Can’t say anything but agreeing completely. From the people at Tahrir square, Egypt and in Tunisia to those in Libya, Syria, Yemen and Qatar, from the 15-M movement in Madrid and Barcelona, Spain, to the Occupy protesters on Wall Street, New York, in London, Frankfurt and Amsterdam, to those now marching against Putin in Russia: whatever the cynics, ‘realists’ and conservatives say, 2011 has been the year of the democratic protester.
Let’s hope it continues - in the Middle East, in Russia, and the West - in 2012. It’s still more than necessary.
Electronic music as an art form is often credited to start with the likes of pioneers such as Karlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Schaeffer, in the 1940s and 1950s. However, one guy in Egypt was there earlier: Halim El-Dabh (1921), who in 1944 hit the streets of Cairo to record ambient sounds and music, and experiment with it afterwards.
While Pierre Schaeffer is often thought of as the father of the electronic music form known as musique concrète the gentleman above, Halim El-Dabh, actually got there several years before, 1944 to be exact. Born in Egypt in 1921, El-Dabh studied agriculture at Cairo University while playing piano and other traditional instruments as a pastime. One day, the student and a friend borrowed a wire recorder — a device predating magnetic tape — from the Middle East Radio Station and hit the streets to capture ambient sounds. El-Dabh recorded a spirit-summoning ritual called a zaar ceremony and ultimately found that he could use the sounds as the raw ingredients for a new composition.
An excerpt from the 1944 composition called “The Expression of Zaar” is here below, credited as ‘the earliest piece of electronic music ever produced’. I don’t know whether that’s true, but it sounds very ambient and cool. Not too surprising if you realize you’re listening to a spiritual ceremony from 1940s Cairo:
The Electronic Music Foundation has an interview with El-Dabh, who is currently Professor Emeritus of African Ethnomusicology at Kent State University. About the 1944 piece:
We had to sneak in (to the ritual) with our heads covered like the women, since men were not allowed in. I recorded the music and brought the recording back to the radio station and experimented with modulating the recorded sounds. I emphasized the harmonics of the sound by removing the fundamental tones and changing the reverberation and echo by recording in a space with movable walls. I did some of this using voltage controlled devices. It was not easy to do. I didn’t think of it as electronic music, but just as an experience. I called the piece Ta’abir al-Zaar, (The Expression of Zaar). A short version of it has become known as Wire Recorder Piece. At the time in Egypt, nobody else was working with electronic sounds. I was just ecstatic about sounds.
Sharp is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who in 1973 published a book about methods of non-violent revolution called The Politics of Nonviolent Action. In the book (which I didn’t read), Sharp presents an analysis of the state as a power complex designed to keep citizens subservient, through a variety of political and administrative institutions (courts, policy, regulatory bodies) and cultural norms (religion, leadership cult, moral norms).
If that doesn’t sound too original (think Foucault and every theorist concerned with despotism and state power since Hobbes), what’s special about Sharp is that he presents a whole list of possible methods of nonviolent resistance. From boycotts to strikes, to using colors, to sit-ins, to empowering women and children, to employing peaceful symbols, Sharp seems to draw on methods and techniques of protest and revolution from Louis Blanqui to Gandhi to the New Left.
Now, I’m a bit hesitant to say that this person was “the brain” behind all those complex revolutions, and have the idea that Sharp’s influence is exaggerated a bit much by Western commentators (like as usual at the NYT). Yet, his ideas have been denounced by dictators ranging from Hugo Chavez to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Sharp’s other important book From Dictatorship to Democracy, moreover, seems to have influenced civic youth movements from Serbia (during the overthrow of Milosevic) to Ukraine to Belarus, who again are said to have taught nonviolent revolutionary skills to each other and to the Arab youth protesters.
So anyway, check the trailer below, interesting stuff!
HOW TO START A REVOLUTION is a new documentary film revealing how one man’s work has helped millions of people achieve freedom in the face of oppression and tyranny.
Gene Sharp is a shy, modest and little-known man. But his work has inspired a generation of people to challenge dictators through non-violent action in a tidal wave of revolutionary spirit and reform that has swept from Eastern Europe, though Asia and to the Middle East and North Africa.
18 months ago we started work on this feature-length documentary. Through the candid and intimate testimony of the people responsible for non-violent revolutions our film seeks to tell the story of how people power can be used topple dictators.
To make this film our director (Ruaridh Arrow pictured above) slept overnight in Tahrir Square in Cairo at the height of the February revolution. He’s met the leaders of the Syrian pro-democracy movement and the people responsible for overthrowing dictators in Serbia and Ukraine. He has spent time with Gene and his colleagues as they spread their message of effective non-violent revolution.
The film reveals how the leaders of an uprising in one country train the participants in the next and how social media now threatens dictators and tyrants around the world in ways that were unimaginable just a decade ago.
Not only is this documentary an important film of record of the civil uprisings that have shaken the world in the last decade but we also hope it will help inspire future pro-democracy movements develop their strategies for non-violent revolution in the face of apparently overwhelming odds.
Recently I’ve become pretty disappointed with the New York Times, and this has all to do with their response to the Bin Laden killing. Their reporting was jingoistic, even nationalistic, up to the point of being an uncritical cheering of actions of a president clearly violating international and domestic law. When such things happen, one’s reminded that the NYT is basically nothing but an establishment newspaper that will never really be a truly critical government watchdog (and think about their refusal to call the Bush torture methods what they are: torture).
That aside, however, sometimes they have articles that remind why despite of that the NYT, in terms of the technical craft of journalism, is still undisputedly the best newspaper in the world. Maybe not the most critical, but at least the one with the ability to write huge pieces full of insight and a broad scope, sometimes even being almost literary in style.
The piece below, about the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions, is such an article. It covers the countries that have recently witnessed revolutions or failed attempts at making them, and how the legacy of that is now threatened by internal disputes based on old ethnic and religious divisions. It’s a very sad story actually, about the promise of a new national identity and citizenship versus ancient hatreds, and one can only hope that the great civic protests of 2011 will not have been in vain.
The revolutions and revolts in the Arab world, playing out over just a few months across two continents, have proved so inspirational to so many because they offer a new sense of national identity built on the idea of citizenship.
But in the past weeks, the specter of divisions — religion in Egypt, fundamentalism in Tunisia, sect in Syria and Bahrain, clan in Libya — has threatened uprisings that once seemed to promise to resolve questions that have vexed the Arab world since the colonialism era.
From the fetid alleys of Imbaba, the Cairo neighborhood where Muslims and Christians have fought street battles, to the Syrian countryside, where a particularly deadly crackdown has raised fears of sectarian score-settling, the question of identity may help determine whether the Arab Spring flowers or withers. Can the revolts forge alternative ways to cope with the Arab world’s variety of clans, sects, ethnicities and religions?
The old examples have been largely of failure: the rule of strongmen in Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen; a fragile equilibrium of fractious communities in Lebanon and Iraq; the repressive paternalism of the Persian Gulf, where oil revenues are used to buy loyalty.
“I think the revolutions in a way, in a distant way, are hoping to retrieve” this sense of national identity, said Sadiq al-Azm, a prominent Syrian intellectual living in Beirut.
“The costs otherwise would be disintegration, strife and civil war,” Mr. Azm said. “And this was very clear in Iraq.”
In an arc of revolts and revolution, that idea of a broader citizenship is being tested as the enforced silence of repression gives way to the cacophony of diversity. Security and stability were the justification that strongmen in the Arab world offered for repression, often with the sanction of the United States; the essence of the protests in the Arab Spring is that people can imagine an alternative.
But even activists admit that the region so far has no model that enshrines diversity and tolerance without breaking down along more divisive identities.
In Tunisia, a relatively homogenous country with a well-educated population, fault lines have emerged between the secular-minded coasts and the more religious and traditional inland.
The tensions shook the nascent revolution there this month when a former interim interior minister, Farhat Rajhi, suggested in an online interview that the coastal elite, long dominant in the government, would never accept an electoral victory by Tunisia’s Islamist party, Ennahda, which draws most of its support inland.
“Politics was in the hands of the people of the coast since the start of Tunisia,” Mr. Rajhi said. “If the situation is reversed now, they are not ready to give up ruling.” He warned that Tunisian officials from the old government were preparing a military coup if the Islamists won elections in July. “If Ennahda rules, there will be a military regime.”
In response, protesters poured back out into the streets of Tunis for four days of demonstrations calling for a new revolution. The police beat them back with batons and tear gas, arrested more than 200 protesters and imposed a curfew on the city.
In Cairo, the sense of national identity that surged at the moment of revolution — when hundreds of thousands of people of all faiths celebrated in Tahrir Square with chants of “Hold your head high, you are an Egyptian”— has given way to a week of religious violence pitting the Coptic Christian minority against their Muslim neighbors, reflecting long-smoldering tensions that an authoritarian state may have muted, or let fester.
At a rally this month in Tahrir Square to call for unity, Coptic Christians were conspicuously absent, thousands of them gathering nearby for a rally of their own. And even among some Muslims at the unity rally, suspicions were pronounced.
“As Muslims, our sheiks are always telling us to be good to Christians, but we don’t think that is happening on the other side,” said Ibrahim Sakr, 56, a chemistry professor, who asserted that Copts, who make up about 10 percent of the population, still consider themselves “the original” Egyptians because their presence predates Islam.
In Libya, supporters of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi acknowledge that his government banks on fears of clan rivalries and possible partition to stay in power in a country with deep regional differences.
Officials say that the large extended clans of the west that contribute most of the soldiers to Colonel Qaddafi’s forces will never accept any revolution arising from the east, no matter what promises the rebels make about universal citizenship in a democratic Libya with its capital still in the western city of Tripoli.
The rebels say the revolution can forge a new identity.
“Qaddafi looks at Libya as west and east and north and south,” said Jadella Shalwee, a Libyan from Tobruk who visited Tahrir Square last weekend in a pilgrimage of sorts. “But this revolt has canceled all that. This is about a new beginning,” he said, contending that Colonel Qaddafi’s only supporters were “his cousins and his family.”
“Fear” is what Gamal Abdel Gawad, the director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, called it — the way that autocrats win support because people “are even more scared of their fellow citizens.”
Nowhere is that perhaps truer than in Syria, with a sweeping revolt against four decades of rule by one family and a worsening of tensions among a Sunni Muslim majority and minorities of Christians and heterodox Muslims, the Alawites.
Mohsen, a young Alawite in Syria, recounted a slogan that he believes, rightly or not, was chanted at some of the protests there: “Christians to Beirut and the Alawites to the coffin.”
“Every week that passes,” he lamented, speaking by telephone from Damascus, the Syrian capital, “the worse the sectarian feelings get.”
The example of Iraq comes up often in conversations in Damascus, as does the civil war in Lebanon. The departure of Jews, who once formed a vibrant community in Syria, remains part of the collective memory, illustrating the tenuousness of diversity. Syria’s ostensibly secular government, having always relied on Alawite strength, denounces the prospect of sectarian differences while, its critics say, fanning the flames. The oft-voiced formula is, by now, familiar: after us, the deluge.
“My Alawite friends want me to support the regime, and they feel if it’s gone, our community will be finished,” said Mohsen, the young Alawite in Damascus, who asked that only his first name be used because he feared reprisal. “My Sunni friends want me to be against the regime, but I feel conflicted. We want freedom, but freedom with stability and security.”
That he used the mantra of years of Arab authoritarianism suggested that people still, in the words of one human rights activist, remain “hostage to the lack of possibilities” in states that, with few exceptions, have failed to come up with a sense of self that transcends the many divides.
“This started becoming a self-fulfilling myth,” said Mr. Azm, the Syrian intellectual.
“It was either our martial law or the martial law of the Islamists,” he added. “The third option was to divide the country into ethnicities, sects and so on.”
Despite a wave of repression, crackdown and civil war, hope and optimism still pervade the region, even in places like Syria, the setting of one of the most withering waves of violence. There, residents often speak of a wall of fear crumbling. Across the Arab world, there is a renewed sense of a collective destiny that echoes the headiest days of Arab nationalism in the 1950s and ’60s and perhaps even transcends it.
President Obama, in his speech on Thursday about the changes in the Arab world, spoke directly to that feeling. “Divisions of tribe, ethnicity and religious sect were manipulated as a means of holding on to power, or taking it away from somebody else. But the events of the past six months show us that strategies of repression and strategies of diversion will not work anymore.”
But no less pronounced are the old fears of zero-sum power, where one side wins and the other inevitably loses. From a Coptic Christian in Cairo to an Alawite farmer in Syria, discussions about the future are posed in terms of survival. Differences in Lebanon, a country that celebrates and laments the diversity of its 18 religious communities, are so pronounced that even soccer teams have a sectarian affiliation.
In Beirut, wrecked by a war over the country’s identity and so far sheltered from the gusts of change, activists have staged a small sit-in for two months to call for something different, in a plea that resonates across the Arab world.
The Square of Change, the protesters there have nicknamed it, and their demand is blunt: Citizenship that unites, not divides.
“We are not ‘we’ yet,” complained Tony Daoud, one of the activists. “What do we mean when we say ‘we’? ‘We’ as what? As a religion, as a sect, as human beings?”
Stuff like this gets the historian in me very excited. The Guardian has a cool, interactive, quasi-3D timeline about the events in the Arab world ever since the Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 20, 2010. Scroll joyfully along everything that happened since then, like on a rollercoaster.
I’m thinking about how to expand this… Moving images, documents, links, connections. And imagine such a thing for other historical events, like the French or Russian revolutions.
Following up one some questions asked yesterday about the progress of reform and democratization in Egypt, some news. The combined opposition is asking for the replacement of the current cabinet, backed by the army and led by former Mubarak minister Ahmed Shafiq, by a ‘technocratic government’ during transitional period to elections. In addition, they’re asking for an end to the state of emergency, and the release of political prisoners. And they want to stage a demonstration for that (even though the army has indicated no more protests are allowed).
In Egypt, an opposition coalition — including the Wafd Party, the Nasserist Party, the Tagammu Party, the newly founded al-Wasat Party, the Muslim Brotherhood, and youth representatives — has called for the replacement of Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq’s government with a technocratic government during the transitional period to elections.
The coalition also demanded a new Constitution for a parliamentary state, the dismantling of the state security apparatus, the ending of the state of emergency, the release of all political prisoners, and the dismantling of the National Democratic Party and of corrupt local councils.
With all the attention focused on Libya, let’s not forget about that other revolution we so happily cheered on: Egypt. Because what happens after the departure of Mubarak might be more important than his departure itself.
How are things going in Egypt? Has the state of emergency already been lifted? Are constitutional reforms underway? Are political prisoners released? Does the opposition play a role? How’s the army Supreme Council communicating with the people?
The answer to those first four questions today: no, or not really, or unsure. Adam Shatz in the London Review of Books (which I recommend to read entirely!):
The fate of Egypt’s revolution – brought to a pause by the military’s seizure of power on 11 February, after Mubarak’s non-resignation address to his ‘children’ – remains uncertain. Mubarak is gone, but the streets have been mostly cleared of protesters and the army has filled the vacuum: chastened, yet still in power and with considerable resources at its disposal. Until elections are held in six months, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will be ruling by decree, without the façade of parliamentary government. The parliament, voted into office in rigged elections, has been dissolved, a move that won wide support, and a new constitution is being drafted, but it’s not clear how much of a hand the opposition will have in shaping it. More ominously, the Supreme Council has vowed to punish anyone it can accuse of spreading ‘chaos and disorder’. The blunt rhetoric of its communiqués may be refreshing after the speeches of Mubarak, his son Gamal and the industrialists who dominated the ruling National Democratic Party, with their formulaic promises of reform and their talk of the nobility of the Egyptian people but ten days ago in Tahrir Square the protesters said – maybe even believed – that the army and the people stood together. Today the council’s communiqués are instructions, not proposals to be debated, and it has notably failed to answer the protesters’ two most urgent demands: the repeal of the Emergency Law and the release of thousands of political prisoners.
So far, most Egyptians have been willing to give the Supreme Council the benefit of the doubt. As in any revolutionary situation, the desire for order and security is nearly as strong as the desire for change, and, after 18 days of protests, the army has provided both – with a decided emphasis on the former.
Egypt’s military rulers swore in a Cabinet with 11 new ministers yesterday, a nod to the protest movement that ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak.
However, three former members of the Mubarak regime retained senior posts.
The move comes as the military leadership overseeing the country’s transition is trying to assure Egyptians that it is committed to democratic reforms.
However, the decision to keep Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit, and Justice Minister Mamdouh Marie — three former Mubarak loyalists — in their posts drew criticism from youth activists who helped launch the uprising on Jan. 25.
And, the Muslim Brotherhood has invited back to the country one Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi: a 84-year old popular (television) preacher who is not known for his fondness of the West, Israel, or Jews. While the truth of the assertion, done by some, that this guy is Egypt’s Ayatollah Khomeini is very questionable, Al-Qaradawi does seem to have spoken to a crowd of 1 million in Tahrir Square. This seemed to have overshadowed or blocked a performance by Google executive Wael Ghonim, who became the young face of the revolution during the uprising.
One of the western media’s favorite Egyptian rebels is Google executive Wael Ghonim. No surprise there: if you had to choose among radical clerics like al-Qaradawi, hooligans like those who assaulted Lara Logan, and a suave, Westernized Google exec, whom would you want to interview? Ghonim was present on Friday and intended to address the crowd, but he was barred from the platform by al-Qaradawi’s security. He left the stage in distress, “his face hidden by an Egyptian flag.”
Yusuf Qaradawi, the 84-year-old preacher whose roots are in the old Muslim Brotherhood before the latter turned to parliamentary politics, is nevertheless no Ayatollah Khomeini. Qaradawi addressed thousands in Tahrir Square in Cairo on Friday. Qaradawi called for Muslims to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda alongside US troops in 2001. On Friday he praised the Coptic Christian role in the Egyptian revolution and said that the age of sectarianism is dead. Qaradawi is a reactionary on many issues, but he is not a radical and there is no reason to think that either the Youth or Workers’ Movements that chased Hosni Mubarak out of the country is interested in having Qaradawi tell them what to do.
And here’s a video of Sheik Al-Qaradawi making some very nasty comments about Adolf Hitler and the Jews, accompanied by commentary from a reader of Andrew Sullivan.
If the recent proclamations from the Muslim Brotherhood about “freedom for all,” “true democracy” and “human rights” aren’t just the convenient talking points of the moment (for political expediency), but represent a genuine commitment to reform, then why would they invite Mr. Qaradawi to return from 30 years in exile and preside over that truly historic event on Friday? Are there no other more “moderate” preachers they could find in all of Egypt?
So, all the more reason to remain ever so vigilant about what happens in Egypt post-Mubarak!
One of the better analyses I have read of the Egyptian Revolution thus far can be found in the New Statesman. In the European and American media, there’s been an awful lot of concern about the role of islamists in and after the uprising. Earlier on, we’ve pointed to differing interpretations of the Muslim Brotherhood as either a democracy-minded middle class institution, or as a fundamentalist conservative organization (the truth is probably that they have different wings). On the American right, in particular, ‘Iran’ has been frequently invoked to actually denounce protesters, and voice support for the Mubarak regime.
Olivier Roy in the New Statesman, however, paints a picture of a young generation that is not so affected with the political islamism of their fathers. Even though they might shout ‘Allah akbar’, what they want is basic democratic rights and liberties (and work). They’re pluralistic, individualistic, and connected through social media. A particularly interesting analysis, I find, is that, true, Middle Eastern countries have in past decades experienced a process of islamization, but this has effectively pulled the angle out of islamist political movements. Islam has been de-politicized. This puts a different perspective on organizations like the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as on the sympathy among the young for fundamentalist dictatorships like Iran’s (which is non-existent).
Thus, the bipolar divide that is often drawn in Western media between the old secular regimes and chaos or islamism (only to be curbed by the military, or an Atatürk-like despot) may be incorrect, and the reason may be the young. I don’t know to which extent this is wishful thinking, but either way: read this article! In addition to giving this persuasive view of the young, it’s also amazing in its breadth and depth of analysis of Middle Eastern society at large.
In Europe, the popular uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East have been interpreted using a model that is more than 30 years old: the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Commentators have been expecting to see Islamist groups – the Muslim Brotherhood and their local equivalents – either at the head of the movement or lying in wait, ready to seize power. But the discretion of the Muslim Brotherhood has surprised and disconcerted them: where have the Islamists gone?
Look at those involved in the uprisings, and it is clear that we are dealing with a post-Islamist generation. For them, the great revolutionary movements of the 1970s and 1980s are ancient history, their parents’ affair. The members of this young generation aren’t interested in ideology: their slogans are pragmatic and concrete – “Erhal!” or “Go now!”. Unlike their predecessors in Algeria in the 1980s, they make no appeal to Islam; rather, they are rejecting corrupt dictatorships and calling for democracy. This is not to say that the demonstrators are secular; but they are operating in a secular political space, and they do not see in Islam an ideology capable of creating a better world.
This generation is pluralist, undoubtedly because it is also individualist. Sociological studies show that it is better educated than previous generations, better informed, often with access to modern means of communication that allow individuals to connect with one another without the mediation of political parties – which in any case are banned. These young people know that Islamist regimes have become dictatorships; neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia holds any fascination for them. Indeed, those who have been demonstrating in Egypt are the same kinds of people as those who poured on to the streets to oppose Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2009. (For propaganda reasons, the regime in Tehran has declared its support for the opposition movement in Egypt, though this is little more than a settling of scores with Hosni Mubarak.) Many of them are religious believers, but they keep their faith separate from their political demands. In this sense, the movement is “secular”. Religious observance has been individualised.
It is a mistake, therefore, to link the re-Islamisation that has taken place in the Arab world over the past 30 years with political radicalism. If Arab societies are more visibly Islamic than they were 30 or 40 years ago, what explains the absence of Islamic slogans from the current demonstrations? The paradox of Islamisation is that it has largely depoliticised Islam. Social and cultural re-Islamisation – the wearing of the hijab and niqab, an increase in the number of mosques, the proliferation of preachers and Muslim television channels – has happened without the intervention of militant Islamists and has in fact opened up a “religious market”, over which no one enjoys a monopoly. In short, the Islamists have lost the stranglehold on religious expression in the public sphere that they enjoyed in the 1980s.
What has been perceived in the west as a great, green wave of re-Islamisation is in fact nothing but a trivialisation of Islam: everything has become Islamic, from fast food to women’s fashion. The forms and structures of piety, however, have become individualised, so now one constructs one’s own faith, seeking out the preacher who speaks of self-realisation, such as the Egyptian Amr Khaled, and abandoning all interest in the utopia of an Islamic state.
[The Islamist political movements] have also learned lessons from Turkey, where Recep Tayyip Erdogan and the AK party have succeeded in reconciling democracy, electoral success, economic development and national independence with the promotion of values that are, if not Islamic, at least “authentic”.
However, the embourgeoisement of the Islamists is at the same time an asset for democracy, because it pushes them towards reconciliation and compromise, and into alliances with other political forces. It is no longer a question, therefore, of attempting to establish whether or not dictatorships are the most effective bulwark against Islamism; Islamists have become players in the democratic game. Naturally, they will try to exert control over public morality, but, lacking the kind of repressive apparatus that exists in Iran, or a religious police on the Saudi model, they will have to reckon with a demand for liberty that doesn’t stop with the right to elect a parliament.
So it has now been two days since Mubarak finally exited the scene. There has been lost of interesting stories emerge since that time. Apparently the army expected Mubarak to resign Thursday night Egypt time. But, notwithstanding pleading from the head of his Party, fighting within his own appointed cabinet and military impatience, Mubarak could not be persuaded beyond the insistence of his son Gamal that “he could still ride out the turmoil“.
And, most importantly, the army has started to make moves. The most significant of these to date have come this morning. The Supreme Council of the Military has announced that it is dissolving the Egyptian parliament, suspending the constitution and calling for elections to be held within six months. The army is also leaving in place a civilian caretaker government meant to ensure the stability of the Egyptian economy and safety of the Egyptian people.
That said, as Al Jazeera is reporting, it is “”quite clear that the power now rests entirely” with the military council”. And, of course commitments for reform are not the same as reform. And at least two points of contention remain it seems. First, it is not clear if the suspending of the constitution is sufficient to end ‘emergency rule’, a clear demand of protestors. There are mixed reports on that point. And second, the same Al Jazeera piece is reporting that there have been some skirmishes between soldiers that are pushing for people to return home and to get back to ‘ordinary’ life and protestors who seem to want to continue to hold Tahrir Square until more is known.
Also, I am not seeing anything at this point about how the military intends to integrate opposition members and representatives of the protestors into the process of democratic reform or about the release of the many people still detained. These are very important points.
Nonetheless, while questions do remain (see this post), I see todays developments quite positively. Each of these moves, while somewhat ambiguous, are all very good news. There is a clear timeline to move to civilian democratic leadership, free and fair elections were simply not possible under the existing, now suspended, constitution and protestors rightly saw Parliament as illegitimate given the record of fraudulent elections and it has been sent home.
So. This is world history. The Egyptian Revolution is, in my view, now on par with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, or the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Ever since decolonization, the Middle East has been ruled by a series of secular autocratic regimes. These have been varying in levels of despotism and violence, but Egypt’s – the most populous and culturally the most influential Middle Eastern country - has not been the softest. Let’s not forget, moreover, that these regimes have been pillars of Western and especially US policy for decades. This is what fueled the islamist Iranian Revolution, and now the democratic Egyptian Revolution. For the first time (well, actually not, Tunisia was first), an Arab people stands up and en masse removes a dictator. That is news on a dizzying magnitude, and utterly unthinkable just two weeks ago.
While a jubilant mood on Tahrir Square and the streets of Cairo and Alexandria because of the removal of a dictator by masses of peaceful protesters, led by the young, is now in order, let’s not forget that this is not over. This is essentially a military coup. The army leadership - led by the torturer and chief of intelligence Omar Suleiman – is now in full control of the country, and one might wonder how eager they are to quickly relinguish that power. The military has huge political and economic interests in Egypt. So as Mark noted yesterday, a vigilant eye must be kept on the process of constitutional reform. The state of emergency must be lifted, a real dialogue with the opposition (liberal as well as islamist) must be opened, and open and fair democratic elections are in order.
A historian’s note though. Mubarak’s thirty-year regime has effected an almost total eradication of anything resembling a civil society in Egypt. The middle and lower classes (constituting the vast bulk of Egypt’s population) have no organizations representing them; no labor unions, no interest associations, no political parties, almost nothing. There is only the Muslim Brotherhood – a very dedicated, highly organized minority. And Facebook. In my view, a democracy cannot properly function without a vibrant and stable civil society; unorganized people are prone to manipulation by populists, and may even slid into violence caused by old rifts (witness Iraq). So, I’m very concerned about how a post-Mubarak Egypt will develop. Democratization is more than just quick elections (we can also see that in Iraq). What is needed are organizing principles within Egyptian society. But that takes time.
A glimmer of hope though: the organizing of these protests, albeit informal, has shown signs of being highly coordinated and effective. Maybe from this, like in East Germany post-1989, something can grow…
So, while this is huge and fantastic – we’re not there yet!
- Update: Just talked to a friend in Cairo who is not an organizer but has been at Tahrir Square daily for most of the protests. He is saying two interesting things. First, that he and others still trust the army, suggesting that people still feel safe in the army’s presence. This fits with images on TV of protestors still chanting that the people and the army are united. Second, that the army is now “everywhere” taking up a much more visible presence in the city then merely hours ago. Personally I do not see the army as a neutral force up to this point and am not convinced just yet that a hand off of power to the army is consistent with, or will fulfill, the demands of the protestors so I am less certain about what to make of this. Nonetheless the background noise during the call was truly joyful. Lots of people honking their horns (beyond the incessant horn honking that is normal in Cairo. People chanting and singing. And everybody seemed to be heading towards the square. If the protestors or a sizeable chunk off them reject whatever comes next tonight the result could be overwhelming. At the same time it may risk massive division with the protestors. I ended the call telling him to be safe and to have an amazing time the square tonight; he laughed, told me not worry, and told me how incredibly happy he was. Let’s see what will happen next.
- Update: NYT reporting indicates this is basically an army takeover, a military intervention. Should we be too happy about that?
- Update: Wael Ghonim has written on his Twitter feed:
Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and protest organizer whose anti-torture Facebook page helped spark the movement, wrote on his Twitter feed Thursday evening: “Mission accomplished. Thanks to all the brave young Egyptians.”
“This is not a coup in the traditional sense,” the official said. “But this is a transfer of the system of government from the civilian to military. The military is stepping up, recognizing its responsibility to the Egyptian people.”
“These were all definite and conclusive steps toward a political process under the constitution,” the official said, referring to the effort to implement reforms. “But this political process never received enough support” — neither from Egyptians nor the international community. “Now we have to go outside the constitutional frame.”
Word of this is going to spread and will begin to counter the dominant narrative in Egyptian media about the people and the army being one. The longer this crisis persists, the more difficult for the army to continue either playing a double game or sitting on the fence. With Omar Suleiman’s threats of coups and the protests spreading to work stoppages across the country, decision time will be coming for the protestors to make up their minds about the army (or launch a more pronounced campaign to persuade commanders), for the army’s leadership to decide how it will proceed in a context where it is losing control, and for rank-and-file in the military to decide where they stand in all this.
- Update: There are serious of key issues here that require further clarification before it becomes clear how much change is actually about to occur. They include, but are not limited to: 1) Who will succeed Mubarak?; 2) Will there be constitutional amendments that will actually democratize any forthcoming elections (e.g., allow opposition members to organize and run in elections)? 3) What role will representatives of the uprising have in making those changes?; 4) How fast will those changes and any elections happen?; and 5) What will happen to those who have been, and are currently, detained?
Until some of these questions optimism should be quite cautious folks.
- Update: Al Jazeera English is reporting that nearly 3 million people are now in Tahrir Square!
- Update: Mubarak is live! Doubt he is leaving, his first few minutes is filled with “I wills”.
He characterizes past problems like torture and fraud as “mistakes” that “can happen in any system of government”.
He is relying on previously announced concessions, ‘I promised you that I will not run again for elections’, we are examining the constitution, etc.
“We have lost martyrs”, calling people sons and daughters. This dude is daring those 3 million people to burn down his palace (not that I am endorsing that). What a stubborn bastard.
The crowd is going nuts. What is happening?
He is trotting all the same bullshit he trotted out last speech. How does he think that is going to go with protests that are growing in size as this carries on?
People are chanting Leave! Out! Out! and waving their shoes in Tahrir Square.
He is talking about the determination of Egyptian people wait till this poor bastard wakes up tomorrow!
And that is it for Mubarak with 3 million royally pissed off people in the square. This is about to get ugly.
Soooo… There was not a single new concession in that speech. He had already said that he delegated powers to the VP. He reiterated his commitments to fixing this himself. And he clearly did not step down. I argued last week that Mubarak is misstepping and I believe it even more tonight.
- Update: The Guardian‘s Matt Wells is in Tahrir Square:
At one point Mubarak made a reference to being a young man and understanding the young men of Egypt – basically the people who are here – and at that moment the whole square erupted in anger. At that point, the whole square exploded in anger. The way that Mubarak is comparing himself to the people on the ground infuriated them.
And when it became clear that the that Mubarak intended to stay on until September, the square shook with fury. “We are not going until he goes,” they chanted.
CNN is interviewing a guy saying that Mubarak clearly does not want “to leave the country in one piece” and “has no brain”.
- Update: So what happens tomorrow? The day will clearly start with Friday prayers. After that? Does the crowd swell again? Do they finally march on the palace? Do they move to face Parliament? Does the army stay out of the way or impede protests? Does Mubarak launch another crackdown that includes arbitrary detention, torture and murder using police and/or other thugs?
- Update: CNN is now reporting people are leaving the square and chanting that they are going to the palace? Al Jazeera reports of demonstrations in Alexandria, and people marching towards army headquarters. Mubarak’s infuriating speech may tilt the relationship between the protesters and the army. They’re reporting about extreme anger on Tahrir Square now.
- Update: Well, we here at LSDimension are going to sign off for a bit so that we can try to catch up. But first I wanted to make four points: first, everyone should know that his post is both the work of Adriejan and myself; second, Suleiman is about to speak, though I doubt it will add much of anything; third, I think Mubarak is attempting to goad more extreme protests so that he can justify a more violence crackdown (I am quite worried this is going to get really ugly); and, fourth, what has happened tonight also paints the American intelligence services in poor light again. Senior US sources were behind the false rumours that Mubarak was going. They were wrong. The CIA director also made comments that are now unfounded. After Obama’s comments earlier about watching a transformation and history in the making, the US again comes off looking poor in this.
As they just put in on Al Jazeera: the revolution will start tomorrow.
Despite his highly publicized meetings with opposition groups, the limited concessions and promises of future liberalization are not promising. Suleiman’s torturous ways have apparently not let up, with his dreaded Mukhabarat running makeshift torture chambers across Cairo, according to two New York Times reporters who witnessed one firsthand. When the opposition Wafd Party asked Suleiman if he was considering lifting the decades-old state of emergency, which allows the government to arrest and detain with impugnity, the longtime intelligence chief responded incredulously, “At a time like this?”
Suleiman’s repression and brutality — on behalf of both the U.S. and Mubarak — has been well-documented elsewhere (The New Yorker‘s Jane Mayer was the first to flag it after the Egyptian uprising, while ABC News recounted how he once offered to chop off the arm of a Terrorist suspect to please the CIA … [Tuesday]‘s Times article does a decent job of conveying how unwilling Suleiman is to bring about anything resembling a real transition to democracy, how indifferent (if not supportive) the Obama administration seems to be about that unwillingness, and how dangerously that conduct is fueling anti-American sentiment among the protesters. But the fact that American policy has “changed” from imposing Mubarak on that country to imposing someone with Suleiman’s vile history and character belongs at the forefront of every discussion, especially ones purporting to examine who he is.
Two things appear to be clear as we round out two weeks of pro-democracy protests since the initial Egyptian ‘Day of Rage’ was launched on January 25th. First, that to the degree that protestors might have benefited in their hopes of realizing regime change in either the immediate or short-term from the support of Western democracies, including the United States and members of the European Union, any such benefits are not likely to accrue. The Western democracies uniformly appear happy to carve out a position marked by inconsistent messaging, tepid criticism, calls for change and, ultimately, acceptance of a slow process that formally leaves power in Mubarak’s hands as the best means of securing ‘stability’ and ‘orderly transition’. And by the way, I am not suggesting protestors wanted Western support. They likely did not. The point here is just that the West is willing to accept and support Mubarak rule for at least the next half-year at this point, and, as such, has made clear that its support for democracy around the world is conditional.
The latest example is aptly provided by White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs who described ‘new’ Vice-President Omar Suleiman’s remarks that ‘Egypt is not ready for democracy’ as “very unhelpful”. Very unhelpful? Is Gibbs sure that won’t set off a diplomatic crisis?
Second, the protestors are not showing any signs of going away quickly. Many reports from news agencies and those on the ground today suggest that there were more protestors today than any day so far. This is truly remarkable. In the face of thinly veiled threats, violence and kidnappings by the state security apparatus, people have made clear they are rejecting the empty ‘concessions’ on offer from the Mubarak regime (and it is getting hard to keep up with the empty promises on offer). It appears, as per the message of protestors from the start, anything short of Mubarak’s actual departure will not satisfy the revolutionaries occupying Tahrir Square and spread throughout much of the rest of the country.
One of the most recent rallying points drawing more people to participate is the story of Wael Ghonim. Ghonim is a Cairo native who is married to an American and lives and works in Dubai as Head of Marketing for Google Middle East and North Africa. He is being credited with being an early, albeit, at the time anonymous catalyst of the movement. Ghonim, under a false identity started the “We are all Khaled Said“ Facebook page commemorating the torture and killing of a 28-year old Egyptian blogger at the hands of the police for exposing police wrongdoing, agitating against police intimidation and brutality as well as calling for the January 25th protest.
Ghonim ’disappeared’ on January 27th during the protests by the Egyptian regime, which under the leadership of Suleiman allegedly participated in the United States’ extraordinary rendition programme that used foreign countries to torture detainees as part of the so-called War on Terror. Considerable attention was called to his disappearance by journalists and internal human rights organizations such Amnesty International before his eventual release yesterday.
Shortly after his release Ghonim granted a highly emotional interview to Egyptian channel DreamTV which has since been posted on the web complete with English subtitles. I consider this essential viewing.
The sincere compassion shown to everyone involved in the protests including his interrogators and the even-handedness with which Ghonim assesses what is happening and what should happen is remarkable, especially for a man who is just hours removed from being held captive for 12 days by a regime that his own past writing makes clear is to be feared. Among the highlights of the interview are when Ghonim makes clear that this is not the time to settle scores, to divide up the cake or to impose ideologies.
It is not the place of anyone to set a barometer for which countries ought to be a democracy and which ought not, besides the citizens of those countries. But even if it was, what more could we ask for than what Wael Ghonim and his compatriots have put on offer? Personally, the interview lays bare just how hypocritical Western governments are being in choosing a brutal authoritarian regime that has no claim whatsoever to democratic legitimacy over hundreds and hundreds of thousands of people who day after day have peacefully taken to the streets breaking down traditional gender, religious and socio-economic divides to demand justice and democracy. I could not imagine a more cynical and, frankly, disgusting stance.
While, I’d say, European media have mostly reported on the Egypt mass demonstrations in a carefully positive frame, on the American right the standard tone has mostly been that of concern and caution (or just a downright rejection of protesters as ‘rioters’). The Mubarak regime has been an ally of the US in the past thirty years, primarily because of the peace treaty with Israel. Now, with the possibility of regime change, that peace treaty might to some extent be up in the air. Views among the Egyptian public on Israel are very negative, and one of the main opposition groups – the Muslim Brotherhood – that may become part of a ruling coalition is no friend of the country either. So, Fox News and the once-esteemed Senator John McCain have already denounced the Muslim Brotherhood as ‘terrorists’ on par with Al Qaeda, and are claiming this Egyptian revolution is becoming another 1979 Iran.
But to which extent is this really true? Historically, the Muslim Brotherhood is the oldest islamic fundamentalist organization in the modern world; and its conservative wing nowadays opposes the ‘Zionist entity’ and the West, as well as the Egyptian political system. According to other commentators, however, the Brotherhood is a ‘middle class institution’ consisting of lawyers and engineers that aims to combine Islam with democracy.
Either way, Peter Beinart of The Daily Beast has a good, insightful piece on the character of the Muslim Brotherhood, the actual likelihood of the organization gaining too much power, and the consequences of a possible democratic regime change to Egypt’s relations with Israel. Basically – and I agree – is that, like in the case of Turkey where a moderate Islamist party is also in power, it would expose Israel to harsher criticism of its treatment of the Gazan people. Not entirely unfair, I’d say. Also, the blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip would from Egypt’s side probably be lifted. All in all, it may mean that the stalwart Netanyahu government may become a little more sensitive to Middle Eastern public opinion regarding the way it treats Palestinians. Would that be all bad?
Obviously, a theocracy that abrogated Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state would be bad for Israel, period. But that is unlikely. The Muslim Brotherhood is not al Qaeda: It abandoned violence decades ago, and declared that it would pursue its Islamist vision through the democratic process, which has earned it scorn among Bin Laden types. Nor is the Brotherhood akin to the regime in Iran: When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tried to appropriate the Egyptian protests last week, the Brotherhood shot him down, declaring that it “regards the revolution as the Egyptian People’s Revolution not an Islamic Revolution” and insisting that “The Egyptian people’s revolution includes Muslims, Christians and [is] from all sects and political” tendencies. In the words of George Washington University’s Nathan Brown, an expert on Brotherhood movements across the Middle East, “These parties definitely reject the Iranian model…Their slogan is, ‘We seek participation, not domination.’ The idea of creating an Islamic state does not seem to be anywhere near their agenda.”
Could this all be an elaborate ruse? Might the Brotherhood act differently if it gained absolute power? Sure, but it’s hard to foresee a scenario in which that happens. For one thing, the best estimates, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Stephen Cook, are that the Brotherhood would win perhaps 20 percent of the vote in a free election, which means it would have to govern in coalition. What’s more, the Egyptian officer corps, which avowedly opposes an Islamic state, will likely wield power behind the scenes in any future government. And while the Brotherhood takes an ambiguous position on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel–it opposes it but says it will abide by the will of the Egyptian people—the Egyptian army has little interest in returning to war footing with a vastly stronger Israel. Already, Mohammed ElBaradei, the closest thing the Egyptian protest movement has to a leader, has called the peace treaty with Israel “rock solid.”
But Egypt doesn’t have to abrogate the peace treaty to cause the Israeli government problems. Ever since 2006, when Hamas won the freest election in Palestinian history, Egypt, Israel and the United States have colluded to enforce a blockade meant to undermine the group’s control of the Gaza Strip. A more accountable Egyptian government might no longer do that, partly because Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but mostly because a policy of impoverishing the people of Gaza has little appeal among Egyptian voters. It’s easy to imagine a newly democratic government of Egypt adopting a policy akin to the one adopted by the newly democratic government of Turkey. The Turkish government hasn’t severed ties with Israel, but it does harshly criticize Israel’s policies, especially in Gaza, partly because Turkey’s ruling party has Islamist tendencies, but mostly because that is what the Turkish people want.
Which bring us back to the question: Is this bad for Israel? Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC certainly think so, since they believe that what’s best for Israel is for its government to be free to pursue its current policies with as little external criticism as possible. I disagree. For several years now, Israel has pursued a policy designed, according to Israeli officials, to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse.” (The quote comes courtesy of the recent Wikileaks document dump). The impact on the Gazan people has been horrendous, but Hamas is doing fine, for the same basic reason that Fidel Castro has done fine for the last 60 years: The blockade allows Hamas to completely control Gaza’s economy and blame its own repression and mismanagement on the American-Zionist bogeyman. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad govern in the West Bank without the democratic legitimacy they would likely need to sell a peace treaty to the Palestinian people.
All of which is to say: a shift in U.S. and Israeli policy towards Hamas is long overdue. The organization has been basically observing a de-facto cease-fire for two years now, and in the last year its two top leaders, Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniya, have both said Hamas would accept a two-state deal if the Palestinian people endorse it in a referendum. That doesn’t mean Hamas isn’t vile in many ways, but it does mean that Israel and America are better off allowing the Palestinians to create a democratically legitimate, national unity government that includes Hamas than continuing their current, immoral, failed policy. If a more democratic Egyptian government makes that policy harder to sustain, it may be doing Israel a favor.
The Middle East’s tectonic plates are shifting. For a long time, countries like Turkey and Egypt were ruled by men more interested in pleasing the United States than their own people, and as a result, they shielded Israel from their people’s anger. Now more of that anger will find its way into the corridors of power. The Israeli and American Jewish right will see this as further evidence that all the world hates Jews, and that Israel has no choice but to turn further in on itself. But that would be a terrible mistake. More than ever in the months and years to come, Israelis and American Jews must distinguish hatred of Israel’s policies from hatred of Israel’s very existence. The Turkish government, after all, has maintained diplomatic ties with Israel even as it excoriates Israel’s policies in Gaza. ElBaradei this week reaffirmed Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel even as he negotiates the formation of a government that could well challenge Israel’s policy in Gaza.
Instead of trying to prop up a dying autocratic order, what Israel desperately needs is to begin competing for Middle Eastern public opinion, something American power and Arab tyranny have kept it from having to do. And really competing means reassessing policies like the Gaza blockade, which create deep—and understandable—rage in Cairo and Istanbul without making Israel safer. It is ironic that Israel, the Middle East’s most vibrant democracy, seems so uncomfortable in a democratizing Middle East. But at root, that discomfort stems from Israel’s own profoundly anti-democratic policies in the West Bank and Gaza. In an increasingly democratic, increasingly post-American Middle East, the costs of those policies will only continue to rise. Israel must somehow find the will to change them, while it can still do so on its own terms, not only because of what is happening in Tahrir Square, but because the next Tahrir Square could be in Ramallah or East Jerusalem. After all, as Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar recently noted, Palestinian kids use Facebook too.