Monday, February 14, 2011

Egypt: What's Next?

This article was simultaneously published at The Pragmatic Progressive today. It's my analysis of the situation in Egypt. If you found this article here at The Windy City Author and enjoyed it then you may want to go over there and check the place out. It's a new blog and it's already published some excellent writing.

Typically, I would like to keep The Windy City Author dedicated to all things Chicago and the Midwest. Occasionally, however, I'll publish articles that I think are especially timely about the wider world. After all, Chitown is a world class city and the home to people from many ethnicities and cultures. Here in Chicago we pride ourselves on our diversity.

The article is in its entirely below.

Watching the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s modern Egyptian dynasty has been as thrilling as watching the dismantling of the Berlin Wall. Throughout this 18-day reclamation of a country by a brave and extraordinary people I’ve been both jubilant and pensive. Recent history has seen the fall of the U.S.S.R. and has also witnessed the Shah flee Iran and Marcos high tail it out of the Philippines. The Berlin Wall and the flight of megalomaniac dictators create huge vacuums in countries, if not the world.

What follows, however, is not always America.

Americans always find that surprising. Freedom, they believe, can only mean one thing, as in “how we do it right here, in the good old U S of A.”

As a historian I don’t know for sure what will unfold in Egypt in the immediate future or what the country will look like in several years. I think I can, however, look at what’s happened, what’s presently happening and, factoring in some additional information, I think I can make some reasonable predictions or at least suggest key areas of concern that need to be closely watched.

One thing I’m fairly certain will be true is this: Egypt is not going to look like us or the Canadians or the French or the Germans anytime soon.

Let’s look at what we do know about Egypt:

1. Who’s Running the Show.

Well, we know it’s not “the people.” For all practical purposes, the reins of power have been transferred to the army.

A 16-member Supreme Military Council took over when Mubarak resigned Friday, February 11th. The Council granted unto itself nearly unlimited powers and confirmed that Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi was Egypt’s new head of state. Tantawi has previously served as Egypt’s Defense Minister.

On Sunday, the 13th, the military leaders dissolved the parliament. The last parliamentary elections in November and December were heavily rigged and virtually shut out any oppositional representatives. They also suspended the Egyptian constitution.

However, these actions met two immediate demands of the protesters. At this writing, it appears that the following other demands are still open: dissolution of Mubarak’s “caretaker” Cabinet; termination of emergency law and military tribunals, including the release of all political prisoners; the formation of a transitional presidential council consisting of four civilians and one military member, as well as a transitional government to run the country until elections can be held; the creation of a body tasked with drafting a democratic constitution that will ensure human rights; and they have demanded a free media and the formation of political parties.

The Council announced it will rule the government for six months or until presidential and parliamentary elections can be held. It seems this is a rejection of the demand for a transitional presidential council. The Council remains silent about how it intends to proceed with the protester’s other demands. It did say, even before Mubarak quit, that a presidential election, first expected to be held in September, would be free and fair. The timing of the election is now uncertain.

Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq announced the provisional government’s (which is really the Supreme Military Council) main concern is returning “security back to the Egyptian citizens.”

I don’t really know what that means but I do suspect crime has been rampant. Cairo is a huge city and human nature being what it is, I suspect that their criminals are just like our criminals – meaning they know how to take advantage of total civil unrest. I wasn’t surprised to hear the head of the country’s famous Antiquities Council, Zaki Hawass, admit that seventeen irreplaceable, priceless objects were stolen from the National Museum during the crisis. I’ve been sort of wondering about things like that; as I watched events in the public square I wondered what was happening in the alleys and side streets. I’m from Chicago so I think about those things. No doubt there were many other less than stellar activities besides some sticky fingers at the National Museum.

This may be why the Council has begun to break up the party. Clearly, they believe the protesters have made their point, Mubarak has been toppled, and changes are underway. They are saying it is now time for the protesters to go home. There is a need for civil order.

The move by the army to retake Tahrir Square began Saturday night with plain clothes officers spreading the word rather gently that it was time to move on. Later military police moved in and began to pull down tents and disperse the crowds. They were not as neighborly as the undercover cops. People who would not leave were arrested.

The leaders of the protests and other oppositional figures are openly concerned about this show of police powers and divided about how far to trust the military. The army has generally been respected by the Egyptian people and their restraint during the crisis was wonderful but the situation is potentially volatile.
Abdelmoneim Eman, a spokesperson for the Young Leaders Group close to Mohamed ElBaradei, said “We trust the army and call upon people to give them the opportunity to implement what they promised.”

But others who witnessed the army disperse the crowds over the weekend in Tahrir Square are openly angry. They complain that the Supreme Military Council, and others who are still in government like the Prime Minister, are “the same old corrupt faces.”

Further, it’s also been noticed that the Council has not yet contacted key opposition leaders to negotiate the transition process or ask them to serve in key government positions.

The army has never had a troubled history with the people. Whether that will remain true remains to be seen but the internal police apparatus has a lot of baggage. More specifically, the police are deeply hated for their brutality and brazen corruption. Perhaps a measure of their demonstrable hubris in extremis was their ill-advised march through Tahrir Square to the Interior Ministry Sunday to demand more pay and better working conditions.

Think about this: the previous government has been toppled, the country is operating under the aegis of a military tribunal, banks were just opened Friday, the stock exchange is still closed, tourism (one of the main sources of revenue) is dead, the economy is in ruins, millions are in poverty, and the people who are hated about as much as Mubarak had the colossal arrogance to parade through Cairo demanding more dessert.

The police also sought to absolve themselves from any responsibility for their crackdown at the start of the protests – a crackdown that killed many of their fellow citizens. Fat chance.

I don’t have a good feeling about any of this. The police, already clueless, are protesting not for freedom but cash. That has to be rubbing a lot of people the wrong way. The people who overturned Mubarak might start thinking about turning on the police. The army certainly won’t allow that.

If there’s any sign that the military is not moving fast enough or in the right direction, the stage will be set for new demonstrations by protesters emboldened by their victory over Mubarak. The army certainly won’t allow that, either. If that happens, the army, already showing it will use force to disperse demonstrators in the new post-Mubarak government, will be turned against them.

2. Who Might be Running the Show (eventually).

I suspect that Omar Suleiman, who was appointed vice-president by Mubarak on January 29, is the man to watch. He is suave, sophisticated, and fluent in English and served for years as the main conduit between the United States and Mubarak. He also headed the Egyptian Intelligence Service and, politely put, it’s been said by those who know that he’s “not squeamish.”

That speaks volumes.

Among other things, as the head of the Egyptian Intelligence Service he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions, which was the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and retained them in foreign countries for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances. Egypt was one of those countries. Suleiman, of course, oversaw those operations in Egypt.
It is unclear what role, if any, Suleiman will play in the transition. It is noteworthy that he is not a member of the Supreme Military Council. However, men like Suleiman do not usually go quietly into the night. He knows where a lot of skeletons are buried and certainly shrewd enough to know that if he loses control completely he may quickly become one of them.

Here are some of the people who may rise to significant positions of power:

Ayman Nour – he challenged Mubarak in the 2005 presidential poll and was then jailed on forgery charges which he has denied as being politically motivated.

Amr Moussa – he is a former foreign minister and currently secretary-general of the Arab League (a position he has said he will resign). He has gravitas and experience and is popular.

Mohamed El Baradei, a retired diplomat and Ahmed Zewail, a scientist, are serious contenders and have international credibility. Coincidentally, both are Nobel Prize winners.

Most likely, however, the most important potential player is not a person, per se, but a vast and powerful Islamic group called The Muslim Brotherhood. They claim to want a pluralistic, democratic, Islamist state and their previous strategy has been to progressively win over Egypt’s majority Muslim population through peaceful means. However, they have vowed to make Sharia law the law of the land which is what it did in neighboring Gaza under the name of its offshoot, Hamas.

It’s also noteworthy that this past week the Brotherhood publicly thanked the Iranian government for its support in the opposition to the Mubarak regime. The Brotherhood expressed a desire for Egypt to finally have a “good government, like the Iranian government, and a good president like Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is very brave.” Interestingly, they previously endorsed ElBaradei but have moved into Suleiman’s camp. Their power coupled with his would be a formidable marriage. Suleiman is ruthless and has brains; the Brotherhood has the hearts of the vast majority of the people. Several hundred thousand, even a half of million protesters, may look impressive on cable TV but it’s an insignificant number when measured against 90% of 80 million people. CNN was reporting toward the end of the week an obvious increase of Islamicists in the crowds. No doubt.

For almost three weeks I’ve heard Americans babble with rapturous joy about the amazing “people power” overthrowing Mubarak’s dictatorship. An important fact that seems to have been lost about Mubarak is that he was a secular modernist opposed to an Islamic theocratic state and in some ways he was similar to the Shah of Iran. That’s not a justification for dictatorship but we may yet see that one form of tyranny is going to be replaced with another.

Public opinion polls have shown that three-quarters of its overwhelmingly Muslim population want “strict imposition of Sharia law” and a larger proportion wants policies that most in the West would view as human rights abuses: 82% would stone adulterers and 84% want the death penalty for Muslims who leave their faith. I’ve read that as high as 91% of Egyptian Muslims have stated a desire to keep “Western values out of Islamic countries.” Do the math: 90% of 80 million people is… well, it’s a helluva lot of people and 91% of that number is still a helluva lot of people.

For the vast majority outside the main cities, the outrages perpetrated by Mubarak lie mostly in his suppression of Islamic fundamentalist values, such as his ban on female genital mutilation* and his moves to phase out polygamy and child brides. Most Muslim Egyptians not only oppose a modern Egyptian state, they would dismantle the existing Egyptian state, two-thirds wanting instead “to unify all Islamic countries into a single Islamic state or caliphate.”

Anyway you look at it, the numbers are staggering and they aren’t reassuring.

And what I’ve not mentioned yet is that none-too-small matter about the political prisoners that the protesters have demanded be released. What role will they play?

What kind of leader might emerge from the crucible of the Egyptian prisons? Will it be a Gandhi or will it be another Ayatollah Khomeini?

3. Mubarak Was the Easy Part.

Whatever government eventually takes form and whoever may rise to the summits of power, the fact remains that Egypt faces some daunting problems. The immediate need of any new government will be to stabilize society and gratify the needs and demands of those who overthrew the previous regime.

Egypt is a country with widespread poverty, an unemployment rate of at least 10 percent, and stubborn inflation. One-fifth to one-quarter of the population lives on less than $1 a day. In the wake of the people’s jubilation over their remarkable victory, the sobering truths about the overall condition of their country may be hard to handle. Many millions are desperate for immediate sweeping change and a dramatic measureable improvement in the quality of their lives.

Appreciable and meaningful change does not come quickly, even in nations that are inherently functional and have well established government structures, operational legal systems, and populations where the majority have not yet tumbled into the streets in protest. America is an instructive example of how quickly patience can be worn thin. Americans who once reasonably admitted our economic collapse and foreign wars might not be corrected in even eight years are now grumbling after only three years about the country’s slow economic recovery and a seemingly unending war.

A huge sector of the Egyptian economy has come to a virtual standstill since the public protests began. Banks reopened on February 6 without a dramatic fall in the pound and the stock exchange, hammered before the protests forced its closure, is expected to reopen on February 16. Analysts predict the political turmoil will cut Egypt’s economic growth by half this year. It’s also predicted that Egypt’s budget deficit will soar into double figures. These events will weaken its currency and trigger supreme inflation. Back in December analysts predicted the economy would grow by 5.4 percent in the fiscal year to June. At that time the government’s target was 6 percent. All bets are now off and it’s reasonable to assume growth will actually fall 2 or 3 percentage points. Public spending is likely to stay high because the new government will feel pressure to keep taxes down, maintain subsidies, and provide money for the unemployed.

Egypt’s most significant immediate challenge is the development of an economy that inures to the benefit of the vast majority of its people.

4. What About Israel?

The anti-Mubarak protests never devolved into attacks on the U.S. or Israel. This bodes well for Egypt, as well as the wider world.

However, we need to remember that The Muslim Brotherhood is hostile to Israel. Although it publicly eschews violence, it’s just Hamas in disguise. The Supreme Military Council said on February 12 that Egypt was committed to its international treaty obligations. Without Mubarak, however, it’s not realistic to assume Egypt will remain loyal to the United States and maintain its benign approach toward Israel.

If the country devolves into chaos for any reason – and there are many reasons why it could – Egypt would not be the first country to see war as an answer to social and economic problems. National security is often an alleged justification to suppress dissent and unify a people. Allying with extremist nations in the Middle East for a war against Israel is always a possibility although for the time being it appears the Egyptian people have no interest in warring against Israel or alienating America.

In the end, however, when all the instruments of power are transferred and people are in their new leadership roles, what will define the new political system will be whatever the Egyptians believe was the best of their own cultural past and much less what they may think of someone else’s cultural present.


  1. tahrir square was an uplifting story, mostly. but today nbc news reported that a cbs reporter was "brutally sexually assaulted" in cairo on friday. she is a blonde. anyway, the brutality directed against a woman is what you expect to be made law. i think there's cause for hope, but dark elements are there.

  2. Thank you for another enlightening article, Maureen. I learned a lot from it. The treatment of women in Middle Eastern culture is still appalling and the thought of FGM makes my skin crawl--talk about a barbaric practice.

    Keep up the good work!

    Nicole Gibeaut

  3. It will be interesting to see what happens. I wish Egypt every success but I have never felt as "good" about their revolution as others. Sometimes having training in history is a real bummer. I'm releasing an in-depth piece on FGM in Egypt at Prag Pro today; a country where the majority of the people have FOUGHT Mubarak's ban on FGM gives me pause. Read that article and then maybe you'll know why I have my doubts about the country. Thank you for your comments.

  4. Thanks for this...I learned a lot that I didn't know. My reaction to all of this was similar to yours, but I couldn't put my finger on why until I read this. It did NOT feel like the tearing down of the Berlin Wall to me.