Saturday, January 29, 2011

Big Trouble on the Nile

Just take a second to let 2 simple facts sink in and you might get a sense of just how sick modern Egypt is, all under the watchful eyes of the American hegemon.

1. Ever since the day Husni Mubarak ascended to power a bit more than 29 years ago, the entire country has been under emergency rule. In fact, Emergency Law (under which the constitution has been suspended, many political parties outlawed, and censorship imposed) has been continuously in effect (with one short hiatus) since 1967, going back through the rule of Mubarak's predecessor, Anwar al-Sadat, and his predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser. But back then, Egypt was not an American satellite. Back then, of course, Egypt was in the Soviet sphere of influence. Superpowers come and superpowers go, but the last 60 years of Egyptian rule have been predicated on the Egyptian military and the absence of constitutional law, out of which every single modern ruler of Egypt has emerged.

2. Ever since Husni Mubarak ascended to power a bit more than 29 years ago, until today, there has never been a Vice President of Egypt, and no clear line of succession was ever enunciated for Mubarak's Egypt. It kind of made sense for Mubarak to have it this way - keep all the politicians and generals guessing, and make your personal "pragmatic" rule indispensable. Today, fully in keeping with the tradition of modern Egyptian politics, Mubarak grudgingly made a vice-presidential appointment in the form of Omar Suleiman, a military leader and intelligence master spook. Whatever hopes Husni had for grooming his son Gamal for succession probably went down the drain yesterday during a 30-minute phone call with the Oval Office. Suleiman has some kind of international gravitas, and has been Egypt's principle diplomatic contact with the West, with Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, and with Israel. Unfortunately, every diplomatic deal Suleiman has shepherded, whether it is between Hamas and Israel, or Hamas and the PA, has unraveled. Still, can't blame a guy for trying. Hell, there's even an archive video of Suleiman shaking hands with Israeli Shas leader Eli Yishai in Jerusalem. If Mubarak, in what might be his last days or months in power, wanted to signal international acceptability and strategic continuity for what will come the day after, the appointment of Suleiman makes the outside world breathe a bit easier. But it is unlikely such an appointment will stem the popular domestic clamor for Mubarak's own political departure.

So take a second to assimilate these two simple facts: modern Egypt has known military strongman after military strongman in an environment of massive political repression for six uninterrupted decades, and until today had gone three decades without a Vice President.

I'm reminded of the moment Walter Cronkite shed a tear on American national television for the assassinated Anwar al-Sadat in 1981. The American media mourned the sudden departure of Sadat, characterized as the brave and visionary peacemaker of Camp David, while Egyptians more likely shed tears of joy at the violent departure of another tyrant. In Sadat's place came a cautious but similarly brutal military henchman. There will be those who cry today for the "stalwart American ally in the Middle East" Husni Mubarak, fearing that what is transpiring today in Cairo is more akin to Tehran 1979 than Tunis 2010. I'm no Egypt expert, but I think the glib predictions that the devil you know is certainly better than the devil waiting-in-the-wings are unfounded. The likely outcome of this widespread upheaval, the likes of which Egypt has not seen since the bread riots of  1977 (a much bloodier moment for a far stronger Sadat), will be more military rule in civilian garb. Neither Tehran 1979 nor Tunis 2010, Cairo won't turn to Islamists or to civilian politicians - instead it will turn to its generals for the umpteenth time. The Nasser-Sadat-Mubarak legacy will in all likelihood march on.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Another Pillar Crumbles?

On New Year's Eve, 1978, President Jimmy Carter and his wife Roslyn were enjoying a posh celebration in Tehran, Iran, hosted by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. It was a glorious evening of elegant dress, fine food, and a modest amount of drink. When Carter had first become President earlier that year, he tried to promote a more humane foreign policy by publicly criticizing the brutal Iranian dictator for his repressive policies. By the end of the year, a chastened Carter allowed pragmatism to prevail, and American fear of a growing Islamic movement in Iran had brought the President of the United States to sup with the "King of Kings."

Said the American President in his New Year's toast: "Iran, because of the great leadership of the Shah, is an island of stability in one of the more troubled areas of the world."

"We have no other nation on Earth who is closer to us in planning for our mutual military security. We have no other nation with whom we have closer consultation on regional problems that concern us both. And there is no leader with whom I have a deeper sense of personal gratitude and personal friendship."

In less than a year, the Iranian Revolution had overwhelmed the "island of stability." By January 1979, the Shah fled Iran. The American strategic masterplan known as the "Twin Pillars" -- relying on Iran and Saudi Arabia to contain Soviet influence in the Gulf -- evaporated into nothingness overnight.

On PBS tonight Vice President Joe Biden said of Egyptian President Husni Mubarak: "I would not refer to him as a dictator." Two days ago, SecState Hillary Clinton described Mubarak's rule as "stable." Once again, the wise, seasoned overseers of American foreign policy side with the despots, fearing the alternative. A lesser set of pillars -- Jordan, Egypt, and (still) Saudi Arabia -- have become our "longstanding" Arab allies in the Middle East. What a losing trifecta of broken monarchs and despotic strongmen! The sad truth: the Obama foreign policy preferences in the Middle East are not one iota different from those of George W. Bush. Biden and Clinton will regret their comments of late January, 2011, just as Carter, that feckless champion of human rights, must now regret his toast on New Year's Eve, 1978.

Mubarak has learned a thing or two from his Iranian neighbors (remember, it was to the Egypt of Mubarak's predecessor that Pahlavi initially fled). One thing Mubarak learned from the open revolt against the Iranian government in the summer of 2009 is that the internet and its freewheeling forms of social communication can serve as powerful megaphones for revolutionaries. So tonight, in anticipation of tomorrow's "Gathering Day or Rage," the 4 major ISPs of Egypt (2 jointly owned with European telcos) went dark. See this fascinating analysis of Egyptian DNS traffic from earlier today, with a dramatic graph showing the sudden dropping off the grid of this country of 80 million people at 2234 UTC. 

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Following events in the Middle East

Here is a note I sent students in my Arab-Israeli Conflict course:

Hi Folks,

There is so much exciting news coming from the Middle East region these days. It is all directly relevant to our class: the "Jasmine Revolution" in Tunisia, the daily street demonstrations against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, street demonstrations in Yemen against the Saleh regime, the collapse of the Lebanese government and the appointment of the new prime minister Najib Mikati, and the brouhaha surrounding the release of the "Palestine papers" which I mentioned in class. I want to make you aware of two video news sources which may help you learn what is going on:

First, I want to draw your attention to the half-hour news digest called MOSAIC: World News from the Middle East. It is edited here in the US and provides key news stories as broadcast by regional news outlets like al-Jazeera (from Qatar) and IBA (from Israel), with voice-over translation as needed.

Then there is al-Jazeera English on Livestation. They are doing a great job in English covering the events in Egypt, Tunisia, and Yemen. If your Arabic is fluent, you can also find on Livestation al-Jazeera.

Like all media, both these venues have their editorial slant, but right now there is no better way to find out what is going on. A lot of journalists (both local and Western) are rooting for the demonstrators, and you will certainly be able to see it in their reporting. Watch the news in particular tomorrow, Friday, from Egypt: it is a well-practiced tradition throughout the Arab world to hold large street demonstrations (either organized or spontaneous) after the important Friday morning prayer services at mosques. Remember that Cairo is 7 hours ahead of us.