The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Posts Tagged ‘Egypt

Egypt: A Striking Success & An Uncertain Future

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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.


Written by alexlobov

February 12, 2011 at 10:13 pm

What does it mean to be a “Failed State”?

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People sleeping on a bus in Pakistan (10th most failed state in the world) | GETTY Images

The term “failed state” has been thrown around with wild abandon for quite a while now and has only grown in popularity and public prominence since Foreign Policy magazine, in partnership with the US think tank Fund for Peace, started publishing its annual Failed States Index in 2005.

But what does it mean to be a “failed state” and what is the real impact of this index?

The ranking is based on the total scores of 12 indicators. For each indicator, the ratings are placed on a scale of 0 to 10. The total score is the sum of the 12 indicators and is on a scale of 0-120. More information on the indicators used and further methodology can be found here.

My initial qualms are simple. How comprehensive can the tracking and monitoring of these indicators possibly be for each of the 177 states included in the 2010 index? How much access are researchers going to get to a country like North Korea, for example? How many hours of work would it take to be able to effectively establish a comprehensive rating of 12 indicators for 177 states within a reasonable time frame? Questionable, very questionable.

Putting that aside, even the structure itself is flawed. There are too many problematic examples for a single blog post but here’s one. All 12 indicators are weighted equally. One of those indicators is, say, “Progressive Deterioration of Public Services.” Ok, that’s pretty important. But what about the equally weighted “rise of factionalized elites,” described, in part, as “use of nationalistic political rhetoric by ruling elites”? I can see how that could be dangerous but it’s also pretty arbitrary and I can certainly think of worse things. That means a country with no nationalism but no public services whatsoever, and a country with sparkling public infrastructure and lots of flag-waving will be ranked equal in terms of being “failed.”

Also, how these indicators are squeezed into a rating out of 10 is beyond me. How do you assign an entire country a rating for “legacy of vengeance-seeking group grievance or group paranoia”? What gives Pakistan a rating of 9.4 in this category vs. Iraq’s 9.3?

Ultimately, the index is obviously flawed, but ok, it’s impossible to create a perfect index that will sum up how 177 countries ‘failed’ to live up to a contrived ideal of perfect statehood. Which begs the question, should we even be trying? I understand that this is full of political bombast. A magazine that can tell its readers which states are ‘the worst’ and which states are ‘the best’ is surely useful. But also surely harmful.

Much of the danger arises when what the index is actually saying is compared to what people perceive it to be saying. The words ‘failed state’ set off massive psychological alarm bells, they tell potential tourists to avoid the country at all costs, they tell potential investors to put their money elsewhere and they inform the general language and framework of public debate about these countries, something that can be very damaging in the long run. When your average FP-reading punter reads the words “failed state” they don’t immediately question the methodology, they just hear massive alarm bells ringing in their head screaming “DANGER DANGER OMG!!!111.” These crushingly important perceptions can swiftly become prejudices when one considers how little thought your average reader puts into critically analysing the index itself.

These problems are exacerbated further by the articles FP prints to go along with its index. Check out, “Postcards from Hell,” a series of wonderfully cliched images of starving African people, shifty-looking ethnics with AK-47s, ominous burqas and random fire. These images have all the intellectual depth of a Michael Bay movie and do little but promote flawed pigeon-holing of entire nations into neat boxes marked “poverty” & “danger”. Things are made worse by charmingly worded accompanying captions, the writer of which seems to have trawled the thesaurus for every possible synonym of ‘bad’ but provide very little by way of explanation. For example, the caption under 32nd most failed state, Iran reads: “Clashes broke out in Tehran after a disputed June 2009 election saw President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad claiming victory over his main challenger, Mir Hossein Mousavi,” which doesn’t tell me much about why Iran is any more ‘failed’ than number 33, Liberia.

Then there’s the ‘analysis’. Robert Kaplan’s piece, quaintly titled “Actually, it’s mountains“, a stinker that was seemingly faxed-in after a 45 minute session with the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, stands out for me. Kaplan spends most of the article harping on about the problematic geographies of the countries on the list and then rounds it off with a hopeful-sounding “None of these places is doomed. Human agency can triumph over determinism.” Thanks, Rob, I feel a lot better. I suggest a new title: “Actually, it’s lazy.”

Or what about George Ayittey’s “The Worst of the Worst“, a list of a bunch of terrible dictators and all their evil transgressions. Once again liberally applying the thesaurus, Ayittey goes through his list with wild abandon, brutally deriding the “bad dude dictators” and “coconut-heads,” and mercilessly cutting them down with the sword of Western Reason while riding past on his high horse.

But what is the use of all this sensationalism? We are told that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is a bad man but there is no analysis of the complex Iranian political system where most power (including foreign policy and control of the armed forces) actually rests with Ayatollah Khamenei. We are told that Hosni Mubarak is a bad man but nowhere is it mentioned that his regime is propped up entirely by the US government. And that’s just the basics, there’s no in-depth analysis anywhere suggesting that maybe Iran is seeking a nuclear deterrent to Israel, or that Uzbekistan was used by Bush as a staging post for the War on Terror, thus giving Karimov legitimacy, or that Mubarak’s torture was not only approved but taken advantage of by America’s use of extraordinary rendition. Nope. Nada. Just lots of bad men and ‘failed states’.

And therein lies the problem with their entire concept. There is far too much weight behind the two words “failed state,” and too many conflicted definitions, to entrust the definitive explanations of entire nations to a few scantily-analysed annual magazine articles. Readers, do yourselves a favour: next time you read somewhere that a state is ‘failed’ or a head of state is ‘bad’, or a ‘dictator’ or a ‘coconut-head’, ask why. Because until we start asking why and actually analysing the global situation in a broader manner we will never find real solutions, just constant fear and further entrenchment of damagingly simplistic binary assessments of entire peoples that many already perceive as ‘the Other’.

Written by alexlobov

June 24, 2010 at 8:11 pm

Discrimination against tourists from the Gulf? Say it isn’t so!

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An article from the National (which the Majlis also picked up) made me smile:

Egypt’s ministry of tourism has established a telephone hotline to allow foreign tourists to complain about price discrimination at hotels.

The ministry launched the call-in service on July 15 in response to complaints from Gulf Arab visitors, some of whom say they have been quoted higher rates because of their perceived wealth.

I too have been to Cairo and actually faced the double whammy of discrimination, when people found out I was Australian and later when I mistakenly started speaking Khaleeji Arabic to them (I later learned to convert to Egyptian Arabic in key situations).

A hotel that has asked a guest to pay US$200 (Dh735) on a room that would have gone for $100 could wind up paying 10 times the difference, or $1,000, in penalties to both the guest and the hotel association.

In the most severe or repeated cases, the association can strip a hotel of its licence.

That penalty is peanuts compared to the volume of cash handled by Egypt’s large, international-class hotels. The real concern for hoteliers, said Marwa Salem, the assistant public relations manager for Cairo’s Semiramis Intercontinental, is the hotel’s reputation among high-spending Gulf Arabs. [The National]

Indeed, unfortunately for Khaleeji (mostly Saudi) tourists, and of course the rest of those unlucky shmos who either don’t have the wherewithal or the looks to pass of as Masri at least for a few minutes while negotiating the price of a rug, this only applies to hotels. So you shall continue to overpay at Khan el-Khaleeli, at the qahwa, in the taxi and probably pretty much anywhere else you can think. I like to think of it as a form of income redistribution – I clearly have enough money to enjoy such luxuries as international travel, taxi driver Ahmed (of “teksi ya basha?” fame) clearly needs to feed his family of 11 children living in the poor part of Giza (I kid you not, I had many taxi drivers spend the whole trip wailing about how they have another child being born or their mother-in-law needs an operation or the perceived injustice of the system, maintaining my conversation in Arabic at this point proved difficult and I was reduced to replying with “aywa”, “sa7” and “inshallah” only). So why not spend a few extra Egyptian pounds and allow the man to buy that extra pack of Cleopatras today or that delectable fuul sandwich?

“The pyramids don’t change from year to year. We come here for the films. They show the newest movies, and we don’t have movies in Saudi Arabia,” said Bander al Otaibi, 26, a banker from Riyadh, who was enjoying a fruit drink in the lobby of Cairo’s Intercontinental City Stars on Wednesday afternoon. [The National]

Enjoying “a fruit drink” indeed! Let’s not beat around the bush here, perhaps these Saudis should head down to Bahrain like their brothers from Khober, Dammam and Dhahran do every bloody weekend, and fill the streets with their easily recognisable license plates and terrible driving… and perhaps they can get their newest movies, their “fruit drinks” and whatever other “entertainment” they are seeking… all at a fair (or at least equal) price!

Written by alexlobov

August 5, 2009 at 1:56 pm