Monday, 14 February 2011

Was It Just a Dream? Egypt's Revolution: 'People Power' or Military Coup?

“Now our nightmare is over. Now it is time to dream.”

Wael Ghonim (New York Times – 13th February, 2011)

“I'm still trying to untangle the emotions and impact of the Egyptian revolution
in my own mind… For me, the contagious euphoria of Friday and Saturday has
been replaced by a Sunday morning letdown. Last night, as I made my way
through "liberated" Tahrir Square in Cairo, I was o vercome by sadness… It
oddly felt like an era is over.”

Dan Murphy (Christian Science Monitor – 13th February, 2011)

Was it all a beautiful dream? The Western world's broadcasters and print-journalists repeatedly characterised the celebratory atmosphere in Cairo and other Egyptian cities after Hosni Mubarak's resignation late on 11th February as like a rock festival or a big party. It was the happy ending to die for - or was it the end?

On Monday, the crowds who had defied the feared Mukhabarat of Mubarak melted away when told to go by the new ruling junta. When red-capped military policemen cleared away the remaining revellers or protestors, as you prefer, and the detritus of their Glastonbury-style camp, with them it was clear that People Power Egyptian-style was not what it had been all cracked up to be. But when or where in the last twenty years has the hype been followed by the fuflillment of the people's hopes?

While the world's media was focussed on the crowd scenes in Tahrir Square, regime-change as an inside-job was under way. Only Sky News Tim Marshall predicted from Day One of the protests that the most likely outcome of the protests was that the Egyptian Army would take power. Other on-the-spot reporters were whipped up by the exuberance of their own partisan reporting into insisting that the momentum of the People was unstoppable.

Now the spontaneity of the events is being called into question. The New York Times has a track record of raining on the People Power parade - when it is all done and dusted - and setting the record straight, but only once its editorial line has won. Until the object of popular derision, who happens also to have outlived his usefulness to the White House, has been toppled, the New York Times leads the pack of sententious insistence that only the People are involved. No suggestion of external political forces or internal power-plays is allowed to detract from the purity of the morality play on the streets of captal city X. From Belgrade to Tbilisi with a sidestep to Bishkek, the Times has always told the full story only once the telling cannot influence events.

Already it has begun to name the people forming international links with training centres and cash and technical aid from outside Egypt. Before long as with the Serbs or Georgians who thought they had played the decisive role, the celebration of the backroom cadre of People Power veterans who guide the spontaneous steps of each infant democracy will be "all the news that's fit to print." Instead of Arabic names our old favourites, Collonel Gene Sharp, the "Clausewitz of People Power," George Soros, "the Paymaster-General of People Power" and the various goatee-bearded NGO activists will get their commendations from the very media which decried any suggestion that a foreign hand might be in play. (In the meantime, for starters, see David D. Kirkpatrick & David E. Sanger, "A Tunisian-Egyptian Link That Shook Arab History" in the New York Times - 13th February, 2011.)

But what of the generals? Surely their patriotism and professionalism puts them above suspicion of having any interest except Egypt's own at heart?

In realty it seems Mubarak and the generals were engaged in a wrestling match - with Washington acting as a hardly impartial umpire. Remember the demonstrations kicked off while the Egyptian Defence Minister, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi and the chief of staff, Sami Enan were in the Pentagon.

Washington has been concerned about the succession to the aging autocrat. Mubarak falls in a long line of former favourites who stayed on too long and risked destabilising their own regimes by putting family interests ahead of the ruling military group as a whole.

From Romania in 1989 to Egypt today, the people who go out on the streets - however well justified their grievances and whatever their courage in risking the first steps of public defiance - in practice seem to act as stage extras while a coup d'etat is carried through while the world watches their defiance not realising it is a popular pageant rather than People Power.

Just as Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu offended Communist sensitivities and the ambitions of better-qualified apparatchiks by promoting his son, Nicu, as well as his wife, Elena, so Mubarak - an old friend by the way of the Ceausescus - offended key elements in his regime by letting his son, Gamel, and other family members and cronies not only look set to succeed to the most prestigious job but also he let them get too much of the economic pie.

The military takeover after Mubarak's resignation was not a break with Egyptian political tradition but a continuation of it.

Inside the miltary regime which has ruled Egypt since 1952, there was tension between the generals with ambitions to succeed Mubarak and his grooming of his son, Gamel, as successor. Even the generals who did not imagine themselves as president, resented the growing intrusion of Mubarak fils and his cronies into areas of business traditionally reserved for the military.

Despite all the huffing and puffing about Egyptians' pride in their armed forces, Field Marshal Tantawi's exploits in 1973, in reality the Egyptian army has long been much less effective at defending the country than defending the interests of the officer corps. Like many other African armies, Egypt's is better understood as a protection racket rather than the protectors of the nation.

As a study prepared at Fort Leavenworth for the US military from as long as 14 years ago showed, the Egyptian Army was engaged in an offensive to control the rapidly privatizing Egyptian economy - rather as China's People's Liberation Army has its fingers in many private business pies. Ironically, Mubarak's nepotism was a threat to the military's own insider-deals.

Of course, dynastic succession was very unpopular with ordinary Egyptians who have been squeezed between the rapacious demands of the competing factions within the regime as well as by the impact of rapid inflation pushing up food and fuel prices. Mubarak loyally followed the Washington consensus in reducing subsidies to the poor, but not fast enough to keep in favour there, but more than fast enough to alienate ordinary people, even ordinary policemen. (Don't hold your breath for a "populist" candidate proposing more social protection in the promised elections. Free marketeers from micro-parties are already the favoured candidates with the people who decide such matters.)

Mubarak, however, had antagonised the Americans - not because he only went to Israel once or let anti-Israeli television shows run on state TV - but because he was beginning to let Chinese businesses into Egypt. He was also talking about energy deals with the Russians. No doubt, he would take his cut but Washington did not like to see Egypt less dependent on its largesse. The generals still got a huge handout from America and knew that Chinese businessmen, even with a PLA background, would be much better at business than them.

US geopolitics and the self-interest of the Egyptian general-managers ran together. Mubarak was becoming a threat to the mutual longterm interests of Washington and his generals.

Having asserted their authority and sent the demonstrators packing with the backing of the self-appointed leaders of the Facebook generation, the generals can now get down to what they do best: their business is running Egypt's business.

Although the generals doled out some food on Monday in poor parts of the big cities to reinforce the message that people who stayed away from public meetings would get a pat on the head.

What of the indomitabe proponents of People Power?

The Google executive whose spontaneous twitterings we were told set the whole thing in motion suddenly sent out a very different message once the generals had issued their orders. According to CNN on Sunday, Wael Ghonim told the People to get off the streets and forget about politics: "Dear Egyptians, go back to your work on Sunday, work like never before and help Egypt become a developed country." But neither Mr Ghonim nor CNN mentioned that 25% of Egyptians would be going back to work for the generals in one way or another. Mubarak's corruptioon, cronyism and skimming of contracts was an intolerable affront to the Egyptian People, but their patriotism enables them to see the Army's businesses as all for the good of the nation.

Maybe the generals will keep their promise to hold elections in six months. But will they be really any freer and fairer than those under Mubarak? After all the people counting the votes and controlling the streets look set to be very similar to those in place for past elections. Like so many other states which have undergone the excitement of People Power as a response to corruption and election fraud, in Egypt the fall of the old boss does not seem to have shatterd the old regime.

Back in France in 1789, Louis XVI's government was dispersed long before he was decapitated in 1793: none of his ministers or provincial governors were in office six months after the fall of the Bastille. Real revolutions tend to become more radical, and that it is not necessarily a good thing., but they are more than one-act teasers like our post-modern dramas. Nowadays, revolution seems to be an inverted fairy story with a happy ending at the beginning: it is all over so quickly that most of the old regime's loyal servants hardly have time to turn their coats before they resume work in the same office.

Dream or nightmare?

Who can say for certain, but don't ask the Egyptian generals, they are just busy getting Egypt back to business.


Unknown said...
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Unknown said...

This excellent analysis captures the terrifying combination of wilful ignorance and goldfish concentration span that characterises our twitter age.