama’s comments, “Mubarak Move Disappoints Obama Administration,” but a careful parsing of both presidential pronouncements shows no actual difference between them. The Egyptian regime says it wants “an orderly, peaceful transition,” whose meaning is contained in the proposed constitutional amendments. And the transition has begun, Mubarak said, citing his January 28 dissolution of the cabinet. The Obama administration has yet to lay down a concrete marker that affords the Egyptian regime no room for resuming its same old faux democratic game.

Washington’s mightiest leverage, should it care to demonstrate its alleged impatience, is the annual US aid package to Egypt. According to the Congressional Research Service, total aid to Egypt has averaged $2 billion annually since 1979, the year of the Camp David peace agreement with Israel. Though overall US assistance has declined over the last decade, military aid has held steady since 1983 at approximately $1.3 billion. This assistance is Foreign Military Financing, a program whose terms dictate that the recipient nation (unless it happens to be Israel) must spend the package’s full dollar value on American-manufactured weaponry. (Israel can spend a portion in its own armories.) An additional $1.558 billion, most of it military aid, has been requested for Egypt in the 2011 appropriations. On January 28, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs raised the hopes of Egyptian democracy advocates by hinting that the package could be trimmed, but there has been no reiteration since then.

“Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders,” Obama continued in his response to Mubarak’s laying out of Plan B. Perhaps it is not important to Washington, in the end, who assumes the Egyptian presidency, as long as this person is prepared to safeguard the key elements of the US-Egyptian bilateral relationship. But Obama’s message is nevertheless disingenuous, for his administration has at least played at playing kingmaker. By declining to name its candidate, the White House in effect designates Sulayman or another agent of continuity.

MERIP has serious doubts that Plan B will work:
Such is the Egyptian regime’s Plan B for this unprecedented crisis in its rule: a bet that time-tested methods of dividing and coopting opposition, persecuting the hard-core remainder, intimidating the wider population and buying time will allow it to survive, without its figurehead but otherwise whole. Sulayman and the army have carried out their half-coup, deposing the section of the regime centered on Gamal Mubarak that hoped to return hereditary succession to the land of the Nile. The essential character of the regime, however, remains the same and it gives off every sign of self-confidence looking ahead.

There are, however, deep and possibly insoluble problems with Plan B. First, of course, is the fact that Mubarak’s pledge to step down, while cheering for the crowds in the streets, does not address the fundamental demand of the uprising. Sulayman and his crew will be exceedingly reluctant to accede to Mubarak’s early ouster, in part because of the nearly unshakable personal loyalty of Egyptian military officers to each other, and in part because a Tunisian reprise would make it appear their hand was forced. Such a scenario would likely embolden at least some segments of the pro-democracy movement to press on with their more programmatic demands. It would greatly unnerve other Arab rulers, who found the departure of Tunisia’s ex-dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali difficult enough to swallow, and would be horrified to see that repeated in the Arab world’s most populous country. In his February 1 speech, Mubarak strove to leave an impression of temporarily interrupted normalcy, a notion that all will shortly return to the way it has been.

What will the regime do, therefore, if the masses of protesters continue to call upon Mubarak to vacate the presidential palace? Every indication is that they will, though their level of energy going forward is uncertain. For all its backing of the regime so far, the army likely cannot fire upon the demonstrating crowds if the regime judges that necessary. The top brass has sworn not to; the Pentagon has echoed the White House in urging adherence to that policy; and, most importantly, the first bullet will shatter the shows of solidarity between the soldiers and the pro-democracy movement, as well as the army’s honored place in Egyptian political culture. From there, the losses will become material -- the institution’s central political role and extensive stakes in the economy will be in severe jeopardy. The crowds, in strategic terms, therefore have an ace in the hole.

How can one swallow a Gamal and strain at a nit?
A more technical, but also nettlesome problem in the regime’s plan is the proposed constitutional amendments. Mubarak already altered Article 76 in 2005, and again in 2007, to pave the way for the accession of his son Gamal to the throne. Those experiences, which were also marketed as democratic reforms, left a bitter taste in the mouths of all politically conscious Egyptians. To attempt this maneuver again presupposes a trust between state and citizenry that has long since dissolved. The entity charged with proposing the new changes, which would need approval in a popular plebiscite, is a parliament stocked by the most fraudulent legislative elections in Egypt’s modern history. Ninety-three percent of the seats are held by members of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, and in the post-January 28 cabinet the minister of state for legal and parliamentary affairs is none other than Mufid Shihab, known to Egyptians as “the tailor” for his ingenuity in subverting meaningful reform through legal processes. While amending Article 77 has been an opposition demand for years, this measure is too little, too late to placate a country in open rebellion.

It is not clear if the regime appreciates the depth of its quandary. Plan B is achievable in theory, but the path to the regime’s objectives is strewn with obstacles that will be hard to avoid. To be sure, the regime is practiced at setting the agenda, often with recourse to measures as cynical as the unleashing of the baltagiyya. But Egypt has entered uncharted political territory, where the opposition -- and the untamed street-level opposition at that -- holds significant initiative of its own. The regime has never encountered such a wily opponent. “History will judge me,” Mubarak intoned as he delivered the valediction for his presidential candidacy. Indeed it will, though his annals are already in their last chapter. The full history of Egypt’s 2011 uprising, however, has yet to be forged.

MERIP probably doesn't remember the parallel with the Girondin & Jacobin factions in the French Revolution. Let's hope the September elections take place and not any September Massacres.

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