Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Pharaoh Is Dead, Long Live The Pharaoh?

My week in Cairo began amid violence and culminated with Mubarak's ouster. But no one really knows what's coming next.
BY Blake Hounshell
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 11/02/2011
In just 18 days, a ragtag youth army overthrew one of the Arab world's most entrenched and brutal dictatorships, overcoming their own fears, the regime's considerable tools of oppression, and the doubts of outside powers that still aren't sure whether their interests will be served by a messy transition to democracy.
I arrived in Cairo last Thursday, Feb. 3, to cover what was then an unknown quantity. Was it a revolution? A revolt? Another failed uprising? This much was known: It was a gripping story, an unprecedented outpouring of popular anger whose aim was to drive President Hosni Mubarak from power and replace him with an electoral democracy.
On Wednesday, Feb. 2, the night before my flight, I had stayed awake glued to my Twitter feed and Al Jazeera, watching in disbelief as men armed with whips, knives, chains, and Molotov cocktails besieged Tahrir Square in a thuggish bid to flush the protesters out of downtown Cairo and crush their uprising. Up to the last minute, I still wasn't sure whether it would be safe to go; the U.S. State Department issued a sharply worded statement urging all Americans to leave the country "immediately" as the violence -- clearly orchestrated by elements of the regime itself -- began taking on an ugly, anti-foreigner tone.
The previous week, the protesters had twice outwitted and outfought Mubarak's black-clad riot police, finally seizing Tahrir Square and sending the regime's security forces melting into the night, while the Army mobilized to secure key government buildings.
They were still hanging on when I reached downtown Cairo late Thursday afternoon, after cruising along nearly deserted streets, past tanks, armored personnel carriers, and tense soldiers holding bayoneted assault rifles. I had landed in a war zone. The windows on the ground floor of my hotel, located right near the main entrance to the square, were barricaded, the lobby's lights dimmed, perhaps in the hope that Mubarak's goons would ignore us if they couldn't see us. Security guards nervously searched my bags and hastily ushered me inside.
Ironically, the safest place in Cairo was Tahrir Square itself. Although a rock battle was still raging on the northern end of the square near the landmark Egyptian Museum, it had settled into a stalemate. The "pro-Mubarak protesters" -- as some gullible Western news outlets still referred to them -- knew by then that they were badly outnumbered, and in any case their tactics had backfired badly; governments around the world expressed shock and demanded that Mubarak allow the demonstrators to express their grievances in peace.
Meanwhile, attacks on journalists continued, made all the more dangerous by a vicious campaign whipped up by Egyptian state television against foreigners. The following morning, I called a friend with long experience in Cairo. Military police had just raided the offices of the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, a legal-aid clinic that had become the locus of efforts to document instances of abuse and illegal detainment. He told me his organization might be next; he was leaving town and lying low for a while. Management at the big hotels around the square had been told in no uncertain terms to control their journalists or have them controlled for them, other friends warned me.
I was, frankly, a little bit scared. I'm a desk jockey, not a war reporter. What had I gotten myself into?
But we journalists were never the story; the protesters' desperate struggle to hang onto the square was. My impression upon arrival was that the regime, having tried violence, was now deftly maneuvering to marginalize the protesters after failing to crush them. Outside the square, Egyptians began clamoring for their lives to return to normal. As for the protesters, state TV darkly warned that they were traitors serving a foreign agenda, part of an Israeli-Iranian axis bent on destroying Egypt.
That was, of course, complete nonsense -- but it seemed like it just might work.
On Friday, Feb. 4 -- optimistically billed as the "Day of Departure" -- I met dozens of young Egyptians who often boiled their demands down to one simple word: "freedom." Tarek al-Alfy, a 30-year-old tech entrepreneur from Giza, told me that he had come to the protests for the first time that day to express his outrage at the government's unprecedented shutdown of the Internet. "I felt like I was living in North Korea so I decided to go to Tahrir," he said. "I want a fair constitution."
Near the museum, where a half-dozen burned-out police vehicles were scattered at the scene of Feb. 2's battles with Mubarak's thugs, I met Mohamed Abdel el-Ainein, a 49-year-old mechanic Army veteran who was resting in the driver's seat of a truck, his head bandaged from a nasty direct hit. He was too tired to speak. A doctor at the makeshift clinic nearby, Ahmed Abdel Rahim, told me he had watched five people die overnight and said he had treated "dozens" of trauma victims since 6 a.m. that day. As I spoke with him, a young man with the word "paradise" written on a piece of paper taped to his shirt walked by, headed to the front lines.
Magdy Soliman, a 38-year-old computer programmer, volunteered to be my guide for the day and help me get the lay of the land. At a dingy downtown cafe, smoking harsh, honey-flavored shisha and drinking tea from grubby glass cups, his two friends --both with master's degrees in agricultural engineering -- told me of how they had to pay bribes for "everything" involving the government. "I have to pay some guy 600 Egyptian pounds to get a driver's license," said Ahmed Khalil, 35. "Why? It's my right. We want to smell freedom," he said pleadingly.
Soliman asked me whether I thought the protesters were going to win. I told him I wasn't sure but that I hoped so.
"A lot of people will get arrested," he worried. Ahmed was blunter: "They will kill us for sure."
The Tide Turns
Mubarak did not, of course, depart that Friday.
Over the weekend, momentum seemed to shift further against the protesters. A self-appointed group of prominent "wise men" stepped forward to negotiate a solution to the standoff. Mubarak's new vice president, former spy chief Omar Suleiman, made a public show of magnanimity by sitting down with various figures from the traditional opposition, including members of the Muslim Brotherhood -- the same group Mubarak's police state had spent years persecuting. He then issued a deeply disingenuous statement that seemed crafted to offer symbolic concessions without conceding real power or control over the pace of reform.
Message: The government is being reasonable while you kids in Tahrir Square are bent on destroying Egypt. Time to go home. On Sunday, Feb. 6, banks opened across the country, and the government urged people to go back to work. Instead of killing protesters, the regime would now ignore them. It seemed to be working.
The crowds were dwindling, and yet the Tahriris held firm. They announced a "week of resilience," signaling that they were hunkering down for a long struggle. On Sunday, Feb. 6, the "day of the martyrs," huge images of fallen heroes, some showing smiling faces, others grim shots of bloodied corpses, decorated the square. Meanwhile, the protesters adamantly refused to negotiate until Mubarak stepped down.
If there was a turning point, it was a heartfelt interview on the night of Monday, Feb. 7, by Wael Ghonim, a key protest organizer whose sudden disappearance had become an international cause célèbre. Ghonim, an articulate Google executive, effectively gutted the regime's propaganda campaign against the protesters, weeping as he insisted that the youth in Tahrir Square only wanted what was best for Egypt. The next day's protests were the biggest yet.
From Tuesday, Feb. 8, onward, the protesters pressed their advantage as cracks began to show in the regime and new civic groups joined the revolution. Demonstrations and strikes broke out within ministries and syndicates and in factories across Egypt. Suddenly, thousands of professors, judges, lawyers, and delegations from distant governorates were marching on Tahrir. On Wednesday, Feb. 9, in their boldest move yet, a group of protesters seized the street in front of the parliament building before the Army could react and rushed in blankets and tents for an extended sit-in. On Thursday evening, after a drumbeat of leaks and statements suggesting Mubarak was planning to step down proved overly optimistic, an angry crowd blockaded the state television building. And on Friday, Feb. 11, seemingly the entire country took to the streets as rumors spread that Mubarak had fled Cairo, if not Egypt altogether.
And then, with a short, lugubrious statement from Suleiman, it was over. Mubarak was out, and the military was in command.
What now?
For now, as the country erupts in ecstatic celebrations, Egyptians are choosing to be hopeful.
"Of course we trust them," Dalia Ziada, a local civic organizer for the American Islamic Congress, said of the military, just after Mubarak's resignation was announced. "They never harmed anyone in any way. I am sure they will start to prepare for the elections. There is no political regime anymore."
"This is the best scenario ever," said Wael Nawara, secretary-general of the liberal Ghad Party. "The Army is promising the Egyptian people what they shed blood for."
"It's the only possible solution," Hassan Nafaa, a political scientist at Cairo University, told me. "Now we will have to watch carefully what the military will do."
The task now, says Nafaa, is for military leaders to lay out their political vision for the coming months. In recent days, opposition leaders put together a road map that includes a new government of national unity, the dissolution of the state security apparatus, an overhaul of the police, the complete independence of the press, and free and fair elections -- but it's still not clear what sort of consensus has been built around it.
Mubarak is gone, but Egypt's transition to democracy is far from ensured. What actually happened Friday was a coup -- not a revolution. And nobody yet knows whether the military, which has shown few democratic inklings in its nearly 60 years as the power behind the throne, truly intends to carry out its promises to upend the ruling order. Mubarak's vast state security apparatus remains intact, and now that the dictator is gone, opposition leaders may well return to bickering among themselves. It's also not clear what role the autocratic Suleiman -- who said this week that Egypt has no "culture of democracy" -- might play in the months ahead.
"Call me a party pooper, but I do not see Mubarak's resignation necessarily good news at this point for the opposition," said Nathan J. Brown, a leading scholar of Arab political systems. "They got what they said they wanted, but this is not a transition yet. It could still be a kinder, gentler Algeria."

Mubarak Is Out, But Egypt's Status Quo Stays

By Jon B. Alterman
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 12/02/2011
Hosni Mubarak's departure from power does little to address the fundamental issues that brought protesters to Cairo's Tahrir Square for the past 18 days. In fact, their protests were never about Mubarak but about a sclerotic political system and an economic system that was full of cronyism and corruption.
Mubarak sustained that system, but its backbone was always the Egyptian military. Mubarak nurtured the military, from which he came, and the military preserved him. Although the officers behind Egypt's 1952 revolution abandoned their uniforms long ago, Egypt's rulers have been generals in suits for decades.
The return of the uniforms to power does not inspire great optimism about Egypt's trajectory. In superficial ways, it represents a victory for the protesters and a demonstration of people power in the heart of the Arab world. After all, it was unthinkable even two weeks ago that Mubarak would relinquish the presidency, and those calling for his ouster - as some Egyptian activists had been doing for years - seemed quixotic dreamers.
Against all odds, this thinking goes, the government has moved to fulfill the protesters' demands.
But in a more important way, the army's return suggests a huge step backward. Military rule does not allow for bargaining between interest groups, nor does it presage a constitutional convention between an array of actors in Egyptian political life. Rather, it suggests even heavier management of the political process, on the one hand, and the removal of any timeline for change on the other.
For those thinking strategically about the protest movement, the rise of a military rule is a double defeat, simultaneously narrowing the bounds of allowed public behavior and depriving the protest movement of its urgency.
If the Egyptian public has cause for greater concern, the military's rise provides some solace to the rulers of neighboring countries. Their worst-case scenario was a democratic uprising in Egypt that was both fundamental and telegenic, thereby serving as an inspiration to publics from Morocco to Oman. The rise of Egypt's military is a victory for the forces of order, a steadying of the status quo.
For Western governments, events in Egypt are a decidedly mixed blessing. For the United States in particular, which has long had close ties to the most senior Egyptian leadership, the military's heightened role means that familiar faces will be making the important decisions. Yet the White House has made clear publicly and privately that it viewed changes in Egypt as harbingers of an inescapable change sweeping the Middle East. Whereas some predicted as recently as Thursday that Egypt was moving forward, with the rise of the Military Command Council, Egypt seems to have reverted to 1952.
Mubarak was always a cautious leader. He cherished stability so much that conditions in Egypt often veered toward stasis. The events since Jan. 25, especially the widespread protests in recent days, were precisely the environment he was seeking to prevent.
The way to see his departure, then, is not as a victory for the demonstrators calling for his removal. Instead, it is a defeat for the Egypt Hosni Mubarak was trying to maintain.
Mubarak moved deliberately to improve the lot of his compatriots, carefully avoiding risk. He rarely wore his military uniform, seeking to project an image of normality to Egypt's public and the world. He saw and portrayed himself as a great statesman of the region, counseling presidents and kings half his age.
And yet, Egypt never quite reached normality. Mubarak never felt sufficient comfort to lift the emergency law in force in Egypt almost continually for four decades, and he never was able to establish a civilian leadership that could take the place of the army. Long accused of being an unimaginative bureaucrat, he is turning over the country to like-minded septuagenarians who mirror his caution.
Mubarak has not handed over the reins of a confident country, but instead a country where the military had to step in to prevent a slide into chaos. Egypt is a distressed asset. That is not a glorious legacy after decades of rule.
The writer is director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Obama Administration Has Become A Liability To Its Friends

By Raghida Dergham from New York
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 11/02/2011
The US Administration’s confused and erratic handling of the earth-shattering Youth Revolution in Egypt, in the wake of the surprise of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia, has exposed its lack of a long-term perspective and clear thinking. This coincided with President Barack Obama and his administration’s belated realization of the “coup” carried out by Hezbollah against the Lebanese government –some called it a “hostile takeover” of power – which was quickly forgotten as a result of the massive events that occurred in Tunisia and Egypt. Yesterday’s trance and today’s confused awakening have left the Obama Administration even more stumbling, crippled and weak in the eyes of the majority in the Arab region and perhaps the world. What caused even more gloating was that the administration seemed to be abandoning the principles of democracy and freedom it had professed one day and the next day seemed quick to abandon its ally – as usual. So far, the Obama Administration has not been able to make up its mind, as it called in the help of a “specialist” here and an “expert” there for advice on how to walk the tight rope, clinging to its primary objective, namely ensuring Barack Obama’s electoral march to a second term. It finds itself in a predicament, and its predicament is not exclusively due to its failure to anticipate the events in Egypt or its unsound policy towards Lebanon in its Syrian and Iranian dimensions. It rather includes Obama’s own pledge to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians- a pledge he was forced to retract under political and electoral pressures. What is required at this stage is a comprehensive reassessment of US policy towards the various countries of the Middle East –Arab countries as well as Iran and Israel, and perhaps Turkey too. What the US President should carefully consider at this stage is how to address the youth- not with rhetoric- but in the language of creating jobs, encouraging moderation, and participation in power. This will require an American revolution against the traditional American way of thinking about the Middle East, and about the Arabs in particular. Indeed, the reputation of the United States does not encourage one to trust it. The Obama Administration now seems as if borrowing ideas or means from the Bush Administration for electoral reasons or in order to correct past unsound methods of its own. It is sending mixed messages. It is confusing its friends and the ranks of moderation to such a degree that it has become a liability rather than a reliable partner that can be depended on. The Obama Administration seems to others to be naïve, as it stumbles among its contradictions, and this is why it must formulate a clear strategy that would resolve and manage the challenges it itself faces- not just those that prevail in the Middle East. It needs to return to the policy-drawing board in order to redesign American policy towards the region, starting with Egypt, Israel and Iran. Indeed, the events in Egypt could represent an opportunity for the Obama Administration, Israel and the Quartet on the Middle East to radically resolve the Palestinian-Israeli and Arab-Israeli conflict, so as to enable the ranks of moderation and the Arab youth to prevent any attempt to hijack or subvert the youth uprising to the benefit of extremism. This should be done immediately whether through encouraging or imposing such resolution and a permanent settlement. Wagering on clarity of who will take control in Egypt is quite a dangerous bet. It would be better for the US to position itself, as quickly as possible, in a manner that would lead it to regain its prestige and its merit as the world’s sole superpower, and to exercise positive leadership rather than play haphazard roles where it chases after events in panic and walks in the steps that are designed by others. What is meant here is not at all an invitation to direct US interference in the spontaneous popular uprising in Egypt or in other Arab countries, but rather an invitation to closely examine the reasons behind continued suspicions and doubts over American aims and goals to try to remove at least some of them convincingly .

It will be said that the United States will always be blamed, no matter what it does, and that it will be considered a party to conspiracy, regardless of any steps it actually. This may be true, yet it does not negate the necessity of correcting policies and pursuing different tracks. There are today in the Arab region several points of view on what is the US policy towards the protesters in Egypt and towards President Hosni Mubarak. One point of view claims that the Obama Administration rushed to evade the crisis and abandon Mubarak, thereby strengthening its longstanding reputation of being untrustworthy and of using friends then discarding them when they have become useless or when they are weak – as usual. Some of those who are of this opinion believe that the United States abandons its allies after formulating alternative policies. In such a case, the alternative policy would be, according to them, to encourage Islamist political parties to attain power in several Arab countries, purposely. Why? Because surrounding Israel with Arab countries that have religious regimes would justify two of Israel’s goals: first the goal of turning Israel into a purely “Jewish state” devoid of non-Jews, with all that this would require in terms of policies, measures, forced expulsions and so forth; and second, surrounding Israel with what it considers Muslim extremism in Egypt, Lebanon and Jordan- and perhaps Syria if necessary- would “free” Israel of the process of making peace and the pressure it entails. In fact, it would justify any measures it might need to take, either to fulfill its dream of turning Jordan into the “alternative homeland” for the Palestinians, or to carry out military operations through the Lebanese arena, where Hezbollah’s missiles are and where Iran sought to have its own military base.

The other point of view is based on the theory of making use of supporting the passion of the youth and promoting clinging to the principles of democracy and freedom of expression while the military apparatus in both countries discuss means of containing the uprising. Such means could include merely rehabilitating the role of the army so that it may retain control of the country following the political reform measures imposed by the youth revolution – which has so far led to doing away with plans of the Egyptian President handing down power to his son Gamal Mubarak, as well as aborting Hosni Mubarak’s run for President. Such means might also include taking stronger measures such as a military coup with all that it would require in terms of making use of military authority to take control of the country.

It is so far unclear whether the army will chose to be the Regime’s army or the State’s army. There is the scent of division of opinion and hesitancy among the ranks of the army, but it is not a scent of disintegration, sectarian division or loss of the ability to take control.

Clearly everyone agrees that Hosni Mubarak should leave, even Mubarak himself, who declared his desire to finish his term in September, so as to be the caretaker of the transitional process towards a new Egypt, with constitutional amendments and a respectable exit for him from power. The disagreement is over the timing, manner and conditions of leaving, and the army’s opinion in this respect is decisive.

The Youth Revolution is right to oppose Hosni Mubarak’s clinging to power and insistence on handing it down to his son, alongside the widespread corruption in the ranks close to power. The youth is right in demanding freedom, democracy, livelihood, job opportunities and the right to protest and express one’s opinion. Moreover, the Youth Revolution has been quite the opposite of what Iran’s leaders and Hezbollah have tried to portray as one basically echoing the Iranian revolution. Indeed, it has not carried the slogan of “enmity towards America” as they have, and has not positioned itself as calling for bringing down the peace treaty with Israel. In fact, there is resentment among the ranks of the protesters towards the statements made by both Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah, who tried to politicize the youth revolution in a way that had never occurred to those protesting.

Clearly there is confusion and incoherence among the ranks of the protesters, as there is also division over how to bid Hosni Mubarak farewell. Many admit that there is much he has given Egypt, and that, had it not been for the economic openness and reforms he introduced, he would not have exposed himself to becoming so fragile, and would have perhaps remained shielded by his rejection of reform, and therefore remained in power – just like others who have shielded themselves with refusing reform in order to prevent democracy.

For these reasons, it is not necessary for the youth revolution to make the exile Mubarak as the sole slogan of the revolution. Rather, it would be better for it if his leaving was just part of the revolution’s goals – not a goal in and of itself. There is therefore enough space for creative formulas that would allow Mubarak to gradually leave power, according to a fixed timetable, yet in effect before the end of his term in office, even if the date is in theory that of his term limit. There is dire need for a mechanism for the transition process, one that would be based on real, not symbolic, participation of opposition leaders – the youth among them in addition to the Muslim Brotherhood and other serious political parties.

And of course, the means are available to Hosni Mubarak to protect Egypt from slipping into a military confrontation between the army and the people, most importantly the means of listening. Indeed, the President has heard from Tahrir Square and from other cities that his people are ready to bid him farewell. He is better off making his departure from power a farewell for him, even if the people of Egypt end up divided between those who remember his achievements and those who only remember the corruption. Indeed, if he truly takes the initiative of launching a serious transition, it could change his path to leaving power from a humiliating exile to a farewell with some appreciation.

The Obama Administration has a role to play in such a conclusion, if it would only think strategically and use its influence with high-ranking leaders in the Egyptian army with whom it has deep relations. Nevertheless, Washington must not look like it is interfering either in a peaceful or armed military coup. There is talk of the possibility that the military institution contains the people’s revolution in order to adopt or appease it after which there would be regime- that is de facto guaranteed by the army- albeit with a broadened political system in which all political parties would participate A regime that would end political seclusion and open a new chapter of reform. Then the army would have opted to be the State’s army, not the regime’s army. If only it would!

Friday, February 11, 2011

Exit Mubarak

By Roger Cohen from Cairo
This commentary was published in The New York Times on 11/02/2011
The city is erupting. Honking and cheering fill the great metropolis from Tahrir Square to Heliopolis, from the banks of the Nile to the Pyramids. A ground-up leaderless revolution led by young Egyptians has driven Hosni Mubarak, the man who ruled with an iron fist for 30 years, from power.
After all the words and all the contortions and all the behind-the-curve contrivances of an Arab dictator confronted by a movement he could not comprehend, the finale was brief: “Hosni Mubarak has resigned as president of the republic and assigned the governance of the country to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.”
The statement was read by an ashen-faced Omar Suleiman, the vice president and longtime henchman of Mubarak to whom power was handed Thursday night before that power passed to the army.
Faced by the communications generation, a movement of Internet-linked 20-something Egyptians demanding the right to speak freely, Mubarak proved himself to the last to be the great non-communicator. Anyone wanting to teach a course in 21st-century politics should begin in Egypt, where the power of real-time flat Web-savvy organizations over ponderous hierarchies has just been illustrated.
What course the Egyptian armed forces will take is unclear, but their sympathy with the cause of the uprising — or at least their determination not to fire on the people and to defend the nation rather than a despot — has been evident from the time of the first big demonstration on Jan. 25. A communiqué issued by the military’s Supreme Council before Mubarak’s resignation said it was “committed to sponsor the legitimate demands of the people” in pursuit of “a free democratic community.” It spoke of the “honest people who refused corruption.”
At last, it seemed, an Arab people — long trampled-upon, long subjected to the humiliation of non-citizenry in a state without laws — stood front and center. The Arab world has awoken from a long conspiracy-filled slumber induced by aging despots determined to keep their peoples from modernity.
We in the West have often asked ourselves why a Middle East peace was so elusive. Perhaps we should have conceded that the building blocks we were trying to use were rotten to the core and we had been complicit in that rot.
Almost a decade after 9/11, the event that signaled the devastating gulf that had grown up between the West and Islam, this is a day of hope for millions of young Arabs and for the world. Egypt’s revolution comes hard on the heels of Tunisia’s and inevitably poses the question: which wizened specimen from the Arab Jurassic Park is next?
Democracies take time to build, but once built, as Europe illustrates, they do make meaningful peace with one another. To state the obvious — although it’s not obvious to some — there is nothing anti-democratic in the Arab genome.
Mubarak’s Thursday speech, in which he tried to cling to de jure power, was a surreal exercise in political deafness: you don’t say you’re going by listing what you plan to do. As a senior Western diplomat said, “He never understood.”
The U.S. defense secretary, Robert Gates, has been in regular contact with the Egyptian defense minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, since the uprising began, urging restraint and the pursuit of a democratic transition.
I understand that the Egyptian military, which receives about $1.3 billion a year in U.S. aid, has repeatedly conveyed the importance it attaches to the American relationship and its determination to do nothing that would jeopardize the bond. All that American money — tens of billions over Mubarak’s rule — does appear to buy at least a professional army. The supreme test of the investment now comes.
The revolution was everywhere Friday, seeping out of a packed Tahrir Square like a dam breaking. The presidential palace was besieged, the state television building surrounded. In the Nile Delta and in Upper Egypt, unrest engulfed provincial towns. Until, in the early evening, the end came.
Before Mubarak’s resignation, two possible routes to a free election had been put forward. The first was embodied by Suleiman. It involved cleaving to a terribly flawed constitution conceived for a dictator and revising it along guidelines set by Mubarak in one of his parting acts.
That course always looked hopelessly flawed to me. One problem was the credibility of Suleiman, a security chief responsible for his share of torture and killing. How far could Mubarak be from the scene as long as Suleiman was guiding the process? What sense would it make to submit a revised constitution to a parliament picked in a rigged November election?
Now the way is open to the much better course proposed by the Nobel prize-winning opposition figure, Mohamed ElBaradei: the establishment of a presidential council including a military representative and two respected civilian figures to set in motion the drafting of a new democratic Constitution and free and fair presidential and parliamentary elections within a year.
It’s will be a tough road after almost six decades of dictatorship, but Egyptians have shown the depth of their culture.
Mabruk, Egypt!

CIA Must Lift Its Mideast Game

By David Ignatius
This commentary was published on 11/02/2011

The Central Intelligence Agency uses the term “liaison” to describe its contacts with foreign intelligence services. And in Arab capitals such as Tunis, Cairo and Amman, these relationships can be so seductively beneficial that they limit the CIA’s ability to run its own “unilateral” operations to learn what’s going on inside the host country.
This conundrum – how to work with your hosts and also spy on them – is one of the difficulties facing the CIA as it tries to understand the youth revolution spreading across the Middle East. The agency has cultivated its relationships with people such as Gen. Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s chief of intelligence and now vice president, but it has done less well in understanding the world of the protesters.
It’s a Catch-22 of the intelligence business, especially over the past decade, when counterterrorism became the CIA’s core mission: The agency needed good relationships with Arab intelligence services to collect information about Al-Qaeda, but to maintain those relationships, the agency sometimes avoided local snooping. The CIA did recruit some long-term contacts within the Egyptian establishment, who are said to have provided crucial intelligence in recent days. But it’s a far cry from the early 1980s, when the Cairo station chief would regularly meet the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups.
“We pulled back more and more, and relied on liaison to let us know what was going on,” says one former station chief who’s a veteran of the CIA’s Near East Division.
These have been trying days for that fabled division, which runs clandestine operations from Morocco to Bangladesh. One CIA veteran remembers how “NE” officers would boast to trainees at “The Farm”: “We are the elite of the operations directorate! We have the most important targets.”
But this elite status gradually morphed: Not only were the division’s targets important, but so were its liaison partners. Careers were made on a station chief’s rapport with the head of Jordan’s General Intelligence Department or Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. An ambitious officer couldn’t afford to have strained relations with his local host.
The problem of dependency became acute after Sept. 11, 2001, when the agency spent many hundreds of millions of dollars bolstering friendly services – especially from authoritarian, pro-American regimes such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan. Those are the countries now shaken by protest.
Egypt posed a special problem. The military-backed regime was paranoid about foreign spies who might be meeting with domestic opposition figures. The Egyptians maintained such aggressive surveillance that every CIA officer sent there took a special six-week class, known as the “Hostile Environment Tradecraft Course,” to learn how to operate in so-called “denied areas.”
It was a paradox worthy of the sphinx: Even though the United States was spending billions of dollars to assist Egypt and its military, the CIA had to treat Cairo the same way as it did Beijing or Moscow. Thanks to extensive military-to-military contacts and other links, supplemented by clandestine polling, the agency did keep tabs on Egypt – but as this month’s crisis developed, the U.S. seemed behind the information curve.
Modern communications technology has aided spying, but it put station chiefs on an electronic leash, limiting the unconventional contacts which might warn what was ahead. Headquarters was now able to micromanage operations: One chief of the Near East Division sent so many nit-picking messages that he became known as “The Mailman.”
The CIA’s defenders say the agency can juggle liaison and unilateral operations, or as one senior official puts it, “walk and chew gum at the same time.” This official notes that since January 2010, more than 400 of the agency’s 1,700 intelligence reports on the Middle East and North Africa have focused on issues related to stability.
The revolution in Tunisia was a surprise, says this CIA defender, because it “wasn’t clear even to President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali that his security forces would quickly choose not to support him.” As for Egypt, he says, “analysts anticipated and highlighted the concern that unrest in Tunisia might spread well before demonstrations erupted in Cairo. They later warned that unrest in Egypt would likely gain momentum and could threaten the regime.”
Here’s the bottom line: The CIA is caught in a jam that’s emblematic of America’s larger problem in the Middle East. The agency has been so focused on stopping Al-Qaeda that it has been distracted from other questions. America depends on good intelligence as never before, and the simple truth is that the CIA has to lift its game.


Out Of Egyptian Protests A New Obama Doctrine Is Born

US president's decision to back revolt against Mubarak-led repression has implications for region's autocrats

By Simon Tisdall
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 11/02/2011
By backing the Egyptian protests, Barack Obama challenges not just Hosni Mubarak but the legitimacy of other autocrats in the region. Photograph: Jim Young/Reuters
 Hosni Mubarak has still not grasped how fundamentally the old political order is changing in Egypt and the Arab world – but it seems Barack Obama has.
In a forceful statement after the Egyptian president's latest exercise in reality denial, Obama came off the fence following a fortnight of humming and hawing. If the choice is revolution or repression, democratic ideals and values or hard-nosed self-interest, then the US is officially on the side of the angels.
This dramatic shift could in time have a bigger impact on the Middle East than the Egyptian uprising. In sharply criticising the Cairo government's prevarications, demanding it respect universal values, and stressing that his administration stands shoulder to shoulder with the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, the US president dramatically changed the way his country does business in the region. This was, to all intents and purposes, the proclamation of an Obama doctrine.
His statement was about Egypt but has a far broader application. He said, in part: "The United States has been clear that we stand for a set of core principles. We believe the universal rights of the Egyptian people must be respected, and their aspirations must be met. We believe this transition must immediately demonstrate irreversible political change, and a negotiated path to democracy.
"To that end, we believe that the emergency law should be lifted. We believe that meaningful negotiations with the broad opposition and Egyptian civil society should address the key questions confronting Egypt's future: protecting the fundamental rights of all citizens; revising the constitution and other laws to demonstrate irreversible change; and jointly developing a clear roadmap to elections that are free and fair..."
He continued: "A new generation has emerged. They have made it clear that Egypt must reflect their hopes, fulfil their highest aspirations, and tap their boundless potential. In these difficult times, I know that the Egyptian people will persevere, and they must know that they will continue to have a friend in the United States of America."
The implications of this new doctrine, for that is how it must be viewed, are almost endless. The most obvious point is that since the US is backing the popular pro-democracy revolt in Egypt, it is bound in all conscience to do so elsewhere, as occasion demands.
This is a direct challenge not just to Mubarak and his old guard but to the legitimacy of the previously untouchable, US-allied autocrats of Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the Gulf. Universal values are universal after all. So what goes in Egypt will logically go, too, in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen, to name just three countries where America has largely turned a blind eye to repression in pursuit of wider security and commercial interests.
The Obama doctrine implies readiness to intervene directly in a country's internal politics in support of broader principles. In this instance, his stinging criticism of Mubarak's failure to make "immediate, meaningful and sufficient" reforms was tantamount to a demand that he resign.
It also risks the alienation of regional rulers and the fracturing of old alliances that have sustained US and western European policy since the cold war. The Saudis had taken a dim view of the US president's undercutting of Mubarak; now they will wonder who might be next.
Israeli leaders, too, are alarmed. They never quite trusted Obama. And repression of the Arab masses by Arab autocrats suited them quite well for, by and large, the Arab street has always been more hostile to Israel than the Arab elites.
Israel, too, could hitherto pose as the region's only real democracy. But that moral advantage is slipping, along with long-held strategic and defensive preconceptions. This uncertainty might yet jolt Israeli leaders out of their obstructive complacency over Palestine. Obama just accelerated this uncharted process.
Events in Tunisia and then Egypt forced the US president down this road. But his speech in Cairo in 2009, about engaging and developing the Arab and Muslim spheres, showed he was not a reluctant traveller.
Halfway through his presidency, he is finally beginning to define his own distinctive and transformational approach, after initially accepting most of the old US foreign policy shibboleths. In Afghanistan, overly influenced by his generals, he bought into the old way of doing things. Now, burned by that experience, he is forging a different path.
This is not a return to the "liberal interventionism" of the Bush-Blair era. The Obama doctrine is not about brute force, but forceful beliefs. Even so, it is winning fans on the American right, as well as among Egyptians.
"We need a foreign policy that not only supports freedom in the abstract but is guided by long-range practical principles to achieve it," said columnist Charles Krauthammer in the Washington Post. Thus the US should "use its influence to help democrats everywhere throw off dictatorial rule" and do more to build institutions and strong systems of law and media freedom in transitional democracies, he said.
The US should not intervene directly in other countries' affairs unless it was "to help protect them against totalitarians, foreign and domestic", as in the cold war days of the Truman doctrine. By totalitarian, Krauthammer and similar thinkers mean Islamists of all complexions – for them, Islam is the new "red peril".
Obama is unlikely to embrace this definition. But in beginning to enunciate a foreign policy doctrine guided by clearly established democratic values and mutual respect, he may not only avoid more Egypt-style dilemmas, he may also be on his way to bridging the gulf between pragmatism and principle.


Who Lost Egypt: Not Obama For Sure

Don't blame Washington for walking the political tightrope in Egypt. It's simply not our revolution.
By Aaron David Miller
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 11/02/2011
If we're lucky this time around, we'll avoid the who-lost-Egypt debate. Hosni Mubarak's decision to step down has pre-empted a catastrophic crisis for Egypt and for American interests. We may not be adept at manipulating Middle Eastern politics; but we're sure experts at beating ourselves up.
Commentators and analysts have argued forcefully that Barack Obama's administration failed to anticipate the current crisis, blew an opportunity by failing to push Mubarak to make significant reforms during the early days of the upheaval, and risked being on the wrong side of history by not being assertive in trying to force Mubarak's removal. But the administration was smart to keep its distance from this crisis.
If the last eight years in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran -- and the previous 800 years in the Middle East -- demonstrate anything, it is that great powers cannot micromanage the affairs of small tribes. And when they try, they almost always fare badly.
There is much to quibble with in the administration's approach -- too many daily political weather reports about the current situation in Cairo, not enough initial coordination about what the administration should say, and too many presidential statements.
But on balance, the administration has played a bad hand pretty well. The cards the president were dealt were largely beyond his control. Hammering him now completely ignores the reality that U.S. policy made its bed in Egypt decades ago, and now the administration -- forced to sleep in it as it confronts the current crisis -- has few good options.
For decades, the United States cut a devil's bargain with a number of Middle Eastern authoritarian regimes. And let's be clear here, Hosni Mubarak isn't Saddam Hussein: He's not a sociopath or a mass murderer. Indeed, until last month, I guarantee you, any number of U.S. officials, including the president and the secretary of state, chummed it up with him in Washington and Cairo.
The bargain the United States cut was quite simple: In exchange for helping it carry out what it believed to be sound American policies on peace and war, it gave Mubarak, the monarchs of Jordan, the Saudis, and even Saddam Hussein (for a brief period during the 1980s) a pass on domestic governance.
 The United States issued annual human rights reports for these countries, which documented all kinds of abuses; Congress complained from time to time; and for a brief period under George W. Bush's second administration the country actually took freedom and human rights more seriously. But in the end, the basic bargain endured. That bargain didn't secure peace, stability, or security -- just look around the neighborhood. But it did help manage a broken, dysfunctional, and angry region in which America had interests.

Did it prove shortsighted? Sure. But could a better bargain have been struck, given the mindsets of U.S. policymakers dealing first with the Cold War and then with the hot wars after 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq, and against al Qaeda when America really needed the support of authoritarian Arab regimes? I doubt it.
Bush took his freedom agenda seriously. But he never had the leverage, nor frankly the will, to force real change -- in large part because he needed Arab support for the war against terror and in Iraq.
And the contract with the Arab world's dictators was a bipartisan one. When I worked at the State Department and would travel with secretaries James Baker, Warren Christopher, and Madeleine Albright, we always stopped in Cairo first to consult with Mubarak and, frankly, to enjoy his company. We looked at him as a friend.
We need to get a grip and realize one thing: The United States may not be a potted plant, but it does not and never has controlled the world. There is ample and public evidence of this, from America's struggle to emerge from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to its failure so far to stop the Iranian mullahcracy from repressing its own people, let alone acquiring a nuclear weapon. In June 2009, when the Green Movement was fighting for its life in the streets of Tehran, the Obama administration didn't call on Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to step down or surrender power. Indeed, it left ample room to allow for possible engagement with him.
America's record in directing the internal affairs of other countries isn't great. Yes, it rebuilt Europe and Japan in the post-World War II period and played a key role in the Balkans. And Iraq is a much improved place. But the story there is not over, and the price the United States paid was a terrible one.
Surrounded by nonpredatory neighbors to its north and south, and fish to its east and west, America has never really understood the rest of the world, nor the existential and political realities that small powers are forced to confront.
Had Obama tried to hammer Mubarak to reform Egypt's political system after his 2009 speech in Cairo, he would have had no more success than his predecessor. The devil's bargain would have assured that. The Egyptians have driven their own freedom express. Indeed, from the opposition's standpoint, the United States seemed almost irrelevant to the story.
The devil's bargain haunts America still. The country's limited policy options reflected that fact and created a terrible conundrum for the administration. It clearly wanted Mubarak gone but wouldn't say so explicitly out of fear of being accused of personalizing its policy, emboldening the opposition and risking a bloody confrontation with the regime, and alienating other Arab autocrats and Israel.
The United States may have been tempted to cut or withhold military assistance, particularly if there had been massive violence, but it really didn't want to do that, either, out of fear of losing influence with the military -- the one constituency with which it will have to deal in the post-Mubarak Egypt. And America wanted to support the opposition -- as the president's strong statement Thursday, Feb. 10, did; but it alienated them too because it couldn't or wouldn't meet their demands for Mubarak's ouster.
And so the White House waited, watched, danced, and shuffled -- and probably talked too much.
But such are the travails of a great power having to live in the bed that it has made. And the story of contradictions in U.S. policy and America's conundrums are far from over. The real challenge the United States will face in the post-Mubarak era is that Egypt has been, and is now still, a praetorian state where the military holds tremendous power. And the United States has an interest in maintaining close ties with that military as well as encouraging political reform. Therein lies the next conundrum. With great apologies to W.B. Yeats: I wonder what new bargain slouches toward Bethlehem, waiting to be born?

Essential Steps To A Democratic Egypt

 By Amr Hamzawy
This commentary was published in The Washington Post on 11/02/2011
Egypt has been fundamentally changed by the events since Jan. 25, which resulted in the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak on Friday. The challenge now is how to translate the changes flowing from the popular uprising into the concrete procedures and safeguards necessary to underpin a genuine transition to democracy. We must take steps to protect against anarchy and lawlessness, from which too many people throughout Egypt have suffered in recent days. We must also begin to implement citizens' legitimate and just demands to bring an end to Egypt's authoritarianism.
Recent events have compelled Egyptian intellectuals, politicians, entrepreneurs, journalists and others to join together to find a way out of the impasse between protesters and the Mubarak government. The Committee of Wise Men, for which I serve as spokesman, aims to be a mediating body between the two sides as well as present some kind of a road map for the transition. 
We called on Mubarak to demand a set of constitutional amendments before delegating control of the transition process. This transition must include a lifting of the state of emergency; the dissolution of the illegitimate People's Assembly and Shura Council (the two chambers of Parliament that have come from rigged and flawed elections); the formation of an independent legal committee to amend the constitution; and the lifting of laws restricting political freedoms. These are the essential steps that will put Egypt on a safe path to democracy. They are also the steps by which the international community should judge our government's commitment to reform.
Only with clear and serious guarantees will the hundreds of thousands of people who have protested peacefully for a democratic government be convinced that this a serious proposition, one that underpins their security and safety and ensures that those responsible for the violence, human rights abuses and bloodshed in recent days are to be brought to account.
Otherwise, the long heritage of suspicion and distrust that so many in Egypt share about the regime's promises to allow real change will be entrenched, and it will make them fearful of what will come next if they no longer demonstrate.
Egyptians must do more than just protest. The absence of a youth movement with clear leadership and representation has been one obstacleto meaningful negotiation. There has been limited dialogue between state institutions and the youth groups as well as between the state and various political actors and committees. We believe we have responsibilities, starting with helping our young people see how to establish a democratic framework to represent their interests as a viable collective force and not as individuals. State institutions must in turn accept a collective dialogue with representatives of our youth.
We are convinced that the best way forward is to institutionalize the dialogue taking place today and convert it into a national conference or round-table negotiation between state institutions, youths, the political forces and independent national figures. This model would establish the powers and set the specific timeframes to produce a democratic political system in Egypt. And only then will the people's revolution be safe.
The writer is spokesman for Egypt's Committee of Wise Men. The group was initiated by businessman Naguib Sawiris and Ahmed Kamal Aboul Magd, a professor of constitutional law at Cairo University who served as minister of information under President Anwar El-Sadat. Its members include Amr Moussa, the secretary general of the League of Arab States; Nabil El-Arabi, former judge in the International Court of Justice and permanent representative of Egypt to the United Nations; and Nabil Fahmy, former president of Egypt's top administrative court and a past ambassador to the United States.

“Foreign Agendas”

By Husam Itani
This commentary was published in al-Hayat on 11/02/2011

Among the common jokes circulating in Egypt nowadays is that the youth are heading to the Soor Elazbakeya and Faggala bookshops areas to purchase the “foreign agendas” which the media outlets and the government officials keep talking about.

These agendas feature numerous pages according to those who warn against them, since the foreign powers wish to dismantle the Arab region into small sectarian components which would easily be led toward infighting. These foreign powers also want – on another page – to impose policies going against the interests of the Arab populations. In order to explain this phenomenon, it is said that the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings are the second stage of what was witnessed in Iraq in terms of foreign invasion, and that Yemen is a middle-ground condition in which the “agendaists” (those carrying agendas) tried to topple the rule by force through the Houthis in the North and Al-Qaeda and the secessionists in the South, before moving to the demonstrations approach following the victory of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s rule in the war over the Houthis.

They are thus saying that the plan will proceed and move to other Arab countries which constitute the Arab regime that is the backbone of stability and moderation in the region. As for the last goal of these agendas, it has not yet been agreed on. Consequently, there is talk about the fact that it will guarantee the expansion of the Persian imperial project to lead the region into the hands of Shiization and the governance of Wileyat e-Faqih. On the other hand, some assure that the goal behind the mobilization of the Arab street is the tightening of the siege around the region’s capabilities, and the imposition of a peaceful solution for the Arab-Israeli conflict, in favor of Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Among the oddities affecting these “agendas” is that they are subject to ridicule as long as their content is limited to the moderate Arab countries. Indeed, based on this viewpoint, the current incidents are due to the tyranny exercised by pro-Western regimes that wasted their countries’ capabilities on the altar of the alliance with Israel and America.

However, as soon as ideas emerge regarding similar events in Syria or regarding the contradiction of the Iranian position which is officially supporting the Arab demonstrations and practically preventing any demonstrations in solidarity with Egypt’s and Tunisia’s youth – not to mention the bloody oppression that was seen following the Iranian presidential elections in June 2009 – all hell breaks loose with talk about the Zionist targeting of Syria’s and Iran’s steadfastness against the conspiracies. In the latter two countries, there is no “domestic” scene. There is only steadfastness and deterrence against “the outside” which is a wicked conspirator. As for the signs that surfaced in the last few days regarding the attempts to alleviate the security restraints on society, they serve a policy that was launched years ago by an authority that encircles the needs of its people like a ring encircles the finger, as it is described by the knowledgeable.

In this context, the disregarding of the Tunisian model in the talk about foreign agendas is not to be neglected. This is due to the fact that the foreign motives behind the Tunisian uprising are almost fully non-existent, which does not serve the requirements of the foreign and cosmic conspiracy theory.

Therefore, if someone were to try to count the number of authors of foreign agendas, one would find that the United States, Israel, Iran and several Arab countries that have highly explosive satellite channels, are all standing together against the official Arab regime.

In today’s world, it would be better for the Arab citizens not to be naïve and ignore the concrete facts of international politics, where interests and power come ahead of anything else in drawing a general scene governed by wolves. On the other hand, it would be even better to look at the Arab domestic situations and seek their handling before any talk about foreign agendas that are definitely not to be found in Soor Elazbakeya.

Egypt:Change Within The Regime, Not Regime Change

By Amir Taheri
This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 11/02/2011

For three weeks, Iran’s state-owned media have been making a song and dance about “Islamic revolution” in Egypt.
The claim is that the protestors inn Tahrir Square in Cairo are “spiritual children” of Ruhollah Khomeini, the mullah who seized power in Tehran 32 years ago.
Here is how daily Kayhan put it:
“Khomeini’s Islam has become the axis of events and developments in the Third Millennium. A powerful Islamic bloc is emerging under Iran’s leadership.”
Notice that the editorialist, presumably a devoted Islamist , is referring to the Third Millennium of the Christian era!
Also notice that what matter for him is “Khomeini’s Islam” not Islam as such.
Last Friday, the “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenehi came out of the purdah to present himself as “The Leader of Muslims In The World” and, in two speeches, one in Persian the other in a hesitant Arabic, claimed that Tunisians and Egyptians had risen “under the banner of our revolution.”
The fact that the Khomeinist regime has no presence in Tunisia or Egypt, not even an embassy, did not stop that outlandish claim.
The Khomeinist regime is desperate to find at least some echo of its bizarre ideology somewhere, anywhere.
In March 1980, Khomeini claimed that “very soon” the tide of his revolution would “sweep the Muslim world.”
Thirty-two years later, the promised tide has not reached a single Muslim nation.
The only things that we have are the Lebanese Hezbollah, and as far as Egypt is concerned, Mohamed ElBaradei.
Even then, Hezbollah is more of a confederacy of hired guns than a genuine political movement. And ElBaradei is a dunce trying to hedge his bets by wooing the Americans.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have nothing in common with the mullahs’ seizure of power in 1979. They are more like the anti-Khomeinist revolts of 2009 following President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s disputed re-election.
Iran’s fate under Khomeinist despotism has become a warning not an example.
Tunisians and Egyptians are neither blind nor deaf. They have seen and heard what has happened to Iran and its peoples under the mullahs.
They have heard of mass executions, over 100,000 in the first three years of the regime alone, and the deaths of one million in the eight-year war against Iraq. In the past two months alone, the regime has executed 102 people, including women and children.
Tunisians and Egyptians also know that the Khomeinist regime is responsible for what the World Bank describes as “the largest brain drain” in history.
In addition, almost 10 per cent of Iran’s population have fled the country in the past three decades, the biggest migration in Iranian history.
The next reason why Tunisia and Egypt will not go the way Iran went is that political parties in those countries have not repeated the mistakes of their Iranian counterparts.
In Iran in 1979 all political parties dissolved their identity witihin that of Khomeini. Democrats accepted “walayat al-faqih” or rule by the mullahs. Communists went to mosques to pray. Feminist ladies donned black burqas and bowed to gender apartheid.
In Tunisia and Egypt, however, all parties have maintained their identity to avoid dissolution in an amorphous mass of mobs mad with revolution.
Iran’s 1979 upheaval came at a time that the idea of revolution still retained its mystique. That mystique disappeared with the disintegration of the Soviet Empire and China’s absorption into the global capitalist system. ‘Che’ Guevara no longer attracts anyone, not even as a poster.
Since 1979, a total of 113 countries have morphed into capitalist democracies in various stages of development.
Today, even Islamists in Tunisia and Egypt try to be different. Neither An-Nahda nor the Muslim Brotherhood regard Islam as a poison that should be pumped down their peoples’ throats by force.

The “unity” that Iran saw under Khomeini could only lead to despotism. In Iran in 1979, there was room for just one ideology that, as events showed, could only be imposed by force. Political diversity in Tunisia and Egypt will lead to pluralism.
Khomeinism was angry that there were too many social and cultural freedoms in Iran under the Shah, not too little. Tunisian and Egyptian protestors, however, want more freedoms not less.

More importantly, perhaps, the Shah’s regime was structured around one man. When that man decided to leave rather than stay and fight, the whole structure disintegrated. In February 1979, power in Iran was like a box of jewels abandoned in a street, waiting for someone to pick it up. The mullahs picked up the box without a fight.
In Tunisia and Egypt the demise of a president has not led to the collapse of the whole regimes.
Tunisian and Egyptian armies have declared “neutrality” as did their Iranian counterpart in 1979.

However, in 1979, the “neutrality” of Iran’s army was an act of abdication. This is not the case in Tunisia and Egypt where the army is “neutral” between a shaken despot and a street in revolt, but not neutral when it comes to the defence of the state.
In the case of Egypt, President Hosni Mubarak has held his nerve to allow a national dialogue to get under way.
In the case of Tunisia, we may have witnessed a coup in which army chiefs forced President Zine Al Abedine Ben Ali to leave.
So, if Tunisia and Egypt today are not like Iran of 32 years ago, are they following some other model?
In last week’s column I suggested that labelling the Tunisian and Egyptian events as revolutions was premature.
What we may end up with in both cases is change within the regime rather than regime change as was the case in Iran.
Each in its own way, Tunisia and Egypt may be following the model developed in a number of Asian and Latin American countries in which autocratic regimes based on the armed forces gradually evolved into democracies.
This was the case in South Korea and Taiwan and, more recently, Indonesia. It has also been the case in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Guatemala among others.
The process goes something like this: an autocracy evolves into a plutocracy that allows a widening space for dissent that, in turn, succeeds in broadening its base. In the meantime, economic success produces a larger middle class, the key ingredient for pluralist politics.
Thanks to economic development and inclusion in the global trading system, all the countries mentioned ended up looking like their democratic partners.
In every case, however, a popular movement for reform maintained the necessary pressure to achieve change of direction. Without political reform there could be economic growth but not genuine economic development. This is why the “Jasmine Revolution” in Tunisia and the freedom fest in Tahrir Square were needed to provide the necessary pressure to get the country out of an historical impasse.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Fiction Blossoms Into Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution

The second issue of The New York Times spread on my desk is from  January 15, 2011. The headline: "President of Tunisia Flees, Capitulating to Protesters."

This time, however, the report is less clear, less reassuring. Who were the protesters? What motivated them? Where will they drive the country? With most Western analysts traditionally and erroneously seeing Tunisia as "Arab" and "Islamic," could there be a "domino effect" in the Middle East?

Looking for answers, I scrutinize the large picture to the left of the headline. A sea of people fills the beautiful, late 19th-century Habib Bourguiba Avenue. Some local estimates put the number of protesters on January 14 at between 50,000 and 60,000.

These are typical, Mediterranean faces, mostly male and young--the oldest seem to be in their thirties. They look clean shaven; even with a magnifying glass I do not detect a single beard among them.

There are also some young women, but not a single headscarf, veil, or burqa. To my eyes, the event could be taking place in Barcelona, Lyon, or Naples.

As to the signs the protesters are holding, they are mostly Tunisian flags, or various symbols and slogans rejecting Ben Ali and the authoritarianism he represented in his late years. Here too, I cannot find a single reference to Allah, Islam, or the ummah (community of believers.)

All this is to say that what will most likely go down in history as the Jasmine Revolution - one of the defining political events of our time -- was, to all appearances, a secular revolution.

Ferment Follows Fiction

The uprising began on December 17 in a small town in central Tunisia -- a town very similar to the one described in Lion Mountain: arid, rugged, and in revolt. My fictional city was not at all unlike Sidi Bouzid, where 26-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi started it all by immolating himself in an appeal to the world's moral conscience; or Kasserine, where the political police and the regime's militia shot indiscriminately at protesters to teach the townspeople a lesson; or Feriana, my hometown, where townsfolk reported unspeakable crimes -- including apparently the rape of helpless women in the presence of their husbands --as I listened over the telephone to news of the unfolding tragedy.

"A Time of the Tyrants in a North African Village" read the title of Herbert Mitgang's review of my novel in The New York Times.  The revolt in Lion Mountain, led by an old woman and her one-legged Nubian servant, is mercilessly crushed by the tyrant. But the townsfolk go on with their quiet lives after burying their dead.

The young men and women of the Jasmine Revolution are the real-life sons and daughters of my fictional characters. Unlike their parents, they refused to endure the daily dread and humiliation at the hands of the regime and its omnipresent political police. This generation is fearless, valuing liberty above all. "We prefer to live with bread and water, but free of Ben Ali," they kept shouting -- and dying for it. Until, four weeks later, they toppled the dictator.

Since the first day of a revolt that slowly developed into a full-fledged revolution, cyberspace has been inundated with tweets and Facebook messages speaking of liberty, freedom of expression, good governance, pluralism, democracy, and human rights. Objectives not in line with these aspirations have been criticized and often shunned. Libya's leader Muammar al-Gaddafi and Egyptian television preacher Sheikh Qaradawi have already been ridiculed for putting an Arab or an Islamist spin on the Tunisian Revolution.

Metaphors aside, the protesters who put an end to President Ben Ali's repressive and corrupt regime are actually the educated sons and daughters of the large middle class that came to characterize the modern and secular Tunisia founded and nurtured painstakingly for decades by Habib Bourguiba. Prior to his rule, even before the French takeover in 1881, a line of nationalist leaders stretching back to the late 18th century looked to Europe and the Enlightenment for solutions to the country's problems. Tunisian identity was shaped by this specific history.

Sui Generis Tunisia

Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Libya, and Yemen have neither a strong middle class nor a tradition of modern, secular government. A revolution in one of these other states would most likely bring Islamists to power, as prevailing social science predicts. The question of whether the Jasmine Revolution will have a "domino effect" is, to my mind, a false one. If an Islamic revolution is what the peoples of these countries desire, they would achieve it without inspiration from Tunisia's secular uprising - that is, assuming their armies or secret services do not beat them to the punch.

It should be acknowledged, in fairness, that Ben Ali preserved and strengthened the foundations of Tunisian exceptionalism, furthering gender equality, access to abortion, universal free education (including higher education), and the separation of religion and state. He achieved an enviable rate of economic development for a country starved of natural resources. He helped eradicate poverty and deepened ties with Europe through tourism, trade, and cultural relations.

Unfortunately, the former president succumbed to the temptations of corruption - introduced, many believe, by his second wife, Leila Trabelsi, and her rapacious extended family. In cables leaked last month to the website WikiLeaks, former U.S Ambassador to Tunisia Robert F. Godec described with great detail and admirable intellectual honesty the mafia-like system put in place over the years by the Trabelsis to plunder the Tunisian economy. Had Ben Ali and his in-laws not gradually and inexorably built a repressive machine to protect their criminal activities, the Tunisian leader might not have left the stage in disgrace.

Despite the extensive physical damage and loss of life inflicted on the country by some die-hard elements of Ben Ali's Praetorian Guard, the tense and dangerous few days that followed the fall of the dictator did not change the objectives or the outcome of the revolution. More remarkably, and in contrast to prevailing trends in Arab governance, the Tunisian army played the role of a genuinely professional, neutral, loyal republican institution, acting in support of the civilian process.

As a result, security and normalcy have gradually returned. A provisional government that includes members of the opposition has been formed. The fine-tuning of the democratic process will certainly take time, and the state may experience some ups and downs in the coming weeks. At the very least, however, the new government has expressed its solemn commitment to total freedom of information and assembly, the release of all political prisoners, and the holding of free and internationally supervised presidential and legislative elections within six months. If he runs for office, Rashid Ghannouchi -- the exiled leader of the outlawed Ennahda Islamist party - will only find himself frustrated if his goal is to form an Islamic Republic of Tunisia.

I believe the revolution in Tunisia was just a matter of time-a popular uprising to end a system that failed to deliver the free society for which the Tunisian public has long been ready. Looking once more at the front-page picture of The New York Times of January 15, 2011 I feel pride and hope - pride for a country that has shown the world its readiness to establish a genuine, liberal, pluralistic, and secular democracy, and hope for what is to come.

Mustapha Tlili is the author of the novel Lion Mountain. He is the founder and director of the NYU Center for Dialogues, a research scholar at New York University, a senior fellow at its Remarque Institute, and member of the Human Rights Watch Advisory Committee for the Middle East and North Africa. He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. Some of the material used in this essay was first contributed by the author to Project Syndicate.

The Crumbling Anchors Of Mubarak's Support

Mubarak may be holding on for now, but every day a little bit more, his base of support is eroding beneath him.
By Ashraf Khalil from Cairo
This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 09/02/2011
President Hosni Mubarak may just find a way to survive the current waves of civil unrest rocking Egypt and at least finish out his final term in office. But with thousands of protesters occupying Tahrir Square for a 16th day, his position is growing steadily more precarious.
As Mubarak fights hard for his political life, observers are watching closely for any sign that the anchors of his reign may be crumbling. But for a healthy portion of his nearly 30 years in power, Mubarak enjoyed the status of one of the region's most secure dictators.
He defeated armed Islamists during the 1980s and 1990s, intimidated and co-opted opposition political forces, and created a new generation of wealthy businessmen whose entire livelihoods depended on his government. At the same time, he managed to keep the Muslim Brotherhood -- which long ago gave up violence -- under wraps through constant crackdowns, while using the threat of a Brotherhood takeover to convince both his own citizens and Western governments that his reign was an acceptable, stable alternative. He worked hard to ensure that no credible moderate opposition figures emerged to spoil that stark black-and-white choice, spinning each threat to his rule as if he alone were the bulwark against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism.
But as he faces the greatest crisis of his tenure, almost every one of Mubarak's traditional reservoirs of support is being subject to daily review.
The People
It would be inaccurate to say that Mubarak is universally hated in Egypt. Vast numbers of Egyptians do support him, seeing him as the kind of stern-but-fair father figure who doesn't accept any backtalk but who ultimately has the country's best interests in mind. After all, there's always someone else to blame when things go wrong: corrupt ministers, Israel, or al Qaeda.
But that reservoir of public support has been eroding steadily over the years, largely due to the fundamental unjustness of the society that Mubarak has helped build.
Issues like blatant corruption and endemic police brutality have soured untold numbers of ordinary apolitical citizens. Last summer, I attended a thousands-strong rally in Alexandria after a young man was beaten to death in public by plainclothes police officers. I found myself surrounded by people who had never before attended a protest, and each person seemed to have a personal tale of abuse, intimation, or humiliation by the police, from routine torture in police stations to mafia-style protection rackets.
Many Egyptians have been inadvertently politicized by the common bitterness of their experiences under Mubarak's heavy hand. Ahmed El Siwi, a 21-year-old engineering student in Tahrir Square told me on Tuesday, Feb. 8, "I think that a lot of this wouldn't have happened if he had just made sure his police were honorable and respectable. It's his fault really."
The National Democratic Party
There's no question of loyalty here. Mubarak's National Democratic Party (NDP) machine depends on a calibrated pyramid of patronage and corruption that centers on the president.
NDP officials have no doubt been closely watching events in Tunisia, where protesters have made it clear that simply removing Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from the equation is not sufficient. They refused to stop until all traces of Ben Ali's Constitutional Democratic Rally party were uprooted; a second wave of protests helped bring down the first post-Ben Ali government because it contained too many old regime faces. The NDP, whose headquarters along the Nile were set ablaze on Friday, Jan. 28, rightly fears the exact same result here if Mubarak does fall.
For better or worse, the party's entire fate is tied to that of Mubarak, and there are no public signs of the party turning against him. The recent mass resignations of the entire top tier of NDP leadership -- a cynical purge at Mubarak's "request" -- and installation of supposedly reformist figures is unlikely to reduce the protesters' visceral animosity toward the party. When protest leader Wael Ghonim was released on Monday, Feb. 7, after 12 days in detention, he was greeted by new NDP chief Hossam Badrawi, the symbol of the party's new reformist stance. Ghonim later said that he told Badrawi the only way he could respect him is if he resigned from the NDP. "I told him, 'I don't want to see the National Democratic Party logo in any street in Egypt. I don't want to see another NDP,'" Ghonim said in a televised interview.
The Oligarchs
Like the NDP, Egypt's massively wealthy crop of private-sector titans also owes their position, power, and profit to Mubarak's machine. But the economic toll of two weeks of unrest is still being calculated. The stock market lost 16 percent of its value before the government shut it down; it won't reopen until Feb. 13. The Egyptian pound is at a six-year low, and the vital flow of foreign tourists has disappeared at the start of what should be the high season. A report from Crédit Agricole estimated that the standoff was costing Egypt $310 million per day.
If foreign investors start pulling their money out of Egypt, some of the country's oligarchs might begin brainstorming about immediate alternatives -- if they aren't doing that already. They may seek to nudge Mubarak off the stage while preserving the basic architecture of the system that made them wealthy.
One key indicator to watch: some of the wealthiest tycoons, like Naguib Sawiris and Ahmed Bahgat, also own newspapers and television stations that could be used to bolster either the government or the protesters. Bahgat's Dream TV, for example, gave an open forum to the newly released Ghonim on Monday night, and his tearful, sincere, and emotionally raw interview helped galvanize the existing protesters and may have drawn thousands more off the fence.
The Police
The Interior Ministry remains loyal to Mubarak. But the value of that support has been greatly reduced. One of the primary narratives about the first week of protests is that the police lost its ability to control the people, and the people shook off their long-standing fear of the police state. Dozens of police stations were torched on Jan. 28, when Mubarak summoned the Army in a tacit admission that the Interior Ministry had been defeated.
Some police officers have reappeared on the streets in a positive role, directing traffic and working with volunteer neighborhood watch groups. But the protesters uniformly believe that plainclothes officers from the police and state security are still actively trying to infiltrate the Tahrir crowds to spy or act as provocateurs. The multiple ID checks that take place before anyone can enter Tahrir are partially meant to bar anyone employed by the Interior Ministry.
There are signs that the police are seeking to return to society on a more humble footing, having apologized for their excesses. Cell-phone users on Wednesday, Feb. 9, received a text message from the Interior Ministry saying, "From today our dealings with you will be with honesty, trust and lawfulness."
The Army
This is the true wild card going forward. Army troops have seemingly retained their loyalty, but they haven't yet been asked to do anything that commanders could potentially object to, such as shooting their fellow Egyptians. Mubarak, a former Air Force commander and war hero, has deep ties with the military and has always ensured that his commanders are well compensated and cared for. New Vice President Omar Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq also come from its ranks.
Like the oligarchs, the Army has profited handsomely under Mubarak's system. It is one of the country's biggest landowners and receives a healthy share of the $1.3 billion in annual U.S. funding. But if he proves unviable going forward, it may seek to gently remove him while retaining its position and perks. So far, the Army has kept its promise not to fire on the protesters, while working to ensure the safety of the many government buildings and ministries that surrounded the Tahrir area.
The protesters, meanwhile, seem a little split on whether to actually trust the Army's intentions. When I asked Ahmad Abdalla, a young movie director, last week what his biggest concern was, he said, "The Army. I hope they don't do a U-turn. I don't think they will." It's worth noting that according to multiple first-person accounts, many of the recent arrests and dentitions of journalists and human rights activists were carried out by the military police.
The Opposition Parties
Some leaders of Egypt's generally marginalized and toothless opposition parties have been willing to engage Mubarak's new government in talks. Those talks have produced no tangible results yet. But even if they did, most of these parties hold no credibility with the majority of Tahrir protesters -- who regard them as part of the same corrupt pseudo-democratic facade. The Muslim Brotherhood, however, does have the authority to speak for at least a portion of the Tahrir protesters, and its representatives have met with the government at least once. But it seems to be holding to the protesters' line that no meaningful negotiations can begin until Mubarak leaves.
Regardless of whoever is doing the negotiating, the crowds in Tahrir will remain vigilant for any backroom deal that falls short of that minimum demand.
The United States
After a week of muddled public statements, U.S. President Barack Obama's administration seems to have settled on the idea that Mubarak should go, but not necessarily immediately. The sudden violence of last week -- when pro-Mubarak gangs attacked the Tahrir protesters and international journalists -- seemed to anger the Obama administration, which flatly stated that the attacks were coordinated. It didn't say by whom, but the implication was fairly clear.
Last week's ascension of the powerful Suleiman (a former intelligence chief) to vice president could potentially reassure the Americans. Suleiman has deep ties to Washington, and as the WikiLeaks cables revealed, he was a key liaison in the rendition of suspected terrorists overseas for torture and interrogation.
There were cheers in Tahrir when Obama first stated that an "orderly transition" was necessary, but the overall attitude of many protesters toward Americans isn't so much antipathy as cynical mistrust. They don't really seem to want Washington's help in bringing down Mubarak and would probably prefer it if the United States simply got out of their way. As one sign in Tahrir put it on Tuesday, "Dear America, we're doing fine without you."
Mubarak is no doubt conducting his own checklist these days as he marshals his strength and support. One of the world's most entrenched strongmen in his time, he now finds himself fighting for the right to simply leave on his own terms.