Chaos Under the Heavens? The Situation is Excellent!

The world is transfixed by Egypt. From Aden to the cafes of Aleppo and from Algiers to the malls of Abu Dhabi, Arabs are seeing how popular movements can precipitate the fall of dictatorial regimes. Of course various potentates are also worried about their populations getting 'ideas.' The Tunisians have risen, the Sudanese are protesting, the Jordanian King sacked his government, the President of Yemen wrote to the Qatari Emir that Al-Jazeera is stirring trouble and other countries wait with baited breath. Even Jeddah witnessed a short protest after heavy rains flooded areas of the city with stinking sewage. Needless to say these protests were put down immediately. The King of Saudi Arabia, a country that seems to have taken on the role of sheltering ousted dictators and political leaders — Idi Amin, Ben Ali, Nawaz Sharif — has offered Mubarak support. Saudi newspapers focused their coverage of the protests on lootings and now have begun to play down their King's statements. Meanwhile, Mubarak seems to think that 'promising' resignation following the September elections will satiate the protesters whom he condescendingly referred to as the "young people."

Most analyses of the situation in Egypt focus on stark binary choices; old guard vs. youth, islamists vs. secularist, people vs. dictatorship. The realities of the Egyptian political arena are more complex and the people who have come together in the protests are from a different backgrounds; NGOs, youth movements, labour unions, international organisations, legal and judicial groups and feminist groups to mention but a few. The police (shurta), the central security services (amn al-markazi) and the army have historically had varying trajectories and loyalties. The army is divided so that the Air Force and Presidential Guard are still loyal to Mubarak whereas other parts of the army maintain a neutral position, at least for now. This may explain why General Tantawi went into crowds of protesters while the Presidential guard protected national TV and radio buildings and at times even attacked protesters.

The $1.5 billion of annual military aid from America has not bought the loyalty of Egyptian generals who, over thirty years, have become nationalist capitalist businessmen. This group is turning against Mubarak because of his son, Gamal's neo-liberal economic policies and his preference of doing business with Western, Chinese and other foreign investors. Mohammad al-Baradei, the man who found no WMDs in Iraq and said Iran didn't have a nuclear weapons program, is a respected part of the protest movement. Khalid Abu Naga, a famous Egyptian actor and UNICEF ambassador appears alongside Baradei. Scholars from Al-Azhar, the famous Islamic University, in their distinctive grey robes and red fezs have joined the protests much to the delight of protesters. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood have made it clear that they are only part of a much larger movement.

It is evident that the protests have the support of a cross-section of society. What is startling is the subdued and measured reaction that Western governments, particularly America, have had to these protests. Two years ago, Obama addressed 'the Muslim World' in a speech in Cairo and talked about his 'fourth and most important point, democracy.' He spoke about how governments must rule by 'consent and not coercion.' The same year, the US government threw its weight behind the protests in Iran, even going to the extent of making sure Twitter did not shut down for scheduled maintenance. Today everyone is speaking in carefully constructed sentences about 'stable change' and an 'orderly transition now.' Analysts focused on Obama's use of the word 'now' but strikingly the 'D' word hasn't been deployed. Iran's use of force to quell protesters was opposed with such vehemence but now that sections of Mubarak's security services are beating protesters, fighter-jets are being scrambled over Cairo and mobile and internet services are suspended, there is no clear condemnation.

The outcome of this turmoil has deep ramifications for Arab governments but will also have serious implications for future Israeli-US-Arab relations. Some analysts have said that these protests are about 'them' and not 'us,' the Western governments. It would be naïve to ignore the West's implicit support for autocratic governments, often putting short-term stability ahead of good governance and democracy.

A poem by Abul Qasim al-Shabi, a Tunisian, is on everyone's lips in the Arab world: If, one day the people want life, then fate will answer their call, the night will fade away, and the chains will be shattered.

Although the chains may be cracking, the challenge will lie in re-building a dynamic civil-society after years of suppression. However, as Hu Jintao said about the outcome of the French Revolution—'it's too early to tell.' Meanwhile, the sudden appearance of armed pro-Mubarak supporters, many of whom have been caught with government IDs, shows that the regime will not give up the ghost easily.

The author may be reached at bilehra[@]gmail[.]com