Egypt: A Striking Success & An Uncertain Future
I’m not sure if any of my readers have noticed but my hiatus from blogging has extended for longer than it ever should have. I don’t want to make promises anymore about how often I will blog, or that this will be a full return, but I really have no excuse. I need to hop to it.
And with that, I will hop to Egypt. What more is there left to say? 2011 has witnessed, first in Tunisia and then in Egypt, the strongest display of Arab popular power in a generation. Entirely grassroots, little political organisation, no particular event to spark it (apart from the growing spectre of rising unemployment and skyrocketing food pries), suddenly the citizens of two Arab states have risen up to throw off the yoke of dictatorship that has held them enslaved for so many years.
The Arab powder keg has been written about for almost as long as the dictatorships have been in place. We’ve heard it all before: steadily growing population, demographic skew towards young people, disproportionate unemployment among young men, etc. This has been on the verge of exploding for some time, and finally, it did.
It’s too early to tell how far reaching this Arab revolution will be. The cynic in me (and full disclosure, I predicted that Mubarak would not step down on January 25th, I can admit to my errors of judgment) still thinks that this will amount to little elsewhere. Algeria seems to be the best case, but it’s unlikely that the Gulf states will see anything substantial. Among the GCC monarchs, King Hamad of Bahrain probably has the most to worry about (interesting to note his conveniently timed “gift” to Bahraini families of BHD1,000 (US$2,650) but the much talked about Saudi situation doesn’t seem at all in danger of erupting. The Syrians have shown little interest or stomach in revolting, and protests have thus far been nascent in Jordan and Yemen, though the latter two are also candidates for something bigger. It’s difficult to say, but what’s already happened has been monumental enough for a solid page in the history books.
Oh and Iran: contrast 2009′s green movement protests against the regime with Egypt and you’ll see the difference. It’s fairly clear that Ahmadinejad and Khamenei have far more support among Iranians than Hosni Mubarak ever did, and the former regime has far more of a stomach for violence, so any, more successful repeat in Tehran is but a pipe dream at this stage.
But what about Egypt? The Tunisian situation is still far from resolved, but that’s a topic for another blog post. There, it seems the concerns people had about the disorganised nature of the revolution leading to a lack of clarity about a new order have been somewhat justified up to this point.
And the same concerns exist about Egypt. In case you’ve been living under a rock, yes, Hosni Mubarak finally stepped down. But you can read the questions on everyone’s lips. Touted as a replacement by Mubarak and tacitly supported by the US, Omar Suleiman clearly isn’t popular among Egyptians. This is hardly a surprise, given the man was head of Egypt’s intelligence agency (you know, the one that tortures lots of people) and, according to Wikileaks, has told Israel (who love him very much) that he’d like “Gaza to go hungry, but not starve”. Not exactly a hero.
But who is Mohamed El Baradei? The former IAEA head and man originally considered to be a front-runner to stand against Hosni or son Gamal Mubarak in the next Egyptian election may be well known in the West and international circles, but is far from well known in Egypt. He has little political history in the country and many fear he would actually have little idea how to run it, despite lofty speeches. In any case, he seems to be putting forward a candidacy of sorts – he appeared in Tahrir square with a loudspeaker during the protests and has already written a New York Times op-ed (though how many Egyptian voters read the Times is unclear) since Mubarak’s exit.
What about the Muslim Brotherhood? Despite the fearmongering from the usual suspects, I really don’t think the MB present any kind of threat. Yes, they are still a political force in Egypt, but they are a long way away from being the dominant political force. Thanks to repeated Mubarak-era purges, they have zero ground within the army (who are now running the country, in case you hadn’t noticed) and their support among the people has never been estimated at anything even approaching 50% vote-wise. Moreover, this is not the Muslim Brotherhood of Zawahiri, Hamas or even Sayyid Qutb. The party is largely non-violent.
Amr Moussa? I confess I don’t know a great deal about the man who yesterday resigned from his post as Secretary General of the Arab League. He has a political history in Egypt, albeit, as part of the NDP and as a supporter of Mubarak. But this seems more out of political expediency rather than strong ideological agreement. Will he suffer politically for his past? Maybe.
Personalities aside, I think there are two (or three, if you consider the second to be a toss-up like I do) potential outcomes to the current disorder:
1. The military leadership (and my Pakistani friends have been the first to point out this danger) will devolve into a dictatorship that maintains its grip on power using the machinery so well established by successive Egyptian rulers over decades. Exactly what form this will take, or who it will be driven by, is difficult to say at this point. Not much is known about what exactly Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, Chairman of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, is thinking right now. But we do know that he’s a veteran of post-revolution Egyptian politics. Military-backed dictatorship is all the man has ever known, and he’s 75. Can you teach an old dog new tricks? We’ll see.
2. Elections are called. I think this is the most likely outcome. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the outcome will be positive for the Egyptian people. The opposition in Egypt is fragmented, disorganised and doesn’t have a strong foothold in the hearts and minds of the Egyptian people. The Muslim Brotherhood mentioned above may be the strongest group among them but is not strong enough to leap out and win any vote in a landslide. The Wafd party, despite some resurgence, is still largely a spent force in Egyptian politics, and while I haven’t been following events with a magnifying glass, I’ve seen little from them over the past few weeks. And the jury is very much out on external personalities like El Baradei and Moussa. Will they have the charisma, the institutional support within Egypt and the sheer personal gravitas to win an election and make their mark on the Egyptian consciousness? All signs, at this stage, point to no.
Now I am not familiar with internal NDP politics, which includes the party’s massive list of cronies and hangers on, and I don’t know which personalities within the party could emerge from the protests relatively unscathed politically and with enough clout within Egypt’s business, military and political communities to successfully run in an election. But I can say with confidence that theoretically this is a very possible outcome. The machinery employed by the state to suppress Egyptians and dominate public affairs is very well developed, strong and has been in place for some time. If a deal can be brokered with the military, I think they would much rather see an orderly transition of power to another strongman, rather than chaotic and fragmented elections that lead to some sort of unstable coalition. Militaries, by definition, normally like stability. Who could emerge from the current sinkhole that is the NDP, it is difficult to say, but some wily Egyptian politico very easily could.
And then what?
A new constitution before elections seems a total pipe dream to me. Far more likely is that the new elected government will bring a new constitution to the people, as per the demands of the protesters. But will this be a rosy constitution with all of the demands met? That too seems very uncertain at this stage.
So the bottom line is, not to detract from the amazing achievement of the Egyptian people in successfully toppling one of the Arab world’s most well-known and successful strtongmen, but the future is still very uncertain and things could still end fairly badly. We continue to hope and pray for a positive future for the Egyptian nation, now is not the time to rest on laurels.
I’d like to look further into internal political machinations in Egypt and I’d also like to separately address the role of the US and Obama Administration, as well as the impact of these events geopolitically. So you can look out for some more posts from me on these two topics.