zunguzungu

Tag: Egypt

Knowing and Unknowing the Egyptian Public

“One of the greatest obstacles to any fruitful theory of genre has been the tendency to treat the genres as discrete. An ideological approach might suggest why they can’t be, however hard they might appear to try: at best, they represent different strategies for dealing with the same ideological tensions”

–Robin Cook, 1977 essay, “Ideology, Genre, Auteur,”

I’ve been thinking about Jay Rosen’s piece on “The ‘Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators’ Article,” in which he defines articles like this, this, this, and this, as a genre by reference these formal markers:

1.) Nameless fools are staking maximalist claims.
2.) No links we can use to check the context of those claims.
3.) The masses of deluded people make an appearance so they can be ridiculed.
4.) Bizarre ideas get refuted with a straight face.
5.) Spurious historicity.
6.) The really hard questions are skirted.

Rosen has the beginnings of an answer as to why the genre has an appeal:

…here’s a guess: almost everyone who cares about such a discussion is excited about the Internet. Almost everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away. When we nod along with Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators we’re assuring ourselves that our excitement is contained, that we’re being realistic, mature, grown-up about it.

I think this is right, as far as it goes. But I begin with a citation from Robin Cook’s fairly canonical argument about cinematic genre because he’s emphasizing the importance of placing generic formations in their broader discursive context, and I think this is precisely what we need to do with this brand of writing, now that we‘ve (Rosen) identified its formal characteristics. Its coherence is linked to the problem it seeks to solve and how, the work it takes as its project to do.

Cook’s argument, for example, is that a Film Noir like The Big Heat and a Western like Rancho Notorious are not only part of the same conversation — which he argues here, for example — but that the position they take in that conversation (how they resolve the problems they raise) is at least a partial function of the narratives encoded in the generic structures they employ. To oversimplify: while the Western and the Film Noir are talking about the same kinds of social tensions, anxieties, or contradictions, the position they take on those questions (the answers/resolutions they give) are distinctly organic to their particular generic forms. Context, then, is key: we understand the relationship between Western and Noir (and the function of those generic markers) by placing them as different dialogic parts of a single conversation.

The goal of doing so would be to liberate the concept of genre from its purely formal characteristics. By attacking “the foolishness of regarding [genres] as discrete and fully autonomous on the grounds of their defining iconography,” as Cook puts it, he wants us to see that the Western or the Noir are coherent ideological structures, not simply a set of clichéd forms. You know it’s a Western, in other words, not because of the simple presence of railroad, lawman, cowboy, Indian, etc, but because of the narratives that these motifs are being used to put forward, the particular kind of story the Western tells about history, progress, gender, and race.

My version of Rosen’s argument, then, would be this: it is a fantasy of a particular kind of credulousness, which is then so soberly refuted (by sober debunkers) that the overriding impression left for the audience is only of the performance of seriousness itself, and of the credulous enthusiasm which has been dismissed.

Take this bit of rhetoric — much derided — from Malcolm Gladwell:

…surely the least interesting fact about them is that some of the protesters may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another. Please. People protested and brought down governments before Facebook was invented. They did it before the Internet came along. Barely anyone in East Germany in the nineteen-eighties had a phone—and they ended up with hundreds of thousands of people in central Leipzig and brought down a regime that we all thought would last another hundred years—and in the French Revolution the crowd in the streets spoke to one another with that strange, today largely unknown instrument known as the human voice. People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other. How they choose to do it is less interesting, in the end, than why they were driven to do it in the first place.

The assertion of eternal verities (people will always) alongside controlled contempt (Please.) and the repeated invocation of what is and isn’t “interesting” all adds up to an argument from an authority derived from the seriousness of his rhetoric: we know he’s a serious guy because he sounds serious, and because the people he’s criticizing are saying things that go against eternal verities, and because they cause a serious person to need to control his contempt (and we know they are contemptible because he is serious). It’s a recursive tautology; what you get is a blank stage in which there are two actors, the twitter-utopian and the debunker, and the staging and background (and object of debate) left insubstantial, immaterial. The rhetorical foreground fills up the camera while the historiographic background is left out of focus.

Rosen suggests that this allows the “really hard questions” to be skirted, and that’s true, but I think it also accomplishes something else through the blankness of the absent backdrop: the Western generalist (Gladwell) gets to retain Serious Authority. The man who knows nothing about Egypt still gets to Seriously Know, precisely because it‘s only a dialogue between two Western speakers. And this, I think, is the real key. It isn’t just that really “hard” questions get skirted; it’s the fact that Egyptians are driving this narrative — and that if we want to understand it, we have to know something about Egypt in its particularity — that makes these people nervous.

After all, the question of social media will, in the end, always turn into a question of the particular social reality it’s mediating. Which is why I would add to Rosen’s list another generic trait: the invocation of “people will always” as an explanation, something that always strikes me as a sign of a weak and unadventurous mind. People don’t “always” do anything. People are unpredictable. But they don’t do strange and unexpected things because they‘re irrational; people get called “irrational” when their rationality is not as apparent to us as we’d like to think it is. People always do what they do for a reason, but when we don’t know what that reason is, calling it irrational is a way of papering over the fact that we don’t actually understand.

In this case, for example, the idea that “People with a grievance will always find ways to communicate with each other” is flatly inadequate. Egypt had a grievance for three decades, yet they only started finding a way to communicate and coordinate with each other (on a massive scale) in the last few years. The Egyptian uprising happened when it did for good reasons, and eternal verities about what people will always do give us less than no purchase on that problem. But to even have the conversation about social media starts taking people like Gladwell way out of their comfort zone.

In other words, to understand why the Egyptian revolt happened when it did, we’d have to learn something about Egyptian history, about the Kifaya movement, and about how Egyptians were actually using blogs and facebook. Which would mean that a generalist intellectual about everything (and nothing in particular) like Malcolm Gladwell would suddenly find himself having to listen to a specialist like Charles Hirschkind, or even — ye Gods! — Egyptians themselves. But it’s less about who as what; the source of Hirschkind’s knowledge about how blogs were used to lay the foundation of the Egyptian revolution is, ultimately, not his own Deeply Serious intellect, but the fact that he’s been studying the formations of publics in Egypt for decades now. It’s the fact that Egypt is particular and similar only to itself (and that he’s been paying attention to it) that allows him to weave together this narrative, for example:

What was striking about the Egyptian blogosphere as it developed in the last 7 or so years is the extent to which it engendered a political language free from the problematic of secularization vs. fundamentalism that had governed so much of political discourse in the Middle East and elsewhere. The blogosphere that burst into existence in Egypt around 2004 and 2005 in many ways provided a new context for a process that had begun a somewhat earlier, in the late 1990s: namely, the development of practices of coordination and support between secular leftist organizations and associations, and Islamist ones (particularly the Muslim Brotherhood)—a phenomenon almost completely absent in the prior decades. Toward the end of the decade of the 90s, Islamist and leftist lawyers began to agree to work together on cases regarding state torture, whereas in previous years, lawyers of one affiliation would almost never publicly defend plaintiffs from the other.

Gladwell can’t take part in this conversation, except by dismissing it. Which is why he must dismiss it: to deal with it on its own terms — a topography of knowledge defined by a meridian set in Cairo — would lead him away from his ability to speak about all people all the time. It would prevent Western Authority from having a monopoly on the truth of all people.

Let me push this even farther. Rosen writes that “everyone is a little wary of being fooled by The Amazing and getting carried away,” and this, again, seems right to me, but I think the fear runs deeper than simply a desire to not look foolish or of being wrong. Revolution is scary because it’s unpredictable. Hell, democracy is scarily unpredictable. And respect for democracy will require accepting that the Egyptians might do things we wouldn’t do if we were in their place, choices that may seem — to us — irrational, but only because the source of their rationality is unavailable to us. It will mean accepting the legitimacy of political rationalities we may not share, and which dismissing as “irrational” would only reveal us to be crypto-colonialists, willing to allow them to have democratic choice only between the options we’ve chosen for them.

Note, for example, how many Western commentators have demanded guarantees that a democratic election in Egypt will produce a government we like. And the assertion that if democracy leads to Islamist rule (of any type), then obviously Egypt isn’t ready for democracy. The colonialist assumption of privilege that underpins that kind of thought process is staggering, as is its explicitly anti-democratic preference: before we can accept Arabs making choices for themselves, we have to know what those choices will be. Only choices that have already been vetted in Washington are to be allowed. And thus: only we get to have democracy.

To return to the conversation about new media, one of the pitfalls of dubbing this a “facebook revolution” would be if we allowed the social topography in which facebook is used to disappear. The straw man that people like Gladwell invent are doing this, turning Egyptians into tools of their media tools. But this is also precisely what Hirschkind is not doing when he places blogs and facebook in their socio-political context: it is precisely because of pre-existing political problems — the fact that Islamists and secularists were not talking to each other — that blogs and other online organizing platforms, like facebook, could become so useful. Conversations that could not be had in person could be had online, which then led to face-to-face conversations, which then made collaborative action possible.

To build on what seemed to be the consensus of Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, the importance of social media is particularly to be found in the sense and performance of Egyptian public identity that it enabled, both the identity and political rationality which were suddenly seen to widespread. Routine state terror has been omnipresent for decades, but what we heard over and over again was that a facebook page like “We Are All Khalid Saeed” could became a means of rendering that experience — which so many people silently had in common — something which could be publicly knowable as a common experience. This move — taking something privately experienced, and making it publicly knowable — is a powerful thing.

As Edward Said put it in Permission to Narrate (in a quote I was reminded of here):

Facts do not at all speak for themselves, but require a socially acceptable narrative to absorb, sustain, and circulate them. . . . as Hayden White has noted in a seminal article, “narrative in general, from the folk tale to the novel, from annals to the fully realized ‘history,’ has to do with the topics of law, legality, legitimacy, or, more generally, authority.”

Before the recent past — goes this interpretation — state terror in Egypt was ubiquitous, but it was not so easily and widely known to be ubiquitous. So however common it might have been, each fact and incident of torture and state violence was mostly knowable as isolated, particular. Which makes sense: in a country whose media was tightly controlled by a dictatorial apparatus, there were few available socially acceptable narratives which could absorb, sustain, and circulate them. Moreover, even if everyone knew that state terror was ubiquitous, they didn’t necessarily know that everyone else knew it too: they might have known that they — and anyone — could suffer the fate of Khalid Saeed, but they didn’t know, for sure, that everyone else knew this as well. In other words, Egyptians might have been united by the fact of being vulnerable to be tortured to death by their government, but the internet allowed them to see and understand that they all understood themselves to be this, that all were united in disgust and rage. This is the fertile seed-bed for revolt: knowing that if you stand in front of a tank, you will not be alone in doing so.

And this is what I think the main function of the “Twitter Can’t Topple Dictators” article, and the ideological function that defines its genre: the disappearance of Egyptian social consciousness as the prime driver of events. Against the straw-man of techno-determinism, someone like Gladwell is enabled to argue that this has nothing to do with what Egyptians think of Egypt, nothing to do with a century of accumulated thought, emotion, identity, and narrated experience — most of which is unavailable to Gladwell, and which most Americans find strange and foreign. Instead, it is something safe and easy, something we, in the West, can safely opine and claim authority over: ourselves. The French revolution, the fall of communism, and Universal Western History. In an implicit — but constitutive — dialogue with those who would tell us that this is about Egypt, it comes along to tell us that it’s not.

Everywhere Tahrir

“The Winter Uprisings in Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt and Yemen have shaken western and Arab confidence in the sustainability of the current models of “competitive” authoritarianism. These were not bread riots; they were illustrations of political gangrene…in the end the Winter Uprisings are political, not merely economic. They cannot be reduced to economic “reforms,” pice checks and micro-finance. They are putting strains on the Arab political order in its full diversity. And the youth driving the Winter Uprisings appear not to be satisfied when thrown a bone — they deserve steak. In the span of two months they have seen two long-sitting autocrats make shaken and desperate public appeals in response to their actions and watched one of them make a run for the Gulf. Whether Tunisia or Egypt or some other Arab polity turns out a revolution or a serious political change, these uprisings will be serious political and historical importance going forward. These are exciting, perplexing times indeed.” (TMND)

I, like not a few Americans, am excited and perplexed. To help me understand these times — and you, if you like — I’ve spent the last couple hours collecting and collating the best short-term, English language accounts I could find on what’s happening right now across the Greater Middle East and North Africa, in synchrony with (if not in imitation of) what’s been happening in Egypt.

There have been quite a few persuasive calls (particularly from historians) to resist the urge to see this as one thing, a single “Winter Uprising” as Kal put it above. Manan, for instance, and Gretchen Head. And I agree. But no one would deny that people in Egypt were watching what happened in Tunisia and interpreting it in their own ways, and the rest of the world is sure as hell watching what happened in Egypt. And while this is not exactly Nasser 2.0, the idea of an Egyptian led Pan-Arabism is certainly on the minds of at least some (and in the nightmares of others). As Lamis Andoni writes:

The Egyptian revolution, itself influenced by the Tunisian uprising, has resurrected a new sense of pan-Arabism based on the struggle for social justice and freedom. The overwhelming support for the Egyptian revolutionaries across the Arab world reflects a sense of unity in the rejection of tyrannical, or at least authoritarian, leaders, corruption and the rule of a small financial and political elite.

Arab protests in solidarity with the Egyptian people also suggest that there is a strong yearning for the revival of Egypt as a pan-Arab unifier and leader. Photographs of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the former Egyptian president, have been raised in Cairo and across Arab capitals by people who were not even alive when Nasser died in 1970. The scenes are reminiscent of those that swept Arab streets in the 1950s and 1960s.

Palestinians protest in support of uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia:

Gaza celebrates news of Mubarak stepping down:

And in a village in Galilee, watchers of Al Jazeera broke out in “spontaneous praise of Allah’s and Google’s miraculous feats, in exchanges of congratulations and backslapping and in happy laughter”:

In two more minutes the sound of fireworks filled the village evening hush. I stepped out for a fuller appreciation of the event and heard the distant sound of fireworks from neighboring Palestinian villages and the beeping of horns in our streets. We rang the late guests and were told that they have been held up at the entrance to Arrabeh, our village, by the flood of cars on its main street. Minutes later another nephew of mine returned and described the seen in the main square of Arrabeh as being in full spontaneous celebratory mode. He likened the atmosphere to that of the day Iran beat the USA 1:0 in the World Cup football tournament. Toufiq called to congratulate and to cancel our picnic. Al-Jazeera ran a steady listing of Arab capitals where the jubilant crowds broke out in celebration of Egypt’s historic achievement. Another nephew sent an MSN message that said: “Crowds pored out in the streets of Arrabeh.” But Al-Jazeera didn’t show it. Ali, a retired teacher from Arrabeh who happened to land in Cairo’s Independence Square on January 25 and whose Journalist son was detained overnight by the Egyptian police, jokingly took credit for “stirring things up there.” Then he added: “I am off to Amman tomorrow.” I told Toufiq over coffee this morning: “This is the most pan-Arab solidarity I have seen since 1970 when we walked in the funeral procession for Jamal Abdul Nasser.”

“But this is different,” he said. “This sets a precedence.” Then in a low conspiratorial voice he confided: “Mark my word: The day will come when scores of millions of young people from the Middle East and Europe will march peacefully as one man on Israel and Palestine and force freedom and civility on us. We have to start preparing to meet them at the borders. It may require another Mjaddara picnic for the current bosses. Who knows?”

(Worth noting: the Palestinian Authority has worked to suppress Palestinian protests in solidarity with Egypt)

In Algeria, thousands of protesters faced off against many more thousands of police who had created a defensive ring around the capital.

Al Jazeera reports that

“2,000 protestors were able to overcome a security cordon enforced around the capital’s May First Square, joining other demonstrators calling for reform…Protesters are demanding greater democratic freedoms, a change of government, and more jobs.

Earlier, police also charged at demonstrators and arrested 10 people outside the Algiers offices of the opposition Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), as they celebrated Mubarak’s downfall, Said Sadi, RCD leader, told AFP news agency. “It wasn’t even an organised demonstration. It was spontaneous. It was an explosion of joy,” he said.

More video. And a ton of media collated here. Washington Post reports that more than 400 people were arrested (I’ve heard much higher figures) and that 28,000 security forces were deployed to disperse crowds. Here we have a picture — interestingly — of female police arresting a female protester (while male security people in the background arrest males); they’re trying to avoid inflammatory images, I’m sure:

The Moor Next Door will be your source for commentary on what’s happening in Algeria; his modestly titled “Incomplete thoughts on the Algerian Situation” and “More Incomplete Thoughts on the Algerian Situation” are highly informative, and “incomplete” only in the sense that the present tense always is. Highly recommended. And just because, here’s an aggregation of a series of his tweets from the last few hours (along with his retweets of other people; so very postmodern):

Algerian authoritarianism more smoothly mixes Arab & Eastern Bloc techniques than Egypt, Tunis. We must understand the lessons of Egypt and Tunisia but we must also read our own. Failure to do so will lead to failure.

Likelihood of Tunisian/Egyptian success is low but it will erode the regime’s ability to continue as is. If it continues or escalates the regime won’t be overthrown but will be forced to make concessions. How much loss can Regime recover: 100, 500, 1000 Algerians? Then convince the eyes of the world we’re killing each other AGAIN?

So far, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has promised to lift Algeria’s 19-year long state of emergency and cut the cost of some commodities.

Yemen

Yemen is another hot spot, where those of us who have been focused on Egypt will hear some familiar slogans and names:

“Government supporters armed with traditional knives and batons broke up a pro-democracy march on Saturday by 2,000 Yemenis…Some 300 anti-government student demonstrators assembled at Sanaa University on Saturday morning. As numbers swelled into the thousands, they began marching towards the Egyptian embassy. “The people want the fall of the government,” protesters chanted. “A Yemeni revolution after the Egyptian revolution.” But a group of government supporters armed with knives and sticks confronted the protesters at the central Tahrir Square. Scuffles broke out and the pro-government activists used traditional knives and batons to force the anti-government protesters to flee.

Yemen’s President (for the last three decades) Ali Abdullah Saleh has made some familiar concessions, vowing not to extend his presidency after his term expires (in 2013), not to pass government reins on to his son, and promising to make some important concessions of electoral procedure.

Via the Angry Arab, this first-hand account gives a lot more details about Friday’s  (more spontaneous) protest, the one seen above, set the stage for Saturday’s:

“Responding to former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak’s decision to step down, independent Yemeni activists in the capital city of San’a called for a candle light vigil to celebrate the events. By 8:30 in the evening hundreds of Yemeni students, academics, activists and citizens gathered in front of the new university. It was very spontaneous. One activist told another activist ‘why dont you have a celebratory candle vigil for Egypt?” some phone calls were made and people gathered quickly. The timing was right in terms of the qat chewing cycle. People had been home chewing and talking and watching al Jazeera for hours. Soon their numbers grew to the thousands. People chanted in support of Egypt. Chants included:  “The Egyptian people brought down Mubarak”  “Long live the Egyptian people” “Revolution until victory”  “One thousand greetings to al Jazeera” and other chants for Egypt which soon became chants focusing on the Yemeni regime such as: “yesterday Tunisia, today Egypt, tomorrow Yemen will open the prison”  “down with the regime”  “the people want the regime to collapse” “revolution oh Yemen from San’a to Aden” “the Yemeni people is fed up with Ali Abdallah Salih”  They decided to march to the Egyptian embassy. It took an hour and as they marched their numbers grew to the thousands. They marched past neighborhoods and were cheered by onlookers. They were eventually met by soldiers guarding the Yemeni embassy and they turned around and gathered in San’a’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square.

By about 10:30 pm several trucks full of heavily armed soldiers began to arrive but until then the demonstration had been peaceful. At least ten army trucks carrying dozens of men in civilian clothing who are likely members of the Yemeni security forces arrived as did many security force pick up trucks and jeeps. Hundreds and hundreds of men in civilian attire carrying sticks, knives as well as automatic weapons arrived carrying pictures of President Saleh. They attacked some demonstrators with knives and sticks and at this the majority of the anti-regime demonstrators dispersed. Hundreds of uniformed members of the Yemeni security forces were present facilitating the arrival of those chanting support for Saleh. The security forces also closed off the roads in the area of Tahrir square, allowing only pro regime demonstrators in who came running with signs, sticks, knives and automatic weapons.

The remaining few hundred anti regime demonstrators lasted for a while with a few dozen of them sitting on the street. There was some pushing back and forth as the columns of pro and anti regime demonstrators met, and some water bottles thrown back and forth. But dozens of police in riot gear separated the two sides. Anti regime demonstrators burned pictures of Saleh. They shouted at the pro regime demonstrators “army wearing civilian clothes!”  Pro regime demonstrators shouted “with our spirits with our blood we sacrifice for you oh Ali!”  Anti regime demonstrators responded by chanting “oh oh leave oh Ali” and “oh god oh god down with Ali Abdallah” Demonstrators on both sides danced and sang.   Then hundreds more pro regime demonstrators charged them and pushed them forcing them all to flee. This happened under the eyes of the chief of security for the area, hundreds of various security forces and the general secretary for San’a, Amin Jum’an. In the end thousands of pro regime demonstrators had occupied the square singing, banging on drums and dancing. At least ten anti regime demonstrators had been arrested.  Demonstrations were more violently suppressed in Aden and there were said to be over ten thousand demonstrators in the central town of Ta’iz.”

In Jordan, weekly Friday demonstrations (like this one from January 28th) have been going on for some time:

And have already borne some fruit; King Abdullah II sacked his cabinet on February 1st in response. Ziad Abu-Rish, however, describes some of the particularities of Jordan’s situation:

Jordan shares many of the structural features and governing practices that have inspired the mass mobilizations in both Egypt and Tunisia. These are primarily authoritarian systems of rule that offer little in the way of accountability and civil liberties as well as a neoliberal economic development strategy that has disempowered the average citizen vis-à-vis meeting her basic needs. However, whereas demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia have been focused on regime change, protests in Jordan over the past four weeks have called for changes in the government (which is appointed by the regime) as well as serious (as opposed to cosmetic) reforms that would fundamentally address the political and economic problems facing Jordanian society.

…there has been an effective rhetorical separation between the Monarchy (i.e., the regime) and the government (i.e., the royally-appointed Cabinet). In other words, political discourse in Jordan has represented contemporary politics (whether the government, the formal opposition, or any of the state institutions) in the Kingdom as separate from the role of the Monarchy. This is partly a function of the legitimacy of the Monarchy [which is different than that of the “republican” regimes of Egypt and Tunisia; the Hashemite dynasty claims descent through the Prophet Mohammad as well as the leading role in the “Arab Revolt” against the Ottoman Empire]. It is also a function of the fact that law and violence have enforced this separation. Equally important, the Monarchy has in many ways set itself up as the vanguard of reform in the Kingdom, claiming to both plot the course of reform and manage its dangers. Barring some type of radicalization of the public, this separation and the legal violence that underpins it has had a real effect on the nature of political demands being advanced…One of the difficulties in gauging public perception of the King is that various forms of political speech, especially those concerning the Monarchy, continue to be criminalized. Thus, it is literally impossible to speak freely of the King. Feelings about the King and the Monarchy are probably much more complex than a dichotomy between unwavering loyalty and calls for its abolition offer. However, it is impossible to grasp this complexity absent the necessary conditions to protect the rights of people to freely express their position on the issue.

[In addition] the dynamic of top-down regime-managed political reform has offered several controlled outlets for public frustration (e.g., organized demonstrations, new media forums, parliamentary elections) while maintaining the concentration of power in both the polity and the economy. This strategy has sometimes responded to public demands (e.g., the sacking of the Cabinet of Samir al-Rifa’i) while at others has pre-empted them (e.g., calling for national consensus on a new election law). Thus, unlike in Tunisia and Egypt, the “reform game” is still playing itself out in Jordan.

In Morocco (above), daily protests have been ongoing for some weeks and there is, apparently, a big one scheduled for February 20th. But as Gretchen Head noted, Morocco isn’t Egypt:

One of the fundamental things that has been consistently ignored as Morocco is included in Tunisia’s and Egypt’s ranks is the populace’s view of its own government’s legitimacy, considerably more complicated than the Tunisian or Egyptian examples, both of which were/are characterized by the complete lack thereof. The Alaouite dynasty, however, stretches back to 1631 and claims descent through the Prophet, specifically through his daughter Fatima al-Zahra and her husband, ‘Ali, the fourth Caliph. The current king’s grandfather Muhammad V was not only the hero of the independence struggle — a figure who had defied the French, was exiled to Madagascar as a result, and who staged a triumphant return — he was, additionally, the amir al-mu’minin, or commander of the faithful. Muhammad VI holds the same title, and the dual role of political and religious authority, which is the characteristic feature of the Moroccan monarchy, continues to carry resonance with the population at large. In short, Ben Ali and Mubarak were/are reviled by the people whom they govern/ed; significantly, in Morocco, even among those who want reform, Muhammad VI is not.

In Kuwait and Bahrain, rulers are distributing cake for the masses to soften protests:

The ruler of Kuwait has announced the distribution of $4bn and free food for 14 months to all citizens, although his country is not facing any protests. Each of the 1.12 million native citizens will get $3,572 in cash as well as free essential food items until March 31, 2012, Kuwait’s emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah was reported to have said.

Bahrain’s king has decided to give $2,650 to each family on the Gulf island, the latest step the Sunni rulers have taken to appease the majority Shia public before protests planned for next week. Although most analysts do not see any immediate risk of revolt, the kingdom is considered the most vulnerable to unrest among Gulf Arab countries.

Bahrain reportedly has protests scheduled for next week, though it’s hard to find much about it.

But, as “Kholud” writes pseudononymously from Saudi Arabia:

…not all Arabs are rejoicing on the streets. In Saudi Arabia, most celebrated in the comfort of their homes, where they would not get in “trouble.” So we did the same and went to a friend’s house party instead. Um Kulthum’s “Lil Sabr Hdud” (Patience has its limits) was blaring from huge speakers. Women and men were dancing, hugging, smiling. Many were still crying tears of relief, of disbelief. Some were even tapping their forefinger at the bend of their elbows, like heroin junkies, to show that Arabs still have a pulse, that yes, despite it all, we are still alive. That despite it all, we crave more of the victories that the Egyptians and Tunisians have reminded us we are capable of. And yet, despite it all, I returned home alone with an overwhelming sense of defeat, hoping that some live footage of Arabs celebrating outside of Saudi Arabia would cheer me up, remind me how momentous this night is. And sure enough, it did, and I started shedding tears of joy again. Until my partner in crime called me, relaying what an aide to the Saudi King had just asked him in surprise: “Really? You still have hope that anything will change here?”

(Tweets from Saudi Arabia)

And in Syria, the response to Egypt and Tunisia has been similarly muted; as AJE reports, “in addition to the repressive state apparatus, factors such as a relatively popular president and religious diversity make an uprising in the country unlikely”:

…people in Syria are a lot more afraid of the government and the security forces than they were in Egypt,” Nadim Houry, a Human Rights Watch researcher based in Lebanon, says. “The groups who have mobilised in the past in Syria for any kind of popular protest have paid a very heavy price – Kurds back in 2004 when they had their uprising in Qamishli and Islamists in the early 1980s, notably in Hama.” The so-called Hama massacre, in which the Syrian army bombarded the town of Hama in 1982 in order to quell a revolt by the Muslim Brotherhood, is believed to have killed about 20,000 people. “I think that in the Syrian psyche, the repression of the regime is taken as a given, that if something [protests] would happen the military and the security forces would both line up together. I think that creates a higher threshold of fear.”

…Fawas Gerges, a professor of Middle Eastern politics at the London School of Economics, says Syria is one of the Middle Eastern countries least likely to be hit by popular protests, because of its power structure. He says the allegiance of the army in Syria is different than in both Tunisia, where the military quickly became one of the main backers of the president’s ouster, and in Egypt, where the army still has not taken sides. “The army in Syria is the power structure,” he says. “The armed forces would fight to an end. It would be a bloodbath, literally, because the army would fight to protect not only the institution of the army but the regime itself, because the army and the regime is one and the same.”

[Moreover] even if people dared to challenge the army and the dreaded mukhabarat intelligence service, analysts say the appetite for change of the country’s leadership is not that big. Many Syrians tend to support Bashar al-Assad, the president who came to power in 2000 after the death of his father Hafez, who had ruled the country for 30 years. “An important factor is that he’s popular among young people,” Joshua Landis, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma and author of Syria Comment, says. “Unlike Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, who’s 83, Bashar al-Assad is young. Young people are quite proud of him. They may not like the regime, they don’t like corruption and a lot of things, but they tend to blame this on the people around him, the ‘old guard’.”

But as Houry puts it:

“It will be interesting to watch how things are going to unfold over the coming few months,” he says. “The Syrians, like any other Arab household today, have their TVs turned on to Al Jazeera. They’re seeing what’s happening in Tunisia and Egypt. Freedom is an infectious feeling and I think people will want more freedom.”

And finally, let’s dream for a minute:

(Global Voices on Gabon)

The Contagion of Liberty

Gretchen Head in Jadaliyya:

Since January 15th, media discourse on the Arab world has almost uniformly coalesced around a single term, “contagion.” This is a telling semantic choice given the word’s broader associations with disease; a synonym for “infection” or “contamination,” it carries rhetorical connotations that are hardly subtle.The Wall Street Journal has analyzed Egypt’s “contagion risk” (Feb. 1st) and in the past two and a half weeks The New York Times has published at least half a dozen articles on the topic, with the same word always employed. On Feb. 2nd, for example, Sara Hamdan asked, “which countries will be most susceptible to contagion?” The risk of contagion, the susceptibility to contagion, any possibility of reading the word with a sense of neutrality is destroyed by the resolutely negative context in which we find it. And the obsession with contagion here is simply the flip side of the same coin we’ve seen for years. The political metaphor turned cliche of the “Arab street,” thought until a few weeks ago to be incapable of popular grassroots revolt, is now being homogenized in the opposite direction.

This is a very old metaphor, though, and it almost predates modern medical understanding of “contagion” itself, depending on how you gloss “modern.” In a chapter from his Ideological Origins of the American Revolution on “The Contagion of Liberty,” Bernard Bailyn began with this passage from Benjamin Rush’s 1787 speech on the American war and American revolution:

There is nothing more common than to confound the terms of the American revolution with those of the late American war. The American war is over: but this is far from being the case with the American revolution. On the contrary, nothing but the first act of the great drama is closed. It remains yet to establish and perfect our new forms of government; and to prepare the principles, morals, and manners of our citizens, for these forms of government, after they are established and brought to perfection.

Benjamin Rush was both a signatory of the Declaration of Independence and a doctor (if a very late-18th-century sort), and thus regarded the “contagion” of liberty in a very particular way. And as with many of the founders, the upheavals of the 1776 moment had become for him — by that 1787 moment — a problem that had to be solved. It was one thing to unseat a King in a revolutionary fever; but how to constitute a republic that would be safe from such contagous convulsions of liberty?

The indispensable Matt Bors.

As Jason Frank writes, in “Sympathy and Separation: Benjamin Rush and the Contagious Public” (also, the third chapter of his Constituent Moments: Enacting the People in Postrevolutionary America, just published in paperback):

Like many of his contemporaries, Rush worried about the contagious volatility of large public assemblies engendered by the Revolution. For Rush, regular gatherings of the people out of doors threatened to corrupt visions both of an orderly and emancipatory public sphere and of the virtuous and independent citizens required by republican government. Rush feared that the unregulated communication of passion between bodies gathered in public might unleash what Michael Meranze has called an “anarchy of reciprocal imitations.”

Rush believed the physician was uniquely positioned to address the physical, moral, and political health of the new nation because he could best understand the physical and physiological dimensions of virtue and vice…If not properly balanced and administered, republican governments too could degenerate into a state of popular licentiousness. For Rush, the corrupting power of popular government was best exemplified by the revolutionary politics of the people out of doors, which, by the 1780s, seemed to Rush and many others to threaten post-Independence political institutions. Because of the “political insanity” of insurgents like Daniel Shays, Rush feared post-Revolutionary Americans were entering a “wilderness of anarchy and vice.”

…Inspired by events like the “Ft. Wilson riot,” Rush eventually developed a quasi-physiological theory of the popular politics that tied political disorder to derangement of mind and body. In “An Account of the Influences of the Military and Political Events of the American Revolution upon the Human Body” (1789) Rush traced the unique impact of the “novelties” of the Revolution not simply upon the “understandings, passions, and morals of the citizens of the United States,” but “upon the human body, through the medium of the mind.”

Frank goes on to place this issue in a broader frame:

The vast expanse of American space was, of course, often considered the key to understanding America’s exceptionalism and to providing the necessary environmental conditions of free and independent citizenship. The focus is generally on the availability of Western land, and its importance to sustaining a yeoman republic. However, the discussions of the spatial distribution of citizens sometimes also focused on the dangers of contagious passion and sympathy in a small republic or in large public assemblies. In his Defense of the Constitutions of Government of the United States, John Adams, for example, wrote that because Americans “are sprinkled over large tracts of land, they are not subject to those panics and transports, those contagions of madness and folly, which are seen in countries where large numbers live in small places.”132 This concern with contagious proximity and its corruption of judgment also helped shape the political thought of the “Father of the Constitution,” James Madison himself.

Madison made this argument apparent in his Vices of the Political System of the United States, written in April of 1787 as he was preparing for the Philadelphia Convention. There Madison wrote, “the conduct of every popular assembly acting on oath . . . proves that individuals join without remorse in acts, against which their consciences would revolt if proposed to them under the like sanction, separately in their closets.” The judgment-distorting force of passions is, Madison continued, invariably “increased by the sympathy of a multitude.” Elaborating on the consequences of this insight for the extended republic of the United States, and in terms that seem to echo Adams, Madison wrote, “it may be inferred that the inconveniences of popular States contrary to the prevailing Theory, are in proportion not to the extent, but to the narrowness of their limits.”133 Popular governments were not threatened by the dispersion of an “extended sphere,” as suggested by “the prevailing Theory” of small republics, but by too much proximity.

I guess it’s a better metaphor than Glenn Beck’s image of the Egyptian revolution as uncontrollable wildfire:

Scenesetter: the US State department introduces us to Omar Suleiman

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made it clear today that Omar Suleiman is our man in Cairo:

“There are forces at work in any society, particularly one that is facing these kind of challenges, that will try to derail or overtake the process to pursue their own agenda, which is why I think it’s important to follow the transition process announced by the Egyptian government, actually headed by vice-president Omar Suleiman.”

Ah yes! “Forces at work”! Could she mean the Muslim Brotherhood? Or the protesters? The people of Egypt? Or is she plagiarizing from Mubarak’s speech the other day? Note the similarity between what Clinton said and Mubarak’s words:

“Those protests were transformed from a noble and civilised phenomenon of practising freedom of expression to unfortunate clashes, mobilised and controlled by political forces that wanted to escalate and worsen the situation…there are are some political forces who have refused this call to dialogue, sticking to their particular agendas without concern for the current delicate circumstances of Egypt and its people.”

Family friends! Anyway, some old cables from the department of state to give us a sense of who this lovely fellow is.

On Suleiman as the US government’s point-man when it comes to Egyptian Guantanemo Bay detainees, State department cable 05CAiro5924, from 2005:

…the most effective conduit for addressing this issue is through Cairo Station – EGIS Liaison. The written assurances (reftel) were passed directly from EGIS Chief General SOLIMAN through this channel. General SOLIMAN’s stature and power in the Egyptian establishment, and his history of close cooperation with the USG on counterterrorism, corroborate the Egyptian intent take responsibility for the detainees in such a way that protects both U.S. and Egyptian security interests. In addition to the written assurances regarding the detainees treatment, EGIS has conveyed orally to Cairo station that all three will be taken into custody upon arrival in Egypt and will be investigated and prosecuted in accordance with Egyptian law.

State department cable 06CAIRO2933, “Scenesetter for Deputy Secretary Zoellick’s Visit to Egypt,” from 2006:

This spring has seen ample evidence that the regime’s domestic house is not in order. Whatever this says about backsliding or latent repression, the real story here is a vacuum of leadership on domestic policy. The aging Mubarak simply does not have a domestic counterpart to the formidable Omar Soliman, his consigliere on foreign policy matters. In earlier days, Mubarak would have bargained his way out of these messes. But PM Nazif lacks the common touch and Gamal Mubarak has not stepped up to the role. This leaves the field open to the heavy handed tactics of the old guard. The litany of mis-steps follows:
— Judicial disciplinary action against two senior judges who
charged fraud in the parliamentary polls;
— Suppression of activists and demonstrators supporting the
judges, particularly on, but not limited to, May 11;
— State-influenced media attacks on reform advocates;
— Extension of the Emergency Law for two more years;
— Postponement by two years of local council elections;
— Continuing arrests and harassment of opposition activists;
— The conviction of opposition leader Ayman Nour.

State Department cable 07CAIRO1417, “Presidential Succession in Egypt,” from 2007:

Presidential succession is the elephant in the room of Egyptian politics. Despite incessant whispered discussions, no one in Egypt has any certainty about who will succeed mubarak, or how the succession will happen. Mubarak himself seems to be trusting to god and the inertia of the military and civilian security services to ensure an orderly transition. In the current political framework, the most likely contenders are presidential son gamal mubarak (whose profile is ever-increasing at the ruling national democratic party), egis chief omar soliman, dark horse arab league secretary general amre moussa, or an as-yet unknown military officer…

Egyptian intelligence chief and Mubarak consigliere, in past years Soliman was often cited as likely to be named to the long-vacant vice-presidential post. In the past two years, Soliman has stepped out of the shadows, and allowed himself to be photographed, and his meetings with foreign leaders reported. Many of our contacts believe that Soliman, because of his military background, would at the least have to figure in any succession scenario for Gamal, possibly as a transitional figure. Soliman himself adamantly denies any personal ambitions, but his interest and dedication to national service is obvious. His loyalty to Mubarak seems rock-solid. At age 71, he could be attractive to the ruling apparatus and the public at large as a reliable figure unlikely to harbor ambitions for another multi-decade presidency. A key unanswered question is how he would respond to a gamal presidency once Mubarak is dead. An alleged personal friend of Soliman tells us that Soliman “detests” the idea of Gamal as president, and that he also was “deeply personally hurt” by Mubarak, who promised to name him vice-president several years ago, but then reneged.

State Department cable 09CAIRO746, “Admiral Mullen’s Meeting with EGIS Chief Soliman,” from 2009:

During an April 21 meeting with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen, Egyptian General Intelligence Service Chief Omar Soliman explained that his overarching regional goal was combating radicalism, especially in Gaza, Iran, and Sudan…On Gaza, Soliman said Egypt must “confront” Iranian attempts to smuggle arms to Gaza and “stop” arms smuggling through Egyptian territory… Soliman shared his vision on Palestinian reconciliation and bringing the Palestinian Authority back to Gaza, saying “a Gaza in the hands of radicals will never be calm.”… On Iran, Soliman said Egypt was “succeeding” in preventing Iran from funneling financial support to Hamas through Egypt. Soliman hoped that the U.S. could encourage Iran to abandon its nuclear ambitions and stop interfering in regional affairs, but cautioned that Iran “must pay a price” for its actions… Egypt is “very concerned” with stability in Sudan, Soliman said, and was focusing efforts on convincing the Chadean and Sudanese presidents to stop supporting each others’ insurgencies, supporting negotiations between factions in Darfur, and implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). “Egypt does not want a divided Sudan,” Soliman stressed.

From 09CAIRO874, “Scenesetter: President Mubarak’s Visit,” from 2009:

EGIS Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.

The King’s Speech

As California’s sun came up this morning, I had to turn off Al Jazeera’s livestream or I wouldn’t be able to keep writing. Today is my birthday. I was born thirty two years ago, on February 2nd, 1979. Coincidentally, that’s also the very day that the Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Iran from France, after 15 years of exile. I discovered that fact when, two years ago, I worked with an Iranian who had served as part of the Shah’s government and he told me the story of what had happened on the day I was born, from his perspective (at the time, a military jail cell in Tehran). He told me that Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, had engineered an agreement between Khomeini, the Savak, and the Iranian military to allow Khomeini’s return: the US needed someone to keep the communists out of power in Iran, so they chose Khomeini, choosing — as they did in Afghanistan — to use theocrats as a weapon against the godless Soviets. We know, or think we know, what happened next.

Officially, I suppose, the US was not involved. Officially, the US was calling for restraint and stability and democracy and all that. Is it true? I don’t know. Do you? Certainly it’s plausible; our ambassador to the UN suggested that once we got over our panic, Khomeini would someday be regarded as a saint. You can find other such quotes from high Carter officials — as well as official repudiations of them — but that’s not the point. It’s clear that Carter’s cabinet was divided over how to respond to the collapse of the Shah’s regime, and my Iranian friend’s account of how Cyrus Vance wanted to throw his weight behind Khomeini, while Zbigniew Brzezinski — his National Security Advisor — wanted to stage a military coup, is fully plausible. Perhaps historians of the period can tell me what really happened. And then, again, perhaps histories of the period tell an American version of the story, and to get the truth you’d have to talk to someone like my friend, someone who witnessed what happened from a peculiarly close angle. Or somewhere in between.

I want to talk about how we know what we know, or think we know, about what it is our government does. How involved has Obama been in what is happening in Cairo? Which side has he been on? And how? This morning, as pro-government thugs attacked peaceful anti-Mubarak protesters, Obama released this press release:

The United States deplores and condemns the violence that is taking place in Egypt, and we are deeply concerned about attacks on the media and peaceful demonstrators. We repeat our strong call for restraint.

At best, these are simply empty words. The “violence that is taking place in Egypt” is taking place because someone ordered it, because someone needs it to be “taking place.” That someone is Mubarak. Do we not “know” this? Officially, I suppose, we do not. And so, officially, Obama can say nothing meaningful about what is happening, nothing more than the same empty and impotent gestures towards what should be happening, and no concrete steps to make it come about. We wouldn’t want to get involved in Egyptian business, would we? That would be imperialism. We wouldn’t want to tell the Egyptians how to go about democratically choosing their leaders. Publicly, anyway. Secretly, on the other hand, though — we are reassured by people who claim to know — Obama is doing more. He is using diplomacy.

For many, after all, the existence of — or the idea of — secret diplomacy allows us to not only entertain the possibility that Obama is secretly working for democracy, but to become strangely convinced of it. It has become something close to a certainty for a variety of commentators, something that “realistic” people know, while only only the naïve among us would demand that more be done publicly, openly. Max Bergmann, for example, wrote this yesterday, one of many such statements of deep confidence in things we are ignorant that I could have cited:

Yet, the cautious public statements likely camouflage an Administration that is very active and influential behind the scenes…I bet in a few years, when the documents are declassified or when WikiLeaks dumps another tens of thousands of pages of State Department documents, the role of the US and the Obama administration will likely be seen by historians as much more transformative and influential than it is perceived currently.

Where does Bergmann’s confidence come from? On what basis would he make that bet? He uses the word “likely” twice to cover over the fact that he is basically describing what President Bartlet would do, and assuming that Obama is playing from that script. But at most, we have only the Obama administration’s word for it that they are doing anything at all. From where, then, comes the certainty?

It’s a dynamic that has become very familiar, and I want to flag it here. When we need them to, the things that we don’t know come to seem like something other than an absence or lack of information. When their are stories we need to tell ourselves in order to maintain our self-image, when it comes to the beliefs we need to hold in order to see ourselves as the people we want or need to be, we cling to the things we don’t know as a way of disbelieving, tempering, mitigating, and overlooking the things we do know. Sure, everything we can see indicates that Obama is staying uninvolved as an authoritarian dictator uses violence to suppress popular protests for democracy. Sure it looks like we’re standing idle while Hillary Clinton’s old family friend clings to power. But that’s just for show! There’s all sorts of stuff going on that you and I don’t know about!

Maybe Bergmann will have changed his tune this morning. Of course, by the time we actually know the facts, the conversation will have moved on. No one will care anymore whether or not Max Bergmann was right; those facts will have been superseded — as they are being superseded right now, whenever you are reading this — by fast moving events. If Bergmann is wrong, he will shrug his shoulders and get back to the business of opining on current events.

I am not trying to attack Bergmann personally here; I could have picked on a variety of different people. Because what we are seeing is a liberal version of what Richard Hofstadter famously called “the paranoid style”:

Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, [paranoids] find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.

Only these are not the bad kind of paranoids, the conservative tea partiers who see only dark machinations in the secret workings of the state. These are the good kinds of paranoid, who see only benevolence in the things their state is doing that they know nothing about. Their original conception that the world of [Democratic] power is far-seeing and wise is fully confirmed by their lack of access to political bargaining and the making of decisions. What they do not know fully confirms what they desperately need to know: that Obama is “Handling Egpyt Pretty Well,” as Marc Lynch put it, five days and an eternity ago. I wonder if he still thinks that?

I don’t, and didn’t then. And the reason is that nothing in history leads me to suspect that Obama and his government are doing or would ever do anything but maintain Mubarak’s legitimacy as long as they can, and that, failing to keep him in power, they would work to engineer his replacement by someone who will do the same things he did, or as close as they could manage. The United State has always cared less about democracy in the Middle East than they have for every and any other consideration. We have always, for instance, thought it was more important that Israel have the kind of government in Cairo that they liked than that it be democratic. Why would that change now? We have always preferred to have a government that would give us access to the Suez and Egyptian airspace, that would crack down on “Islamists,” that would torture terrorist suspects for us when we needed them to. These things have always outweighed the US’s nominal advocacy for democratic reforms.

To think that anything has changed here, that Obama is doing anything but following the path taken by his predecessors — and him, right up until a week ago — would require some kind of evidence, right?  But nothing I’ve seen disproves my presumption that the US’s goals in the region remain, as they always have, on the side of continuity. Bergmann and Lynch and company assume that, behind the scenes, the Obama administration is quietly pressuring Mubarak to step down. I want to be proven wrong, of course; I want Obama to step up and prove them right in their faith in him.

The events of this morning indicate, to me, the crushing and complete failure of whatever it was that Obama was supposed to have been doing behind the scenes. Last night, after so many days of secret negotiations behind the scenes, Obama spoke about how:

…my administration has been in close contact with our Egyptian counterparts and a broad range of the Egyptian people, as well as others across the region and across the globe [and] we have spoken out on behalf of the need for change.  After his speech tonight, I spoke directly to President Mubarak.  He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place.  Indeed, all of us who are privileged to serve in positions of political power do so at the will of our people.  Through thousands of years, Egypt has known many moments of transformation.  The voices of the Egyptian people tell us that this is one of those moments; this is one of those times.

Now, it is not the role of any other country to determine Egypt’s leaders.  Only the Egyptian people can do that.  What is clear — and what I indicated tonight to President Mubarak — is my belief that an orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.

Obama has emphasized, over and over again, that the US will not take action; maybe that’s changing. But until now, the only honorable action has been inaction. He has praised the “professionalism” of the military, which has done no more than make sure none of the peaceful protesters were armed (a function it has strangely not carried out with respect to the pro-Mubarak mobs). He talks about how no other country should determine Egypt’s leader, by which, he means, the US will not lift a finger to liberate Egypt from the despot it worked very hard to keep in power for decades.

It is far, far too late for US inaction to be anything but complicity. I’m not sure what Obama should do. I’m not sure what he can do. But this is Obama’s mess. Whatever happens in Cairo will be on him, and on us. Obama said these words yesterday:

“I spoke directly to President Mubarak.  He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place.”

In response to a speech in which Mubarak declared his intention to serve for the last eight months of his term:

My primary responsibility now is security and independence of the nation to ensure a peaceful transfer of power…I am now absolutely determined to finish my work for the nation in a way that ensures handing over its safe-keeping and banner … preserving its legitimacy and respecting the constitution. I will work in the remaining months of my term to take the steps to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.

In other words, after Mubarak publicly insisted on overseeing the transfer of power, Obama publicly proclaimed that he had spoken to Mubarak, and that they had come to an understanding. And now, this morning, as pro-Mubarak thugs attack peaceful demonstrators — as Mohamed ElBaradei demands that the army intervene to protect protesters — we’re hearing the same thing from Obama, that “restraint” is necessary. But, of course, no one is listening to him. And that’s the point: these are just words for us.

What words did he use with Mubarak? We don’t know. It’s a secret. But I think we would be living in a different world if, instead of pretending to be a moral authority, instead of “standing for” principles he declined to lift a finger to support, he had reminded Mubarak of the things he left out of his speech, and had said what Mohannid Ali said:

Ÿ  Emergency law is still effective, which means oppression, brutality, arrests, and torture will continue. How can you have any hope for fair democratic elections under emergency law where the police have absolute power?

Ÿ  Internet is still not working, no talks of lifting censorship.

Ÿ  No talks of allowing freedom of speech, freedom to create political parties, freedom to participate in politics without the risk of getting arrested. FYI to start a political party you need the government’s permission. How do you expect democracy to come out of this?

Ÿ  He said he will put anyone responsible for corruption to trial right? What about putting the police who killed 300+ to trial? What about members of NDP who are the most corrupt businessmen/politicians in the country. Do you think he’ll put those to trial? Think again.

Ÿ  He didn’t even take responsibility for anything that went wrong in the last 30 years. Not even his condolences to the martyrs who have fallen in this revolution.

And if Obama had, publicly, made all future support to the military — all 1.3 billion that the military gets from us a year — contingent on something like this scenario:

The ousting of the regime entirely: President, government, and parliament [and] Establishing an interim (transitional) government representing everyone across the spectrum, chosen by the people, to make the necessary constitutional changes and prepare for fair democratic elections in 6 months while providing the necessary guarantees. There are lots and lots of names who can fill this interim government but everyone is concerned about the president of that transitional government, and to those I say:

Ÿ  Enough with the centralization of power. Its seems we can’t think out of the one-man-ruling-the-country box.

Ÿ  We are a country of 80 million people. Any honest decent Egyptian, who isn’t part of the current regime, could be the head of this interim government.

Ÿ  What’s wrong with ElBaradei? If you know anything about me I’m not exactly a fan of his, but we just need an honest man, who knows the necessary processes, constitutional changes and legislative changes required to establish the basis for democracy. I wouldn’t want ElBaradei or any of the current opposition leaders to be president for a full term, but ElBaradei has what it takes to put down the ground work for fair and democratic elections after 6 months. Some people say he’s too “soft” to handle the tough reality of Egypt, well you have to keep in mind a leader is only as strong as his supporters, so whichever whoever leader the people stand behind will have the necessary strength to lead this transitional phase. The circumstances of an interim government are different from a normal government. Think of it as a committee temporarily running the country with the primary focus being elections in 6 months.

Ÿ  Finally given 6 months of political freedom, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, no emergency law, and with constitutional and legislative changes, not only will we have one strong candidate for presidency, we’ll have dozens.

To add to that, here are Yasser El-Shimy (Underreported)’s suggestions for the “five steps Washington should take to expedite the Mubarak regime’s inevitable demise, and allow a transitional government to lead Cairo into democratic elections,” (via Tom Ricks):

1) Declare America’s unconditional support for the demands of Egyptian protesters, and recognition of a transitional national unity government to-be set up by the opposition. Mubarak is a dead man walking, and the sooner America sides with the winning side, the better it serves its own interests, and realizes its actual ideals. The United States must unequivocally side with the Egyptian people in their revolt. If this revolution fails, Mubarak will rule Egypt a la Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and his influence and that of his state will be substantially diminished. It will not be long before another revolution or coup, perhaps less secular and less democratic, overthrows him or his successor from office.

2) Suspend all aid that directly benefits Hosni Mubarak and his cronies, while offering shipments of medical aid through the Red Crescent to all the injured protesters. This step should further weaken the Egyptian dictator, and offer an olive branch to the Egyptians who are currently suspicious of Washington’s duplicity in keeping Mubarak in power.

3) Declare Washington’s interest in forging a special friendship with the Egyptian people, offering to advise on (and potentially fund) education, infrastructure, technology, research and development, healthcare, etc. Egypt will be in a very grave economic condition, when Mubarak leaves, and will be grateful for all the help it can receive. The police force has reportedly orchestrated widespread acts of vandalism of public and private properties to spread panic among the population. The Egyptian stock market and many foreign investments are doomed for a few years to come. The government will be hard-pressed to meet the expectations of the population in light of the damage the Mubarak regime inflicted on the country prior to its departure and the flight of foreign capital.

4) Offer a free three month supply of wheat. Bread to Egyptians is the essential food staple that they cannot do without. Egyptians will be grateful if Washington helps stabilize food supplies at this critical juncture.

5) Warn regional governments against intervening in Egypt’s domestic politics on the side of the Mubarak regime. Arab dictatorships are invested in Mr. Mubarak’s survival, as they fear a democratic wave that could sweep them from power as well. Israel is also worried about the future of its peace treaty with its southern neighbor. Of the two, Arab capitals have a stronger cause for concern.

These measures should not only ensure a friendly Cairo-Washington relationship for the foreseeable future, but should ensure the establishment of a sustainable alliance that serves both countries’ interests.

“I really consider President and Mrs. Mubarak to be friends of my family”

That’s Hillary Clinton. This is wikileaked Cable CAIRO000549, from a military briefing to General Schwartz in March of 2009:

Since our Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program began almost 30 years ago, our strong military relationship has supported peace between Egypt and Israel and ensured critical Suez Canal and overflight access for U.S. military operations. The relationship, however, should now change to reflect new regional and transnational security threats…President Mubarak and military leaders view our military assistance program as the cornerstone of our mil-mil relationship and consider the USD 1.3 billion in annual FMF as “untouchable compensation” for making and maintaining peace with Israel. The tangible benefits to our mil-mil relationship are clear: Egypt remains at peace with Israel, and the U.S. military enjoys priority access to the Suez Canal and Egyptian airspace. We believe, however, that our relationship can accomplish much more. Over the last year, we have engaged MOD leaders on developing shared strategic objectives to address current and emerging threats, including border security, counter terrorism, civil defense, and peacekeeping. Our efforts thus far have met with limited success.

Democracy is mentioned briefly, at the end, to the effect that no progress is being made (“is being stymied,” in a strategic passive voice), because the government of Egypt is skeptical about the whole business. Oh well!

%d bloggers like this: