Egypt: State power where there is no place to hide

Affairs in Egypt are of interest not only because of the human rights issue — the Egyptian people rising up spontaneously to demand democracy and an end to autocratic rule – but also because it is a kind of paradigmatic illustration of the relation between geography and the devices of popular coercion. Lately, as soon as scholars try to define the relation of systems of power to geography, they are accused of geographic determinism. Such attacks veil important issues. It is true, as some argue, that societies live in imaginary worlds of their own fabrication; but it is also true that societies deploy their imaginative “worlds” in social and material affairs that have their own properties, no matter what is thought or said about them. This is why it is useful to examine how power is constituted in geo-ecological settings, because those settings have properties that set limits on what can be usefully imagined for the exercise of power, that is, usefully deployed to coerce populations in real situations. Egypt is a kind of paradigmatic example of how the geo-ecological world constrains the range of options for those who must live in it. The essential conditions of life for the Egyptians is the Nile River and the deserts that abut it.

Egypt is essentially a society dependent solely on the Nile River – solely, in the sense that outside of the range of the river human habitation is nearly impossible. There is the river where humans can cultivate the land and beyond it there is desert where no one can live. Escape from the sown is virtually impossible. Historically Egypt has been ruled by small military coalitions who have exercised control of the peasant populations who had nowhere to flee. Coalitions that could control traffic up and down the river and the populations of the sown areas along it have been ruled millions for millennia. There have been changes of government according to rules of succession or by coups d’etat but the many popular uprisings in its history have failed because the populations of the country have been easily accessible.

This is why the current popular movement in Egypt, with thousands demanding democracy and the rule of law, is exceptional and truly [possibly] revolutionary.

But there is a contradiction in modern autocratic systems. Autocratic regimes must have an entrepreneurial/ bureaucratic class to manage societal affairs in the modern world. Such an entrepreneurial / bureaucratic class has to be educated; it must acquire knowledge of the wider world so as to be competent to engage with the wider world. But the education of such a middle class, the creation of a sizable body of individuals whose horizons are wider than the affairs of every day life, introduces them to social currents elsewhere. It is hardly surprising that such a body of people would demand rights that a dictatorial regime refuses to give. And in Egypt that body of individuals is large, and perhaps as many of half of them are under 25. They have yet to experience the brutal hand of an autocratic state.

It seems to me that the modern history of Egypt is the story of occasional confrontations between the demands of the entrepreneurial / bureaucratic class for more rights and the demands for obedience and conformity by those in power. The more intense the clashes became the more shrill became the calls to rebellion – until they were silenced by excessive repressive measures. Waves of public discontent were punctuated by periods of intense repressive measures deployed against key public opponents. In this context extreme ideologies of rebellion have taken root: the ideas of Hassan al-Bannah who founded the Muslim Brethren in 1928 spawned numerous radical activities; the social critique and moral appeal of Sayed Qutb set in motion the Islamist movement of the last forty years. But only elsewhere, for the radicals had to regroup outside of Egypt, as conditions within the country allowed virtually no activities against the regime. There have been many public demonstrations – but brute power crushed them, for the only escape was flight from the regime of the Nile.

What frightens me about the situation in Egypt now is that the populations, excited as they have been by the public display of their shared resentment of the Mubarak regime, have not yet discovered how far an autocratic regime will go to stay in power. The Chinese students who demonstrated on Tiananmen Square on behalf of a more open society had no idea that the Chinese regime would respond so cruelly. The Iranians who rose up in frustration at the state-sponsored hijacking of the national election in 2008 had no idea how far the Ahmadenijad / Khamenei regime would go to stay in power. In both cases widely supported demonstrations were crushed brutally. Had these regimes learned from the experience of the Shah of Iran who fled rather than further brutalize his own people? The regime that followed him has been careful never to flinch. Has Mubarak learned something from the sudden flight of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia? What we have yet to see in Egypt – despite the demonstrations, despite even President Obama’s clear demand that a change must take place “now” – is any serious indication that Husni Mubarak is really going to give up power.

We may never see it happen, now that his administration has mounted an organized response to the demonstrations. Loyalists on horseback and camelback are being deployed with whips against the demonstrators. Mubarak and those before him never held their positions by popular suffrage; he is unlikely to give it up. Pharaohs need not care whether they are liked.

Ominous Signs in Egypt

Reuters has just reported that the Egyptian army has announced that everyone should go home, and The New York Times is reporting that a crowd of pro-Mubarak supporters have appeared on the streets. This cannot be a good sign. The broad display of anti-Mubarak feeling was relatively spontaneous, as spontaneous as any movement anywhere. Now we see an organized response by the administration. This does not bode well for the democratic movement in Egypt. We need to watch. We can only pray for an authentic public movement to proceed to the institutionalization of a democratic administration.
Below are a few lines from Reuters and the New York Times, with links to the source articles.


Egypt’s army tells anti-Mubarak protesters “enough”
Wed Feb 2, 2011 11:19am GMT

By Shaimaa Fayed and Yasmine Saleh

CAIRO (Reuters) – Egypt’s armed forces on Wednesday told protesters clamouring for an end to President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-rule that their demands had been heard and they must clear the streets.

The army warning came as international pressure grew on Mubarak to quit and his closest ally, the United States, told him bluntly that a political transition must begin immediately.

But an opposition coalition called for the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square to continue.

Crowds gathered in the square for a ninth day of protests, rejecting Mubarak’s promise on Tuesday that he would not stand in elections scheduled for September. They want him to go now.

A military spokesman, addressing the protesters on state television on Wednesday morning, said: “The army forces are calling on you. You began by going out to express your demands and you are the ones capable of restoring normal life.”

It was a clear call for protesters to leave the streets. And although the army had previously said the people had “legitimate demands” and soldiers would not open fire on them, it set up a possible confrontation if they failed to do so. []


Army Tells Cairo Protesters to Restore Normalcy as Obama Urges Faster Shift of Power
Amr Abdallah Dalsh/Reuters

Published: February 2, 2011

CAIRO — Just hours after President Hosni Mubarak declared that he would step down in September and President Obama urged a faster transition, Egypt’s powerful military signaled a shift on Wednesday, calling on the protesters who have propelled tumultuous changes here to “restore normal life.”

President Obama after his remarks on the situation in Egypt on Tuesday. He said that a political transition “must begin now.”

The announcement by a military spokesman appeared to be a call for the demonstrators, who have turned out in hundreds of thousands, to leave the streets even as high-powered diplomacy between Cairo and Washington unfolded at a blistering peace and reverberations from the protest spread on Wednesday to Yemen, where the president promised to leave in 2013.

On Tuesday, after Mr. Mubarak offered to step down within months as modern Egypt’s longest-serving leader, President Obama strongly suggested that Mr. Mubarak’s concession was not enough, declaring that an “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”

While the meaning of the last phrase was deliberately vague, it appeared to be a signal that Mr. Mubarak might not be able to delay the shift to a new leadership.

On the streets, meanwhile, the tactics and calculations seemed to be shifting too, possibly spurring the military’s concern as pro-Mubarak demonstrators — some of them in apparently confrontational mood — turned out in larger numbers to support the president. In a separate development, Internet access, denied for days by official restrictions, began to return.

The Egyptian Movement: A Worrisome Analogue to the Iranian Revolution

There is a similarity between the uprising against Mubarak in Egypt and the uprising against the Shah of Iran in 1978. Riots led to looting and in the process people gained access to weapons, so that weapons of all kinds were brought out on the streets. Vigilantes began to search now officials of the Shah’s government and many were executed on the spot whether or not they had really been loyal to the regime. Prisons were opened and criminals of all kinds came out, to become involved in the mayhem. It was a true revolution in the sense of being a broadly supported rebellion that sought fundamental change in the system of rule.

The result was a movement that could have gone in various directions. Azar Nafisi says that when she was teaching at a university in Tehran various groups — communists, democrats, Islamists of various sorts — were promoting their ideas and their publications to the students. In was only gradually that it became known that Khomeini and his colleagues in the clergy were intolerant and in fact committed to removing any group that could constitute a rival threat. Eventually some of those who had supported Khomeini and had brought him to prominence — especially the young progressive Iranians in Paris who had circulated his sermons and introduced him to the press — were removed, even executed, because they became opposed to the brutal policies of the new regime of clerics established by Khomeini.

We are currently observing a similar movement in Egypt. The riots, the weapons, the criminals released from prison, frighted officials fleeing with their families — these indicate a volatile situation that could go anywhere.

Who will rise to dominance in such a situation? It will take not only an assertive personality but an organization to back him — the Iranian clergy was virtually the only organization ignored by the Shah’s government and thus the only organization capable of quickly congealing into a viable administrative institution for Iran. So what organization in Egypt could accomplish such a feat? Would the Muslim Brethren be able to do it? If so, the future for the people of Egypt cannot be as bright as the excited demonstrators imagine.

If Mubarak flees, which we hope for, there is still the question of how a new regime will take form. What we know from the Iranian story is that the resulting system of governance could be even more brutal than the one that was displaced by an authentic popular revolutionary movement.

American duplicity in the Middle East could be dangerous

American double-sided diplomacy in the Middle East can be dangerous

The American government policy in the Arab world has a double aspect that may be catching up with it. On one hand the official policy is to support democracy and representative government; this poses the Americans against the regimes in the Arab world where authentic representation scarcely exists. On the other hand, the Americans have a working relationship with the current dictators in the Arab world, so they are reluctant for these regimes to change. It is no secret that if there were honest elections in the Middle East none of those elected would be pro-American; in fact, one would have to be anti-American to get elected. So the American interest in the Middle East, despite the high-minded claims, is for the regimes in place to remain in power. By simply encouraging “all sides” to resolve their differences peacefully the American government is displaying its support for ruthless leaders in the Middle East — their responses to the demonstrations will display how ruthless they are.

This is a dangerous game. When Jimmy Carter was elected he was much admired by the young people of Iran because he initiated a policy of what he called “human rights.” The Shah regime had become broadly despised for its repressive policies and they hoped for Carter’s support against the Shah. But Carter went to Iran and claimed that the Shah was his friend, alienating the young people, indeed people from all elements of the society, from him. They turned against Carter, despised him. And when students took over the American Embassy they refused to release their hostages until Jimmy Carter was out of office. The Iranians believed they had driven Carter from office.

By claiming that all sides in the demonstrations in the Middle East should sit down and talk the American government may be losing whatever respect it still has in the Middle East.

The new idiom of popular frustration: Democracy

Behind many of the movements in the Middle East is simple repression. Many have suffered for generations under regimes that were never elected and would not be elected if the ordinary people got a chance to collectively select their preferred leaders. This is why the various movements — demonstrations in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen — are not unlike the Islamist movement. In a way, what we see today is evidence that the Islamist appeal no longer appears to be the most salient idiom of public frustration. Consider the following, from Al Jazeera.

The ‘bin Laden’ of marginalisation
The real terror eating away at the Arab world is socio-economic marginalisation. by Larbi Sadiki 14 Jan 2011

Conventional wisdom has it that ‘terror’ in the Arab world is monopolised by al-Qaeda in its various incarnations. There may be some truth in this.

However, this is a limited viewpoint. Regimes in countries like Tunisia and Algeria have been arming and training security apparatuses to fight Osama bin Laden. But they were caught unawares by the ‘bin Laden within’: the terror of marginalisation for the millions of educated youth who make up a large portion of the region’s population.

The winds of uncertainty blowing in the Arab west – the Maghreb – threaten to blow eastwards towards the Levant as the marginalised issue the fatalistic scream of despair to be given freedom and bread or death.

[for more click on the title above]

Popular movements in Tunisia, Albania, Jordan, Yemen — elsewhere?

WE can be hopeful that the new signs of restiveness will lead to the formation of authentic democracies but I wonder if they were in the end turn out that way. The Iranian Revolution was genuinely authentic, one of the few real revolutions in history, and yet was eventually appropriated by the more radical elements of the Shiite clergy [one of the few national organization capable of organizing an administration]. The result was a regime more repressive than the Shah’s. So I am dubious while being hopeful. Without a population educated enough and savvy enough to develop a workable system of popular suffrage that protects the rights of those who lose as well as those who win it won’t happen. Too easy for the bullies to take over. If it can happen anywhere in the Middle East Tunisia may be the place.

Some helpful recent statements:

On the rising signs of restive populations in Tunisia, Albania, Jordan, Yemen, and possibly elsewhere, see:
ARAB WORLD: Protests in Algeria and Yemen draw inspiration from Tunisia uprising
by Meris Lutz [LA Times blog “Babylon & Beyond”

On the significance of the uprising in Tunisia see Judith Miller, formerly of the New York Times, here on
Tunisia’s ‘Jasmine Revolution’ Could Quickly Wither
Sunday, 23 Jan 2011