Friday, February 25, 2011
Tuesday, February 15, 2011
Sunday, February 13, 2011
Saturday, February 12, 2011
Friday, February 11, 2011
Thursday, February 10, 2011
Wednesday, February 09, 2011
Tuesday, February 08, 2011
When President Mubarak told Christiane Amanpour in a television interview that the alternative was him or chaos he was also commenting on this long debate. He was saying that without the existing hierarchical apparatus of the central state Egyptians themselves would be incapable of social cohesion or coherent economic activity. Because Mubarak himself was out of the country for over a month last year while he underwent still mysterious medical procedures in Germany it is clear that the country actually can get along without his person for a while. But whether those people in authority can get along without the presidential system or the existing president is a completely different question than whether Egypt can.
Monday, February 07, 2011
Just a brief note while I work on a couple of longer posts for later in the day. The narrative of the masses against crony capitalism is a good one. It’s exemplified in the story of steel magnate and ruling party leader, Ahmad Ezz. Ezz made a fortune and played a major role in running and fake parliamentary elections last fall that wiped out the entire opposition and left Egyptians feeling angrier than ever at the government. Along with this story is the one that the masses have made the revolution and now someone is now trying to steal it from them. For some observers the likely guilty party is the Muslim Brothers and for others it appears to be the business elite.
From my little vantage point in downtown Cairo the main problem remains the headline in the (Saudi-owned) daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat the other day. The ruling party has made it clear that there are two options—either constitutional change or the army. “Constitutional change” means the current regime trying to retain as much of its power, personnel, and wealth as possible. The army means, well, it means a return to open military rule. If you liked Gamal Abdel-Nasser then you might like the return of the army to power; on the other hand, many here think they’re more likely to get someone who closely resembles Augusto Pinochet. And, yes, I’ve had more than one Egyptian friend ask me if I thought that was a likely possibility. It’s a question that sends shivers down my spine since I’ve known people imprisoned in military prisons in the past and there is a large stadium not far from where I live which I would guess is a convenient location if you started arresting large numbers of people in Midan al-Tahrir.
There is now an initiative by a group of socalled “wise men” which thankfully includes at least a couple of wise women. English readers can get the text of the document put forward by this group in the Egyptian newspaper on February 3 at the website of the Carnegie Endowment:
There are several of these “wise men” groups but they seem to be coalescing and for convenience I’m going to focus just on the group who signed this particular text. They could also be called the “Shorouk group” I suppose.
These proposals are a very reasonable attempt to figure out a way forward and they represent an important set of concerns about constitutional reform and constitutional legitimacy that profoundly affect how the future of this country plays out. Briefly they deal with the issue of restricting the power of the presidency (not just the role of Mubarak himself), ending the state of emergency rule, whether to re-write the entire constitution from the ground up, and the issue of a peaceful and legitimate transition to a new order. With the threat in the background that the army can always, as it has in the past, move in.
I’m not as knowledgeable about contemporary Egyptian life as I’d like to be but as one of the few Americans who seems to have elected to remain during these weeks I’ll have to do.
Now Shorouk itself is an interesting venue first of all. Many years ago Shorouk was basically the publishing house associated with the Muslim Brothers (which, by the way, even in its radical heyday of the 1940s ran a commercial printing house that published more than its own work). With the loosening of controls over freedom of expression private newspapers, like al-Misry al-Yawm, came into existence and publishing houses like Shorouk began to publish (and sell at their own bookstores) a much wider array of literature from within and outside the “Islamic current.” Several years ago the Shorouk newspaper came into existence and while it features a column by Muslim Brother intellectual Fahmy Huweidi it also publishes a very wide array of comment including by many secular liberals. It’s not and never has been a “Muslim Brothers” newspaper but it does indicate how one particular brand, if you would, has broadened its reach as the political and economic climate has changed.
So publishing this statement in Shorouk was itself an indication of the where the signatories wanted to place themselves: smack in the middle of the growing liberal middle-class intellectual concern with pluralism, tolerance, and legitimate constitutional change. Many on the list are well known intellectuals long connected to demands for democratization and liberalization such as Amr al-Shobaky (associated I believe with the semi-official Ahram Center for International Studies) and Kamal Abu al-Magd (associated with the liberal current of Islamist attorneys and law professors).
Those signed include Amr al-Hamzawy who has been associated with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and whose presence strikes me as important not least because of his own qualities but because it is a clear statement that (and this is more so than with the international bureaucrat Muhammad al-Baradei) that Egyptians with direct connections to institutions outside the country, including the US, have as much legitimacy to ask for change as anyone inside. Not more, but also not less.
Two signers are former Egyptian ambassadors to the US including Nabil Fahmy who is now a dean at the American University in Cairo. So his presence clearly represents a degree to which people who were formerly closely associated with the ordinary functions of government (and I’m rather pointedly not saying with “the regime”) and capably carried them out now turn out not only to be critical but willing to say so in public. It’s easy to criticize people like Fahmy but he has metaphorically burned at least a couple of bridges of his own here (yes, I know he wouldn’t be out burning any actual bridges or throwing rocks in Tahrir but surely that can’t be the only criterion for trying understand events here).
Perhaps the most recognized signer outside Egypt is Naguib Sawiris. Sawiris is said to be the 374th richest man in the world and he is certainly a major magnate. He is an owner and board member of Orascom and plays a key role in the telecommunications in Egypt (Mobinil) and the world. There were rumors shortly after January 25 that Sawiris had left Egypt and indeed many very rich people (including some very famous entertainment figures) left the country. Sawiris announced that he was with his employes at a construction site (his larger family firm is also in the construction business as well as telecoms). His presence on the list is important again as an indication of the degree to which sections of the economic elite are breaking with the government. Given the importance of connections to the state for making business work here this is indicative of how broadly the incompetence and corruption of the regime has antagonized Egyptians. Although Sawiris is not in competition with the army-based industries which are mainly in metal-working, some food production, and the like he is providing at least a limited challenge to the idea of an economy in which not just the state but more specifically the army plays a large role. Although the size of the army’s role in the economy is disputed (and a state secret), it has moved into almost every part of the economy that directly or indirectly is connected to the needs of an army: from metal products, to the production of clothing, property management (it owns a lot of real estate), and food stuffs.
It is therefore worth noting one other signature on the list: Safwan Thabet (the name is mis-spelled in the English version where it appears as Safwat). Thabet, 63, is chairman of the board of Juhayna Food Industries. Juhayna, which has been in business since 1983, is an extremely large producer of milk, milk products and juice. His particular firm is closer to competing with the army which is also engaged in this sector of the economy. Thabet, unlike Sawiris, is not a member of the Coptic minority and cannot therefore be thought to be involved because of issues of discrimination. He also seems to be more closely connected to the rest of the business community through its many local organizations and associations. Anyone who has been in big business in Egypt for more than a quarter of a century is no political naïf.
So, again, what seems to be important here is that sections of the elite, while certainly not interested in bringing down the entire structure of the economy and the polity, have distanced themselves from the regime and begun to demand change. Despite some early panicky claims that the business elite and the middle class are sending everything out of the country thus causing a run on the pound and a collapse of the stock exchange, at least some very wealthy and prominent members of the business elite have chosen to stay. The focus up to now has been, and correctly so, on the remarkable bravery and steadfastness of the hundreds of thousands (or more likely millions) of people who have faced physical danger and death by demonstrating in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere. They are the ones who have changed Egypt, but in so doing they have also allowed others who will also have a role play, to come out into the open and demand structural changes. And much as the regime and Mubarak have resisted his departure they have equally, if not more strongly, resisted the demands for thorough-going constitutional change and tried to limit the damage, as Sulaiman has insisted, to only two articles of the constitution.
Sunday, February 06, 2011
One important aspect of Midan al-Tahrir yesterday and of the demonstrations up until now which has struck people who live here and may not have been so widely reported as the brutality against foreign reporters by pro-government thugs is the remarkable organization, cooperation, and good nature of the people demonstrating for change.
First let me break for a bit of humor before going on to make the necessarily ponderous academic points. People have been cleaning up in the wake of the huge amounts of trash left behind whenever hundreds of thousands of people come together. And inevitably as garbage is bagged it mounds up. Smack in the middle of the midan there was a huge pile of garbage bags which were awaiting removal. Some anonymous wag had posted a sign on top: “site of the new building of the National Democratic party” in reference both to popular understandings of the ruling party (it’s a corrupt pile of garbage) and to its need for a new headquarters (since the old one was burned in the first days of the protests).
More impressive, as a segue into my main topic here, let me describe waiting to get in to the square. Thousands of people were milling around at the at the western edge of the Qasr al-Nil bridge where there was an extremely narrow opening in an otherwise impressive row of soldiers behind barbed wire and a tank. At the point the crowd was funneled, single-file, in the direction of several groups of people waiting to check identity cards and pat people down. I was standing with another American and we were discussing, in English, whether to go in. As we decided we would suddenly somebody behind us shouted out in Arabic “Move on up, there’s plenty of room ahead” which struck me as hilarious because it’s exactly what the conductor tells you when you board a more or less equally crowded bus. I broke out laughing as did most of the crowd around us.
I’ve read accounts by other foreigners of their fear and mistreatment in the midst of the protest demonstrations, especially on the first day so I’m not going to say that the protests have just been one big happy outing for everybody. One account that I read is indeed frightening and sobering and I’m sure it’s an accurate description of what he experienced in the area around Talaat Harb square.
My own particular experiences have been different but I also have to admit that I’ve been more careful (doubly so since I have a transplanted kidney and have absolutely no desire either to take a blow to the abdomen or to spend a night or more locked up and away from my medications) than I would have been 40 years ago. It’s also very clear that the government is playing on xenophobia but this has some popular resonance. So I’m sure that the people who called in to the government television channel last night to say that they had heard people giving orders in English or distributing leaflets in foreign languages about how the demonstrations should go fully believed what they were saying.
Yet the atmosphere inside Midan al-Tahrir on what the demonstrators called the “Friday of departure” was exhilarating. The experience of having to move to the back of a crowded bus is a common one in Cairo. Its unpleasant, hot and stuffy being in the middle of people packed in like the proverbial sardines. It’s also not uncommon in such situations for women to be harassed, for pickpockets to ply their trade, and for people to be annoyed and annoying.
One thing that has been different in Midan al-Tahrir for most of the week (and again I can’t speak to reports of quite different behavior) has been the remarkable calmness, openness, and tolerance by large crowds of Egyptians. Completely covered women carrying children marched alongside chic young women dressed in shirts and sleeves and men with the traditional peasant robes and business suits and everything in between. Not only was Egyptian pluralism on display but nobody—from Azhari shaykhs to young hipsters—voiced any criticism of anybody’s else dress or looks or presence. It’s been widely remarked among Egyptian women I know at any rate that they haven’t been bothered, subjected to harassment, or even had anybody try to work his (or her) fingers into a handbag.
One reason this is important, of course, is that it shows how remarkably the events of the last week and a half have united as well as divided Egyptians. The other reason, though, as many Egyptians (but relatively few foreigners as far as I can tell) have noted is that it shows that Egyptian spontaneous activity in the absence of a cruelly repressive state is not chaos but order. Again, I don’t wish to romanticize the Egyptians: people here are not cut from some different cloth as other human beings and people here can be as petty and as mean-spirited as people anywhere else. But what the events of the last 10 days show is that Egyptians, like Londoners during the Blitz, can rise to the occasion. In another post I’m writing about a more intellectual discussion among Egyptians about these issues but for now I want to focus on behavior in Midan al-Tahrir and the streets.
There was certainly violence in many parts of Egypt in the past 10 days and while much of it was inspired by the government, it would be wrong to think that all of it was. Where the political movement was centered, however, there were relatively high levels spontaneous cooperation and tolerance. Many people here think has been reinforced by the so-called popular committees that have played so important a role in safeguarding neighborhoods (such as my own) from violence and looting. What one Egyptian friend after another has remarked is that people who previously didn’t talk to each other (for example, the butcher and the attorney or the plumber and the professor) have suddenly found themselves spending the night together with a common task and engaging in long (but not necessarily always political) conversations.
One Egyptian colleague has referred to it as indicative of much higher levels of “social capital” than any realized Egypt had. Given the absence of bowling alleys, choral societies, and cooperative local political endeavors (which had been completely foreclosed by the centralized state), this spontaneous cooperation or social capital seems to arise from mysterious sources and will, no doubt, be the subject of many an American doctoral dissertation in years to come.
I’m not going to weigh in on that subject except to say that, once again, it ‘s clear to me that the role of emotion and human solidarity has so completely eluded American social science (of both the rational choice and the postmodern persuasion) as to convince me it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.
What I do want to conclude with is this thought which I’ll also try to flesh out later today and tomorrow here and for a post at the Social Science Research Council. Whatever we think we know about taking power out of the hands of the autocratic hierarchical state (you can call this democracy or local self-government or popular participation) is that people who live near each other need to be able to deliberate (talk to each other) and make decisions together with both the authority and the responsibility for their own lives. That they could not do this is something the highest officials of the Egyptian state have long maintained. What the pluralism of the demonstrations has shown is that it need not necessarily be true., Indeed for the last 10 days it has not been true that spontaneous activity here apart from the state is disastrous disorder. In this more profound sense than anything else Egyptians feel they have changed the world they live in.
NB: The photos are not themselves from Midan al-Tahrir or from February 4. They are either from the demonstration of the "Day of Rage" near Kubri al-Gala' or in the area of the Corniche the first day the army had its tanks out. What they do give is a sense of the diversity of Egyptians engaged in the demonstrations.
Saturday, February 05, 2011
I understand the concern among many Israelis and within the Jewish community in the US about events in Egypt just as I understand the fears that too sudden an access of democracy in Egypt will bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power which will more or less inevitably (so the argument goes) lead to a denunciation of the Camp David Accords and the creation of a solid bloc of Arab enmity against the Jewish state and, probably in collaboration with Hamas in Gaza if not with Fatah in the West Bank, the elimination of Israel in a paroxysm of war.
I understand those fears just as I understand those Americans who have been reluctant to do anything (as opposed to saying anything) to further weaken the regime. Mubarak has been our ally for 30 years and it would be at best unseemly and at worse wrong and unwise to abandon him at the first sign of trouble. We should, at least, wait a bit before abandoning him.
I understand those fears and concerns and as with all deeply felt understandings of politics I am far from telling those who hold them that they should simply dismiss them. They cannot.
What I fail to understand is the construction of Mubarak and his regime as being in any sense friendly to Israel or even a solid support for the Israeli state. Mubarak, as far as I can tell, no more cares for Israel than do most Egyptians and his regime has been as hostile to Israeli society and Israelis as any other element in Egypt.
As far as I can tell Mubarak, in 30 years, has visited Israel once very briefly: to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Unlike Sadat he never addressed the Knesset nor has he shown any interest even in reciprocating state visits that Israeli leaders paid to Egypt. The Egyptian government (though perhaps personally not all of its high officials) has been unremittingly hostile to Israel through the print media, the television, and indeed the efforts of its police. Egyptian movies abound in descriptions of evil Israelis who kidnap, torture, or otherwise abuse good-hearted Egyptians and (more rarely) Palestinians.
So much is this the case that it has even become a bit of a joke among young middle-class Egyptians. In one film, an Egyptian is kidnapped to Israel as part of a nefarious and complicated plot. Managing to escape, the Egyptian hero then attempts the complex journey back to the homeland. Yet, as some Egyptian viewers noted, why doesn’t he just go to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv which, as far as the movie is concerned, doesn’t exist. In other words, in the Egypt of Husni Mubarak although official Egypt has diplomatic relations with Israel this is not permitted to be part of the normal imaginative or cognitive map of ordinary Egyptians. And this is the regime on which the Israeli government wishes to rely?
The Muslim Brotherhood has said that they would abrogate the peace treaty. Some of my academic friends—people I respect—say the Brotherhood has by now become a different political force than they once were. They are now liberals or perhaps social democrats who simply happen to pray in the direction of Mecca. Others tell me that the Muslim Brotherhood are nothing of the kind: they are blood-thirsty fanatics who can hardly wait to get out of their confining suits and ties, don traditional robes and turbans and slit the throats of infidels.
For the moment let me simply state an argument I’ll make at length in another post. The question for now in Egypt is not whether the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power. The army is not, for its own reasons, going to let that happen. The question for now is whether there can be any significant changes in the rules governing a hierarchical and authoritarian military system that has been in place since 1952 and that fought its own wars with Israel when it pleased and made peace when it pleased and that obstructed Israeli policy in Gaza when it pleased and cooperated to make it more effective when it pleased.
And the reason it pleased to do what it did in the years since Anwar Sadat, himself an authoritarian leader, came to power after Abdel Nasser died has to do with some home truths (is this what my professors from the land of international relations call “realism”?). Egyptians got tired of doing most of the dying in wars with Israel; Egyptians got tired of facing the destructive barrage of the Israeli war machine in the pursuit of the chimera of Arab nationalism; Egyptians got tired of paying the price for the inflated and irresponsible rhetoric of military regimes that proved to be incompetent at doing what they claimed to do best: defending the national borders.
Egyptians got tired but that doesn’t mean they decided that the Israelis were their best friends (in the period before texting nobody even thought about the possibility of BFF). The best construction you can put on local feelings is that most Egyptians find Israeli policies toward the Palestinians in West Bank and especially Gaza somewhere between repellent and abhorrent.
But would a democratic Egyptian government be more inflexibly anti-Israeli than the present government? If you think of a democratic government as one that carries out the will of majority regardless of any other considerations (the will of the minority, prudence, the role of interest groups), then that might be the case. I notice that both the left and right in the US seem to wave the flag of anti-Israeli Islamism in the face of any government initiatives in support of democracy.
But if by democracy we meant something that many Egyptians have had in mind and have even experienced in the past 10 days then things might be different. Not immediately but perhaps—and let me underline that perhaps—in the longer run. What if by democracy we meant a system that allowed for and even encouraged the expression of pluralism in society: religious pluralism, political pluralism, and social pluralism. Israel would not become any more popular tomorrow but at least those who wanted to visit it, to describe—for worse as well as for better—what they saw, and to discuss what would be the most appropriate policies for achieving what many here want—recognition of a Palestinian state with its own secure borders and the end of Israeli settlements in the West Bank—would all have the opportunity to do so. Israelis have long complained of the so-called “Cold Peace” in which the interests of security state in Egypt have led it to cooperate with the Israeli security establishment but in which Israelis themselves remain largely unwelcome and unknown. A state committed not to a single inflexible and hierarchical truth but to the recognition of the plural nature of Egyptian society could not but make a wider discussion possible since the existing discussion is so extremely narrow.
Such an Egypt would, of course, put far more pressure on Israel than does the present government to change its policies. It might, depending on exactly what political and social forces upheld it, also be a far more powerful agent for change in Israeli policy than is the present government. For the moment, in other words, within Israel itself the notion that security is congruent with settlement in the West Bank remains a plausible political argument. That would be a more difficult argument to uphold if their interlocutor was a democratic government in Egypt committed both to peace and to Palestinian statehood rather than an authoritarian dictatorship. It is not so clear to me, in fact, that such a government would necessarily want to abrogate the treaty; it might simply, instead, insist that it has not yet been implemented and indeed that the Israeli government had a variety of obligations to which it could be expected to conform. (NB: the counter claim that the Israeli government would make that the PA and the PLO have obligations they have not upheld does not apply to the Egyptian-Israeli accords since it is clear that the Egyptian government has carried out its obligations under its treaty with Israel).
So, although I am far from religious, let me put this in terms that bring together both popular, contemporary Egyptian and traditional Jewish imagery. Why exactly is it that the security of the Jewish state is achieved by relying on Pharaoh?