Lejan fi kul makan

Reports from liberated east Libyan cities suggest an impressive level of organization on the part of the populace, with most basic urban functions up and running. One wonders if Qaddafi's ideosyncratic jamahiriyan ideology, roping people into participating in rubber-stamp "Basic People's Congresses" to create a facade of direct democracy, has in fact formed the provided the institutional template for a countrywide insurrection against him.

Qaddafi's bloody counterattack

An excellent crowd-sourced map on Google on the uprising in Libya has been created by one Arasmus, here. It's useful in trying to sort out all the various reports, to get a sense of the ebb and flow of control. Here's what seems to be happening: the eastern cities are protester-controlled, but Tripoli has at least temporarily been bludgeoned into submission and is saturated with pro-regime forces, other western and central towns are reportedly under attack by military units, and now Qaddafi is contemplating how to regain control of the east before his authority completely unravels. The regime seems to have a shortage of reliable forces, as the army is reportedly divided along tribal lines. (My very uneducated reading of a list of Qaddafa and allied officers in Mansour O. El-Kikhia's Libya's Qaddafi, pub 1997, suggests that they were then concentrated in about six or seven of the army's 45 armor and infantry battalions, although it might not be a comprehensive list).

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This isn't 1952, but Egyptian democrats should still be wary

A despised autocrat is forced to abdicate, a military junta takes power, jubilation in the streets of Cairo -- maybe we've seen it all before, 60 years ago, and it didn't work out so well.

"Whereas some predicted as recently as Thursday that Egypt was moving forward, with the rise of the Military Command Council, Egypt seems to have reverted to 1952," writes Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in the Washington Post. He argues that the military's coup will take away the protest movement's momentum, and allow the forces of the status quo to control the transitional process.

There is certainly a danger that the military will attempt to pull a Leopard, creating the illusion of change so that things stay the same -- and reports that the military is warning against strikes are frighteningly reminiscent of the Free Officers' brutal crackdown on workers in Kafr al-Dewar in August of 1952. However, there are also a number of key differences between the situation now and the situation sixty years ago, which I think will make it very difficult for the military to simply ditch Mubarak and keep the system in place.

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Dark Foreign Forces

The youth website of al-Ahram (aka, "A Diwan of Contemporary Realignment") sends a reporter to Tahrir to investigate the identities of all those foreigners in the square. (It was published Feb 11, so it was probably commissioned a few days before). It turns out that while some of them may have been a bit Iranian-looking, they were mostly journalists asking demonstrators what they wanted, rather than foreign agents handing out cash.

Given that xenophobia-mongering was one of Mubarak's main tools in trying to delegitimize the revolution, it's nice to see that the state media is tackling the "Irano-Israeli spies in Tahrir stirring up trouble" narrative head-on.

The Wiles of Mubarak

Tonight's speech by Mubarak is a reminder of how much the course of a revolution against an autocracy is shaped by the personal quirks of the autocrat. Here are a few thoughts from my end what calculations or miscalculations might have been going through Mubarak's head...

* Tone-deafness: Mubarak genuinely thought that he could defuse the situation with a hat-tip to the protesters, and that his transfer of powers would satisfy the protesters. He may also have thought back to his Feb 2 address, where he stirred up some genuine sympathy and regained the initiative, and was trying to repeat the performance. However, he so badly mangled his speech, and struck such an arrogant tone, that he made things worse.

* Cussedness: Mubarak projected arrogance and intransigence so as to call the bluffs of everyone -- the protesters, the Americans, and presumably now the military -- who are pushing him to leave. Maybe he allowed expectations to be raised, so as to make the blow fall that much harder. If you can't get rid of me after this, he is saying, then you can't get rid of me until I'm ready to go. Show your hand, or give up.

* Worse is better: Mubarak wanted to stir things up, to provoke a march on the palace and possibly trigger some violence. The regime had its greatest success undermining the uprising when the situation was at its most unstable. The return to normalcy on the other hand this week provided the opportunity for people to come together in the workplace, remember what they really dislike about the stagnant and corrupt status quo, and go on strike. So, he thought he might end the normalcy, rekindle fears of long-lasting anarchy, and put pressure on the demonstrators to quit with what concessions they have already won.

Welcoming the Brothers, wary of theocracy

One reason why history doesn't necessarily repeat itself is that people are aware of what happened the last time around. Western commentaries on the Egyptian uprising are full of dire warnings that Egypt 2011 will likely turn out like Russia 1917 or Iran 1979 -- a radical party which considers itself the vanguard of a far-reaching revolution will shove aside its liberal democratic allies and take advantage of the power vacuum to establish an autocracy much worse than the outgoing one. The Muslim Brothers are usually cast in the role of the Leninists or Khomeinists. To all the myriad factors which have been cited in response, for example...

  • the failure of the Mubarak regime to collapse and leave a power vacuum
  • the strong consensus in the anti-Mubarak movement behind democratic constitutionalist demands
  • the Brothers' three decades of involvement in constitutional parliamentary politics
  • the Brothers' caution and their prioritization of institutional survival
  • the experience of Egypt's judiciary, press, and opposition in monitoring elections and the rotation of power
  • an economy based not on oil, which enables radical policies, but on tourism, which discourages them

...I'd like to focus on a factor that was pretty strongly in evidence on my last visit to Tahir before departing Egypt: the Egyptian anti-Mubarak movement appears to be just as wary of a Brother-led takeover as the West.

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The art of counter-revolution

We are please to introduce a new contributor, a journalist who has spent much time covering Egypt, Iraq and elsewhere in the region for nearly two decades. He goes, for now, by the pseudonym of al-Silawa. [Arabist]

A few days ago I was listening to state radio playing one of those stirring patriotic songs written shortly after the Nasser revolution, on the heroic Egyptian people. Ironic that state radio is playing the song, ironic that it was probably originally written to praise passive acceptance of the 1952 coup. But right now, the lyrics are spot on.

I have not been to Tahrir since the mob attacks on the protesters began. But what I'm seeing and hearing is amazing. People have braved gunfire and molotov cocktails. They have set up makeshift barricades and organized hospitals. Lifelong activists who once dismissed Egyptian youth as flighty and apathetic are coming away from Tahrir with their jaws agape at the persistance and ingenuity of this new generation.

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