What The Hell Is Going On In Egypt?

The guest bloggers at Andrew Sullivan’s place are covering it.

Scott Lucas at Enduring America’s live blog.

Robert Mackey at NYT

Foreign Policy’s photo essay

Mark Thompson at Time

Paul Behringer at The National Interest:

The protests in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak might be snowballing into something big. The New York Times reports “tens of thousands of people” protested in “several Egyptian cities,” tearing down posters of their autocratic leader in what organizers called the “Day of Revolution.” But, though there were clashes between protestors and security forces, and the government shut down Twitter access, Time magazine quotes one police captain as saying with a shrug: “We can contain them at any time.” See the Times‘s Lede blog for several video clips of the hubbub. The Washington Post is now saying that calm has returned to Cairo’s streets.

New York Times correspondent Mark Landler reports that the unrest across the region—Tunis, Lebanon and Egypt—has thrown a monkey wrench into the administration’s foreign-policy approach, downplaying the Bush administration’s “freedom agenda.” Brookings fellow Shadi Hamid agrees that Washington “is—at least in the short term—stuck,” and urges the Obama administration to “to ride with, rather than against, the tide of Arab popular rule.” Mother Jones‘s Nick Baumann gives a thumnail sketch of what’s going on here.

In the latest development, the Times of India is repeating a story that it says surfaced on a “US-based Arabic website,” that Mubarak’s son and potential successor, Gamal, and his family have fled to Britain along with Mubarak’s wife.

Juan Cole:

CNN estimates that at the height, the rally was 15,000 to 20,000 strong in Liberation Square (Maydan al-Tahrir), downtown Cairo. The rallies protested the high unemployment rate, high price of food, and long years of ‘emergency rule’ by President Hosni Mubarak, under regulations that suspend most civil and human rights on grounds of national security.

The pan-Arab London daily, al-Hayat [Life], wrote: Thousands of youth in Egypt yesterday disappointed expectations that the call for a “Day of Rage” put out on the internet last week would fail. Numerous big demonstrations were mounted in the center of Cairo and a number of provinces. This, even though the streets were thick with security personnel. Their attempts to disperse the demonstrators failed, but two bystanders were killed by gunfire in a provincial city. When demonstrators in Cairo started throwing stones at the parliament building, Egyptian police intervened with tear gas.

Egypt is of the utmost geopolitical importance. In one recent year, 7.5 % of all the world’s trade passed through the Suez Canal (and a much higher percentage of seaborne trade). Over 4% of world petroleum trade went through the canal. Egypt, with a population of 81 million, is the 15th largest in the world. A middle income country, it has the world’s 36th largest GDP in nominal terms, putting it ahead of Malaysia, Nigeria, Israel, and the Czech Republic. Egypt’s soft power in the Arab world, as its cultural center, and its peace treaty with Israel, make it a crucial ally of the United States. Unrest in Egypt puts a great many things in doubt that are important to the US. Were a government to come to power that was more hostile to Israel and more committed to the Palestinians, that development could roil the region.

I lived in Cairo for altogether about three years, off and on, know Egyptian Arabic, and have written two monographs and lots of articles and book chapters about modern Egypt. I was there in January, 1977, the last time the country was shaken by demonstrations on this scale. Seeing these events reminded me of the late afternoon I came out of a public lecture at the American University in Cairo onto Liberation Square, to find throngs in the streets and the sky darkened with debris. People were throwing rocks, bottles, pieces of wood. Young men were carrying friends on their shoulders. They taunted then President Anwar El Sadat. The demonstrations were caused by Sadat’s decision to listen to the International Monetary Fund and to cut subsidies on bread, other staples, and natural gas canisters, making all of them shoot up in price and harming the working and middle classes. After three days of rallies and fruitless government attempts to impose order, Sadat announced he was restoring subsidies, and Egypt calmed back down. Because it was purely a food price protest, it suddenly evaporated when the government met its demands.

Hundreds or thousands also came out in other cities yesterday. In Alexandria, a crowd of 1,000 called for President Hosni Mubarak to leave the country, as Zine Ben Ali departed Tunisia for Saudi Arabia. They taunted Mubarak “Saudi Arabia is waiting for you.”

The US embassy denied rumors that the president’s wife, Suzanne Mubarak, and his son Gamal and his daughter-in-law had fled the country on private jets.

Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic:

After reports this morning that Facebook and Twitter were blocked in Egypt, Facebook’s spokesperson Andrew Noyes says that they have not seen the signs of such an effort.

“We are aware of reports of disruption to service but have not seen any major changes in traffic from Egypt,” Noyes wrote in an email.

Of course, as we learned from the Tunisian riots, the government could have something else in mind altogether. In that case, the government had slipped malware in-between users and Facebook to steal their passwords.

I got one anonymous report that appeared to claim a similar operation was in the works in Egypt. A source wrote in saying “the ministry of Interior wanted to record all activist personal data” on Facebook and that “all activist information is now on the ministry server.” I’m digging in to see what else I can find.

Laura Rozen at Politico:

The Obama administration needs to “seize the moment” to grapple with the wave of anti-government protests sweeping through Egypt and other parts of the Middle East, several foreign policy scholars urged on Wednesday.

“My impression is that the administration has been basically closing its eyes and praying that it all works out, because anything else seems too hard and too risky,” said Robert Kagan, a foreign policy scholar at the Brookings Institution and co-chair of a bipartisan Egypt working group of former officials which has been urging the Obama administration to prepare for what comes after the regime of Egypt’s octogenarian ruler Hosni Mubarak.

“They can still swing to right side of this thing, but one thing I have been most struck by in meeting with [U.S. officials] at all levels over the past year is that as of yesterday, they have no plan in any direction” for how to deal with the anti-government movements sweeping through the Middle East, Kagan continued.

The official U.S. response to the remarkable events in Egypt and Tunisia – where the president of more than two decades, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, fled the country earlier this month amid a wave of anti-government street protests – has thus far been cautious.

“Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told journalists Tuesday, as Egyptian police continued cracking down on anti-government protests.

Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy:

The end of the Tunisian story hasn’t yet been written. We don’t yet know whether the so-called Jasmine Revolution will produce fundamental change or a return to a cosmetically-modified status quo ante, democracy or a newly configured authoritarianism. But most of the policy community has long since moved on to ask whether the Tunisian protests will spread to other Arab countries — Egypt, of course, but also Jordan, Yemen, Algeria, Libya, and almost every place else. Most experts on each individual country can offer powerful, well-reasoned explanations as to why their country won’t be next. I’m skeptical too.

But I found it unsatisfying to settle for such skepticism as I watched the massive demonstrations unfold in Egypt on my Twitter feed while moderating a panel discussion on Tunisia yesterday (I plead guilty). As I’ve been arguing for the last month, something does seem to be happening at a regional level, exposing the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarianism and empowering young populations who suddenly believe that change is possible. There are strong reasons to expect most of these regimes to survive, which we shouldn’t ignore in a moment of enthusiasm. But we also shouldn’t ignore this unmistakable new energy, the revelation of the crumbling foundations of Arab authoritarian regimes, or the continuing surprises which should keep all analysts humble about what might follow.

The arguments for skepticism are strong ones. Without belaboring the obvious, every Arab country is different. Each has a distinct political history and culture, a distinct political economy, a distinct demographic profile and urban geography. Many compelling articles have now shown precisely why Tunisia was different — its robust middle class, its highly educated population, its relatively small size, its ties to Europe through labor migration and remittances, its vulnerability to the global financial crisis, its particularly censored media, its relatively small and under-nurtured military, its relative insignificance to U.S. strategic interests. But those aren’t the only reasons to doubt that the Tunisian model can spread.

Another argument for skepticism is authoritarian learning. Simply put, most Arab regimes are quick studies when it comes to their own survival, and quickly adapt when challenged. Unlike tightly controlled Tunisia, states such as Egypt and Jordan have been grappling with protests movements for going on a decade now and have an all-too-rich experience with how to repress, divide, and defeat the new protest movements. Yesterday’s massive demonstrations in Cairo may have shocked everyone — outsiders, Egypt’s government, even the protestors — but in a country which has been rocked by pro-Palestine and anti-Iraq war protests, the Kefaya movement, the April 6 movement, the judges and lawyers protests, and massive labor unrest, the difference is in scale, not type. The same is true across many of the Arab countries which have struggled with restive societies over the last decade.

Dictators learn from each other, not just from the past. The Arab Summit last week displayed this very clearly. Every Arab leader is on red alert at the moment, determined not to repeat Ben Ali’s mistakes. They are frantically offering concessions on economic issues, reversing price rises and increasing subsidies. And of course they are ramping up the repressive apparatus, on the streets and online, to try to stop any snowballs from rolling before they get too big. The lesson most seem to have learned is not “be more democratic,” it is “be tougher.” No Arab leader seems likely to be taken by surprise, or to disregard the early signs of trouble. The success of Egypt’s protestors yesterday doesn’t mean that they won’t be violently crushed today.

And then, of course, there’s the international context. Where Tunisia may be relatively insignificant to the great international strategic issues in the region — Israel, Iran, Iraq, oil — other potential dominoes have a greater claim on the support of the world’s Realists. These authoritarian regimes are the foundation of the America-led regional order. For all the U.S. talk about democracy promotion, the goal has always been to strengthen and legitimize these allies — to prevent, not to nurture, the kind of popular mobilization exploding today. It’s not the least bit surprising that the Washington Post, which has obsessively focused on democracy in Egypt, today finds itself deeply worried by instability there and the strength of Islamists.

Finally, most of the regimes seem to retain the foundations of their overt strength. Oil prices are tolerably high, security services loyal, elections thoroughly manipulated, Islamists repressed, international support strong. In short, there are plenty of reasons to see Tunisia as a one-off.

And yet… it doesn’t feel that way. The scenes in Cairo yesterday stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table… and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history.

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Middle East

One response to “What The Hell Is Going On In Egypt?

  1. Wendy Kelly

    brendan is awesome and so is this article.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s