Sunday, 27 February 2011

US also needs to show some self-restraint

It's a very bad idea for the United States to intervene in Libya and I have no doubt that no one  credible in the Libyan opposition will accept such an offer. "We’ve been reaching out to many different Libyans who are attempting to organize in the east and, as the revolution moves westward, there as well. I think it’s way too soon to tell how this is going to play out, but we’re going to be ready and prepared to offer any kind of assistance that anyone wishes to have from the United States," said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The last thing any Arab rebellion (and that is what we have in Libya) needs is the kiss of death that any association with the United States would bring. If the US administration is reacting to domestic pressures, as it did in the case of its decision to veto the UN Security Council resolution on Israeli settlements, then it should resist the temptation. Even the vague offer could do damage. Who is giving advice to these US officials, and what is driving them?

Why I Can't Say Saudi Arabia is a Haven of Peace

I'm in Qatar for a couple of days for a workshop on the Egyptian revolution at the Qatar Foundation, but surprises have followed me all the way. First there was the news that a group of Qataris are calling for a Day of Rage on March 18, and a group of Saudis for a similar day on March 11. Then I heard the news of the protests in Oman on Saturday and Sunday. Then in my morning newspaper I read Rachel Bronson on why Saudi Arabia is safe for revolution, at least for the moment. She admits that 'It is dangerous business to predict events in the Middle East, especially in time of regional crisis', but on close examinations her reasons for excluding Saudi Arabia from the wave of protests look very thin indeed. Let's look at them one by one:
The country is different in some important ways. First, its economic situation is far better. Egypt's per capita gross domestic product is slightly more than $6,000, and Tunisia's is closer to $9,000. For Saudi Arabia, it is roughly $24,000 and climbing (up from $9,000 a little more than a decade ago). The Saudi regime also has resources to spend on its people. Oil prices are high and rising. On Wednesday, the king announced massive social benefits packages totaling more than $35 billion and including unemployment relief, housing subsidies, funds to support study abroad and a raft of new job opportunities created by the state. Clearly the king is nervous, but he has goodies to spread around. 
    Then she adds:
According to an analysis by Banque Saudi Fransi, joblessness among Saudis under age 30 hovered around 30 percent in 2009. Still, many of the king's key policy decisions - joining the World Trade Organization, creating new cities with more liberal values, promoting education and particularly study abroad - have sought to solve these problems. The country may be on a very slow path toward modernization, but it is not sliding backward like many others in the Middle East. 
    In fact that's a much higher youth unemployment rate that either Egypt and Tunisia and I'm not convinced that economic growth is an obstacle to revolution anyway. On the contrary, is it not conventional wisdom that autocratic governments are at their most vulnerable at times of high growth with uneven income distribution? The Egyptian economy has been growing strongly since about 2004, and the Tunisian economy hadn't been doing badly either. The Egyptian uprising was not driven by unemployed or hungry people, but by middle-class people who did not like the way their country had been hijacked by a narrow clique who ruled by rigging elections backed by police brutality.

    Her second argument:
Another difference between Saudi Arabia and its neighbors is that the opposition has been largely co-opted or destroyed. For the past 10 years, the Saudi government has systematically gone after al-Qaeda cells on its territory and has rooted out suspected supporters in the military and the national guard, especially after a series of attacks in 2003. Key opposition clerics have been slowly brought under the wing of the regime. This has involved some cozying up to unsavory people, but the threat from the radical fringe is lower now than it has been in the recent past. And the Saudis have been quite clever about convincing the country's liberal elites that the regime is their best hope for a successful future. 
    That sounds remarkably like Tunisia, and not a whole lot different from Egypt, at least in general terms. The serious opposition in Tunisia was either in jail, in exile or silent. In Egypt the parliamentary elections of 2010 gave the ruling NDP and like-minded independents all but a handful of seats. The Muslim Brotherhood was cowed and unwilling to take on the government until the protest movement showed signs that it might succeed. In Libya the government was even more successful in eliminating any form of domestic opposition, which had hardly raised its head above the parapets for 15 years. What took people by surprise in all three countries was that the opposition appeared from nowhere, from the silent majority which was thought to be dormant.
    Her next argument:
The loyalty of the security services is always an important predictor of a regime's stability, and here the Saudis again have reason for some confidence. Senior members of the royal family and their sons are in control of all the security forces - the military, the national guard and the religious police. They will survive or fall together. There can be no equivalent to the Egyptian military taking over as a credible, independent institution. In Saudi Arabia, the government has a monopoly on violence.
    Sounds remarkably familiar to me from Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. It took more than 300 dead, millions of people in the street and 18 days of daily protests to persuade the Egyptian military to move, but in the end they moved. Similarly in Tunisia. In Libya, Gaddafi's sons and loyalists controlled key military formations, but several of those have fallen apart. In times of domestic unrest, the loyalty of any military or paramilitary unit is fragile and can crumble into dust with remarkable speed when individual soldiers or officers face conflicting demands and loyalties. Those at the top of the command chain may also decide at any moment that an alternative ruler better serves their interests. Don't count on their loyalty, as many rulers have learnt to their cost throughout human history.
    Her last argument:
Finally, a succession plan is in place. Saudi Arabia has had five monarchs in the past six decades, since the death of its founder. There is not a succession vacuum as there was in Egypt and Tunisia. Many Saudis may not like Prince Nayaf, the interior minister, but they know he is likely to follow King Abdullah and Crown Prince Sultan on the throne. And there is a process, if somewhat opaque, for choosing the king after him. 
    I don't buy that one either. If Saudis don't like the Al Saud, why would they be reassured by the knowledge that Prince Nayef will rule them one day and that the same family will govern for ever? It's true that uncertainty about the succession added to the tensions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya and made it easier to challenge the legitimacy of the ruling family, but it's the legitimacy that counts. Once a ruler or his family loses legitimacy, all they have left is brute force, and that takes us back to the previous argument.
    I'm not saying that the Saudi government is in trouble. I don't know and I'm not making predictions. But the events in Libya and now Oman certainly weaken the old 'rentier state' argument, which was previously one of the strongest arguments for why countries such as Saudi Arabia would be immune from the 'ripple effect' of the Arab revolts. 

Thursday, 24 February 2011

Tribal defections/splits in Libya

Al Jazeera reports that Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam, Gaddafi's point man for relations with Egypt and usually identified as Gaddafi's cousin, has resigned and is seeking political asylum in Egypt. By the old tribal adage 'My brother and I against my cousin, my cousin and I against the stranger', that should be the death knell for Gaddafi. Since Gaddafi is in fact still alive and fighting, at least early today, tribal affiliation clearly is not the only factor at work in the Libyan conflict. Television stations on Wednesday night also reported the defection of a senior security official in the east of the country who was a member of the Gadhadhfa, the colonel's tribe (hence his name).
    But the Egyptian newspaper al Masry al Yom carried an interesting story today about a more conventional split in the Awlad Ali, a large tribe which straddles the Libyan-Egyptian border. It quotes Mansour Awad of the Egyptian branch as saying: "Our cousins (i.e. close agnates) have been living in Libya a long time and have become naturalized. The tribe has kinship ties with Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. We all used to love him and esteem him. But we are not pleased with the current situation, because he is bringing mercenaries  to attack our brothers. Because of that we have taken a decision: 'My brother and I against my cousin.' We have organized a demonstration and we're waiting for the army to open the way for us to reach them there."
    The report goes on to say that members of the Awlad Ali were indeed chanting anti-Gaddafi slogans at the Salloum border post and holding placards calling for him to be tried. It says that Ahmed Gaddaf al-Dam visited the border post on Tuesday and was unhappy to find people protesting against the Libyan leader. Gaddaf al-Dam then went to Siwa, it says, and found similar protests there.       
    Al Arabiya's English-language website has a similar report but adds that the purpose of Gaddaf al-Dam's trip to Salloum was to recruit Awlad Ali to fight on Gaddafi's side in the conflict. "(Gaddaf al-Dam) is reportedly contacting several airline companies in an attempt to obtain huge planes to transfer mercenaries from different African countries to Libya to crush the revolution. The mercenaries are said to be specifically heading for Camp 27, headed by the Libyan leader’s son Khamis Gaddafi," Al Arabiya added, without citing any source.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Libya and the Discourse of Tribalism

John Hamilton in the Telegraph and Peter Apps for Reuters, along with many others, have written about the tribal element in Libyan politics and how it complicates the power structure. Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi said the same point in his speech the other night - that Libya is different because it is made up of what he called 'tribes and clans' (qabaa'il wa 3ashaa'ir) and chaos could lead to civil war. 'Complicates' is the operative word here because tribal sentiment does indeed add an extra and relatively unusual dimension to the usual equation of possible benefits and costs as each individual Libyan decides which side he or she is on, or indeed whether to stay on the sidelines. In this sense, Libya is quite different from neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt, especially Egypt, where tribalism has hardly ever existed except on the desert peripheries. Every individual anywhere lives within a mesh of loyalties of varying degrees of intensity - family, profession, class, region, ethnicity, political allegiance, religious denomination and so on. But the unusual feature of tribalism, as anthropologists have noted for at least the last century or so, is that loyalties and customary obligations are 'segmentised' - in other words, tribes can easily split at a large number of different levels, based on perceptions, often mythical, of a person's genealogical origin. In theory, the more recent the common ancestor between X and Y (in the male line in the Arab context), the tighter the bonds of solidarity between them should be. That means that, even in a theoretically 'perfect' model, tribes need not always act as a coherent unit, unless they are in direct conflict with another tribe of equal size and coherence.
    In the Libyan context, this raises a host of questions about how people will in fact behave when they have to decide whether to support or oppose Gaddafi, or whether to sit on the fence. It's very hard to believe that the tribal elders of the Warfala tribe, for example, can take such a decision on behalf of all or even most of the tribe's members, said to be the largest in the country with one million members (about a sixth of the total population). For a start, the steady process of urbanization and sedentarization over the past 40 years must have weakened the tribal bonds, even if most people still know which tribe they belong to and on many occasions (when they vote, for example) take tribal affiliations into account. Most Libyans are no longer nomads living in the desert and herding camels and other livestock - a lifestyle which helps to preserve tribalism because the system acts as a deterrent to potential aggressors. Most of them lives in cities and towns where there is a functioning police force. Many of them do sedentary office jobs with administrative structures modelled on those of the modern  bureaucratic state. This creates other loyalties which may well be more compelling than those of the old tribalism. They are often dependent on the state, which in theory places little value on their tribal affiliation. In fact, paradoxically for a country whose leader has always distrusted the state as an institution, Libyans may be one of the most state-dependent populations on the planet. The state provides cheap housing,  subsidised food, free health care and university education, and often undemanding jobs for life. State employment has also brought geographical mobility, which tends to dilute tribal sentiment. It is probable that under such circumstances tribal affiliations would be just one of many factors Libyans are taking into account when they decide how to handle the current crisis in their country.
    The fact that the opposition now controls large geographically contiguous parts of eastern Libya suggests that region is also an important factor. Judging by the tribal maps I have seen, the east of the country includes a mixture of tribes, some of which have many members in the west of the country, possibly still under central government control. The east also appears to be relatively peaceful for the moment, suggesting that none of those tribal fragments are currently in conflict, regardless of what position their allegedly paramount leaders might have taken.
    My intention is not to dismiss out of hand the tribal element in Libyan politics. But I do believe that an overemphasis on tribal affiliations has  been part of a mistaken Orientalist discourse that has plagued understanding of the Arab world for the past 200 years or so. Among the worst offenders in recent years have been Mark Allen (Arabs: A New Perspective) and Charles Lindholm (The Islamic Middle East; Tradition and Change), both of which gives excessive weight to ancient Bedouin concepts in order to explain a region where tribalism is the exception rather than the rule demographically. Libya is an outlier of course, because of its historically peripheral nature, but even in Libya we may be surprised to find that tribe does not count for as much as some instant analysts are predicting.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Gaddafi speech - a footnote on the audience and venue

An interesting footnote to the Gaddafi speech today, for those who did not catch the end because many TV stations grew tired and moved on to talking heads. When he finished with his "Forward march! No going back!" and the right fist in the air, he walked down off the podium to his right along a pathway and there were some faint cheers of support off camera. At that point a man in military uniform came forward to kiss Gaddafi on both cheeks, then a man in civilian dress did likewise. The camera zoomed out further and a group of about 20 people came into view, apparently his audience. Gaddafi then got into a golf-cart/toktok vehicle similar to the one he was driving in the early hours in Green Square and drove off alone. For those reporters and viewers uncertain about the venue, I can assure them that this was the porch of the building in the Bab al-Aziziya barracks where Gaddafi was said to have been staying when the United States bombed the building in April 1986. The Libyan government often took foreign visitors there to remind them of the incident. Gaddafi's alleged bedroom, which contained a king-sized bed in red velvet, surrounded by large mirrors, was also on display (kitsch would be a polite description). Outside the building, the monumental giant fist crushing a US fighter-bomber has been a permanent feature for years. The venue would account for Gaddafi driving away alone: the extensive area is heavily guarded and not easily accessible to outsiders. But the small audience was puzzling, as was the poor quality of the audio and the video, which really did suggest an infrastructure on the  verge of collapse.
    Gaddafi's argument for the use of force against rebels was not one we often hear in polite circles. He cited the US assault on the Iraqi town of Falluja, the FBI's attack on the Branch Davidian centre in Waco, Texas, in 1993, and the attack on the Russian parliament under Boris Yeltsin, also in 1993. 
    It's striking how, under pressure, all three North African autocrats -- in Tunis, Egypt and now Libya -- have tried to portray their enemies as fanatical Islamists. Gaddafi went one step further, saying that al Qaeda had taken over the east of the country. 

Monday, 21 February 2011

Libya and 'reform'

Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi shows every sign of losing power rapidly, as his diplomats and at least one minister jump from the sinking ship. They are one of the best indicators possible, because they presumably have direct contacts with people inside the regime in Tripoli and I doubt they would defect unless they were confident that Gaddafi was doomed. Calls for 'reform' from U.S. and European politicians will win them no credit at this late stage, because this is clearly a regime that was always incapable of reform. I last went to Libya in early 2004, just after the United States and its allies were so thrilled by the pathetic charade of Libya abandoning what it pretended was a nuclear weapons programme. They even managed to convince large numbers of their own peoples that this was a real change of heart by Gaddafi, and the sycophantic thinktankers went along with the farce so that Bush could snatch some kind of victory from his abysmal Middle East policy. I remember at the time that U.S. Congress people and European politicians were falling over themselves for a piece of the pie (in other words so that U.S. and European oil companies could make more money) and arguing that Libya could suddenly become a liberal democracy. What they deliberately overlooked (and this was evident to anyone who ever saw the man in person) was that Gaddafi has been a seriously disturbed individual for many years. I'm not a psychologist to be able to diagnose his condition but he was clearly quite detached from reality as early as the late 1980s, when I first met him. I never managed to speak to him privately because that was a 'privilege' only available to attractive females, several of whom had to run away to escape his amorous advances. Gaddafi has driven his country into the ground and it was always shocking to see the decrepit state of government offices, which were no cleaner or better equipped than those in Egypt, where per capita GDP is about one tenth of what it is in Libya. Unfortunately recovering from 40 years of Gaddafi may well be much harder than recovering from 30 years of Mubarak. Egypt at least has the rudiments of a functioning state, whereas Gaddafi was a strange paradox -- an autocratic anarchist. He shared none of the usual objectives one might expect from the leader of such a country, such as economic development or diversification away from dependence on oil. Everything was haphazard and spontaneous, like his rambling speeches, which were 5 percent candid common sense and 95 percent histrionic fantasy.   

Sunday, 20 February 2011

More Wikileaks on the Egyptian Military

I spent a few hours today sifting through the latest US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks, specifically the ones relevant to the Egyptian military and security establishment. The impression the cables give is of a complacent and rather greedy military leadership which believes the $1.3 billion it received from the United States every year is its birthright for maintaining peace with Israel and should in fact be increased. The United States, on the other hand, has been pressing the Egyptian military, apparently with little effect, to take part in 'regional security initiatives' such as helping the Iraqi military, actions against Somali pirates, a greater contribution to peace-keeping in Sudan and vague 'counter-terrorism' activities.

For example:
Major General Fouad Arafa interjected during the discussion to note that the spirit of the Camp David accord was that there would be a 2:3 balance between Egypt and Israel's security assistance. Egypt's role was to keep a certain balance of power in the region that would not allow other parties to go to war. Egypt had fulfilled this role faithfully for the last 30 years. al-Assar added that the current ratio of 2:5 was a violation of the Camp David ratio. 

And again:
Al-Assar encouraged Dr. Kahl to convince the U.S. Congress that Egypt was worth more than $1.3 billion a year. Dr. Kahl mentioned that Egypt receives the second largest amount of assistance in the world, and that during these difficult financial times in the United States, it was unlikely that annual flow of FMF would increase.

And on Defence Minister Tantawi:
In office since 1991, he consistently resists change to the level and direction of FMF funding and is therefore one of our chief impediments to transforming our security relationship. Nevertheless, he retains President Mubarak's support. You should encourage Tantawi to place greater emphasis on countering asymmetric threats rather than focusing almost exclusively on conventional force.

Another interesting detail that emerges is Tantawi's view on the relationship between the military and the civilian government:
Tantawi added that any country where the military became engaged in "internal affairs" was "doomed to have lots of problems." He stressed that countries must clearly stipulate the military's duties in their constitution and militaries should not deviate from those defined responsibilities.

The armed forces chief of staff, Sami Anan, does not appear to be fully on board when it comes to smuggling along the Gaza border:
Enan (Anan) stressed the importance of opening Gaza's borders for regular traffic, referring to the crossing points as "lungs" that must be allowed to breathe. Enan expressed doubt that Israeli air strikes could destroy the tunnels "100 percent" given the enormous financial incentive for individuals on all sides - Gaza, Egypt and Israel - to smuggle.
And here:
Ultimately, Enan said that smuggling would continue as long as Gaza was "besieged" and called on Israel to lift the blockade and open border crossings to provide the Gazans with a "normal life."
It's a little tangential but I can't resist slipping in what Mabahith Amn al-Dawla told the deputy head of the FBI about the Muslim Brotherhood. To his credit, the US ambassador, who wrote the cable, seemed a little dubious:
(State Security Investigative Service (SSIS) head Hassan) Abdul Rahman spoke at length about the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood (MB), terming the group "terrorists, not political oppositionists." During a lengthy heartfelt monologue, Abdul Rahman asserted that, "you just do not understand the MB like we do. It is an extremist group, from which all Islamic extremists have sprung, and even now, despite having changed tactics and not engaging in actual violent operations, it is still providing financial support to Hamas." Abdul Rahman opined that the MB's "weight in the Egyptian street" is actually negligible, noting that, "the strength of the MB is much less than implied by their success in the 2005 parliamentary elections." He did not provide any further information to bolster this assertion.
For an overview of the embassy's assessment of the role of the military in Egypt, you can read this whole cable on the subject, based on local analysts. It doesn't exactly corroborate the narrative of the all powerful military.

Future of Egyptian foreign policy

A couple of people have asked me what I foresaw for Egyptian foreign policy after the revolution. I have been a little reluctant to make predictions, especially after saying some years ago that Mubarak's policy on Gaza was untenable. This is what I wrote on the subject for Reuters, rather tentatively since we don't know who will be in charge. 
    The Egyptian revolution and upheavals across the region could herald a shift in the balance of power between Israel and its neighbours, as Arabs push out autocrats who often put U.S. and European ties before their people's demands.
    The revoltuion that put an end to 30 years of rule by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is still in its early days. No one can yet predict who will be holding his place as leader of the Arab world's most populous country at the end of the year.
    But few of the likely outcomes include a carbon-copy extension of Mubarak's policies towards Israel, which included cooperation in blockading Gaza, hostility to Hamas and Hezbollah, and muted criticism of Israel's treatment of the Palestinians.
    Unless the Egyptian military clings to power or elements of the ancien regime make a miraculous comeback, ordinary Egyptians will have more say in their country's foreign policy than at any
time in the 5,000 years Egypt has existed as a political entity.
    Judging by opinion polls and the views of most of the main political forces, Egyptians will be more assertive than Mubarak in backing Palestinian rights and less willing to comply with requests from Israel and its allies in the United States.
    No significant group, not even the Muslim Brotherhood, is calling for outright abrogation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a pillar of Israel's regional security strategy since late President Anwar Sadat signed the document in 1979.
    But between abrogation and a continuation of Mubarak's policies, the next elected Egyptian government will have a range of options likely to put Israel on the defensive and bring to an
end the cosy relationship the Jewish state enjoyed with Mubarak.
    Coupled with a recent shift in the policy of Turkey, now more outspoken in challenging Israeli policies, the Egyptian revolution marks, as Israeli politicians say they fear, a break with the strategic dominance they felt they had established.
    “The Middle East’s tectonic plates are shifting,” writes Peter Beinart, associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York.
    “For a long time, countries like Turkey and Egypt were ruled by men more interested in pleasing the United States than their own people, and as a result, they shielded Israel from their people’s anger. Now more of that anger will find its way into the corridors of power.”
    A democratic transformation un Egypt, especially if it is replicated in other Arab states, would undermine one argument Israelis have made to win sympathy in Europe and the United States: that it is the sole Middle East democracy, an oasis of “Western values” surrounded by Arab despots ruling by force.
    “What is at stake here is the pretence that Israel is a stable, civilized, western island in a rough sea of Islamic barbarism and Arab fanaticism," writes post-Zionist Israeli historian Ilan Pappe.
    "The 'danger' for Israel is that the cartography would be the same but the geography would change. It would still be an island but of barbarism and fanaticism in a sea of newly formed egalitarian and democratic states,” he writes.
    Unlike their authoritarian predecessors, an Arab democracy would be able to criticise with credibility and a clear conscience Israel's conduct towards the Arabs it governs.
    New Arab democratic rulers could highlight discriminatory practices towards Israeli Arabs, the use of violence to quell Palestinians challenging an occupation and Jewish settlement activity in the West Bank which major powers say is illegal.
    Israel disputes such criticisms. It says Arabs in Israel enjoy more rights now than their compatriots in neighbouring states, including a right to vote for Arabs in their parliament. They also say any use of force is to stop terrorism.
    Israel has, nevertheless, been watching Egypt with concern.
    "Ultimately the people of Egypt are those who will decide their own fate, but Israel cannot profess a neutrality as to the outcome," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said.
    "I cannot simply hope for the best, I must also prepare for the worst," he told American Jewish leaders on Feb. 16 in Jerusalem, in a speech in which he said Israel was committed to
peace and said he hoped Egypt would remain committed too.
    Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, followed by Jordan in 1994. An interim accord was reached with Palestinians in 1993.
    “It is ironic that Israel ... seems so uncomfortable in a democratizing Middle East," says Beinart, adding:
    "But at root, that discomfort stems from Israel’s own profoundly anti-democratic policies in the West Bank and Gaza. In an increasingly democratic, increasingly post-American Middle
East, the costs of those policies will only continue to rise.”
    There is no end in sight for the wave of protests that have been sweeping the Middle East since the start of 2011.
    Egypt's uprising followed one in Tunisia, which overthrew President Zine el-Abdine Ben Ali in January. Protests have erupted in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Jordan, Yemen and Bahrain.
    “When and where transitions take place, they will express a yearning for more assertiveness. Governments will have to change their spots; their publics will wish them to be more like Turkey
and less like Egypt,” wrote Hussein Agha and Robert Malley.
    Malley took part in the U.S. attempt to mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace under President Bill Clinton.
    Once a stable Egyptian government emerges, the litmus test will be how it handles the border between Egypt and Gaza, which has been more closed than open since the Islamist group Hamas
took control of the densely populated territory in 2007.
    Mubarak, in collaboration with Israel and in line with U.S. policy, enforced strict limits on the movement of people and goods across the border, adding to the suffering and deprivation
of the more than 1.5 million Palestinians who live there.
    Egyptian state media supported the policy and took a relentlessly hostile line towards Hamas, portraying the group as troublemakers working for Iranian interests.
    Yet an opinion poll by the Pew Research Center in February 2010 found that 52 percent of Egyptians were favourable towards Hamas, against 44 percent in the opposite camp.
    Protests against Mubarak focused on domestic grievances of poverty, corruption and repression. When protesters addressed foreign affairs, it was usually to oppose Mubarak's Gaza policy and his close U.S. ties, seen as betraying Arab interests.
    The Muslim Brotherhood, which has historic and ideological ties with Hamas, is enjoying more freedom than at any time since the overthrow of the monarchy 60 years ago. It favours opening the border wide and good relations with the Islamists in Gaza.
    Even liberal democrat Ayman Nour, who challenged Mubarak in the presidential election of 2005 and then spent three years in jail, advocates a renegotiation of the peace treaty with Israel,
which was based on the Camp David accords of 1978.
    “In practice the Camp David accords have come to an end ... Some people believe that some of the terms are humiliating to the Egyptian side. I belong to this group,” Nour told the Lebanese television station al-Jedid.
    The treaty should go to a referendum, he said, a view shared by the Brotherhood, which says it would argue against approval.
    Israeli commentator Aluf Benn said the Egyptian revolt, which overthrew Mubarak on Feb. 11, had already limited Israel's military options by making it impossible for the Jewish state to make a pre-emptive strike against Iran's nuclear programme.
    “(Mubarak's successors) will listen to Arab public opinion, which opposes a pre-emptive war against Iran. Israel will find it difficult to take action far to the east when it cannot rely on the tacit agreement to its actions on its western border,” he wrote in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
    “Without Mubarak there is no Israeli attack on Iran. His replacement will be concerned about the rage of the masses, if they see him as a collaborator in such an operation,” he added.

Friday, 18 February 2011

That Military-Industrial Complex again

Now that the New York Times has latched on to the popular meme that the Egyptian military is a force to be reckoned with in the Egyptian economy, and on top of that a brake on the economic liberalisation which Mubarak favoured after 2004, it's time to set the record straight about the circumstances under which Mubarak jettisoned most of the economic group of ministers when a new cabinet was formed on January 30. My interpretation at the time was that Nazif, Rachid, Garrana, Maghrabi and Youssef Boutros-Ghali were sacrificial lambs that Mubarak threw to the rebellious masses when he was cornered and wanted to placate public opinion. On February 1, the main state newspapers reinforced that impression when they carried headlines such as 'New Cabinet without Businessmen'. The ploy failed because the protest movement had much broader objectives, especially an end to police brutality and the monopolisation of politics by the ruling party. It's possible that the decision to dismiss them had the approval of the military and that winning military support was also one of Mubarak's aims. But in the end the decision was Mubarak's and made some sense in the context of those difficult days for the regime. The investigations into corruption allegations against some of those ministers was the natural consequence of their fall from power, not necessarily an indication of the military's attitude towards businessmen as a whole.  
    Rachid and Boutros-Ghali agreed to stay out of the new cabinet because they felt it would be better to start with new faces, a senior official said at the time. Those two ministers were replaced by their immediate deputies, suggesting some continuity of policy, albeit with less prominent figureheads.
    The New York Times story strikes me as a hodge-podge of hearsay and innunendo, with very little of substance in the way of signs to where the military council plans to take economic policy. For the moment the council has so much else to think about, and I doubt they have yet given it serious thought.
    It's also interesting that Rachid, who should know, says that the military's economic empire accounts for less than 10 percent of the economy as a whole. The measures against Rachid did surprise many people who know him, but until the investigations are complete, I would be reluctant to weigh in on whether they are just.
    As for the theory that the army thwarted 'free market reforms' after the bread price riots of 1977, its position was surely dictated solely by public order considerations and says nothing about its economic views. Since 1977 the prices of subsidised goods have risen on many occasions without the army stepping in to freeze them. 

The rules for warships in the Suez Canal

In all the talk about the Iranian warships going through the Suez Canal, none of the reports I have seen mention the Constantinople Convention of 1888, which I believe previous post-independence Egyptian governments have endorsed. It is an extraordinary document, in that in theory it gives the warships of belligerent nations (belligerent to Egypt, that is) the right to transit the canal under certain modest restrictions. The extent of the convention's 'generosity' towards belligerents is evident in Article 4:
Vessels of war of belligerents shall not revictual or take in stores in the Canal and its ports of access, except in so far may be strictly necessary. The transit of the aforesaid vessels through the Canal shall be effected with the least possible delay, in accordance with the Regulations in force, and without any intermission than that resulting from the necessities of the service.
    In other words, belligerent vessels do not need to wait and might take on stores 'if strictly necessary'.

    Look at Article 5 too:
In time of war belligerent Powers shall not disembark nor embark within the Canal and its ports of access either troops, munitions, or materials of war. But in case of an accidental hindrance in the Canal, men may be embarked or disembarked at the ports of access by detachments not exceeding 1,000 men, with a corresponding amount of war material.
     There is a let-out in Article 10, which might override the generous provisions in other parts of the convention:

Similarly, the provisions of Articles IV, V, VII and VIII shall not interfere with the measures which His Majesty the Sultan and His Highness the Khedive, in the name of His Imperial Majesty, and within the limits of the Firmans granted, might find it necessary to take for securing by their own forces the defence of Egypt and the maintenance of public order.
    Unsurprisingly, the British government cited Article 10 during the Second World War to prevent Axis vessels transiting the canal and the Egyptian government used it to restrict the passage of Israeli vessels and goods from 1948 until full peace in 1979.
    The Egyptian authorities might have cited Article 10 to deny the Iranian warships the right to pass through, but that would have been rather a stretch since Egypt and Iran have never been at war.
    Part of the $1.3 billion the United States gives Egypt each year in military aid is in return for expedited transit through the canal. In other words, the Suez Canal Authority allows US warships to jump the queue. But since the waiting time for transit is not especially long (more than 24 hours is unusual, I believe, assuming your local agent has done his work), this concession is not as significant as it might appear. The military aid also covers the cost of securing the canal while US warships go through - in other words making sure no one with an RPG is standing on the banks.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Military spokesman and torture allegations

The spokesman for Egypt's ruling military council, Major General Ismail Etman, was questioned at length by telephone on the state-owned satellite channel al-Masriya on Thursday night. The encouraging aspect was that the questioner (whose name I didn't catch) challenged him firmly on Amnesty International allegations that military personnel tortured protesters to intimidate them and to obtain information about plans for the protests. Etman, the man who reads the council's statements on television, responded however in a style reminiscent of the old Interior Ministry. Instead of saying that the allegations were very serious and that the armed forces would make a thorough investigation of the details, Etman said they could not possibly be true because military personnel did not engage in such activities. He then challenged anyone to produce evidence for such allegations, as if such evidence was not already available, even if not yet fully established. The overall impression was one of denial and evasion. He did promise that the armed forces would look into the cases of people who are still missing from the 18 days of protest which brought down President Hosni Mubarak, but even on this point his answer was formulaic rather than urgent. A few weeks ago a state television station would probably not even have brought up the allegations in the first place, but Etman's performance did suggest that old-style attitudes are still well entrenched in the military-security establishment. The youth movement has asked the military council to improve its media discourse and come forward to explain its policies to the public.

Mea Culpa

For the sake of transparency, and since far more people than I ever expected took an interest in the matter, I should point out that in my posting on the Egyptian military a few days ago, I was not entirely accurate about the distribution of provincial governships between the army and police. At the time many Egyptian government websites were not working properly and I was reluctant to invest too much time in the research, which involves some digging around. Now I think I have established the facts and they are appear to be thus:

Border and Suez Canal governorates: 9 governors from the army
Other governorates: 6 police, 4 army, 10 civilian

    Frankly I was surprised how many are civilian. I was at least correct in saying that the police outnumber the army in interior governorates. I have put the three Suez Canal governorates with the border governorates because of the obvious external security implications of the Suez Canal.
    In the meantime I have browsed through the boards of directors of many of the public-sector companies and out of the scores of names and CVs I checked the only ex-military member I found was the chairman of the Holding Company for Maritime Transport, who is/was an admiral. Otherwise, as I expected, these people appear to be overwhelming technocrats and professionals. None of the CEOs of the state pharmaceutical companies are military, despite reports that the military has extensive interests in that sector. In fact, many of those CEOs are women.
    One reader brought up the question of to what extent the military depends on commercial profits to finance its operations. The number we have seen (revenues of 2 billion pounds a year) would cover only a small fraction of the military budget, which must be at least 50 billion pounds, including the US military aid for procurement.
    Most of the signs so far point to the military council wanting to give up political power quickly and return to its comfortable and cocooned existence. I heard from a reliable source that some politicians have pressed them to stay a little longer, on the grounds that six months is too short for political mobilisation, but the generals insisted on the existing timetable.     

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

The latest from the military council ruling Egypt

Here are some generally reassuring remarks by members of the ruling military council, published in the state newspaper al-Ahram on Wednesday. The council, as part of an attempt to reach out to the public, spoke to the editors of all Egyptian newspapers - state, private and opposition party. By the way, I stopped buying al-Ahram about a year ago because it was no longer worth reading most of the time. Now it's changed 180 degrees, but I suppose that's what state papers do when there's a sudden change at the top. After dismissing the protest movement for many days, the banner headline on Feb. 12 was "The people overthrow the regime". The remarks by the military are either a clever deception or evidence of a surprising openmindedness, probably the latter. I give them raw for lack of time:
    Citizens have the right to get angry, rebel and work to overthrow the regime, but no one has the right to try to bring down the state. The armed forces are not seeking power and do not wish to stay in power. They are fully aware that the current situation imposed itself on them against their will.
    We are trying hard to finish our task before six months are up, so that our term of work does not exceed that period.
    The supreme council hopes to finish its mission and hand the state over to a president who is elected properly and freely in a way that expresses the inclinations of the people and to an elected legislative and executive authority properly elected by the people, so that we have a democratic republic.
     For such a process to succeed, there must be a calm atmosphere. The current atmosphere of unrest, strikes and disturbances does not help in reaching that objective.
    The Youth Revolution was clean and all its demands were natural, but now everyone everywhere is looking for a role. Thugs, highwaymen and  thieves are looking for a role, and that is an obstacle to progress.
    Every sector has the right to claim whatever it sees due, but this is not the right time for that, though they do have the right to make their demands.
    The economic situation is difficult and the daily losses as a result of disruptions to business are dissipating our resources and will lead to economic collapse if they continue, so we cannot meet the demands of citizens who see their demands as a right.
    It is important that people confine themselves to accusations announced by the public prosecutor, because giving the impression that everyone is a thief has a demoralising effect, and we are at a delicate stage during which the people's morale must be maintained.
    There are strict controls over the movement of private planes, and steps to prevent people smuggling money abroad.
    We do not have a magic wand to eliminate corruption, but we will not allow any new corruption. Ninety perecent of what has been published about corruption in the old regime is not true.
    All citizens hope the police force will get back to work and everyone is suffering greatly from the absence of the police. The armed forces cannot stop houses being burgled because tanks cannot be used for that purpose. The neighbourhood watch groups cannot prevent thuggery, so everyone must support the return of the police.
    Before January 25 we had supporters and opponents of the regime. Now there is no longer a regime to either support or oppose.
    Everyone must understand that former president Mubarak is gone and we must not come out and revile him in public or make up stories about a man who has a history of military and civilian achievements and who had a great role, and who also made mistakes.
    The president gave up power and saved the country from a disaster the extent of which only God knows. If he had not done so, disaster would have struck and people would have killed each other. He should be given credit for giving up power and for staying in Egypt.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Tareq al-Bishri

Blogger Nisralnasr has an excellent profile of Tareq al-Bishri, the former judge who has been appointed to head the committee drafting constitutional changes for the new Egypt. I interviewed Bishri for about an hour and a half back in 2004 but unfortunately I've lost the notes. From memory, what came across very strongly (and Nisralnasr makes similar points) was the emphasis he placed on the separation of powers, on the need to dilute the powers of the overbearing presidency, and on community and civil society as alternatives and counterweights to the centralised state. The choice is a very positive one and rather a surprise coming from what many people assumed was a rather staid and unimaginative military council. The inclusion of an active Muslim Brotherhood member on the committee also suggests it is not quite as hostile to a political role for the Brotherhood as the US diplomatic cable written by US ambassador Frank Ricciardone in 2008 suggested:
In the cabinet, where he still wields significant influence, Tantawi (defence minister and now head of the ruling military council) has opposed both economic and political reforms that he perceives as eroding central government power. He is supremely concerned with national unity, and has opposed policy initiatives he views as encouraging political or religious cleavages within Egyptian society. In a speech on March 9, Tantawi said one of the military’s roles is to protect constitutional legitimacy and internal stability, signaling his willingness to use the military to control the Muslim Brotherhood in the run-up to the April 9 municipal council elections.
    (A strange aspect of the memo is that the Mubarak regime, as far as I know, never used the military to control the Muslim Brotherhood during election campaigns or at any other time. That was purely a matter for the police and State Security.)
    Is it possible that other voices on the military council had a say in the choice of Bishri and Sobhi Saleh of the Brotherhood?

Obama rewrites history

I hope (but doubt) that the White House press corps were quick to note President Obama's attempt to rewrite history, at very short notice. It was only Jan 28 when the Egyptian government started responding to peaceful demonstations by beating, tear-gassing and firing birdshot at them.  A few days later, thugs hired by businessmen associated with the Mubarak family started attacking them with clubs, rocks, petrol bombs and finally sniper rifles. More than 300 were killed.
    Yet Obama, at his press conference today, turned history on its head:

Well, first of all, on Iran, we were clear then and we are clear now that what has been true in Egypt should be true in Iran, which is that people should be able to express their opinions and their grievances and seek a more responsive government.  What's been different is the Iranian government’s response, which is to shoot people and beat people and arrest people.

    Earlier in the press conference, he said it in slightly different words:
They (the Iranian government) have acted in direct contrast to what happened in Egypt by gunning down and beating people who were trying to express themselves peacefully in Iran.

Military decree by SMS

We've had some cryptic SMSs from mysterious authorities over the past few weeks. But the one I received just now was the first to come up on screen with Armed Forces named as the sender. "The Supreme Armed Forces Council has decided to suspend the constitution and dissolve the People's Assembly and the Shoura Council," it said in Arabic. Is this the first time, I wonder, that a military junta has propagated its decrees by mass SMSs? If so, they seem to be have teething troubles. The decree is already two days old and it doesn't seem to have reached all mobile phones.

Monday, 14 February 2011

The Generals and the Young Revolutionaries

Here's a full translation of the informal minutes of a meeting between two members of the Egyptian ruling military council and eight of the young people who helped organise the protest movement that brought down President Hosni Mubarak. The minutes, a historic document, were drafted by Wael Ghonim and Amr Salama from the youth movement, and so they are not endorsed by the generals:

Attendees: Ahmed Maher, Mahmoud Sami, Khaled el-Sayed, Asma Mahfouz, Amr Salama, Mohamed Abbas, Wael Ghonim and Abdel Rahman Samir

From the army: General Mahmoud Hegazi, General Abdel Fattah

Note: These points express the most prominent aspects of what happened in the meeting from my personal point of view - I and Amr Salama - and they are not binding on our other colleagues

Firstly I'll speak rather informally...  I seriously felt proud because what we achieved made all the older people respect it. The reason why we were with these leaders was the millions of Egyptians who went out to demand their rights. I was there not to negotiate. I was there to understand the army's point of view and convey your point of view. I asked the army to come out on television to explain (its) points of views because the people as a whole deserve to hear what we heard from them, so that we can all feel reassured. 

Frankly I'm very optimistic because of the fifth communique today and at the same time because of the way they managed the dialogue with the young people today. I felt that we were all one and we all wanted Egypt's interest.

A summary of the meeting:
- affirmation that the army does not want to take power in Egypt and that a civilian state is the only way for Egypt to progress
- the attitude of the Egyptian army was honourable and it refused to intervene or fire a single shot to kill or injure any Egyptian in spite of the pressures it was under
- the only reason for forming the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and holding a meeting was to protect the legitimate demands of the January 25 revolution
- the army defended the continued existence of the present cabinet, saying it was working fast to change it, but managing the country was essential to protect public interests
- a call on Egyptians to start a new page and to work with full force and energy to make up for the losses which have afflicted the Egyptian economy, forgetting personal objectives at the present time
- the prosecution of corrupt people, whatever their former and current positions might be, is one of the elements which the army believes to be important
- the formation of a constitutional committee of acknowledged probity and uprightness, unaffiliated with political currents, to complete the constitutional amendments within 10 days, to be put to referendum within two months
- the army encourages young people to start taking serious steps towards forming parties which express their ideas and opinions
- the army agrees to meet a spectrum of the young Egyptians who took part in the January 25 revolution in the coming period, such that the meetings will also be regular
- agreement that a campaign should start to collect 100 billion pounds to collect donations to rebuild Egypt, the donation and spending process to be under the supervision of the Egyptian army
- the army will look for all the demonstrators who went missing during the January 25 revolution and they are awaiting a final list which we will send them tomorrow
- the role of the army will be to guarantee the democratic transformation and to protect democracy. It will not interfere in the political process in any way
- the army insists on calling to account those proved to be implicated in the death or injury of demonstrators. They said they were holding more than 77 detainees they arrested for taking part in the Battle of the Camel in Tahrir
- deliberation in taking certain decisions is one of the characteristics of the military but there are many positive decisions which will be implemented in the coming period and which express the demands of the young people.
- the importance of concentrating on: Egyptians going back to work, pumping funds into the Stock Exchange to revive it and encouraging tourists to come back to Egypt
- the referendum on the articles of the constitution and the presidential elections will be done through national ID cards while the parliamentary elections will be through voting cards. We suggested finding a solution to the problem of polling stations by using technology to ensure elections by national ID cards.

Positive aspects of the meeting:
- the generals were writing and recording the ideas which the young people suggested, including changing the style of their media discourse and explaining the army's points of view more clearly
- all of us felt there was a sincere desire to preserve the gains of the revolution, unprecedented respect for the right of young people to express their opinions, loyalty to the country and a desire to protect it from foreign aggression
- the absence of a paternalistic tone in the dialogue ("You don't know what's good for you, my son"), and the first time we had sat with an Egyptian official for him to listen more than he spoke
- the pride and happiness of the Egyptian army in young Egyptians for what they had achieved. They described it as a historic achievement which had not happened since the time of the Pharaohs
- I personally feel that Egypt is in honest hands and that we are really on the right path to bring about democracy, and that now we must forget our personal interests and work for Egypt
- I hope in the end that the Egyptian army moves faster on reforms and improves its media discourse to explain its points of view more clearly to the masses through the media

Finally I say that Egypt is more important than us all

A final remark: Unfortunately we forgot to bring up the questions of the officers and soldiers who celebrated with us after the success of the revolution and who are being courtmartialled. We will do that with them.

Wael Ghonim and Amr Salama

(Thanks to Ursula for pointing this out to me)

The Egyptian Military - Myths and Reality

All eyes are now on the Egyptian armed forces, which assumed power on Friday night when Vice President Omar Suleiman announced that President Hosni Mubarak was giving up the presidency. I've seen masses of analysis and speculation about the nature of the military establishment, but the sad truth is that no one knows very much about its inclinations and long-term ambitions. One indication of the paucity of hard information is the  vast amount of coverage given to those few lines about Defence Minister Tantawi in the U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks some weeks ago. On top of that, journalists and commentators have dug down into their archives and revived material on the military which may have been valid in the 1990s but is almost certainly out of date.
    Here are a few myths about the Egyptian military that I have seen in print since the start of the popular uprising on January 25:
    - the myth that the Egyptian military controls up to 40 percent, even 45 percent, of the economy (Augustus Richard Norton cited the 40 percebt figure in an article which I can no longer trace and Josh Stacher does not rule out 45 percent). If this was ever true, which I doubt, it ceased to be true many years ago. The balance between the private and public sectors of the Egyptian economy has been shifting inexorably in favour of the private sector since the mid-1970s, and the military plays no significant role in the sectors which are now dominant -- cement, steel, oil, gas, tourism, telecommunications, banking and petrochemicals. Two often-cited examples of the military role in the economy are its ownership of mineral water bottling plants and the production of washing machines in what used to be arms factories. Both of these enterprises came about under special circumstances. The mineral water operation is in the remote oasis of Siwa, close to the Libyan border, and began at a time when that area was under military control for strategic security reasons. The washing machine operation began in the 1970s when the Arab Organisation for Industrialization (AOI) collapsed and the Egyptian government needed to find ways to use excess capacity in the arms factories. The AOI was a joint Arab project for military production but the Arab partners pulled out when Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Both these sectors are highly competitive and the army's market share (where it exists - I've never seen these washing machines in the market) is small. For a more realistic assessment of the military's economic activities, see Sarah Topol's interview with the minister of military production:
The ministry's revenues from the private sector are about 2 billion Egyptian pounds a year ($345 million). It employs 40,000 civilians, who assemble water-treatment stations for the Ministry of Housing, cables for the Ministry of Electricity, laptops for the Ministry of Education, and armaments for the Ministry of Interior's vehicles.

    By way of comparison Egypt's annual GDP is about 1,250 billion Egyptian pounds and the workforce is about 26 million. Even if one includes the manpower and labour of the regular armed forces (most of whom are low-paid conscripts whose work has little economic value) and if one assumes that the rate of return on the military's commercial operations is very low (and there's no special reason to assume that), I doubt the military's share of the economy could exceed 10 or 15 percent.  

    - the myth that all or most provincial governors come from the military. In fact, in line with the shift of emphasis under Mubarak from external to internal security, almost all provincial governors have been former police generals since the 1990s, with the exception of those in border provinces such as North and South Sinai, Mersa Matrouh, the Red Sea and so on. This confusion may have arisen because so many have the rank of liwa (major general), which in Egypt is common to both the army and police.
    - the myth that the military had a hand in routine policy making throughout the Mubarak era. Proponents of this theory need to give us examples of junctures where the military had any input into policy that was not directly relevant to their sphere of activity. When Mubarak faced an insurgency by the Islamic Group in middle Egypt in the 1990s, he relied solely on the Interior Ministry to deal with it and almost all the victims on the government side were policemen. The army stayed aloof. When Mubarak began serious ecoonomic liberalisation under Prime Minister Nazif from 2004 onwards, there is no evidence that the military made any contribution, either in favour or in opposition. Speculation that the military would have vetoed the succession of Mubarak's son Gamal to the presidency remains pure speculation, since it was never put to the test. Even in the case of Egyptian policy towards Gaza and Hamas over the last few years, there's no reason to believe that the decisions were not taken by Mubarak, Omar Suleiman and other Mubarak aides, and that the military merely followed the presidential orders.
    - the myth that large numbers of retired army generals still hold key positions in state companies and bureaucratic institutions. This was true in the 1960s and 1970s, but the phenomemon has been very much in decline. No former generals have top positions at state banks, for example, where the leadership is entirely professional. The same applies to state media and publishing organisations. The pattern under Mubarak was to appoint technocrats from within the same institution. It is however true that some former generals close to the regime could carve out lucrative niches in the private sector - in security companies, for example, or in the case of Hussein Salem, in the tourism and hydrocarbon sector (gas exports to Israel). We see much the same phenomenon in the United States with defence contractors and consultants. 

    It's important to bear these myth in mind when assessing the likely behaviour of the ruling military council. Jon Alterman in the Washington Post, for example,  paints a very distorted picture of the reality. Steve Negus's response on The Arabist is exactly right and I would have written much the same if he had not done so already.


Sunday, 13 February 2011

When the Genie's out of the Bottle

On Kasr el-Aini Street near where I live in Cairo, the side-effects of revolution are evident on every block. Just as in the French and Russian revolutions, every professional and labour interest is seizing the moment to bring up institutional grievances which are peripheral to the broad aims of the millions who came out to demand the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. At the end of the street there's a printing press owned by the trade union federation, and the workers there are out in the garden demanding 'the implementation of the amalgamation' and other obscure internal measures. Up the road at the headquarters of the Principal Bank for Development and Agricultural Credit, the state bank which lends money to farmers, the staff are spilling into the street, campaigning against board chairman Ali Shaker. This is just a tiny selection of the protests and sit-ins which are sweeping the country as the old regime gradually implodes. Television stations say there are similar actions under way at state television and at Dar el-Tahrir, the big state publishing house which owns el-Gomhuria newspaper. There's a rumour that the ruling military council is about to put out another communique banning such protests and telling people to go back to work. But with the state in serious disarray, the police force discredited and the army overstretched, the military council is hardly in a position to enforce such a decree. The thrust of the protests seems to be that the existing managers, appointed by the Mubarak regime, are corrupt and have embezzled public funds to the detriment of the staff. Inevitably many of those managers will lose their jobs and some will be investigated or have their assets frozen, as has already happened to several of the outgoing ministers - Housing Minister Ahmed Maghraby and Tourism Minister Zuheir Garrana and Information Minister Anas el-Fiki, for example. As such people lose power and disappear from the scene, the position of other prominent members of the  'ancien regime' will become more and more untenable. The long-term intentions of the ruling military council remain obscure. Today they answered more of the protest movement's demands -- dissolving parliament and offering a six-month timetable for a new constitution and elections. But the other demands are not going away - the release of detainees, an end to the state of emergency and the formation of a new transitional cabinet to replace the one inherited from Mubarak. At the same time Al Arabiya is reporting that the council will find a new role in government for Omar Suleiman, the former intelligence chief that Mubarak appointed vice president in late January. That sends a signal in completely the opposite direction, given that the protest movement now sees Suleiman as a prime symbol of the old regime. At this stage in the revolution each and every personnel change is important and will be carefully watched to see where the military council is taking the country. Even the changes at state companies, especially in the media, can make an incremental difference to the balance of power. 

Counter-revolutionaries in Tahrir Square?

Who would organise a demonstration demanding that a group of revolutionaries abandon the site of their victory, just two days after the revolutionaries thought they had triumphed? The young people who brought down Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak have already been hailed as heros by the old state media, by the military council now ruling Egypt and by several of the ministers left over from Mubarak's time. With understandable logic the protesters argued that a contingent should stay on in Tahrir Square to ensure that the military council meets their outstanding demands -- specifically a timetable for a transition to civilian government, the release of all political prisoners , the dissolution of both houses of parliament, an end to the state of emergency and a national salvation government to replace the one appointed by Mubarak two weeks ago. But in the early hours of Saturday soldiers and military policemen arrived at their encampment and started to evict them, saying they wanted to clear the square so that life in Cairo could return to normal. At about the same time the army was detaining some 40 of the protest organisers, all of whom were still missing two hours ago. So far one could give the army the benefit of the doubt and trust in its good intentions. After all, the army is not accustomed to dealing with large numbers of civilians, especially in a crowded urban context. Maybe the order came down the chain of command that they should clear the square, without specifying how they should go about the task or suggesting that the best way might be to negotiate some compromise arrangement with the organisers.
    Those would be the most generous interpretations of the army's conduct in Tahrir Square this morning. In fact, as has been common over the past few weeks, the army went about its task without great resolve. By noon on Saturday military policemen had formed a cordon around a hard core of protesters but other protesters and onlookers were milling around on the roadway, thwarting the army's attempts to ease the flow of traffic. But then a strange thing happened. A group of 200 counter-protesters appeared from across the square, chanting "The people want to clear the square" - a parody of the uprising's most common slogan: "The people want to overthrow the regime". They also chanted one of the slogans which protesters had chanted earlier when they wanted to win the sympathy of the army against Mubarak: "The army, the people, hand in hand." I went to speak to some of them to find out who they were and why they felt so strongly about what might appear to be a rather trivial matter compared to the political future of the country. One of them said he worked in the prime minister's office down the road and the protesters were obstructing the way to the office. Another said he was a businessman and the protesters were giving people abroad the impression that the country was still unstable, deterring tourists and investors. What was especially strange was the vehemence with which they expressed their views, which seemed out of all proportion with their grievance. The counter-demonstration certainly added to the apprehensions of the revolutionaries, who say they are losing trust in the army and in its readiness to bring about radical change in Egypt. "They want to thwart the revolution," one member of the organising committee told a news conference. " "We want to keep a presence in the square to monitor the process of change," added Shadi Atia, another organiser who had rushed from his home in the southern suburb of Maadi on news that the army has trying to clear the square. "We are a bit worried now. What if the army is not being straight with us? What's the problem with people staying in Tahrir?" he added. I asked one of the counter-protesters if anyone had paid them to take part, as was common practice in Mubarak's time if the regime wanted to organise a loyal demonstration. "Mubarak's gone," he said, "so who would pay people now? Go ask the others who's paying them." Many of the onlookers also said they opposed the idea of continued protests, and they at least appeared to be speaking on their own behalf. Maybe the protest movement is being unnecessarily suspicious about the army's intentions, but the counter-demonstration was strangely reminiscent of the pro-Mubarak demonstrations which died away about 10 days ago.    

Saturday, 12 February 2011

Obama, Suleiman and U.S. decline

There's always a malicious pleasure in watching powerful people with flawed policies flounder as they adapt to unexpected and unpredictable events. Washington's hesitant response to the Egyptian uprising falls into that category. At each turn - at the concessions from president Mubarak and vice president Omar Suleiman, at the survival, defiance and growing resolve of the protest movement, the United States in fact did exactly what one would expect from a distant superpower with little control over either protagonist. It tailored its message to its perceptions of the likely outcome -- it was careful not to burn its bridges with Mubarak in case he survived, it offered the protest movement vague moral support while refusing to endorse its central demand that Mubarak resign immediately, and it tried, ultimately without success, to shape events towards the outcome it appeared to favour -- the empowerment of Omar Suleiman as guarantor of Israel's security. Marc Lynch is full of praise for the way Obama and his staff handled it:
The Obama administration also deserves a great deal of credit, which it probably won't receive.  It understood immediately and intuitively that it should not attempt to lead a protest movement which had mobilized itself without American guidance, and consistently deferred to the Egyptian people.   Despite the avalanche of criticism from protestors and pundits, in fact Obama and his key aides -- including Ben Rhodes and Samantha Power and many others -- backed the Egyptian protest movement far more quickly than anyone should have expected.     Their steadily mounting pressure on the Mubarak regime took time to succeed, causing enormous heartburn along the way, but now can claim vindication.       
     I disgree on several counts. Firstly, once Egyptians saw what Suleiman stood for, the chances of him playing the role of an acceptable transition figure rapidly evaporated. US administrations have worked with the man for many years in his role as spy chief and manager of Egypt's torture cells. They must have known that he was an inflexible 'law-and-order' conservative with contempt for the wishes and aspirations of ordinary Egyptians. To Egyptians, on the other hand, in this topsy-turvy world of patron-client state relations, he was a completely unknown quantity and he did not reveal his true character until he gave his interview on Nile TV a couple of days after he was appointed. Public opinion turned against him with every step he made, while the United States continued to promote him. Secondly, Washington's advocacy of a rapid start to a smooth transition meant little in practice - there were just too many ways that might be done -- so it added nothing to the dynamics of the conflict. Both Mubarak and the protest movement gave minimal weight to pronouncements from Washington. For Mubarak, they were just irritating background noise while he struggled to cling on to power or find a way out that was not completely humiliating. The protest movement assumed from the start that the United States would try to protect Mubarak behind the scenes, and stuck to its ultimately successfully strategy of mobilising so many Egyptians that Mubarak could no longer govern. It is hyperbolic to say that "steading mounting pressure" by Obama and his aides ultimately succeeded, unless Lynch has evidence that the United States was instrumental in arranging the military takeover on Friday.
    All in all, the US response reflects its declining power and influence in the Middle East and throughout the world. Remember that many of the participants on both sides of the conflict on the streets of Egypt portrayed Israel and United States as their enemies. State television and Mubarak's National Democratic Party said Israel and the United States had financed and incited the protests. Many of the protesters, especially the Islamists and leftists, listed Mubarak and Suleiman's cooperation with Israel and the United States among their grievances.
    It also reflects the flaw at the centre of Washington's Middle East policy - its support for Israeli racists whose policies ordinary Arabs are bound to oppose.
    There's a tendency in Washington thinktanks to imagine that everyone is looking to the United States for cues, ready to dance to its tune. But more and more, people outside the United States see the US administration's pronouncements on their affairs as interesting oddities addressed to US domestic opinion or the media.
    This reality of declining power does not seem to have sunk in among the US establishment. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for example, seems to think that the United States ("and its allies") can still set the terms for the policies of the new Egypt:
The U.S. and our allies must focus our efforts on helping to create the necessary conditions for such a transition to take place. We must also urge the unequivocal rejection of any involvement by the Muslim Brotherhood and other extremists who may seek to exploit and hijack these events to gain power, oppress the Egyptian people, and do great harm to Egypt’s relationship with the United States, Israel, and other free nations.
Is anyone in Egypt listening?


Friday, 11 February 2011

Political Consciousness and the Egyptian Revolution

For years people said Egyptians had been depoliticised, excluded from the policy-making process for so long that they no longer took any interest. They  said the last three presidents of Egypt - Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak -- killed off the lively liberal political debate that Egypt knew in its golden age -- the 20s, 30 and 40s of the last century, until politics became just a branch of government They were right. But it's striking how political consciousness (a good old-fashioned word) can rise from the ashes like a phoenix when the people feel empowered. It's evident all around at every turn, staring one in the face. This afternoon outside the presidential palace, a group of counter-protesters appeared, about 20 of them against several thousand others demanding Mubarak resign. One of them had a cryptic banner which could be read in two ways: "Awake, youth of Egypt. Save the country from destruction. We will not sell Egypt." It was in fact an appeal to the protesters to go home and let the constitutional process take its course. One of the men in the group was especially agitated, telling the protesters that they were wasting their time and should patiently sit out the next few months while the regime made constitutional changes and organised elections. "The army has given its guarantee!" he shouted. "If they renege, the army will step in!" But the truly remarkable aspect was that instead of jeering at him or having him bundled away, a group of young men, some with 25 January badges, were standing arolund listening to him and arguing back. This was happening along the line, in several small groups. Far from being intimidated, although greatly outnumbered, the counter-protesters were forceful and fearless. Then in an overcrowded minibus, with four reckless young men perched on the roof as we sped downtown, a debate broke out in the back seats about the future of the constitution, parliament, the role of Defence Minister Tantawi and the role of the United States. No crazy conspiracy theories were aired, no unrealistic expectations, no sense that the future was won and freedom would not need to be defended, and no indifference either. When one of the young men said he was going back to Tahrir Square , another asked him why. "Because we still have demands that have not been met," he replied. It's not clear how many, if any, will in fact stay in Tahrir Square for any length of time, but the Egyptian people have certainly put the military on notice that they will be watching every step and answering back if they do not like what they see.       

2011/1981 Mubarak/Sadat

I've been rather tied up on this historic day, mainly waiting around at the presidential palace for what might have been another prevarication. Instead I ended up walking down Khalifa Maamoun street among a throng of thousands. I doubt the celebrations would be more jubilant if Egypt won the World Cup. I was persuaded to write a story comparing the streets on the demise of Mubarak with those in the hours after the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981, in my capacity as one of the fairly small group of people, perhaps several hundred, who saw Sadat's dead body on its way from the grandstand to the helicopter which took it to Maadi Military Hospital on that also momentous day. Here it is:
   CAIRO, Feb 11 (Reuters) - This time people leapt for joy,
hugged their neighbours and in unison cried "Freedom" and "God
is Great". They waved their Egyptian flags, beat their drums and
headed downtown for the party of a generation.
    It was a very different scene I witnessed 30 years ago when
Egypt last lost a president, after the dramatic assassination of
President Anwar Sadat, which brought Hosni Mubarak to power.
    On Friday, the day Mubarak bowed to popular pressure and
resigned, the streets outside the presidential palace in
northeast Cairo were packed with jubilant crowds, celebrating
the success of the popular uprising.
    Fireworks lit up the sky and passing cars honked their
horns. Groups of young men posed in front of the army's armoured
personnel carriers for pictures snapped by mobile phone.
    I walked the same streets of the same Cairo suburb of
Heliopolis on Oct. 6, 1981, the day I saw Sadat's body carried
out of the back of the grandstand where Islamist militants
gunned him down at a military parade.
    That day the streets of Cairo were tense and shocked. In the
absence of satellite television, mobile phones and the Internet,
Information travelled slowly and most Egyptians knew very little
about what had happened at the parade ground.
    I was sitting about 50 metres (yards) to the left of Sadat
and Mubarak, then his vice president, both dressed in the fancy
Prussian-style uniforms which Sadat favoured. When Sadat arrived
I noticed his high-heeled cowboy boots, not standard issue but
another sign of the man's sartorial flamboyance.
    The army vehicles trundled past, celebrating the performance
of the Egyptian armed forces in the Middle East war of 1973,
seen in Egypt as a victory.
    Then suddenly one truck stopped. A group of men jumped out
of the back and ran towards the podium where Sadat was sitting.
    I must have been looking in another direction, maybe at the
Mirage fighters swooping down towards the grandstand with
coloured smoke streaming out behind them.
    Then a grenade exploded. This was not part of the normal,
predictable act. It was followed by bursts of automatic rifle
fire. By then the people behind and above me on the grandstand
were taking cover on the floor and metal chairs were spilling
down on top of me. I put my arms over my head and crawled away.
    When I reached the left end of the grandstand I looked back
towards where Sadat had been sitting and saw a scene of
pandemonium. I did not know it at the time but Sadat and eleven
others were killed and many injured in the shooting.
    Wary of the mayhem and of so many men with guns, I walked
briskly around the back of the stadium and ran into a cluster of
men in suits carrying a body wrapped in blankets. One was waving
a pistol and shouting "Out of the way. The president's been
hit." I could see Sadat's distinctive bald crown and the same
cowboy boots protruding from either end of the blankets.
    I put my hands up and edged to the side as they put the body
in a waiting helicopter, its rotors already spinning. The
helicopter took off and headed south.
    I finally found a telephone at the gatehouse to a company's
compound and the guard let me use it. I told my colleague what I
had seen, saying Sadat was wounded and had left by heliocopter.
    All the streets were closed to traffic for the parade and
there was not a taxi in sight, so I set off on foot, finally
finding a ride to nearby Heliopolis.
    As news of the shooting spread through the city, an
atmosphere of gloom and anxiety descended. Sadat's last weeks
had already been traumatic, with mass arrests and long speeches
in which Sadat ranted against his enemies.
    Hosni Mubarak, who appeared on television later the same
day, his hand bandaged from a minor injury he sustained, was a
reassuring presence for many Egyptians in troubled times.
    As usual in such cases, many predicted he would not last
long. A former air force commander, he had little political
experience and showed few signs of ambition.
    But ruling Egypt became a habit. He never showed any sign
that he had any vision for how to steer the country away from
the autocratic system he inherited. He said he was merely
serving his country but he thought himself indispensable and
belittled the qualifications of anyone who challenged him.
    As Mubarak aged and new ideas spread among a fresh
generation of networked young Egyptians, Mubarak's paternalistic
and authoritarian approach was harder and harder to sustain.
    When Tunisians overthrew President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali
in January, Egyptians suddenly realised what was possible. The
popular uprising against Mubarak began on Jan. 25 and gathered
pace as the barriers of fear came down.
    Right up his to last full day in power, Mubarak was offering
Egyptians what he offered in 1981 and throughout his reign --
stability at any price. In the end Egyptians said the price was
too high to pay. Instead they shouted "Freedom" and rejoiced.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Armed Forces Communique no. 1

If anyone expected clarity from the Egyptian armed forces' first communique, just read on air, they must be disappointed. It merely said that the supreme council of the armed forces would continue to meet. Al Jazeera's pundit said it was significant that the meeting appeared to be chaired by Defence Minister Tantawi, when Mubarak would normally preside. But now Al Jazeera is saying Mubarak might have left Cairo already! 

Causality in History and the Egyptian Uprising

Did anyone predict the Egyptian uprising? Great question, but one with implications much wider than Egypt and the last 18 days. Can anyone predict anything in which so many different people take part, each with their own motives and their own assumptions, most of which are not even visible on the surface? 
    Jackson Diehl in the Washington Post on Wednesday says that the Egypt Working Group in Washington at least saw the signs. "The White House was warned, publicly and repeatedly, that Egypt was approaching a turning point and that the status quo was untenable - not by an intelligence agency but by a bipartisan group of Washington-based experts who pleaded, in vain, for a change of policy," he writes.
     Issandr El Amrani also touches on the subject, with his criticism of quantitive approaches in the poticial science establishment in the United States. "Quantitative analysis and the behaviouralist approach of most American PoliSci academics is a big steaming turd of horseshit when applied in the Middle East," he says, and I am inclined to believe him, after receiving a stream of meaningless quantitative analyses of Arab media in my part-time capacity as managing editor of Arab Media and Society.  
    Diehl fails to prove his case that the Egypt Working Group came close to predicting anything very specific. They did say that "Egypt is at a critical turning point" and they added: "The choice is not between a stable and predictable but undemocratic Egypt on the one hand, and dangerous instability and extremism on the other. There is now an opportunity to support gradual, responsible democratic reform. But the longer the United States and the world wait to support democratic institutions and responsible political change in Egypt, the longer the public voice will be stifled and the harder it will be to reverse a dangerous trend." But those are generalities that any sensitive observer could have made, confident that if nothing much happened, they could still say the system was untenable and heading in a dangerous direction. After all, nothing is tenable for ever and the future is always a little "dangerous".
    Historians by their very nature look back at events and describe the conditions that prevailed at the start of major upheavals, such as the French or Russian revolutions. But description alone is not explanation, and as long as we cannot do control experiments, we may never be able to identify which particular circumstances were essential and which were accidental. We cannot, for example, recreate France on the eve of the revolution and then finetune any of the factors that may or may not have contributed to the revolution - food prices, say, or the level of social mobility -- to see how the changes affects the outcome. 
     Historians would do well to read Tolstoy, in his appendix to War and Peace, when he looked back at the death and destruction wrought by Napoleon’s invasion of Russia. “I arrived at the evident fact that the causes of historical events when they take place cannot be grasped by our intelligence… Endless retrospective conjectures can be made, and are made, of the causes of this senseless event, but the immense number of these explanations, and their concurrence in one purpose, only proves that the causes were innumerable and that not one deserves to be called the cause.”
    After the uprising in Tunisia, one of my colleagues asked me whether the same might happen in Egypt. Cautiously, aware that too many people had predicted the defeat of the Tunisian uprising, I replied that such  successful uprisings (and the Tunisian revolution is not yet complete) were rare and quite unpredictable. To have two uprisings, with so many common features, within the space of two months, suggests that they may not be so rare as I thought. But I still maintain that until all our brains are wired to some central processor which can cloud-compute our inclinations they will remain essentially unpredictable.