Monday, 31 January 2011

An overview, slightly dated

This is what I wrote for the Lebanese magazine Executive 36 hours ago, with an overview of the Egyptian uprising in its regional context. It's mostly still valid, which is a stroke of luck given the volatility:

If one week is a long time in politics, one month can bring as much change as a whole generation.  The spark struck in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid in December first brought down President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who now languishes in Saudi exile. In a chain reaction, the sudden and unexpected collapse of authoritarian rule in Tunisia breathed new hope into opponents of Egyptian President Hosni  Mubarak, who have struggled for years to muster mass support for their democratic agenda. Now hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have risen up too, overturning the conventional wisdom that autocrats in the Arab world have mastered the dark arts of political survival more successfully than anywhere else in the world. One way or the other, the Middle East will never be the same again.
    Egypt and Tunisia had much in common – high youth unemployment, brutal repression by  police thuggery, economic growth that stubbornly refused to trickle down, and paralyzed political systems based on ruling parties that tried to give a facade of respectability to crony capitalism. The Tunisian opposition that helped drive Ben Ali into exile on January 14 has made great progress towards ensuring that the old guard of the ruling RCD party cannot salvage many of the privileges it enjoyed for the past 23 years. In Egypt the battle for the future is still raging, and the latest developments are strong indications that the old guard of the regime will cling to power with some tenacity, possibly at the cost of much more blood among young Egyptians determined to make a clean break with the past.
    For the moment Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 82 years old and in power for three decades, has sacrificed his own son's presidential ambitions and a prime minister with an enviable record as an economic manager, all for the sake of fending off a challenge from the streets that by Friday looked close to triumph. In only four days overt opposition to Mubarak, once the preserve of a few marginal politicians, internet activists and the cowed Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, has flourished into a mass movement with no clear leadership, little coordination and a simple agenda – “overthrow the regime”. When tens of thousands of Egyptians flooded across the Nile bridges  into central Cairo at sunset on Friday, routing one of the world's largest police forces dedicated to suppressing protests, it looked like Mubarak was on the run. The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party was in flames and many jubilant Egyptians were welcoming the arrival of the army as their saviour.
    But Mubarak, slow and stubborn but still wily, had more tricks up his sleeve. For the first time in his long reign, he appointed a vice-president, in the person of security adviser and intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman, a man whose public statements have been as rare as Cairo rain. Then he named an old air force associate, former Civilian Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafik, as prime minister, jettisoning technocrat Ahmed Nazif and his team of liberal economists. Suleiman's appointment is another nail in the coffin for any plans for his deeply unpopular son Gamal to take over the reins of power - plans that were transparent despite all the official denials.
    It was a classic containment tactic, a circling of the wagons as the enemy advanced. With the army in the streets to reassure ordinary Egyptians who hated and despised the police force, Mubarak  was surrounding himself with old military colleagues he trusted would think twice about advising him that it was time to follow Ben Ali into ignominious exile. He has not yet pacified the street, and opposition politicians have dismissed the appointments as too little too late, just like the last-minute concessions with which the Tunisian president tried to save his skin. For the moment the army is fraternising on the streets with thousands of protesters telling Mubarak to go. The future of Egypt, and possibly the whole Middle East, now depends on the dynamics of that fragile and shallow alliance between the army and the people. It seems unlikely that the people will just give up without violence, so will the army turn on the people or will it turn on Mubarak?
    A successful revolution in Egypt, coupled with that in Tunisia, could be a beacon of light for the Arab world, even herald a shift in international geopolitics. Army-backed repression would be a throwback to the dark days of the 1950s, when the current autocratic governments were born.        

1 comment:

  1. My analysis, Jonathan, as I developed and expressed it 16 days ago at the conference on the 'military-industrial complex', was that the present uprisings-- which WILL be transformative in either the 3-week or the 6-mnth timeframe-- are already transforming international geopolitics. For the US, the position of the American mil-ind complex in the ME is a significant component of its power/position globally. Now, it is being forced into a significant retraction of power in the ME.

    This is all v. similar to what happened to Britain's worldwide power in the long-drawn-out period that followed he childish adventure in Suez in 1956. What we see now in the ME is in many ways the (slightly delayed) fallout of the childish decision to invade Iraq in 2003. it was that decision, by GWB, that determined that today, 8 years later, the US has no tools or levers left with which to confront the upsurge of popular power/sentiment throughout the Arab world.