Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt: After The Party

Egyptians woke up today with a well-deserved hangover, but after the joy of Friday night fades, what comes next.

By Ashraf Khalil
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 12/02/2011
It's the nature of the modern news/punditry cycle that people are constantly looking to move on to the next discussion topic and increasingly unable to simply savor the moment -- without parsing it to death for deeper meaning. That truth was never more evident than on Friday night as seemingly all of Cairo devolved into a euphoric "We won the World Cup"-level street party.
Around 11 p.m., I visited my friend, Issandr El-Amrani, a fellow Foreign Policy contributor and author of the must-read Arabist blog. He lives about a 10-minute walk from Tahrir Square, so his apartment became a gathering point for people heading to and from the celebrations. A diverse collection of journalists, activists, and ordinary citizens tramped through in various states of joyous inebriation. On the muted television screen behind us, a news channel ran the crawler, "How will Egypt's revolution affect Israel?"
It's safe to say that nobody celebrating in Egypt last night was giving a single second's thought to that question -- or any of the other myriad what-ifs being floated by the non-Egyptian media. Indeed in several hours of wandering and querying celebrants, it was hard to find anyone that was even all that worried about what the future would hold.
As Ahmed Morsi, a 27-year-old taxi driver told me, "The road ahead will have some difficulties, but no matter how hard it is, it really can't be worse than the last 10 years or so."
Still, as Cairo's revolutionary hangover gives way to the clear light of day this weekend, a number of "what's next?" questions do present themselves.
What will the transitional government look like?
So far, Egypt seems to be in the hands of all military men -- the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. But the protesters are going to want to see some civilian authority figures introduced into the mix fairly soon. Names like Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel Prize- winning scientist Ahmed Zuweil, and outgoing Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa are certain to be floated. But also look for some new young leaders who emerged from the movement in the past three pressurized weeks to also play a role.
"These youth, they should be the ministers," said Sayed El Mahrakany, a professor of surgery at Ain Shams University, who repeatedly came to Tahrir with his two teenage daughters. "Our generation failed to achieve our revolution."
What about Omar Suleiman?
Egypt's former intelligence chief is now vice president of a country without a president. But it's unclear just what, if any, role he will be play going forward. One of the more fascinating subplots of the past two weeks was that Suleiman's formal introduction to the Egyptian people was a complete PR disaster.
For years, Egyptians saw and heard about Suleiman but actually never heard him speak. When he did start making public statements after Mubarak elevated him to vice president, Suleiman managed to alienate almost all of the protestors by coming off as condescending, dismissive of the movement, and reliant on antiquated regime rhetoric.
His sit-down with Christiane Amanpour was borderline comical. He repeatedly accused the "Brother Muslimhood" of fueling the unrest and said the "culture of democracy" doesn't exist in Egypt yet. It was so tone-deaf that U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, previously regarded as a Mubarak apologist, responded with an angry demand that the notorious "emergency laws" be immediately repealed. After years of being one of the main contenders to succeed Mubarak, Suleiman may find himself just as unemployable as his former boss.
Do the protesters trust the military?
This is shaping up to be the psychological litmus test for how different protesters view the future, and opinions on the matter seem to be truly split. A healthy percentage of the core Tahrir demonstrators regard the fight only partially won and will not rest until Egypt's governance is out of the hands of the military.
"A real democratic Egypt is not necessarily the Egypt that the generals and the United States want to see," said longtime activist Hossam Hamalawy on Al Jazeera on Friday night. "I do not trust those generals."
So far, the ruling Supreme Armed Forces Council seems to be saying all the right things. In its fourth post-Mubarak communiqué on Saturday, the council affirmed its commitment to "continue working to transfer power to a free, democratic civilian authority."
Many Egyptians are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now. "I don't think most people would have a problem having an interim military rule, we have a lot of trust in the army," Mohammed Moawad, a 34-year-old bank employee told me.

But even Moawad warned that the military will find itself dealing with another uprising if it drags its feet. "Just as we stood against Mubarak, we'd stand against them if they tried to hold on to power," he said.
And yes, what about Israel?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu didn't do Mubarak any favors over the last two weeks with his spirited defense of the regime. But Netanyahu's concerns reflect a clear anxiety over how a post-Mubarak government that actually reflects the will of the Egyptian people might deal with the Jewish state.
Since the start of the revolution on January 25, foreign policy issues generally took a backseat to domestic grievances. But there will definitely come a time when the terms of Egypt's longstanding "cold peace" with Israel will come under review.
In the short term, not much should change. Saturday's military communiqué contained assurances -- seemingly aimed directly at Washington and Tel Aviv -- that "all regional and international agreements" would be honored during the interim period.
One possible short-term change could involve the handling of Egypt's Rafah land-crossing with the Gaza Strip, which Mubarak kept largely closed. In the aftermath of Mubarak's resignation, the Gaza-based leadership of Hamas hailed the achievements of the protesters and put in an early request that Rafah be truly re-opened on a permanent basis for all manner of goods and material.
On all these matters, we'll know more in the days ahead, but probably not until Egyptians recover from a well-deserved hangover.

No comments:

Post a Comment