Saturday, February 12, 2011

Between al-Firdaws Square and Tahrir Square

One of the most iconic moments of 2003 took place on April 3 in Paradise (al-Firdaws) Square in downtown Baghdad, when hundreds of Baghdadis brought down a large metal statue of the Iraqi tyrant Saddam Hussein. It was a glorious bit of television, broadcast around the world, and it conveyed both the liberation of a persecuted people from the hands of a corrupt and brutal dictator, and a resounding military victory for the American liberators, who in less than a month had crossed the Iraqi border and carried out the promised regime change. At the time media commentators compared it to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

Here we stand nearly 8 years later, and all the joyous emotions of that day have long dissipated, erased by an ugly and interminable American occupation of Iraq, years of sectarian squabbling amongst Iraq's new generation of politicians, and a broken country with no infrastructure to speak of.

On February 11, 2010 the entire world was witness to another iconic moment, this time from Liberation (Tahrir) Square in downtown Cairo. Hundreds of thousands of Cairenes had peacefully, and without foreign intervention, toppled the Egyptian tyrant Husni Mubarak. It was a glorious bit of television, broadcast around the world, and it conveyed the liberation of a persecuted people from the hands of a corrupt and brutal dictator. Media commentators compared it to the toppling of the Berlin Wall.

There is very good reason to believe that 8 years from now these wonderful, moving images from Tahrir Square will be regarded just as bittersweet and misleading as those image from al-Firdaws Square 8 years ago. The dictator is gone from Cairo, but the 60-year regime he ran for the last 30 survives intact. He inherited a broken and impoverished country of 45 million people. There are 35 million more mouths to feed at the end of his reign. His generals stole from the national treasure at every turn while a generation of young people lost all hope for a better life. Every one of those generals and Field Marshals, trained in the discipline of the Free Officers movement, remains in charge in Cairo today. None of this bodes well.

When it comes to the Middle East, my default position is one of pessimism. Even so, I wish for the wonderful people of Egypt, whose hospitality I've enjoyed, a phenomenal future. They, like the Iraqis, deserve a future of tranquility and endless possibilities. It may make all the difference in the world that what happened in Tahrir Square came about as the result of peaceful people-power rather than as the result of a foreign invasion and nauseating "shock and awe."

So here are two images of the Arab world which we Americans must integrate, if we are ever to understand the Middle East: the lessons of that day known as 9/11; and the lessons of that day which should be known henceforth as 2/11. From 9/11 we learned and reflected back unspeakable hatred; from 2/11 we should learn that there is a much more complex, humane, and diverse Arab world than we ever imagined. Between al-Firdaws Square and Tahrir Square, I'm betting on Egypt, "the mother of the world."

Friday, February 11, 2011

Alf Mabruk Ya Masr!

What a wonderful moment for the hundreds of thousands of Egyptians who brought down a tyrant in less than 3 weeks! What an amazing new world we live in where a satellite dish can bring about more change than a cruise missile! And the entire thing happened with a minimum of violence from the protesters - a brutal dictator brought down by peaceful people power! Amazing!

A thousand blessings O Egypt!

From 1952, the modern state of Egypt has been ruled by Egyptian generals who think of themselves as the exclusive protectors of the nation. Over 60 years, there have been internal coups, resignations offered and retracted, assassinations successful and botched, advisers and interlopers from Moscow and Washington, and through it all one thing has remained constant - the space for civilian political discourse, which was so important for Cairo in the years between World War I and World War II, has always been severely constricted. Generals and officers have been all the leaders, and most of the diplomats, business tycoons, technocrats, and politicians of Egypt for nearly 60 years. Husni Mubarak has been neither arrested nor deported. He and his loyalists for the moment remain. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, in whose hands Egypt has been deposited, is full of Field & Air Marshals and Lt. Generals of every stripe, and 3 weeks ago they were all huddling with their compatriot Husni Mubarak wondering how they would prevent the tumult of Tunisia from reaching the Nile.

Junior Soprano has been set out to pasture. But the Soprano family business survives. Ruthlessly running a crime family, or a modern Arab nation, isn't as easy as it once was. But nothing today has changed the fact that the regime is intact. The new dictator lurks amongst the members or the attendants to The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. This story has just begun.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Obama League in the Middle East

I cannot help but cheer people who are calling for their freedom from the clutches of a tyrant. But what I as an insignificant speck believe is not what the American President ought to be doing, certainly not in such a showy, obvious fashion. President Barack Obama's many moves in the last 96 hours are so thoroughly naive and unprofessional, so hamhanded and self-aggrandizing, that I am afraid it is now too late to step back. The potential for unpredictable blowback -- despite good intentions -- is great. Obama and his foreign policy team have a history of making serial mistakes when it comes to the Middle East and they have very little to show for it: an Arab-Israeli "peace process" at one of its historic nadirs, Iraq in chaotic stasis, Lebanon turning to Hezbollah. Obama's conduct this past week (and VP Biden's and SecState Clinton's, for that matter) is just more of the sad pathetic same.

On Friday, minutes after Egyptian tyrant and apparent President-for-life Husni Mubarak announced the appointment of a military crony as his very first Vice President, the White House made it known that President Obama had spent a full 30 minutes on the phone with his Egyptian counterpart, and Obama came out to the cameras in support of the move. Then today on Tuesday, within minutes after Mubarak gave a pathetic speech to his nation and the world, announcing that now at the age of 82 he will not stand for September's presidential election (and never intended to) -- but will not leave his post -- the White House again let it be known that President Obama had another unusually long 30-minute phone call to the Cairene presidential palace. Within an hour of Mubarak's pronouncement, there was the American President again on worldwide television, sternly declaring that "it is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now." More than a hint of colonial chutzpah clings to his words.

Twice the beleaguered Egyptian President speaks to his proud people, and twice the American President directly inserts himself into the tumult. Obama made it positively crystal clear that his heart is with the young Egyptian demonstrators, even as he grudgingly rugtrades with the elderly Egyptian generals. This second appearance by the President of the United States was so thoroughly unnecessary, so completely uncalled for -- and suggests an extremely untoward insertion of the American President into the domestic concerns of the Egyptian citizenry -- that now one can only hope and pray that whatever the outcome, the United States of America is not directly linked either to the chaos or the counter-revolution sure to come.

I understand why Obama performed so clumsily today. During the summer of 2009 there was a massive citizen's revolt against the Ahmadinejad regime, brutally repressed, which captivated the world. When Obama was asked about it at the time, he used Harvardesque diplomatic doublespeak and clumsily dismissed the revolt as an internal "robust debate." He was pilloried at the time for this dismissive characterization, and the non-policy the US took then allowed the hardliners in Tehran to push ahead with their repression. So now Obama does not want to miss out on Middle Eastern history, particularly when the media seize upon the narrative that the Obama administration is "behind the curve" in reacting to momentous events in the Middle East.

When you are a despised and suspect superpower with grandiose aspirations, better to be behind the curve than ahead of the curve. You'll be blamed either way, but better to not inject yourself into the maelstrom. The danger is this: an overly intrusive and present America does no one any good. If the revolutionaries win, they will remember that all of Mubarak's pathetic half-measures were orchestrated not by Tahrir Square but by Lafayette Circle. If the generals survive, they will not forget the betrayal of their stable guidance by a knee-jerk presidential "change agent." In a region where conspiracy theories and suspicion of foreign intervention are overpowering, Barack Obama has unilaterally claimed ownership of Egypt. Which reminds me of Colin Powell's and Richard Armitage's "Pottery Barn rule" of diplomacy: "You break it, you own it." As Egypt was breaking before our eyes, Obama cried out: "Hey, that's mine!" Obama's conduct these last few days has been bush league -- or maybe we should now call it Obama league.