Author : John E. Charalambakis
Date : February 1, 2011
For the second part of our series on global hot spots, it should be pretty obvious where the news waves would have us cover: the Middle East, which might be living the days that the former eastern block of countries experienced starting in November 1989 with the fall of the Berlin wall.
A wide range of events over numerous countries has become so serious that even U.S. news stations have begun to cover the issues around the clock, although several events have gone without mention. In Tunisia, bottom up protests overthrew a corrupt autocrat. Riots have struck Jordan and have pitted the security forces against civilians which have resulted in some violent clashes. Suicide attacks in Iraq and Egypt attacking Christian communities have raised a Christian-Muslim tint of the greater Middle East picture with some pretty amazing and humbling results. A government in Lebanon has collapsed and been replaced with one containing greater ties to Hezbollah. And finally, protesters in Egypt have entered the seventh consecutive day of protests in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez calling for the removal of quasi-President Hosni Mubarak. It’s this latter fissure that we will focus on, although we will refrain from forecasting anything.
The events in Egypt, more than any other, have provided credence to the truly startling nature of these rumblings across the region. The events in Tunisia themselves were truly something to behold. The persistence of the demonstrators and the end result was a remarkable sight. But Tunisia is no Egypt. The mass demonstrations in Egypt are indeed a higher level of discontent than what has been displayed in the likes of Tunisia, Jordan and Yemen. None of those countries have the cultural heritage and weight of Egypt. Just as important, Egypt is a much more significant player in Middle East politics, especially among the Arab world. Its historical ties to the U.S. amplify the shock factor regarding the events of the past week.
Marc Lynch, a Professor of Political Science at George Washington University and contributor to the blogosphere of Foreign Policy, surveyed the driving factors in the region as whole with the following observation before anything in Egypt erupted: “a combination of authoritarian retrenchment, unfulfilled economic promises, rising sectarianism at the popular level, and deep frustration among an increasingly tech-savvy rising generation? But even if these upgraded authoritarians can keep hold of power, there’s a palpable sense that these incidents represent the leading edge of rising economic, social and political challenges which their degraded institutions are manifestly unable to handle.”
As Robert Kaplan points out, also in a piece on Foreign Policy, the demonstrations across the Middle East are quite unique in that their theme is not based on the dilemma of the Palestinian people nor are they exclusively anti-American (although complaints about American-Egyptian ties have been made). Instead, the catalyst has been the reaching of the boiling point with autocracy, corruption, economic mismanagement, and the oppression of civil liberties. As Yasser El-Shimy, a former diplomatic attachment in Egypt’s Foreign Ministry has pointed out the decades old social contract that these autocrats used to ride into power has evaporated. In the information age overthrowing colonial powers and subsidizing food isn’t a long-term political platform. Now, there is serious momentum for the removal of Hosni Mubarak.
Speaking of Mubarak, the latest assessment is that he has lost the control of the army, which happens to be at this stage the most important institution in Egypt. It seems that the newly appointed V.P. (former chief of military intelligence) will focus on a bloodless transition to an ElBaradei government.
The intensity and determination of the protestors in Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez has only become more resolved over the past week, and the number of people demonstrating seems like it will only grow. Today, Tuesday the 1st of February, is rumored to witness a “march of millions” throughout the country. The ability to sustain and increase momentum grants the opposition substantial credit to the longevity of their efforts.
However despite all of the attention Egypt has been getting on the news, regardless of the momentum of demonstrations, and although external pressure is mounting there are still numerous, substantial questions that surround the events in Egypt.
Last week we sold our African positions, however, if democratic forces take hold in Egypt and elsewhere (we do not know where these waves will move next, i.e. it could be Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Libya, etc.), we believe that great opportunities will arise. Turkey is positioning herself as a leader under these circumstances and we would not be surprised if indeed plays a major role in the upcoming changes.
Now, let’s look at some core issues: For one, will Mubarak actually leave? Things seem to have reached the point where the demonstrations against the Egyptian leader have turned into a game of chicken. Who will blink first? It seems that Hosni Mubarak is betting that he can just wait out these protests, waging that momentum cannot expand forever and its peak is near. Second, to what extent is the opposition organized? Lack of structure is both a strength and a weakness. On the former, it demonstrates the scope of opposition sentiment, but, regarding the latter, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.
I think external pressure on Mubarak would be more effective, and more likely to occur, if there was a transparent understanding about what a post-Mubarak Egypt would look like. At this point too much about the opposition is unknown, leading policymakers and foreign onlookers to be easily swayed by propaganda and fear-mongering. Not enough is known about Mohammad El-Baradei or the Muslim Brotherhood, as far as their role in the protests, the extent of their influence with the people, and what they specifically would do to usher in calm and build democratic institutions. A third question is what the army will do going forward. The interior security forces have been a complete mess in their handling of demonstrations. On the other hand, the army has been largely welcomed by the masses. Not only is the army perceived as being more connected to the Egyptian people, it has acknowledged the grievances of the people.
Thus, it seems that Hosni Mubarak does not have control of the army. However, that doesn’t mean the military generals are about to physically remove Hosni Mubarak, but some analysts have said such an action is what will be necessary to actually remove the “President” from power. Would the army be willing to do this to a former army hero? Is it willing to become the face of the opposition? What role would they want in coordinating opposition along with Mr. El-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood?
With how fast things are happening in Egypt, and the Middle East as a whole, raising questions is truly the only responsible thing that can be done at this point. Trying to digest the wealth of activity that been going on for a week, and processing it into a cogent analysis in a blog posting isn’t a responsible endeavor.
What does seem to be clear is that Egypt will not be the same going forward.