Monday, 31 January 2011

Who's in Tahrir Square, and what next?

The professional and managerial middle classes -- the ones who launched the Egyptian uprising last Tuesday -- remain very much a presence among the hard core of protesters in Tahrir Square, judging by my tour of the area on Sunday night and Monday morning. I met dentists, middle managers, IT engineers and businessmen, all of them committed to driving President Mubarak out of office. Except for members of the Muslim Brotherhood, who are a significant but not dominant element in the protest movement, most of them did not claim to have any formal political affiliation. Surprisingly, as I am writing in my informal capacity as a contributor to Reuters, support for Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was rather unenthusiastic, though I suspect that in the end he would prove an acceptable transitional figure if people were confident that Mubarak and his associates were well and truly defeated. The key to the next few days remains the opaque manoeuvrings at the top of the military-security establishment, where the main players are Mubarak, Vice President Omar Suleiman, prime minister-designate Ahmed Shafik and caretaker defence minister Tantawi. The status of caretaker interior minister Habib el-Adli is opaque. The fact that Mubarak included him in a meeting yesterday suggests Mubarak is deaf to the street - a worrying sign.
    If Mubarak is still in power at noon on Friday, it could be a very bloody day. Read the following statement from an unknown group called the Youth of the Revolution:

    "We the people and the youth of Egypt demand from our brothers in the national armed forces to outline their position clearly and without ambiguity. They must either take the side of millions of Egyptians protesting or stand in the camp of the regime. We await a response to this statement from now until Thursday, February 3, bearing in mind that if no response is given, it means bias towards the regime, at which point we call on
all Egyptians to protest on February 4 for the 'Friday of Departure' after Friday prayers. Finally, we call on people to march to the presidential palace and parliament building and the state broadcast building in millions across Egypt ... to impose the wished of the Egyptian people."

    I have no idea who is behind this, but the logic is unassailable and the same plan must be taking shape in the minds of those committed to seeing the revolution through. There may be no other way, despite the inevitable bloodshed. Then the army would have to come off the fence.   

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.        

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Emergency plan to cling to power

On the face of it, President Mubarak's decision to appoint intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president and Ahmed Shafik as prime minister is hard to understand, and the analyses I have heard and seen haven't been very profound or convincing. Perhaps that's because outsiders assume that Mubarak's purpose was to placate the uprising in some way, so they have jumped to the conclusion that the appointment of Suleiman was a superficially 'honourable' way to abandon any plan to have his unpopular son Gamal succeed him. Others see it as part of a plan to arrange a safe exit for himself at some future date, under some highly speculative deal with the army which has saved him. Others, including many of the protesters, suspect that Suleiman has the approval of the U.S. government, but reactions from the United States don't corroborate that theory in any way. Certainly that theory was widespread in Tahrir Square this morning and this has given Egypt's relationship with Washington more prominence in the uprising than at any time in the last five days, when the foreign dimension was largely absent. Protesters this morning called Suleiman a U.S. agent and banners recalled his collaboration with Israel and the United States in imposing the blockade of Gaza, which most Egyptians see as criminal.
    My interpretation of Mubarak's appointments starts from the basis that Mubarak is a stubborn autocrat who cannot give up power willingly. On Friday night, when he dismissed his government, his only concern was to stay in power for another day, another two days, perhaps to the end of the week. He was not thinking about presidential elections in September or the presidential aspirations of his son Gamal, perhaps even of his own 'legacy'. He was thinking that the longer he could cling on, the greater chance he would have of regrouping his forces to fight another day and maybe restoring some credibility. The greatest danger he faced in the last two days was that those around him, especially the army, would tell him he had to go, in order to save the country -- in just the same way that the Tunisian generals and government seem to have told Ben Ali he must leave. His quick fix was to lock Suleiman and Shafik, a former air force commander and Mubarak associate, into the centre of power. They at least have shown their loyalty by accepting the appointments, though one can only guess at the deliberations now underway between the rest of the military leadership. If he survives this week, then he can think again about his long-term plans. Whether this emergency survival plan will work depends, as in Tunisia, on the determination of the people in the street and on the power dynamics within the army command.   

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Momentous day for the Middle East

Friday was a momentous day in and for the Middle East and I won't wrote at length because my part in it was insignificant and the situation is too fluid and there are too many uncertainties for me to draw too many conclusions. Mubarak surprised me with his obstinacy. When I saw some 10,000 people stream across Kasr el-Nil bridge into Tahrir Square at sunset, after a one-hour battle with riot police which made the western edge of the bridge a living hell of tear gas and rubber bullets I felt that the end had come and the revolution had triumphed. But that was premature. I had the same feeling when I ran across publisher and democrat Hesham Kassem in Kasr el-Aini Street about 10 o'clock in the evening. Hesham was ecstatic -- he has been waiting for this moment for years and was as surprised as we we all were. At the time a police truck was burning outside the parliament building up the road and thousands of youngsters were preparing for a final push towards the building (they didn't make it in the end despite four hours of trying). I concur with Issandr that the spirit of solidarity and camaraderie was extraordinary. People shared everything -- water, cigarettes, onions (for tear gas) and information. Largely there was also an amazing discipline and restraint. Whenever violence against public property looked imminent or people were about to throw rocks, others would chant 'silmiya, silmiya' (peaceful, peaceful) or 'No to violence'. I know there has been some looting here and there but in some eight hours on the street yesterday I saw none, despite ample opportunities. The bravery of those who have been on the frontlines has also been extraordinary and I hope they one day they receive the credit they are due. The youngsters really are a very diverse crowd but yesterday evening, on a street corner in the eery halflight, I overheard a well-informed debate between a group of some seven or eight over who should replace Mubarak. Two of them favoured Mohamed ElBaradei as a transitional leader, but the others were less sympathetic. The most assertive man in the crowd said ElBaradei was part of the establishment and the country needed 'new blood'. 

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Unrest in Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood

As in the case of Tunisia, a succession of commentators have remarked on the small role the Muslim Brotherhood appears to have played in the past two days of unrest in Egypt. One of the latest I have seen came from Michael Collins Dunn, the editor of the Middle East Institute yesterday. "Do you see any beards? Well, maybe a few beard-and-mustache looks of some young hipsters, but not the beard-without-mustache "uniform" we associate with the Muslim Brothers," he writes. I think Dunn is mistaken here on several counts. For a start, Muslim Brothers come in many guises, and the 'beard-without-mustache' look is hardly a Brotherhood uniform. He may be confusing Muslim Brothers with salafis, while the two groups are quite distinct, though with some overlap. From my own experience on the streets (see my earlier reports passim), I believe people are understimating the level of participation by members of the Brotherhood, though I will readily concede that they have not taken part at full strength and at a level which reflects their demographic weight. There are several possible and obvious reasons for this. Let me offer a few of them:
    The Brotherhood, from long experience of confrontation with the Egyptian authorities, is always wary of commitment to street protests. It will calibrate its level of participation to its assessment of the chances of success. If it overreaches, it runs the risk of a massive crackdown. For the moment, probably rightly, it is not convinced that the protests will overthrow the regime.
    The Brotherhood knows that the world (especially the United States and Europe) are watching events in Egypt closely. If the protests appear to be Brotherhood-led, the government will feel free to use much more brutal methods to disperse protesters. For the moment it suits the Brotherhood's interests to give the impression that there is a broad coalition united against Hosni Mubarak, including liberals and leftists. This explains why Brotherhood members who have taken part in the protests have refrained from chanting slogans with religious connotations. The impression of a broad coalition also helps domestically -- if the Brotherhood take the lead, it would frighten off some of the other groups.
    The Brotherhood, like Islamist groups in many Arab countries, has cold feet about governing. It does not feel it is ready. This is reflected in its official strategy of concentrating on a political reform agenda which it shares with many other groups - free and fair elections, rule of law, a new constitution with checks and balances and so on. What the Brotherhood wants most in the short term is the freedom to organize and promote its ideas in a democratic environment, regardless of who is in government. The Brotherhood believes that, given freedom and time, it can win over Egyptians to its long-term agenda.
    The current state of sectarian (Muslim-Copt) tensions in Egypt, especially after the bombing of the church in Alexandria at the New Year, is not conducive to a protest movement in which Islamist slogans and objectives are prominent. Such slogans would be a distraction and could backfire against the Brotherhood.
    I'm not going to venture a guess at the level of Muslim Brotherhood participation but, judging from my chance encounters with protesters, any assertion that the movement is absent or very thinly represented is probably wishful thinking. By the way, many Brothers are clean-shaven, wear suits and ties and are physically indistinguishable from other Egyptians of the same class.     

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Cairo slums on the edge

I spent a fascinating few hours this afternoon and early evening watching riot police and their opponents clash on the edges of the Cairo slum known as Boulak Aboul Ela, which lies just northwest of Galaa Street. Amazingly, for those not familiar with the topography of Cairo, this densely populated area, with narrow unpaved lanes and extreme poverty, lies only a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, the very heart of the modern city and the scene of the major protest on Tuesday. I ended up in the lanes because riot police were firing tear gas canisters and other unidentified projectiles along 26th July Street, apparently in response to a small group of protesters who were throwing rocks at them. The lanes gave some shelter from the gas. The group of protesters, who numbered no more than 200 (there were other groups elsewhere in the city), were clearly outsiders, wealthier and better educated than the local inhabitants. Their main chants were political - "Al-sha3b yuriid isqaat an-nizaam" (The people ... want .. the overthrow ... of the regime - an echo of the similar chant now current in Tunisia). But what struck me most was the evident solidarity of the local people with the protesters and the possibility that at some point the local people too might might come out on the streets. If that happened, the government would be hard-pressed to disperse them by their current methods. The riot police would be overwhelmed and many of the police conscripts (they come largely from among the poorest of the rural poor) would defect or disperse. Without seeing these slum areas at first hand, it's hard to imagine how many tens of thousands of people live there. The population density is comparable to that in Gamalia on the northeast edge of the old city, where there are up to 80,000 people to the square kilometre. The lanes were teeming like an ants' nest and the mood was electric. I asked a random selection of about 15 people where their sympathies lay - with the government (as they called the riot police) or the shabab (youth, as they called the protesters)? With one exception (a man who said he was neutral), everyone said they wanted President Hosni Mubarak to go. This time only handfuls of them did appear to join in, but I judged they were fairly close to the tipping point. The confrontation took a form similar to that we saw on Tuesday. When the protesters advanced, throwing rocks, the riot police withdrew in disarray, to applause and cries of jubilation from many of the onlookers. Police trucks in the rear would then open fire with tear gas and maybe with rubber bullets, driving the protesters back to the shelter of the lanes. Two young men said they had been hit with small projectiles which they said caused intense pain on the skin, one in the hand and one on the neck. I examined both of them, but in the dark it was impossible to identify the cause.
    The baltagiya (government thugs) phenomenon which I mentioned yesterday was evident again today, in greater numbers. For the first time ever I noticed some of them trying on new helmets they had just been issued, and a separate group elsewhere even had riot police shields, though still in plain clothes. The government habitually uses these baltagiya to beat up individually targetted protesters. The logic, I assume, is that if anyone publishes photographs of them in action, then the authorities can dismiss the incident as a brawl between civilians. I cannot say what significance it might have for the government to issue them with helmets and shields. It's most unlikely that the government feels it is short of riot police, who continue to outnumber protesters many times over.
    Television stations report other clashes on Wednesay in Tahrir Square, in Alexandria and in Suez in the canal zone, but I can only be in one place at a time. 

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Egypt and the Media Effects

Media coverage of Egypt's 'Day of Anger' on Tuesday, some of which has been greatly exaggerated, could in fact create perceptions way out of proportion to the events on the streets. Hamdi Kandil, a respected commentator, for example, was just on Al Jazeera saying that 80,000 to 90,000 people took part in the protests. Al Jazeera itself is saying tens of thousands, which itself seems fantastical judging by what was evident on the streets of Cairo (it's hard to judge what happened in Alexandria and Suez). Television footage, by selecting the most dramatic shots and playing them repeatedly, could reinforce the perceptions that there was a true mass uprising. The main effects would be to embolden those who took part, encourage others to join future protests in the belief than there is safety in numbers, and on the other side of the equation throw the government off balance by making it sense a greater threat than initially existed. Al Jazeera interviewed Mohamed Abdel Salam, an official of the ruling National Democratic Party, who tried to be dismissive but then inadvertently hinted at the shock felt inside the regime. He called the events a 'crisis' and said the government wouldn't start talking about political changes until the crisis was over and the situation calmed down. That strikes me as a serious shift away from the usual official assertion that everything is close to perfect on the political front and the government will determine the pace of future 'reforms'. Media coverage can also make opposition demands seem more realistic, by giving opposition figures an unprecedented platform to be taken seriously as participants in the process. The news conference by Abdel Galil Mustafa, general coordinator of the National Association for Change, for example, gained much more coverage than it would under usual circumstances. Mustafa 'demanded' that Mubarak promise not to stand for another presidential term this year and that his son Gamal also renounce any presidential ambitions. If he had said the same last week, it could not have the same impact as today. Egyptians listening to him today might conclude that such demands are easily attainable.           

Update on Egyptian protests

It's 10.30 pm in Cairo and I'm just back from Tahrir Square, the heart of the day's protests. About a thousand people, mostly young and many middle-class, are hanging out, chatting and lying in the streets, which are closed off to traffic. An embryonic 'organisation' is trying to muster support around the slogan 'mu3tasimin hatta al-rahiil' (sitting in until (Mubarak) goes), but it's not obviously not clear what the position will be at daybreak, when the police will want to get the traffic moving. Many are using the word 'unpredecented' and it is unprecedented in the sense that many of the participants are first-time protestors and they come from quite a wide cross-section of society. But at least this evening, the proportion of women in hijab was far lower than average (maybe 50 percent v. 80/85 percent in society as a whole), which suggests a bias towards the upper strata of society. The mobile network has been seriously disrupted for hours, but I'm not in a position to say if that's the outcome of official action, rather than mere congestion. I suspect congestion, because several people in Tahrir Square were making phone calls. I spoke to several activists, who were euphoric about the turnout and the atmosphere. On the way home, I noticed a group of about 50 men in plain clothes sitting on the pavement near the US and British embassies, quite clearly 'baltagiya' (the thugs the police use for beating up protesters when all else fails, sometimes violent criminals on day-release from prison!). When I asked them what they were doing, their boss (also in plain clothes) told me to mind my own buisness and move on. But it's interesting that the police did not call them in today, as far as I have seen or heard.

Day of Anger In Egypt

Just a few remarks about today's Day of Anger protests in Egypt, based on my personal oberservations. This was an important test for both the government and the opposition. The opposition -- a loose alliance of liberals, leftists and Islamists -- had to prove that the uprising in Tunisia has changed the balance of forces by showing ordinary people that they can bring about change by coming out on the streets. The government, acting as so often through the riot police, had to show that such protests are pointless and Egyptians would do well to stay away. They also had to avoid confrontations which could lead to deaths and serious injuries. The protests are continuing into the evening but the numbers of people taking part seems to be diminishing as it grows colder and people get hungry. At 7.30 p.m. a separate group of about 100 is still chanting in Kasr al-Aini street within earshot of my balcony.
    The numbers were not that large. Al Jazeera said tens of thousands but that included protests in provincial cities where reporters (at least in my experience) have a habit of greatly exaggerating the turnout. My estimate, from what I saw in Tahrir Square right in the heart of the modern city at the peak, was that several thousand people took part there. There were also many spectators, with differing levels of engagement. Such numbers are not quite unprecedented. In 2005 the Muslim Brotherhood brought some 10,000 people on to the streets in Ramses Square, opposite the main train station. But for a change the protestors appeared to feel that there was at least some chance that their protests might just make a difference and might lead to a popular movement of the kind that brought down President Ben Ali in Tunis.
    The police acted with a mixture of restraint and incompetence. They abandoned their usual practice of sealing off the hard core of protesters and instead let them loose to march through the streets. The riot police did form cordons here and there but the cordons melted away when protesters approached in large numbers. The riot police were ill-prepared -- when protesters threw smoking tear gas canisters back at them they had to disperse because they didn't have any masks. When protesters threw stones at them, disciple broke down and the police started throwing stones back. A few groups of police tried to use their shields phalanx-style to protect themselves but it was haphazard. The water cannon was too feeble to deter the protesters. On several occasions I saw groups of up to 100 riot police retreating in disarray, with protesters in pursuit.
    The participants were a cross-section of Egyptian society, including many middle class and lower middle class, but the poorest of the poor were not there. I saw very few men wearing galabias, which is generally a class marker. The Muslim Brotherhood, which did not fully endorse the protest but allowed young member to go, was in fact very much in evidence and I saw several Brotherhood members acting as 'stewards'. When stone-throwing broke out, a group of Muslim Brothers started chanting 'Silmiya, silmiya" (Keep it peaceful). The grievances aired were very diverse, but the departure of President Hosni Mubarak was the overwhelming demand.
    So what next? I don't know. I expect the government will be seriously rattled -- in effect they lost control of central Cairo for many hours. But it was a public holiday so that didn't matter too much. The riot police (Amn Markazi or Central Security) clearly have disciplinary and tactical problems which could leave them vulnerable if there are bigger protests. The opposition will be greatly encouraged, to some extent by the turnout but yet more by the atmosphere of optimism that change might be possible. This was not a Sidi Bouzid moment for Egypt, but it was quite different than the desultory and demoralized protests of about 100 people that Cairo usually sees.   

Friday, 21 January 2011

The Renaissance of the Nahda (Renaissance) Party

The Tunisian Islamist party al-Nahda, which is coming to the surface after 20 years in exile, in prison, in hiding or in hibernation, faces the toughest test that any Islamic party in the Arab world has faced since the military took power and closed down the Islamic Salvation Front in neighbouring Algeria in 1992. Tunisians, Arabs and the wider world will be watching al-Nahda closely to see how an Islamic party operates on a political scene which promises to be more inclusive than almost anywhere else in the Arab world. The political contest between al-Nahda and its opponents will be over the validity and popularity of the aggressively 'laiciste' ('secular') ideology promoted by the two presidents Tunisia has had since independence in 1957 - a contest which has implications way beyond little Tunisia. The contest will not, as in Iraq and Lebanon, be between rival sectarian voting blocs who use religious symbols as mobilising tools. Since Tunisia has no politically significant religious minorities (Sunni Islam is close to universal), the contest there will be over the extent to which the country's 'cultural heritage', including Islam, should count in determining government policies. If al-Nahda takes part in some post-election government, even as a junior partner, its leadership will be judged on how they translate their cultural vision into practice and on how they interact with their political opponents. Public statements by Nahda leaders over the past 23 years, starting from the brief political 'spring' they enjoyed in the first years of former President Ben Ali, have usually kept well within the parameters of liberal democracy. Now, after 20 years of oppression, Nahda leaders will be wary of giving their opponents any excuse to drive them out of politics again. The New York Times interviewed Ali Larayedh, a Nahda leader who spent 14 years in jail, in Tunis. "(Larayedh) insisted that his party posed no threat to Tunisians or to tourists sipping French wine in their bikinis along the Mediterranean beaches. Years of contemplation in prison and exile had helped his party ... to 'enlarge our views to encompass Western values,' he said. The result, he said, is a uniquely liberal version of Islamist politics, though one that remains unapologetic about its past calls for violence against American interests in the region." Party spokesman Hamadi Jebali told the Associated Press: "The Western media is frightening people, saying that 'the Islamists are rising.' But we are not to be feared. We are not the Taliban or al-Qaida or Ahmadinejad ... We will submit to the vote of the people when the time comes." On the spectrum of possible Islamist parties, al-Nahda stands roughly in the same area as Turkey's AKP, but with none of its practical experience (the AKP has been in power since 2002)  and little of its political sophistication. Likeminded Islamists in Egypt have tried for years to form their own Wasat (Centre) Party, but the authorities have repeatedly denied them a licence, possibly for fear that the model would prove too attractive and would undermine the establishment's argument that all Islamists are incorrigibly dangerous.
    Only one week after Ben Ali took flight, speculation about the level of support for al-Nahda among the Tunisian population is already rife, almost all of it based on anecdotal evidence or casual remarks by prominent Tunisians. At one extreme, the Daily Telegraph of London headlined: "Islamist movement at forefront of Tunisia's protests" and predicted it would emerge as the strongest political force in elections. But others have 'noted' the absence of religion-based slogans in any of the protests and hailed the Tunisian uprising as a new secular model of opposition to the aging autocrats who rule much of the Arab world. This raises two questions to which the answers will become clear as the process unfolds in Tunis. 
    Firstly, given that the level of support for al-Nahda in the 1989 elections was at least between 10 and 17 percent in areas they contested (and probably higher because of electoral malpractices by the ruling party and the state), would one now expect it to be higher or lower? I have read the argument that it must be lower now because Ben Ali successfully imposed his 'laiciste' model. Under the former president, those who engaged in public displays of piety were at a serious disadvantage in a number of ways, especially employment in a range of public-sector jobs. Police monitored attendance at mosques and sometimes had informers report on whether a suspect's female relatives covered their hair. Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that many pious Tunisians would keep their religious commitment under wraps. But attempts to suppress religious activity elsewhere (in Soviet Russia, Albania and China, for example) have had unpredictable results, and in most of those cases the pious were living in a cultural environment isolated from correligionists speaking the same language and living in neighbouring countries.
    Secondly, what can we expect to see from al-Nahda when it comes to working with others on the political scene? The events of the past month may throw some light on that. If Tunisian Islamists were living under cover and unable to organize, it is hardly surprising that they were not visible as leaders of the popular movement which overthrew Ben Ali (in fact, no leaders of any kind are readily visible). But it is more than probable that some of those who took part were Islamists, working with non-Islamists for the same common goal. For the moment al-Nahda is supporting the same political agenda as the rest of the opposition - a new government with an independent prime minister to oversee the process of preparing for elections, along with all the usual and widely accepted guarantees of fairness. If cooperation between the Islamists and the others on practical objectives continues and if there is no reversion to 'laiciste' autocracy, then the existence of  an Islamist party in a fully democratic Arab country might soon appear completely unremarkable.

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.        

Thursday, 20 January 2011

What are the Tunisian generals doing?

According to the French political gossip paper Le Canard Enchaîné, it was US generals who convinced their Tunisian counterparts to turn against Ben Ali. "This allegedly is what led to his fleeing the country. The French diplomatic corps and secret service were caught completely off-guard" (see France 24 for its English summary). The actions and motivations of the Tunisian military have been one of the best kept secrets of the past week and none of the Tunisian politicians I have seen interviewed have been asked about the role of the army (perhaps it's still a taboo in Tunisian political discourse?). Everyone has just been saying blithely that the army is neutral, whatever that means. Telling Ben Ali that he has to go wasn't 'neutral' and throughout the week the army command (supposedly led by Rachid Ammar, reportedly dismissed by Ben Ali and then reinstated by PM Ghannouchi) must have had some say in many of the decisions taken by the visible political leaders. In many ways, the army is the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about. The most important question is this: is there a limit beyond which the army will not allow political change to go? Would they take a stand, for example, if the RCD is dissolved and large numbers of former security officials are detained for possible trial? Do they have a position on the participation of leftists and Islamists in government? Are their hands so clean that they are immune from any conceivable purge, however thorough? It's noticeable that relations on the ground between police and army personnel seem to have improved in the last few days, and the army doesn't seem to mind when the police use tear gas and batons against peaceful but noisy protesters.    

Zalmay Khalilzad thinks US can make a difference

Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born US official who helped run the US empire in Iraq and Afghanistan, is jumping on the Tunisian bandwagon in the hope of salvaging some gains for the United States. Writing in the Financial Times, he says: "the revolution in Tunisia has opened the door for a renewed western democracy push ... Now they (the United States and Europe) must work with Tunisian liberals, both inside and outside the country – first to prevent chaos, then to ensure fair competition and that Islamists, and current ruling parties, do not outmanoeuvre the moderates. Elections must then follow, although the timing and preparations for the vote must reflect lessons learnt from other recent elections in the region."
    I'm not sure that Zal really gets it. This time the Tunisians have acted without US or European support of any kind and it's not clear that they either want it or need it now. What do the United States and Europe have to do with stopping the Islamists outmanoevring the 'moderates'? Isn't that blatant interference, since 'outmanoevring' is presumably a legitimate part of political rough-and-tumble? Why is he repeating the moderate-Islamist dichotomy, when it isn't relevant to the Tunisian context? Yesterday I saw one of the anti-RCD protesters holding up a placard reading 'No to ministers nominated by the US' - clearly excessive sensitivity but indicative of some residual suspicion. Zal also advocates the same old formula - democracy as long as Arabs elect those who serve our interests. For example: "In countries in which Islamist movements are better organised than liberal ones, the west should focus on developing moderate civil society groups, parties and institutions rather than calling for snap elections." That's exactly the old Bush policy. The difference is that some of the neo-conservatives (Zal was very much in that mould) now notice that the uprising in Tunisia was not in fact the work of Islamists, so maybe it's safe to push for change again elsewhere.
    Brian Whitaker of the Guardian is also promoting the 'demise of the Islamists' theme and saying it punches a hole in the old autocrats' argument that they were the only feasible bulwark against the wild hordes of rabid Islamists. It's certainly remarkable how subdued the Tunisian Islamists have been in the past week, but it's too early to dismiss them completely. The best outcome would be to have the Tunisian Islamists take part in politics in a way that reflects their significance in Tunisian society, and only the  next elections can determine that. All the Islamists I have heard in the past week are singing the same tune as the leftists -- political freedom for all.   It's interesting that none of the political forces excluded by Ben Ali are now calling for the exclusion of the Islamists.



Tunisian names and Anglophone newsreaders

Anglophone newsreaders still seem to be having trouble with the French-style orthography of Tunisian names, especially the 'ch' in Ghannouchi and Chebbi, which is of course the equivalent of the English 'sh' and the Arabic  ش  shin. I wouldn't expect them to take on the 'gh' of Ghannouchi, since that voiced velar fricative does not occur in normal English, but surely their scripts are annotated to alert them to simple things like the 'ch'. I remember an Australian traveller who stayed with me in Tunis many years ago and came home to tell me he had been in 'Heady Chucker' (hɛdi ʌkə) that morning. At first I thought this was Australian vernacular possibly related to violent sports or binge drinking, but then it dawned on me he was referring to Rue Hédi Chaker (ha:di ʃa:kir), a major Tunis street. Talking of which, Language Log had a fascinating post recently on the pronunciation of the name of the contested Ivorian president, Laurent Gbagbo. 'Gb' is a doubly-articulated labio-velar stop, something I never knew existed.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

"Let Them Eat Phones"

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, one of the staunchest defenders of the Egyptian status quo, had another Marie-Antoinette moment in Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday. Asked if events in Tunisia had any repercussions for countries such as Egypt, he said Egypt was doing fine because '60 million Egyptians have mobile phones'. That's rather like King Farouk in the 1950s saying all was well because the fellahin could afford to buy shoes. In fact it may even be worse. New mobile phones sell in Egypt for as little as 100 Egyptian pounds ($17), about three days' wages for an unskilled rural labourer. Second-hand ones are available at half that price. In 2005, when the United States was making noises about democracy in the Arab world, Aboul Gheit famously said he didn't like to use the word 'reform' because it implied that something was wrong and needed fixing. At the time even Mubarak was promising reform (though not much has happened since).

PS I know that Marie Antoinette probably never said "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche", but the myth is irresistible.

Some Tunisian tidbits

Salem Mekki of the RCD, a former adviser to Ben Ali, said the party had started a process of self-criticism. "Anyone who made a mistake will be held to account," he told Al Jazeera. He added that if it would serve Tunisia's interests, the RCD would not hesitate to dissolve itself, but things are not that simple.... In the end the people would decide at the ballot box.

Al Jazeera reported that the Tunisian authorities have banned Abdallah Qallad from leaving the country.  As a minister in the early 1990s Qallad was instrumental in the start of Ben Ali's repression. He stood alongside PM Ghannounchi on television after Ben Ali left the country on Friday.

In the coastal town of Nabeul, trade unionists said they had set up a council to run the town in the absence of the state. Such councils could be just a short-term expedient, but if the crisis of legitimacy continues, they may assume greater significance.

The Progressive Democrat Party (PDG) of Néjib Chebbi has split into two camps - one in favour of participation in the interim government and the other opposed. But the opponents say that they are not leaving the party and that they still hope to win over the other side to their point of view.

Imagining a year of self-immolations

Blogger Issandr El Amrani of the Arabist has an unusual and provocative piece of political fiction in Al Masry Al Yom, almost in the style of Jonathan Swift or George Orwell. I can only admire his vision of the happy outcome of this grim tale -- hundreds of thousands of Arab mothers taking to the streets, laying siege to presidential palaces and parliaments, blocking traffic.

Ben Ali's family and 'clans' in general

Le Monde's family tree for Ben Ali and his family is the best I've seen so far. The former Tunisian president had an unusually high proportion of female relatives -- three sisters, two wives and five daughters, compared to two brothers and one son. And PM Ghannouchi said that his wife was the one really running the country. The family tree only mentions five of his wife's family (three brothers and two nephews). 'Clan' may be the right word because of its Mafia connotation, but I have argued elsewhere that in the Arab context the word might give readers the impression that Tunisia is a tribal society, which is very far from the case. 'Arab tribalism', demographically a rather peripheral phenomenon (what percentage of Arabs can identify their tribe? 20 percent?), is of course a favoured premise for neo-Orientalist analyses of the Arab world. The prominence of Iraq in recent years has helped to reinforce that premise, though even Iraqi is only partially tribalised.

Gaddafi's management style

One interesting aside from Bruce Reidel's polemic is favour of overthrowing Gaddafi/Qaddafi: "During the negotiations with Libya over the Pan Am 103 trial, I met with Qaddafi’s closest henchmen, including his chief of secret police, Musa Kusa, and his bag man in Europe who was appropriately based in Palermo, Sicily. Even they lived in fear of the Libyan leader’s whims and were always unsure what deal he would take or break and what mood he would be in when they next dealt with him."
    Not very surprising in itself, but is it normal for a U.S. official, only eight years out of office, to speak so candidly about foreign officials who are still in office? And then they get upset about Wikileaks!

Ben Ali's downfall and its precedents

Over the last few days, as an ordinary non-blogging citizen of the world, I sent a bundle of messages to various news organization (including the New York Times, the BBC and the Guardian) noting that Ben Ali is by no means the first Arab ruler to lose power because of street protests (they were all saying he was the first). None of them sent me a response of any kind, let alone acknowledged that they wrote too hastily. The latest example is here in The National Interest, where former US official Bruce Riedel writes:  "the Arab world has never seen a dictator tossed out like Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali". The precedent I cited was of course the overthrow of Sudanese President Jaafar Nimeiri in 1985 after one million Sudanese filled the streets of Khartoum demanding that he go. The best description of events I could readily find was this (from his obituary in the London Times): "In early 1985 antigovernment discontent, mainly over rising food and fuel prices, resulted in a general strike which paralysed Sudan. Massive demonstrations followed and the army — Nimeiri’s traditional source of support — could no longer be counted on to restore order. The end came on April 6, 1985, while Nimeiri was on the way home from an official visit to Washington. He was deposed in a bloodless coup led by his Defence Minister and backed by the army. Nimeiri diverted to Egypt where he was to spend the next 14 years in exile." The only serious response was from one reader who argued that in Sudan it wasn't really people power because the army took over (rather than who in the Tunisian case? The RCD with clandestine army support?). But the army only stepped in when it was clear that Nimeiri's presidency was untenable, exactly as in Tunisia. Interesting, at least as things now stand, the Sudanese army did a much more thorough job of purging the state than Ghannounchi seems likely to do in Tunisia. The interim cabinet was led by an independent physician, Al-Jazuli Daf'allah, and, as far as I recall, none of Nimeiri's entourage stayed in power. Restrictions on political activity were waived very rapidly and the elections in 1986, exactly one year later as promised, were exemplary.
    I could not help wondering why the Sudanese example has received so little attention as a precedent (with the honourablee xception of Al Jazeera). Some possibilities occur to me:

* Maybe in the media's collective memory twent-five years is just too long to be relevant

* Maybe they do not consider Nimeiri 'an Arab leader' for some reason, though he meets all the criteria I can think of.

* Maybe the media couldn't resist the hyberbole of 'unprecedented' and trusted that none of their readers or listeners would challenge the epithet.

* Maybe they believe that if a popular uprising isn't fully televised, then it doesn't really happen. Nimeiri was overthrown in the telex age, when television footage took days to emerge, and there was hardly any pan-Arab media to amplify the effect.

* Maybe they subconsciously mean that the overthrow of Ben Ali was the first overthrow relevant to the greater Middle East, that is the first model applicable to present-day realities, which may or may not turn out to be the case. If it was Bashir who was overthrown last week instead of Ben Ali, would they have drawn the conclusion that it wasn't very relevant to other Arab countries, given Sudan's very special circumstances (imminent southern secession, the Darfur rebellion, Bashir's status as an ICC indictee, his failure to monopolize Sudanese politics)?

I would welcome any other ideas on the thinking here.

What's Libya Press's Game?

The website of Libya Press has some interesting material but I've no idea what to make of it. My attention was drawn when I heard of its criticism of the Libyan army as bloated and inefficient. But the site, usually described as close to Gaddafi's son Saif al-Islam, has other interesting reports. For example it quotes Mustafa al-Zayedi, 'a prominent figure in the Revolutionary Committees movement', as praising 'the Tunisian revolution'. Gaddafi himself, of course, said quite the opposite -- that Ben Ali was the best leader Tunisians ever had and they should have given him time to carry out his last-minute promises. The website also reports the release of a 26-year-old Libyan man, al-Rabi al-Mabrouk at-Mestari, who was arrested some days ago for calling on the Internet for protests in the eastern town of al-Baida. France 24 (Arabic) had a speaker who linked the article on the army to events in Tunisia and predicted that many army personnel would soon be laid off. At first sight, that would seem a strange way to prepare for possible unrest. But maybe Libya Press is just stirring up trouble in the hope that its sponsors might benefit. I'd appreciate any light anyone can throw on the subject.

Tunisian uprising

It took disgruntled Tunisians and the fall of Ben Ali to persuade me to resume blogging, something I did regularly and anonymously in the period 2004/5. I'm struck by several aspects of the uprising which have not received much comment elsewhere.

* Street protests don't appear to have much momentum at this stage. Maybe I'm mistaken but in a revolutionary setting you would expect more than 500 people to demonstrate in the capital against what could easily be an RCD attempt to hang on to power. What explains this? Possible answers: the Tunisian middle class (a much vaunted aspect of Ben Ali's picture-perfect Tunisia) is wary of turmoil that goes any further than this, or perhaps the capital is out of tune with the country as a whole (we have seen throughout that the provinces were more hostile to the regime than the capital), or perhaps the RCD's emphasis on the central role of the state really has sunk deep into the thinking of Tunisians (as it has in Egypt, for example) and they really do value continuity. The excluded politicians and activists are making a lot of noise, with good arguments, but do they have feet on the ground?

* It may be too early to dismiss the Islamists as a force to reckon with, as many pundits and observers are doing (Juan Cole for example, and Angry Arab). It's hardly surprising that after 20 years underground, they have been reluctant to show their faces. Don't forget that under Ben Ali the police kept tabs on everyone who merely went to the mosque to pray or whose female relatives wear headscarves. Back in the last relatively free parliamentary elections in Tunisia in 1989 (which I covered as a reporter) Nahda candidates, running as independents, won up to 17 percent of the vote by official tallies. Now it is possible that support for political Islam has declined over the last 20 years, but I can't see any obvious reason why it should have. After all, Ben Ali and the RCD didn't make secularism and state-control especially attractive. Individual Islamists might still be wary of coming out when it's still not clear whether the RCD will remain in control.

* The clumsy handling of the political manoevring over the first few days has been extraordinary, both by PM Ghannouchi and by the recognized opposition parties, especially the latter. Why did they not ask for a complete cabinet list before they agreed to take part? Logically, they should have felt in a strong position and could have demanded more concessions in the coalition negotiations. By agreeing to take part and then changing their minds the next day, they just look incompetent. Ahmed Bouazzi, a member of the executive committee of the Progressive Democratic Party, told the New York Times: “We — I, personally — did not realize the balance of forces, that the ruling party was so weak as a party” when the prime minister called about forming a unity government.