Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Crappy Analysis about Egypt

sidi gaber, alexandria
Photo by Al Jazeera English. Used under a Creative Commons license.

I'm getting increasingly irritated by the analysis I come across that's being written about the revolution in Egypt. It's mostly worthless, tendentious crap. So I figured I might as well add a turd to that pile. Seriously, the only two genuinely cool-headed and insightful analytic pieces I've read so far are from A Fistful of Euros and that cold-hearted misanthrope, The War Nerd, and The War Nerd only really cares about the fighting. The others—however smart and knowledgeable they may be, and not all of them are—tend to be swept up in the moment too much to be able to keep a cool head about it. This very much includes yours truly.

Now, about that good piece. Alex Harrowell at A Fistful of Euros. He makes a couple of really sharp observations, totally obvious once pointed out, but that most people seems to have missed and continues to miss.

First, that the sound and fury we're witnessing is almost all the natural back-and-forth of the dynamics of mobilization. One side puts a million protesters on the street. Then they go home because they have to eat, shit, and do the laundry, and there are only tens of thousands of protesters left, so everybody shouts "Loss of momentum!" Then the Empire strikes back, sending some goons on camels to beat up the remaining protesters, and everybody shouts "Mubarak has won! Counter-revolution!" Then the protesters send two million people on the street, and everybody shouts "Mubarak has lost! The revolution has won!"

This is a bit like a turn-based strategy game, really. The protesters make their move, Mubarak defends. Mubarak makes his move, the protesters defend. And so it goes, back and forth, day by day. Just like every spontaneous eruption of people power like this before.

Another point AFOE makes is really encouraging. Namely, that the regime has ended up making concessions every time the revolutionaries are on the move, and has managed to recover very little ground during its counterattacks. On the political front, it's been more of a ratchet than a back-and-forth, with the noose tightening every time the revolution mounts an offensive. That's true, and it's good.

The third point that article makes is that regimes like Mubarak's don't do all that torture-imprisonment-censorship thing just for the fun of it. They need it to survive. The concessions they've already made, and the pressure on the streets, has rolled back some of that nastiness. The dictatorial ship of state may effectively have sprung too many leaks to plug, and even if life went back to more or less normal now, it will end up sinking. That's what happened in Poland in 1989. Jaruzelski stayed a figurehead until his term expired and he went into more or less dignified retirement.

Read it yourself. It's good.

In any case, the situation in Egypt appears to have reached a kind of new, temporary equilibrium. The regime is still sitting tight, but so are the protesters. A full-on massacre, Tiananmen style, appears to be off the cards for now. So, where are we at, and what's happened?

One thing that's struck me is that Mubarak's regime—I won't dignify it with the word 'government' any more—has done everything wrong, and not in the moral sense but in the purely practical sense.

When a violent crackdown might still have been possible—for those first January 25 protests—they didn't.

When the discourse in the Western media was still dominated by the talk of "stability" and the fear of the Muslim Brotherhood, they sent in the goon squad to beat up Anderson Cooper and the Three Stooges from Fox, immediately losing them the support of all but the most virulently racist right in the USA. Bit of a spectacular own goal, that. Let's remember that the Egyptian military and Hosni Mubarak himself do care about American support—the military will be kind of fucked if they no longer get all those sweet dollars and flashy gear.

When they have their opening to drive off the protesters from Tahrir, all they can manage is a bunch of guys on camels, which ends up looking more like a comedy number than a serious crackdown—and only demonstrates the lack of mass support for the regime.

When the revolutionaries found themselves needing a leader, they release Wael Ghonim, who proceeds to go on TV for one of the most human, moving, and magnificent interviews ever.

Basically, they're looking like a bunch of incompetent fools, rather than the terrifying machinery of oppression they really are.

'Cuz they are, let's not forget that. There are nearly a million armed and organized people getting their paychecks from the regime. If they think they've been backed into a corner with no exits, things can still turn to massive tragedy.

Which brings me to another thought, related to morale. This one I made up all by myself.

The revolutionaries are being incredibly brave. That's because they know that should the revolution fail, their lives will be in danger. That leaves them no options but to fight to the end. The tweets from Wednesday and Thursday were heartbreaking. These guys thought they were seeing the revolution fail, and went in to face Mubarak's goons anyway. That was the only option. Turned out it didn't fail just then.

The regime's—and, most importantly, their sympathizers' and supporters—position is quite different. They have lots of options. The guys at the top have their Cayman Islands bank accounts and Monaco villas; all they're risking is what's left of their careers. The rest have the option of jumping ship and making nice with the revolution if they think they're winning, or emigrating, or whatever.

Now, over the past few days, we've got former regime figures suddenly finding a revolutionary fervor in their hearts, showing up at Tahrir. We've got institutions like the Law Faculty of the University of Cairo coming out in support of the revolution. We've got state media reporters, managers, and even a director or two striking, rebelling, or resigning. A lot of these people are no doubt genuine supporters of the revolution; others are more like rats fleeing a sinking ship. It doesn't really matter; it is very bad news for the regime, because these guys know they'll be treated as traitors of the worst kind should the revolution fail—and once the opportunists and cowards start running for the exits, things look pretty grim from the regime. Are we there yet? Not sure, but there are some signs like that.

Another asymmetry that's playing in favor of the revolution has to do with, you guessed it, America and Israel. Namely, the revolutionaries don't really need American or Israeli support. They're entirely home-grown. In fact, American—let alone Israeli—support might even undermine them, since America and Israel aren't exactly the most popular kids in the class in that neck of the woods. The regime, on the other hand, cares very much about American and Israeli support. The Egyptian military is equipped with American hardware, and financed by American dollars. If they lost that, they would be in trouble. That means that losing American support means much more to them than gaining it would mean to the revolution.

So, the USA can do something to help the revolution—by threatening to withdraw their support from the regime—but can't do much to hurt it. If, as seems credible, the Obama administration made it clear early on that a Tiananmen solution would result in cutting off that lifeline, that will have drastically reduced the regime's freedom of movement. That little oopsie with the Silver Fox was rather significant from this point of view. Obama's waffling will probably have seriously damaged the USA's standing in any post-crisis Egypt, but it won't have done much to hurt the revolution, and may even have helped it: the regime is looking more like America's lapdog by the day, the revolution's reputation is pure as the driven snow, and the regime hasn't really gotten all that much by way of support.

So. Hypotheticals. Let's get the nightmare scenarios out of the way first. There are two that I'm worried about.

One I've discussed previously. Call it the Bolshevik scenario. In this case, we'd have some small but ruthless and determined group hijacking the revolution, and setting up a system as bad as or worse than the one being taken down. I can't rule it out, but so far I've seen neither hide nor hair of any potential Bolsheviks. In particular, the Brothers have been behaving remarkably meekly. So I'm not too concerned about that at this point.

The second one is the civil war scenario. Perhaps I'm overly sensitive to this one, having seen some of Lebanon, and what civil war does to a country and its people. The main civil war scenario I'm worried about has the revolutionaries overplaying their hand, pushing some of the armed institutions in Egypt into a corner. If the military or the interior ministry police, or some sizable faction within either of them, starts fearing for their lives or otherwise feels they've nothing left to lose, they will start using all that lethal force they're packing. That will cause a reaction in kind, and things could get really bad really fast. This is just about the worst thing that could happen. In Lebanon, it took 15 years and about 300,000 lives for this to play out. In the Egyptian scale, that would be about 4,000,000 dead. That's not a price worth paying for any kind of utopia. It must be avoided at all costs.

However, I don't see that as an immediate danger either, although I fear it's more likely than the Bolshevik scenario.

The third bad-case scenario is that the revolution just runs out of steam, the regime regains the initiative, puts on some lipstick, gets a new haircut, maybe a little nose job, and then starts silently cracking down on the opposition, disappearing them one by one. We'd be back where we started, more or less, only with a much more oppressive system. That could happen, but I don't think it's the most likely course of events either. The revolutionaries would have to blunder pretty seriously to give them an opening for that. Also, off-hand, I can't think of precedents for this type of evolution. Generally dictatorships re-establish themselves through massive bloodbaths, not through gradual tightening. The reason is that once the dam of fear holding back discontent breaks, you can't re-establish that fear without some fairly dramatic action. When the Muslim Brotherhood mounted a serious challenge to Hafez al-Assad in Syria in 1982, he massacred tens of thousands. That scale of killing would only happen in Egypt now, I think, if the guys with the guns really felt they had no future otherwise.

So, what am I hoping for? The best-case (realistic) hypotheticals?

Something like this. The revolution manages to decapitate as much of the regime as possible without causing the institutions of state violence to fragment or provoke the civil war scenario described above. More is better, and I can't know what's the minimum required for this to work. Maybe even the current status quo—an effectively de-fanged Mubarak as nominal head of state, a beleaguered Omar Suleiman calling the shots—would do it. I would very much prefer that Mubarak and Suleiman as well as a few others of the top-tier folks stepped down (and were put on trial, for that matter), but I don't know that it's absolutely essential, or even how much difference it would make in the end. Perhaps keeping the current gang would even be good, because it will keep the revolutionaries nice and alert; replacing them with a new set of faces might give a false sense of victory too early.

Thing is, one way or the other, the revolutionaries will have to negotiate with the generals and the police chiefs. They're not going anywhere, and they have the firepower. The current government is all generals. I don't know how much difference it would make to negotiate with some other generals instead of these ones. Omar Suleiman is a torturer, murderer, and all-round asshole, but the alternatives are unlikely to be much better. You're unlikely to make it to general under a system like Mubarak's without being an asshole.

Anyway, the revolutionaries plus the people holding the central institutions of state power together, whoever they are, form a caretaker government. This caretaker government announces an immediate repeal of the emergency law that's been there for, like, ever, an immediate end to censorship, and immediate rights of expression, assembly, and organization. They release all political prisoners at once.

Then they put together a roadmap for elections, say, six months down the line. The opposition will need this time to organize and run electoral campaigns. The elections will be for a national assembly, which will have as its first job to draft a new constitution for Egypt. And from there on out, the democratic process takes over, and we will have our first fully-functional Arab democracy. Or second, if Tunisia gets there first.

How likely is this? Not very, I think. It would be rather too good to be true. But something relatively close might happen. Of course, regime figures will be trying to subvert the process every step of the way, tighten the screws behind the scenes, divide the opposition, "disappear" them, and return to power. That means the protesters will have to stay vigilant as hell, both at the table when drafting the transition plan, and on the streets.

In this scenario, Egypt would end up as a normal country, more or less. Not a paradise, but drastically improved from what it is now. That would be pretty awesome in my book.

I think they can do it. In this kind of arm-twisting, they might not score a complete victory, but close enough to stop the regime from staging a silent crackdown.

The more of the regime the protesters manage to remove in this revolutionary phase we're still in, the better—as long as this process doesn't cause a collapse and fragmentation of the institutions of state power, which would make the prospect of civil war very real indeed.

I'm feeling pretty optimistic about this right now. Let's hope that won't jinx it.


  1. That was an excellent article from AFOE, and thanks much for expanding on it with your own thoughts. I also feel there is a lot of hope here for real change, but only time will tell. I pray these brave ones will remain strong.


  3. What would you say happened in Iran? Did they 'run out of steam?'

  4. Not exactly. It's more that they never got enough steam to start with. Or, rather, that they were facing a much tougher fight.

    Ahmadinejad has genuine mass support, especially among working-class young men—a demographic that comes in very handy in street fights. He also also has a solid power base in the Revolutionary Guard and the Basiji militia, and the latter specializes in crowd control. Being already under sanctions and having a reliable source of income from oil, he's also far less sensitive to international pressure. That means that he had the means to clamp down violently; he just needed a bit of time to organize. Once it became clear that the Greens weren't about to stop protesting of their own accord, he dropped the hammer and the revolution failed.

    It's also important to keep in mind that Iran is a good deal more open a society than Egypt. The press is freer, there is genuine political discourse, elections are contested, even if they're often rigged, there are prominent dissidents who manage to stay within the country and speak out, and there is open disagreement about political stuff within the ruling class. The elected institutions aren't window-dressing only. That means that the role of fear keeping people in line isn't as important, and there are ways of expressing discontent. This means less revolutionary pressure building over time, and that the powers that be are more aware of the country's mood and therefore better able to gauge their responses to events.

    Don't get me wrong—it's pretty obvious that Ahmadinejad stole the election, the Iranian system is brutal and unpleasant, and the failure of the Green Revolution was another of those times the Middle East broke my heart. Iran is just a good deal tougher nut to crack, being more popular and less dictatorial. It's also younger—the Arab dictatorships are 50-60 years old, the Islamic Republic of Iran is only about 30. That's significant, because one of the ways authoritarian systems weaken is by having the guys at the top get physically old; they don't like to step down to make room for young blood, you know. Give it another 30 years and maybe it'll be ripe.

    It's also conceivable that it'll open up by itself. It has more machinery for change than most dictatorships. Khatami's presidency was, IMO, an enormous lost opportunity; if we had engaged with Iran at the time, it might have dispelled some of the paranoia people there have about us, and they might've taken a completely different track. As it was, he was undermined both from within and from without, and things went sour fast.

  5. Any analysis on the state of Lebanese politics ?With Hezbollah trying to get into the government...

  6. DTE asked about it earlier. Not really much to write about. No fundamental shifts there that I can see, just the same stalemate changing to a slightly different configuration. My reply to him is here.