Saturday, January 29, 2011

Today I am Egyptian

Welcome to Titanic
Welcome to Titanic, Egypt, 2011.By Kerttu Kelomaa-Sulonen,
reproduced with permission.

The splatter from Tunisia reached Egypt, and it's up in flames. It's clearly now a revolutionary situation. It can still fail, but even if it does, the world will not be the same. If it doesn't, the world will be a very different place indeed, at least if by 'world' you mean the world of international politics.

Egypt is the largest Arab country, with about 80 million inhabitants. It has a sizable Christian minority with their own church and own language, related to the language of the Pharaohs; there are about 10 million Copts there. The rest of the country is Sunni Muslim. The Al-Azhar mosque and Islamic university is the unofficial center of Sunni Muslim scholarship; if Mecca is the heart of Islam, Al-Azhar is the head. While Egypt never had the kind of dominance over the Arab countries that the USSR had over the Soviet bloc, it's nevertheless the gorilla on that street. What happens in Egypt will profoundly affect the rest of the Arab world. If Mubarak goes in a social revolution, Qaddafi and the Good Doctor of Damascus will need their sleeping pills.

Egypt is a linchpin of American Middle East policy. The USA has been sponsoring the Egyptian military to the order of a billion and change a year, and providing it with lots of other kinds of support as well, in particular a big fig leaf for the regime to deal with dissidents as it pleases, under the label of the war on terror. Many Egyptian dissidents are Islamists, and some of the Islamists are radical Islamists, and a few of the radical Islamists are violent radical Islamists, so the "Mubarak or Bin Laden" false dichotomy was just credible enough to fly.

The quid for America's quo has been, of course, Israel. Egypt was among the first Arab countries to make a peace agreement with Israel after the Yom Kippur war in 1973. In return, Egypt got back Sinai which Israel had occupied during that war, as well as the American foreign aid—a billion is petty cash for 80 million people, but it's serious money if it goes to a tiny elite, so from the point of view of Egypt's leaders, it made sense. Also, the hope of a lasting peace agreement was genuinely popular among a much wider segment of the Arab populace than now; the Egyptian-Italian pop singer Dalida wrote a song about it at the time which was a pretty big hit in the Arab world.

"He may be a bastard, but he's our bastard."

Egypt wasn't always America's bastard. The Republic of Egypt was founded in 1953, as a part of the unraveling of the British empire. In the Arab world, the dominant force in the anti-colonial movement was the Ba'ath party. The Ba'athists imagined a united Arab republic organized on nonsectarian lines, with a socialist economy, a strong leader, and a strong national identity. Unfortunately, they couldn't seem to agree about who that leader was supposed to be, and the whole thing fell apart pretty quickly; the United Arab Republic lasted all of three years, and it only included Egypt and Syria to start with.

The Ba'athist strongmen that emerged across the region during the decolonization period until the end of the 1960's—among the most significant, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, Hafez al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, and Saddam Hussein in Iraq—were wildly popular. They had thrown off the colonial yoke, and given Arabs political independence and a sense of pride and purpose for the first time since the Mongols and then the Ottomans had brought down the Caliphate.

On the great Cold War gameboard, being anticolonialists and Socialists, they fell naturally into the Soviet camp. However, they proved adept at playing the superpowers against each other as they jockeyed for position as the leading Arab power. Saddam Hussein went from the Soviet camp to the American camp back to the anti-American camp. Egypt switched sides after the Yom Kippur war and has stuck there ever since.

America's Middle East policy stands on three pillars—Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. If the USA loses Egypt, as it surely will should any revolution there succeed, what's left of its Middle East policy goes as well. It will no longer be a significant player in the region, compared to regional powers like Turkey or Iran. Even the EU will find itself with a much bigger role, simply due to geographical proximity and its huge economy, and not being quite as badly tainted in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The map will be different, and it will have unknowable but profound consequences.

So what's going on now?

We have a revolutionary situation. It's a contest of strength between the revolutionaries and the counter-revolutionaries. At this time, it's anybody's guess who'll win, but my money is on the revolutionaries. Mubarak announced that he's firing his cabinet but isn't quitting. That means that he's running scared—he's not certain he can contain the revolution by force. The gesture won't placate anyone; it'll only add fuel to the fire.

This is a social revolution. Millions of people are really pissed off, and have taken to the streets. There are organized opposition movements, but they've gotten caught with their pants down, and have only announced their participation after the fact. These opposition movements run the gamut from Islamists of all flavors from violent to moderate, to Communists of all flavors from violent to moderate, with pretty much everything in between. If the revolution succeeds, they're going to have to figure out how to sort out the aftermath; if they decide to start duking it out outside the ballot box, it's going to be very bad.

This is also an social media revolution. Or, more broadly, an ICT revolution. By now, the vast majority of people on the streets aren't on Twitter or Facebook. However, revolutions are like avalanches. Pebbles are falling all the time, but it's only if you get a little cascade started that it can grow into a really big one. The Twitterati of Egypt are a tiny fraction of the people involved, but the first real protest that started this—with a measly 15,000 people and 30,000 or so cops—on January 25 consisted largely of them. While the revolution itself isn't being played out on Twitter, the significance of communications technologies such as social media, cell phones and SMS's must not be understated either. It's a kind of a detonator. Without the box of dynamite it won't do much, but the dynamite needs something to set it off. Mark Zuckerberg has earned his Time magazine Man of the Year recognition, even if this is nothing like anything he had in mind.

Another significant factor is that the Internet and cell phones prevent a complete information blackout. There are enough net-savvy activists in Egypt to keep some lines open—using anon proxies, Tor, dialup outside the country, and other simple methods. This means that information about current events is coming in and getting disseminated, even if most people can't get online. This will have a massive impact on the quality of information going around compared to a situation where it's all rumor and word of mouth.

And yes, this is also an Al Jazeera and Wikileaks revolution. They provide a backstop of reliability to what would otherwise be yet more unsubstantiated rumors in a region that has nothing but unsubstantiated rumors. By disseminating and reporting, they are also participating.

In most ways, what we're seeing in Egypt and Tunisia is a classic social revolution. In other ways, it is something new: the weapons used by the revolutionaries are those of the Internet age, and it does make a difference. It would not be playing itself out now, nor in the way it is playing itself out now, without these weapons.

What next?

In Tunisia, we're already in the aftermath. Things appear to be quieting down, and seem to be going very well indeed—even though it's early days yet. In Egypt, we're only at the beginning. The revolution may still fail, in which case we'll see a brutal crackdown with mass incarceration and lots and lots of people dying. It will be very difficult for Hosni Mubarak to look like anything other than a dictator of the worst kind, with everything that implies.

If the revolution does succeed, Mubarak will be exiled or killed, and the opposition will be left to sort out the pieces. We will see exactly how scary the Islamist bogeyman is in Egypt. At this time, it's way too early to even guess how that might play itself out; by the Bolshevik script, the Jacobin one, the Indian one, or some completely new way. Be as it may, something has got to change. In the Middle East, things that can't go on forever have been going on for far too long. It is time.

Al yom ana masri.


  1. Thanks for the fascinating breakdown of what's going on in Egypt. Over here, it's now being taken very seriously indeed, finally, and the official tone has changed from unenthusiastically supportive of Mubarek to a much more ambiguous hedging of bets style typical of Obama's administration. His statement yesterday had one sentence asking the protesters to remain peaceful, and about twenty urging immediate reform and warning the government not to crack down on the demonstrators, but to allow the "universal human rights" of free speech and peaceful assembly and condemning the internet shutdown. I was a bit surprised, but I think it indicates which way the state department sees the wind blowing, though should Mubarek win out, I doubt the US will sever ties or do anything concrete against him. But it does seem to indicate Obama is smart enough not to think we can intrude into this arena in our traditional heavy-handed and overt way.

    I hope so anyway. It's time and past for us to quit putting our thumb on the scales of power and enabling dictators against the will of their people because they serve our interests. Obviously, we have skin in this game, and I'm sure will be exerting whatever force we can as per usual to influence things in our own favor, but there's absolutely no political will to tap in the general populace to support much more overt (expensive) US involvement in corrupt MidEast regimes--populist sentiment here is mostly on the side of the protesters, as it was with Iran. It's all our government can do to keep spinning the Afghanistan and Pakistan conflict positively enough to keep that from becoming a political nightmare a la Viet Nam--even the libertarian/RWNJ's are wanting military spending cut and their isolationist tendencies seem to be winning out over their hawkishness. That's my take, anyway.

    We do indeed live in interesting times.

  2. This is all totally exciting. I don't know where it will all go, and certainly there's no guarantee that things won't turn out worse in Egypt or elsewhere in the Middle East. But seeing one country after another filled with people saying "enough! things need to change!" after all this time is kind of amazing.

  3. Still watching -- both the revolution and the reactionary response in the U.S. right. Predictable calls for the US to support Mubarak and shore up our pharoah.