Friday, 21 January 2011

Egypt beset by evil forces -- the view from inside

Imagine you're one of the chief propagandists for an aging Arab autocrat, writing your first weekly front-page newspaper column since a similar autocrat in a neighbouring country fled into exile, to tears of joy and sighs of relief from many of his long-abused subjects. That was the task faced by Osama Saraya of the Egyptian government newspaper al-Ahram this week, and his performance sheds light both on how Egypt's rulers see the world around them and what they think might persuade ordinary Egyptians not to follow the Tunisian example. Their vision is a grim one -- they see themselves beset by evil and mysterious enemies, some so mysterious they remain unnamed, though Iran, Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood seem to be there in the mix.
    Saraya entitles his 'analysis' "Egypt and the Week of Arab Crises" and his starting point is that what happened in Tunisia (never spelt out in detail) was just one of several 'crises', along with the collapse of the Lebanese government and the imminent secession of southern Sudan. Thus he tries to minimise the significance of the overthrow of an Arab ruler through street protests, something which has not happened for a generation.
    What does he hope the outcome in Tunisia will be? - "We hope that Tunisia will get through the crisis, that conditions will stabilise ... We are fully confident that Tunisia can achieve this without any more chaos or unexpected surprises or foreign interference in its affairs, either overt or covert. Many are waiting in ambush to strike at stability in the region. Many want to exploit the opportunity to plant their feet here and there and to exploit in the worst possible way the anger of the Tunisian street." Stability and the status quo are his highest priorities, democracy and freedom for Tunisians do not merit any mention.
    What exactly does he fear? - "We are frightened the sacrifices of the Tunisian people might in the end revert to the forces which are trying to create discord and strife, so that chaos will prevail and so they can achieve objectives it would be hard to achieve without that chaos. We are frightened that the forces of extremism will exploit the situation on the street ... (and Tunisia will end up prey to) an ideology which undoes all Tunisia's cultural and social achievements, takes it back centuries and imposes a grip which can be broken only through bloodbaths." This meshes well of course with the Arab dictator's favourite argument that people like them are the best possible bulwark against political Islam. But the fear seems highly exaggerated in the case of Tunisia.
    Who exactly are those forces? - Saraya does not name them so clearly, but they are active in Lebanon ("where the situation is close to exploding into a civil war or into the suppression of the components of the nation of all sects through the arms they bear beyond the authority of the state" -- i.e. Hezbollah), and also in Iraq ("where their actions and ideas stand in the way of reaching an Iraqi consensus between all sects"). "Sudan is not far from their tricks, because they have made an active contribution towards the state of affairs Sudan has reached," he adds vaguely. In Sudan, he says later, "The West and the United States have offered northern Sudan frightening incentives (sic) to accept the dismemberment of the largest Arab and African nation."
    What are these forces doing in Egypt? - They have tried various approaches over the years, including terrorism and sowing sectarian strife. Now they are trying to draw parallels between Tunisia and the sporadic protests which Egypt has seen. But these parallels are delusions. "After what happened in Tunisia, these forces, which were crushingly defeated in the last elections, have hurriedly tried to recover their status," he says, a clear reference to the Muslim Brotherhood, which lost almost all its seats in parliament last year because of electoral fraud by the ruling party and government.
    How is Egypt going to fend off the forces of evil? No problem. Egyptians know what a true revolution is (the 1919 uprising and the military coup of 1952), which cannot be compared with what happened in Tunisia. "Egyptians are working and changing every day. They are confronting corruption with the law. They are dealing with change and international, economic and financial crises with constant political, economic and social reforms. They understand that using the people in a game of revolutions is a game exposed to all, because coups can take numerous forms." I take the last remark to be a hint that what happened in Tunisia is just another form of coup.        

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