Politics: February 2011 Archives

today in Tahrir Square, "Egyptian people greet selves as liberators"*

While the victory of the Egyptian people is a major problem for authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East, it's a bonanza for virtually everyone else, one which could be world-changing: Last night I heard Ayman Mohyeldin, speaking on Rachel Maddow's show (before the announcement of the resignation of Mubarak), say that their success was Osama Bin Laden's worst nightmare:

It might take a day or two or a week or two. They have already won. But this scene of winning peacefully the way they have, this is Bin Laden's nightmare. What we're seeing here is Bin Laden's nightmare.

If the Egyptian protests are copied elsewhere, and successfully, it would not only put Bin Laden out of work, it would put an end to his and others' hopes for the world governed by Sharia law which they envision.

And President Obama couldn't see that? Actually, he may still not see it.

I propose that even now the Egyptian Revolution may be viewed by our own government as a disaster, regardless of the tardy words of support and congratulation coming from Washington. Mohamed ElBaradei, in an Op-Ed piece published in today's New York Times, also before Mubarak's resignation, makes this comparison:

The United States and its allies have spent the better part of the last decade, at a cost of hundreds of billions of dollars and countless lives, fighting wars to establish democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now that the youth of Cairo, armed with nothing but Facebook and the power of their convictions, have drawn millions into the street to demand a true Egyptian democracy, it would be absurd to continue to tacitly endorse the rule of a regime that has lost its own people's trust.

The Americans in possession of enormous power and access to the ordinary taxpayer's money (or mortgaged futures) did not engage in these foreign wars in order to bring about the kind of world which the peaceful and triumphant Egyptians are about to carve for themselves after over half a century of military dictatorship and heroic exertions over the past weeks. It's hard to imagine even the least astute of our dull politicos having any illusions about the efficacy of Imperial American war policies in planting freedom and democracy by force and intimidation.

I'm often tempted to think of almost all of our post-war foreign policy as just a game played by boys who never grew up, but it's probably more useful to understand it as the work of a military industrial and media complex, in it for the money and the power; its lip service to freedom and democracy was always cant, and talk of a communist, and later a fundamentalist threat, only a cover.

May the Egyptians now safely secure the awesome accomplishment of popular revolution - and incidentally save Americans from themselves.

The phrase in quotes was tweeted by David Waldman today, in negative tribute to Dick Cheney's 2003 prediction that the Iraqis would welcome us with open arms and greet us with flowers (or some such words) when we invaded their country.

[image (uncredited on the site) from Huffington Post]

a complicated relationship*

Egyptians have a complicated relationship with the army. While we are told over and over that it occupies a high status within Egyptian society, largely because of perceived (early) success in the Yom Kippur War, if we take a longer look, it's clear that it has a problematic history when it comes to the welfare of the Egyptian people. Today as well, while vaunted for its restraint over the last two weeks, the army has not been truly impartial.

While we are still awaiting events, even in a first draft, the 2011 Egyptian Revolution may already be writing the most definitive statement of the army's position within Egyptian society.

We've been hearing for weeks that the enemy of the popular protests isn't the army, that the army is close to the people, that the army would not turn on the people, and that the conscripts, at the very least, are identified with the people and have the same interests as the people.

At the beginning of the Egyptian street demonstrations these sentiments and judgments were being expressed in a context which showed that the police, on the other hand, were not close to the people, would turn on them, were not conscripts and therefore not identified with the people in the streets - or their interests.

Today concern with both the physical presence and threat of the police has been overshadowed, even replaced by considerations of the army, lower ranks of which now share, sometimes even intimately, the spaces occupied by the protesters. Today it is the posture of the army that is being discussed. Early on, when the more reflective protesters talked about the army not being the enemy I always suspected that much of their expression of comfort was strategic, with the object of helping to engage the support of the military, at all levels.

All of this is the context which will determine how the revolution will respond to a possible military replacement for Mubarak - and Suleiman, even it is described as temporary.

In the end Egyptians will make that call (and perhaps they have already). Even the youngest revolutionaries are almost certainly aware of the army's chronicle, at least starting with the end of the Muhammad Ali Pasha dynasty and continuing to this week.* *

It was a cadre of high military officers who staged the coup which brought down King Farouk in 1952, and every president since then has been a high military officer, as has virtually every key figure in every government, including the one currently disintegrating.

If Mubarak steps down, and Suleiman exits as well, turning over authority to the army, absolutely nothing will have been accomplished by the revolution. The army will merely be continuing its almost 60-year ascendancy. I'm sure the streets know this.

I saw this re-tweeted on Mona Eltahawy's feed this morning:

To All Egyptian youth: It's YOUR country ,YOUR revolution NOT the army's. GO CLAIM YOUR RIGHTFUL TROPHY

The published caption reads:

An Egyptian civilian kisses an army soldier after troops took position at major junctions in central Cairo on January 29, 2011 as thousands of anti-regime demonstrators continue to pour onto Cairo's streets, demanding President Hosni Mubarak stand down the day after the veteran leader ordered the army to tackle the deadly protests.

* *
Egypt is five to seven thousand years old, but in its modern history as a state (from 1805) it has had only two regimes: the Muhammad Ali Pasha dynasty, and that of the generals. The generals have been operating under a state of emergency since 1952 (and not 1981, as the media reports).

It is interesting that the "state of emergency" (emergency for whom?) was originally provoked by a successful military coup (eliminating King Farouk and installing Naguib and then Nasser, both high military officers), and fully-institutionalized by the assassination of one president (Sadat, a high military officer), also by military officers (an army major, a lieutenant and four enlisted men) and the succession of another high military officer, Mubarak.

So what is the current regime talking about when the say they fear the disruption of the state from below, and warn they will call upon the military to protect that state? I think everyone now knows the answer.

[image by Mohammed Abed - AFP/GETTY IMAGES from NewsObserver]

Tahrir Square, the afternoon of February 6

Is it racism?

In Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East the U.S. is acting like the plantation owner who is certain that his negroes don't really have the same sensibilities and capabilities as he and his kind do: The poor darkies are incapable of fully rational behavior, they certainly can't govern themselves without the slave driver or overseer, and they're there to support his civilization and keep him rich and comfortable. Today the same patronizing attitude could be laid at the door of most Western governments, if not all.

Massa never went away; he now strides the world and he still wants it his way.

Unless I'm reading it wrong, at the moment Egyptian policy for European and American leaders alike, what they would like to see happen, seems to reflect the desire of their peoples. While they may be operating as democracies to that extent, there appears to be no wish that the world should share their blessings.

The Western establishment have made accommodation with the existing but now seriously threatened "stability" in the Middle East, and they want to preserve this corrupt old order at all costs, even at the expense of a genuine stability.

An indigenous, popular, secular, non-partisan and cross-generational protest has been initiated in the country which forms a keystone in the arab and muslim world. It represents an awesome, unprecedented, beneficent opportunity for all of the Middle East and for the world. It was handed over to Western democracies and the world, freely, without strings, and with love. We all hit the jackpot, and we hadn't had to lift a finger. That opportunity is now being lost, and we will live to regret it.

With notable exceptions, and in spite of occasional lip service to their ideals, people outside Egypt don't actually seem to want democracy there. It is seen as a threat to their own comfortable world, and they haven't the courage of their advertised convictions. If there has to be change, their arguments generally describe a slow process, perhaps a very slow process, one which should be under the control of the existing government (a brutal dictatorship which has repressed all political reform for 30 years under a spurious emergency decree).

From the beginning of the Egyptian protests two weeks ago our own "change" President was extremely slow to speak up or act, and when he did he was always seen to be trailing events (not unlike his partner, or client, Mubarak). Eventually it seemed that Obama had started to get it. Judging from statements which have come from the administration over the last few days however, incredible as it may seem, he's now backpedaling from whatever support he seemed to be giving to the protests. My guess is that he swallowed premature reports that the movement had begun to weaken, and decided he was now off the hook.

Yesterday an AP AP story by Matthew Lee reported this:

"A question that that would pose is whether Egypt today is prepared to have a competitive, open election," State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said. "Given the recent past, where, quite honestly, elections were less than free and fair, there's a lot of work that has to be done to get to a point where you can have free and fair elections."

That was hardly the line in 1989.

Twenty-two years later it may be cynical calculation, if extraordinarily shortsighted, but it's definitely racist.

The Washington Post editorial board thinks Obama is being played a fool. I think he knows exactly what he's doing, and it's just plain wrong.

ADDENDUM: Then again, could Obama be acting as a double agent? Not likely, I think, but I just watched a February 6 New York Times video by Rob Harris, David D. Kirkpatrick, and Enas Muthaffar, titled "Egyptians React to U.S. policy." After showing shots and statements of protesters angry or disappointed about Obama's support of the regime, the reporter's voice-over says, "Still others saw American support for their cause as a liability, bolstering the state's portrayal of the protesters as tools of foreign powers."

One young man questioned in Tahrir Square [looking much like one of the of the movement's attractive "kind of scruffy intellectuals" described earlier in the video] is recorded saying, "Barack Obama being against our agenda here is something good for us."

One thing is clear: These people are not going to be anybody's patsies.

[image from Andrew Burton, who has many more great Cairo shots here; plus some personal thoughts on a revolution]


It's now the twelfth day, and even if some of us are thousands of miles away from the magnificent heroes in Egypt, I think we're all pretty stressed out. Maybe it's time for a tribute to the Egyptian soul and sense of humor - with a bit of soul and humor from, you guessed it, the Germans!

The image above is from a Der Spiegel page of 14 totally enchanting (is that too irreverent? I don't think so) images from the demonstrations in Cairo, headlined "Mit Suppentöpfen ins Getümmel" [With soup pots into the fray]. I love the German language!

The article is about the need of the protesters in Tahrir Square for homemade helmets as protection from the violent attacks of paid Mubarack supporters, and their improvised solutions. The pictures don't even require translated captions.

I have absolutely no doubts that these wonderful people are going to be able to successfully defend their revolution.

NOTE: Except when they are my own, I always credit the source of the images I use on this blog, and I include the name of the photographer when I can find it. Especially in consideration of the horrible circumstances under which all photographers are operating at this time in Egypt, I am very disturbed that there was no name attached to these images. I can only hope that the explanation has to do with the personal protection of their author.

[image from Der Spiegel (Agence France-Presse)]

Dr. Nawal El Saadawi, a leading Arab feminist, with protesters in Tahrir Square.

ADDENDUM: scroll to the bottom

Innaharda, ehna kullina Misryeen!* Today, we are all Egyptians! writes Nicholas Kristof today from Cairo. All of us, that is, except for Obama; Obama still appears to be waiting for the revolution to be crushed.

I saw this CNN twitter Thursday morning while still lying in bed with my laptop on my chest:

[Update 4:07 p.m. in Cairo, 9:07 a.m. ET] "We are mindful of the violence that we're now seeing in the Middle East," President Barack Obama said Thursday at the National Prayer Breakfast. "We pray that the violence in Egypt will end, and that the rights and aspirations of the Egyptian people will be realized, and that a better day will dawn over Egypt and throughout the world."

What does he mean, "the violence"? And prayer is the answer? This was his statement the morning after peaceful protesters in Cairo and Alexandria were brutally attacked by forces unleashed, supplied and paid for by the Mubarak regime. No god is going to lift a finger for the Egyptians, and apparently neither is our president, except in prayer.

Then very late tonight (after 1 am in New York), as I sat at home feeling like I was in a scene from "War and Peace," awaiting the dawn and a battle which might change the world, I saw Kristof tweet this:

A video I did of undaunted courage in #Tahrir, not least that of women's leader N. Saadawi http://nyti.ms/f37sHh

I immediately went to the video link he had cited. It was a short interview with the legendary Egyptian human rights activist, feminist, psychologist, and former political prisoner, Dr. Nawal El Saadawi. I've transcribed their conversation here:

Kristof had encountered her in Tahrir Square today, Feb 3rd, and he tellis us that she is 80 years old, and out there every day.

Kristof: "Saadawi, tell us why you are here today."

Saasawi answers: "I am here because, I feel I am born again. It's a very spontaneous revolution, not related to the Left or the Right or the Muslim Brotherhood. As you see [turning around toward the crowd behind her], they are ordinary people, ordinary young students, women and men who've never known politics, so this is a real revolution."

Kristof continues: "It is striking that there are many women here in Tahrir, who are also pushing for more democracy. Do you think women are coming out of the margins of society to demand their case?" Saadawi answers; "Most of the women never came out of their houses [before]. Some of them are veiled, some of them with the niqab. They came out of the [the last word is indistinct, but accompanied by her cupping her hands and throwing them before her]."

[another camera cuts to the crowd chanting, "We will not leave until you leave!"]

Kristof's blog post, "Today, we are all Egyptians!," includes a description of this encounter, telling us that Saadawi plans to sleep in the square tonight. The New York TImes correspondent also shares some other experiences and impressions of his day in Cairo.

colloquial Egyptian (Masri Arabic)

ADDENDUM: If you're like me, now you just can't get enough of Saadawi. Amy Goodwin interviewed her a few days ago for Democracy Now!

[image from Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York Times]

protester and riot policeman, Cairo, Friday, January 28, 2011*

protesters and soldiers, Cairo, Saturday, January 29, 2011

NOTE: This post was composed just after 6 pm today, Wednesday; since then (it's now 11 pm in New York) its thesis has become reality.

So what is the story? Will it be kisses and handshakes?

The police, uniformed or plainclothes, have largely been discounted as a significant factor in how the events in Egypt will unfold, although that story is still to be told, but the position of the army is definitely not yet resolved. To me it's looking more and more like the army is working toward the same end, although not to identical purpose, as what passes for the Mubarak regime right now: Every president of Egypt since King Farouk was overthrown in 1952 (by generals) has been a high-ranking army officer. Whatever their relationship may have been before last week, the upper echelon of the military is presumably no longer fully vested in Mubarak. Yet it's unlikely that it would want to see their general-in-a-striped-suit completely disgraced; an orderly departure of an old comrade would almost certainly be preferred.

Here's my further argument:

The officers are more likely to prefer Suleiman to the unknown that's represented by what surely looks to them as a still-leaderless mob, and in fact they may themselves have created his new vice-presidential office as a transition device, although not a transition to democracy.

The fact that the army is not fighting the protesters in Tahrir or elsewhere should not be taken as clear evidence of its indifference to the outcome; in fact it may be part of a cynical plan shared with the Mubarak administration (and possibly Obama's as well): Extended, and even increasing, chaos in the streets just may look to them like an opportunity for the restoration of order, under the authority of more or less the same interests which made up the old regime (and those of Washington).

Even the army rank and file, conscripts said to be unlikely to want to fire at the protesters, might come around to an accommodation with some kind of crackdown. This would especially be likely if they and other Egyptians come to look upon the revolutionaries, their numbers reduced by fear and attrition, as the enemies of Egypt.

Win-win: Everyone saves face; everyone saves power. The people? They never had it, and look what they would do with it if they did.

Last week I watched spellbound as Egyptians did what no one thought possible. I thought removing Mubarak was a done deal, and that the world, or the best of the world, wished them well.

I think I was mistaken. It now seems that the revolution is alone.

Today I realize how very much more will still be demanded of the heroic defenders of Egypt's ancient honor, and future greatness. I wish them well; I wish us all well.

For a discussion of this image, see Garance Franke-Ruta in The Atlantic, "Why the Kiss Picture Is So Radical."

[first image from Greenerblog (Lefteris Pitarakis / AP); the second image from CNBC]


The shameful U.S. role in the 2011 Egyptian revolution will never be forgotten, above all in the Middle East.

The Mubarak regime (and the army?) has clearly planned and executed today's violent confrontations in Tahrir Square and in Alexandria in order to retain power. It hopes to create a situation where it will be able to depend upon the loyalty of the lower military ranks when it orders the army to do its duty to protect the nation from those the regime portrays as its enemies, and it has to attract support from those, including some people who have supported the protests so far, who have become frightened by the violence initiated by its paid thugs and mustered civil servants.

Part of the plan is to silence the foreign journalists, who are the only source of information for people both within and outside Egypt (obviously the state monopolization of broadcast news and the continued shutdown of internet and cellphone service wasn't enough).

The execution of this plan began today.

But Mubarak has help. The Obama administration, like governments around the world, remains complicit in the crimes of an Egyptian government which had already lost its legitimacy, but today joins the ranks of regimes which will be forever associated for their iniquity.

In addition, Obama's neglect of the Mubarak regime's assault on the press and communication systems has not gone unnoticed (note: many have suggested that our own government is working on a "kill switch" which would allow the White House to disconnect the Internet and all electronic communications at its will, "for security purposes"). "Many people make the very important point: Obama made NO mention of internet and mobile phones. The silence is deafening.," tweeted Evan Hill (yesterday evening, New York time), responding to the President's statement earlier. Even if Obama wanted to argue that what happens in Egypt is up to the Egyptians, silence is not a neutral act: The government's monopoly of all means of communication is a huge advantage for reaction and repression.

None of this was necessary; none of this would have happened had our democratically-elected President done something more than ask "both sides" to avoid violence.

The MSM seems obsessed about the fact that the Egyptians in the streets have no leader; why isn't it interested in the fact that neither do the Americans?

Mark LeVine has a very, very wise and beautifully-articulated piece on the Opinion page of the Al Jazeera site, "It's time for Obama to say Kefaya!," answering the question of why we persist in a disastrous foreign policy. I hadn't read it yet when I borrowed the image at the top for my own post. Now I'm totally depressed: It seems only a revolution could alter our posture in the world. This is LeVine:

Such a position [supporting the status quo in the Middle East] is as tragic as it is stupid, as the president has been offered an unprecedented and until a few weeks ago unimaginable opportunity to back radical but peaceful change that is not stained by Western intervention in a region that everyone believes must undergo such change in order to prevent it becoming even more of a hotbed for terrorism and anti-Western sentiments.

. . . .

So the question really needs to be asked - whose interests is President Obama serving by remaining silently supportive of the status quo when he could, and by any measure, should, be lending vocal, public support for the peoples of the Arab world as they finally rise up against their leaders?

Is it companies like Lockheed Martin, the massive defence contractor whose tentacles reach deep into every part of the fabric of governance (as revealed by William Hartung's powerful new book, Prophets of War: Lockheed Martin and the Making of the Military Industrial Complex)?

Is it the superbanks who continue to rake in profits from an economy that is barely sputtering along, and who have joined with the military industrial complex's two principal axes-the arms and the oil industries-to form an impregnable triangle of corrupt economic and political power?

It's hard to think of any other candidates at the present time.

[image of President Obama during the 2011 State of the Union speech from Al Jazeera (GALLO/GETTY)]


It's now pretty clear that the Egyptian people are going to succeed in freeing themselves entirely without the help of the U.S. Today I'm not worrying as much about whether their courage and nobility will enable them to defend their magnificent, popular revolution as I am about the consequences of its brilliant success for the U.S. Their achievement is one which I fully expect to be repeated elsewhere in the Middle East - and beyond - one in which my government, it will be remembered, had no part, offered no help or encouragement, and in fact was only a hindrance.

Is Obama nuts? Who's the terrorist now?

It's as if the U. S. government was not satisfied with the degree of disgust with which much of the world holds its imperial presence, military adventures and reactionary foreign policy, and now President Obama has decided to further inflame the hatred by giving people in the Arab and Muslim world, and elsewhere, even more reason for their distrust, confirming the worst suspicions of some and making new enemies of others.

For us in the U.S., and for the world, the danger of this policy, whether authored by stupidity or narrow national calculation, should be obvious. Not only will we be hated and reviled, but the threats, both real and perceived, which since 9/11 have torn our political economic and social fabric apart, may now prove fatal to everything we ever thought we stood for. The nation which once appeared as a beacon of freedom for people around the world is now on the losing end of history, and those who have inherited so much from its founders can expect to find themselves in history's dustbin.

Read Nicholas Kristof, writing now from the streets of Cairo:

Yet one thing nags at me. These pro-democracy protesters say overwhelmingly that America is on the side of President Mubarak and not with them. They feel that way partly because American policy statements seem so nervous, so carefully calculated -- and partly because these protesters were attacked with tear gas shells marked "made in U.S.A."

The upshot is that this pro-democracy movement, full of courage and idealism and speaking the language of 1776, wasn't inspired by us. No, the Egyptians said they feel inspired by Tunisia -- and a bit stymied by America.

Everywhere I go, Egyptians insist to me that Americans shouldn't perceive their movement as a threat. And I find it sad that Egyptians are lecturing Americans on the virtues of democracy.

"We need your support," pleaded Dr. Mahmood Hussein, a physiology professor. "We need freedom."

Ahmed Muhammad, a medical student, told me: "Egyptian people will not forget what Obama does today. If he supports the Egyptian dictator, the Egyptian people will never forget that. Not for 30 years."

I don't think Americans can be reminded enough that the events in Egypt are not about them, but we've been so invested in the dictatorial regime now being leveled by a popular, nonpartisan national revolt that we cannot claim we had nothing to do with it in the past, cannot pretend we're not involved in what's happening now, and cannot expect to be isolated from its consequences.

More from Kristof, in a post done today:

I also fear that this choreography - sending former diplomat Frank Wisner (whom I admire) to get Mubarak to say he won't run for reelection -- will further harm America's image. This will come across in Egypt as collusion between Obama and Mubarak to distract the public with a half step; it will be interpreted as dissing the democracy movement once again. This will feed the narrative that it's the United States that calls the shots in the Mubarak regime, and that it's the United States that is trying to outmaneuver the democracy movement. In effect, we have confirmed to a suspicious Egyptian public that we are in bed with Mubarak and trying to perpetuate his regime (even without him at the top) in defiance of a popular democratic movement.

[image from Al Jazeera (EPA)]

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