Mubarak's radio silence

To date, apart from Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki's phoned-in appearances on CNN and al-Jazeera to explain that a) the protests are being exaggerated by the media and b) they prove that Egypt is democratic, I have not seen any reaction by the Egyptian government to the biggest protests in decades.

The explanation is simple: Mubarak does not want to stoop to responding to these protests.

If you only knew Hosni as I do, you'd know he's terribly stubborn. He likes to dig in his heels. He won't be forced into a decision. He is a like a gamoosa (water buffalo, as common as cows in Egypt) that just won't be moved off a railroad track. This is his strength and weakness: this stubbornness can be determination (in the 1980s and 1990s, against radical Islamists), but it can also be his Achilles' heel, his inability move quickly to grab opportunities.

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Links 26 January 2011

US statement on events in Egypt

Again, just putting up this statement to make it easy for people to find. I liked Obama's mention of Sudan and Tunisia in the SOTU. I don't expect much more than this from State. It's now up to the Egyptian people to show take to the streets again and make their voice heard. People in the comments think I'm too positive about these US statements, but perhaps you don't understand my perspective: I have low expectations, which is only normal when the US (and every other major Western country) has supported dictators in the Middle East for fifty years.
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The democration promotion debate, updated

For my money, the most interesting person in think-tank-land working on issues of neo-authoritarianism and democracy promotion is Steve Heydemann. Steve is not only a very nice guy, but also a rare denizen of Washington who doesn't spout conventional wisdom or who doesn't act like a weathervane (like those people who were for democracy in the Arab world in 2005 but then not so hot about it in 2006). He has a very good article up at FP (those guys sure are productive) in which he makes an important point in the democracy promotion debate:

If Arab regimes are learning from and adapting to events in Tunisia, is the Obama administration doing the same? What lessons does Tunisia hold for U.S. efforts to promote democratic change in the Arab world? It is early days yet in Tunisia's uncertain path from the breakdown of an authoritarian regime to real democratization. Yet it is already becoming clear that the success of Ben Ali's regime in crushing and fragmenting opposition forces has created enormous obstacles to the construction of a new political order. In so thoroughly dominating a political space, the immediate legacy of Ben Ali's regime -- and a leading threat to its democratic prospects -- is the incoherence and inexperience of his opponents and their flailing attempts to navigate between the Scylla of the old order's restoration and the Charybdis of a descent into chaos that might provoke direct military intervention. If Tunisia is an extreme instance of the weakness of opposition forces, it is hardly alone; other Arab regimes suffer from similar deficits. 

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The opposition makes its first move

Screengrab by Sultan Qassemi

Above is a picture of al-Sayed Badawi, the president of the Wafd party (the most established of Egypt's legal opposition parties) appearing on al-Jazeera and making the following demands:

  1. A new national unity government
  2. The dissolution of parliament
  3. New elections under a proportional representation system

The full announcement is here [Arabic].

My gut reaction: this is either a significant break with the Wafd's behavior for over 30 years, or he is making this announcement on behalf of the regime. Why the conspiracy theory? Because he doesn't mention the question of the presidency, a chief demand of the protestors. Perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, the National Association for Change has made its own demands, including asking Mubarak to step down and Gamal to be disqualified from the presidency, as well as the dissolution of the parliament. Other groups have other demands, including a new minimum wage and the firing of the interior minister. 

These people should be coordinating — and remember they are not the ones who protested tonight.

P.S. Interesting timing.

An Egyptian unknown unknown, revealed

The most significant thing about today's protests across Egypt is that their scale was totally unexpected. Yes, there has been a wave of protests since late 2004. But none have been nationwide to this extent, and none have been has big. We still do not have a clear picture of what transpired in much of the country, and media focus tended to be on the main protest in Cairo's Midan Tahrir. But that is enough to know that these may be the biggest protest movement since at least the 1977 bread riots and perhaps even the biggest since the 1950s.

It was not predictable, just like Tunisia, because it was an unknown unknown — we did not know that the threshold for such an event had been reached, partly because previous protests had fizzled out or were effectively contained by the regime . While we (here I mean the press, analysts, and activists) knew many Egyptians were tired of the current state of affairs, we did not know that an external change (what happened in Tunisia) could have this kind of impact on a country that, after all, has been protesting for years and that is nowhere as repressive and controlled as Tunisia was under Ben Ali. I suspect the staggering effrontery of the regime during December's parliamentary elections and the moment of national unity after the New Year's Eve January bombing also played a role. A significant number of Egyptians simply do not find the regime credible anymore, and hold it responsible for much of the deterioration of the country — in terms of the socio-economic situation, sectarian relations, and political accountability. Today, a red line has been irrevocably crossed, a barrier of fear transcended.

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Inconsiderate Middle East

Things are really heating up across the region — ongoing protests in Algeria, unstable situation in Tunisia, talk of extremely rare protests in Libya, today's protest in Egypt, weird ongoings in Sudan, the release of the Palestine Papers in Israel/Palestine and consequent war between the PA and Jazeera, disgruntlement in Jordan, and a worrying reprisal of sectarian brinksmanship in Lebanon as the STL is about to, probably, inculpate Hizbullah for the wave of killings of the last few years including that of Rafiq Hariir

All of this is distracting me from my work and my focus on what's happening in Tunis.

The Lebanese stuff in particular is the most difficult to follow, as usual if you haven't been raised on a diet of tabouleh and manaqeesh. On such matters I defer to Qifa Nakbi. A few years ago the French comedy group Les Inconnus did this sketch on Lebanon that still holds up perfectly today. Enjoy.


[Thanks, Adam.]

On the occasion of Police Day

Many readers will know that today is Police Day in Egypt, a commemoration of the resistance by Islamailiya police against the British in 1952 during which 41 police officers were killed. For decades it has also bee the annual occasion for pageantry by the Ministry of Interior, the highlight of which is a boat show on the Nile. It will also be, potentially, the revival of a large anti-government, anti-torture protests, with many hoping for a turnout on the streets not seen since 2005 or perhaps even the day of the invasion of Iraq in 2003. One of the main organizer appears to be the Facebook group for Khaled Said, the victim of police brutality who died last year and became a symbol of torture, which will be providing continuous updates throughout the day. You might also read Jack Shenker's optimistic take in the Guardian, or this piece on the Ministry of Interior's pledge to arrest anyone who takes part in al-Masri al-Youm. We'll see how it turns out — in my book, if you get a tenth of the 80,000 people or so who support the initiative online, it will be a success. 
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Links 24 January 2011

  • Is Morocco so different from Tunisia? In many respects, yes. But even more than poverty and hardship, one thing that's similar is high-level corruption, especially in palace circles, and lack of rule of law for the royal family and other well-connected people.
  • On how children are categorized by religion in Egyptian schools.
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    Tunisia diary: Ammar's move? (2)

    Things are still very much up in the air at the moment for the transitional government, especially if two Reuters reports from earlier today are to believed. It's pretty evident public opinion is split between those who want a smooth transition and restoration of order and those who want a clean break with the former regime, most notably the six ministers from the RCD, some of whom were in positions to be either in the loop or directly involved in the corruption the Ben Alis and Trabelsis (and others), such as the minister of finance. But even with those who prioritize a smooth transition and return to normalcy (and I would say, judging from the sheer number of people back on the streets doing their work today — remember a lot of people have been unable to earn for the last two weeks — that is the majority) are not happy with the RCD still not being disbanded. What seems to be happening now is some sort of compromise / negotiation.

    Two developments today sent the signal that things may be fast moving. 

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    Tunisia diary: Arrival (1)

    Where to start? I haven't had time to post much in the last few days — I was transiting through Rome where I had to present a paper on Egypt's NDP and regime fragmentation at the Italian Institute of International Affairs (there were also great papers on the socio-economic situation by Maria-Cristina Pacielo, on the Muslim Brothers by Daniela Pioppi and on Egypt's foreign policy by Philippe Droz-Vincent, all to be published soon) — and then made the enormous sacrifice of not spending a weekend in one of my favorite cities stuffing myself and headed straight to Tunis.

    I'll be reporting from here for various publications, but most of it won't be news — it will be long pieces to try and dig deeper into the Tunisian revolution and where it's headed, also providing some historical perspective. I hope to have the time to discuss some of the day to day developments and snapshots of life here. I am self-financing this trip, so if you can help me handle the expenses of operating here, please donate what you can. This blog has run for seven years and barely makes enough money from advertising to pay for hosting expenses, I am self-employed and do not have any institution backing me and picking up the tab for flights, hotels, cars, food, and all the other costs of a reporting trip such as this one. If you've enjoyed The Arabist, it it's proved useful for your research or work, if you like the daily links, and if you want insights from Tunisia that are a little different from the standard journalistic work we've seen so far (much of which is excellent, by the way, but this will be a more personal account), then please consider sending us some baksheesh.

    I've only spent two days or so here so far, so obviously the range of people I've met has been limited. What I can say with certainty is the following: Tunisians are incredibly proud of their revolution, as they should be, and that pride is infectious. In conversations one of the themes that comes up again and again is that people feel they can stand tall again after years of submission, their fear has evaporated. Well, perhaps not entirely: they have new concerns now, but these are fears they intend to confront straight on: the country's economic situation, the risk that elements of the former regime will make a return (whether at the level of the cabinet with the RCD ministers, or more problematically, with the party structure across the country), the risk that what so far has been a revolution remarkable for its orderliness may become more chaotic, and the risk of foreign interference (whether Arab or Western).

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    Links 21-23 January 2011

  • Disturbing news - no one else has been charged with "high treason" yet, and it's the first TV channel to be shut down. (p.s. the channel later resumed broadcast.)
  • Jack Shenker talks to Egyptian youths about reproducing the Tunisian revolution.
  • Amel Boubakeur: "After having lost 20 years exclusively looking for the consideration of the state, the Algerian opposition now needs to get on the ground and seek the recognition of the people. Whatever their ideology, all Algerian reformers should focus on the people's need to get better organized politically in the coming days. Indeed, agreeing on basic demands for change without getting lost in partisan politics is definitively the main lesson of the Tunisian success story."
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    Links 20 January 2011

    Do read The Economist's take on Tunisia in this week's magazine, which ends in one intriguing conclusion:

    Many of the region’s countries look, on the surface, to be far more fragile than Tunisia, with equal volumes of anger and far deeper social woes. But different factors serve to bolster even unpopular governments. In Syria the ever-present danger of war with Israel mutes dissent. The Egyptian state, despite its appalling record in running other things, wields a large force of riot police that is well equipped, highly trained and very experienced, and so less likely to provoke outrage by excessive violence. Egypt also has a relatively free press. This not only gives healthy air to protest, but acts as the sort of early-warning system that Mr Ben Ali, due to his own repressive tactics, sorely lacked.

    There is another way in which Tunisia’s experience could prove subtly inspiring. “The one constant in revolutions is the primordial role played by the army,” said Jean Tulard, a French historian of revolutions, in an interview in Le Monde. So far Tunisia’s army, kept small to forestall coup attempts, has won kudos for holding the fort, and not playing politics. Yet it is the army which is believed to have persuaded Mr Ben Ali to leave. Perhaps a few generals elsewhere in the Arab world are thinking that they, too, might better serve their countries by doing something similar.

    • Heykal: "There’s a lot more to Yemen than terrorism. That focus distorts things and is quite dangerous. We’re led to believe the only way to deal with Yemen is to bomb it, occupy it militarily or throw money at it."
    • There goes Jackson Diehl again - even when he has a point, he writes as if Obama specifically is the problem, as opposed to longstanding US policy and the entire foreign policy establishment's approach. And that is disingenuous.
    • Piece says Gamal must reposition himself as a populist to succeed his father. I'm not sure he's even capable of that, which is actually one good thing one might say about him. He'd do better if he could deliver better quality of life without resorting to populism.
    • A critique of Tunisian trade unions' pullout of the new government.

    Links 19 January 2011

    I am thinking of discontinuing the daily links feature, but here are a bunch from yesterday.

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