The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged #jan25
Egypt's Hobbesian moment

Thomas Hobbes. From Shutterstock.

Noted Egyptian rights activist Karim Ennarah, writing on Facebook:

January 25th might be defeated, but January 28th--I mean that Hobbesian moment that characterises everything in Egypt today--is not, and I doubt that anyone could put an end to this Hobbesian moment and turn this into a governable country. This revolution has changed things fundamentally, in a way that is irreversible (and I don't necessarily mean positively nor am I talking about democracy or rule of law) and the social crisis that remains of it is bigger than anything or anyone, despite those who think it's intellectually fashionable to use the term "uprising" instead of revolution in their headlines. As for us, those who are defeated, bruised and humiliated (for the time being, at least); I don't have the faintest hint of regret. If this nation does not progress in the future--if that social process cannot be geared towards a better life, then at least I, almost every one in this country, has changed forever. I used to have one existential crisis, no I have multiple, now this society is questioning everything--things we used to take for granted like democracy, rule of law, legitimacy, "the people", religion, and the concept of progress itself. Something's going to give, and at the very least, I know that my generation that is defined by this revolution will prevail some day, even if it takes twenty years..

The question now is, what will be the cost of all this?

There are multiple ways to use the phrase "Hobbesian moment" – one in terms of the use of brutal politics, in the usual sense of "Hobbesian" as that borrowed from Leviathan and meaning the absolute power of the sovereign, and its ruthless use, to subdue selfish or unruly citizens. It can apply to state repression or even revolutionary terror. Another, though, comes Hobbes' Elements of Law. It is about a fight to define, or frame, the future:

No man can have in his mind a conception of the future, for the future is not yet. But of our conceptions of the past, we make a future; or rather, call past, future relatively. Thus after a man hath been accustomed to see like antecedents followed by like consequents, whensoever he seeth the like come to pass to any thing he hath seen before, he looks there should follow it the same that followed then. As for example: because a man hath often seen offenses followed by punishment, when he seeth an offense in present, he thinketh a punishment to be consequent thereto. But consequent unto that which is present, men call future. And thus we make remembrance to be prevision, or conjecture of things to come, or expectation or presumption of the future.

For the last three years, the future of Egypt has looked hopeful at times and bleak at others (and of course looked different to different people). But it has always looked very uncertain, and that has not changed. This fight to define the future is likely to be long and bloody.

✚ Brute force: Inside the Central Security Forces

Brute force: Inside the Central Security Forces | Egypt Independent

Good piece by Mohamed Adam and Sarah Carr for Egypt Independent:

On the eve of 28 January 2011, the most deadly day of the 18-day uprising, a Central Security Forces (CSF) conscript, who asks to be referred to as Hossam to protect his identity, was nonchalant.

“My friends and I went out together in the lorry and we were laughing and joking. We thought it would just be a normal protest,” says the thin 22-year-old conscript, whose fingernails are chewed down to the quick.

By that evening Hossam was running for his life — in his underwear. Abandoned by their commanding officers and surrounded by hoards of angry protesters, Hossam and other recruits tore off their uniforms in an attempt to escape identification.

“My commanders, who always said to me, ‘Be a man, be a man’ ran away and left us,” Hossam said.

He eventually made his way home — before taking to the streets with his friends and joining protesters.

The mass protests of 2011 were the CSF’s first real test, and it failed abysmally.

Happy anniversary, Egypt

So, it's already been a year since the Egyptian uprising began, and the crowds and marching in towards Tahrir in numbers that might surpass in the 18 days. Mabrouk, ya Masr!

The original January 25 Police Day protests were meant to be about Khaled Said, police brutality, and general fed-up-ness with the regime. The Tunisian revolution turned them into the largest protest in Egypt in decades, with the same slogan that all Arab uprisings would eventually adopt: the people want the fall of the regime. The turnout surprised the organizers, and when they came back a few days later on January 28, hundreds of thousands of Egyptian crippled the police state, burning down dozens of police stations, forcing the regime to send in the army. But the army, although it was sent in to end the protests, made the calculation that it could not do so. The sclerotic Egyptian regime made a first attempt at maintaining itself through Omar Suleiman, but the protestors forced the military to reconsider that scenario, and it forced the departure of Suleiman along with Mubarak. We still know too little about how that decision was made, and I think it's fair to say that there was a military coup against Mubarak. But, since then, there's also been a real, ongoing, revolution.

Much ink will be spilled on this day. My own take is here, referring to this video – I'm optimistic.

The best op-ed I've read so far, parly because it is written by a man I consider to be the most powerful Egyptian on earth, Mohammed El-Erian, the CEO of the mega investment fund PIMCO whose interviews can make or break markets, is this one. (Egypt would be lucky if El-Erian should one day decide to play a role in his native country's politics.) El-Erian writes, echoing my own thoughts:

What Egyptians are experiencing today is not new; it is familiar to many countries that have gone through a fundamental systemic change. After all, revolutions go far beyond popular uprisings and the overthrow of old regimes. They are dynamic processes that must navigate a number of critical pivot points, including, most importantly, the move from dismantling the past to establishing the basis for a better future.

Some contend that Egypt will not be able to undertake this shift. But, while I acknowledge their arguments, I think that they misunderstand what is fundamentally at play in the country today.

Doubters note that what remains of Egypt’s internal and external institutional anchors serve to retard the revolutionary process rather than to refine and accelerate it. They believe that the country’s growing economic malaise will strengthen the argument for sticking with what Egyptians know, rather than opting for a more uncertain future. Finally, they point to the wait-and-see attitude of Egypt’s friends and allies.

These are all valid and important considerations, but they are not overwhelming. Rather, they are headwinds that can and will be overcome, for they fail to capture a reality that is evident from the sentiments of a broad cross-section of society. Egyptians will not settle for an incomplete revolution – not now, and especially not after all of the sacrifices that have been made.

I think another nice op-ed, critical of both Egyptian government society, is this one on Mikael Nabil by my friend Michael Wahid Hanna, that looks at the mixed feelings towards the Nabil case because of his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I had touched upon that in this post. The more important part of what's happened in Egypt is a moral revolution, but it remains hampered by many national myths that will have to be re-examined over the next few years. 

Today what's important is the big picture, not the next few months of political games and negotiations between parliament, activists and SCAF. This revolution was partly about Egyptian society reaching a tipping point, with enough people (partly because of the youth bulge, but not only) beginning to see the world around them in a radically different way then the country's rulers. This is a fundamental point that is more important that Islamists vs secularists or army vs. civilians. 

An Egyptian revolutionary "J'accuse"

I can hardly think of a more effective way to convey Egyptian revolutionaries' feeling towards political parties, the military and the whole idea that they were robbed of a revolution than the above video.

The split that has developed between those who espouse this worldview and the rest of the country is a little worrying, because it can turn into a lasting bitterness and misanthropy. What is needed down is to turn this frustration into effective new ways of organizing, lobbying, and campaigning.

And if that video depressed you, cheer up and watch this one:

In Translation: Samer Soliman on revolution and reform

For the last few weeks, a favorite topic of conversation around many Cairene tables - particularly those of activists and the politically involved - is how to commemorate the upcoming anniversary of the 25 January uprising. For some, it should be a celebration of the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. At the other end of the spectrum, more radical activists are calling for a "second revolution" and a repeat of the events of late January 2011, when, in the revolutionary narrative, "the people defeated the police state." The emerging dominant political players in Egypt - most notably the Muslim Brotherhood - have approached this issue carefully. They do not want another wave of protests only two days after the parliament that they control opens. They want to give some space to lingering grievances, but also control the situation in case radicals push for things to go another way.

I picked the following article because it reminded me of a conversation I recently had (at an excellent Iranian table - thanks P.) with two leading Egyptian human rights workers who worried that many of their friends had taken up revolutionary theory, were tempted by using violence against the state, and unwilling to see that they were a minority. In the article below, Samer Soliman, who teaches at AUC and is a well-known liberal writer, takes those types of revolutionaries to task.

As always, translation is provided by the awesome Industry Arabic, purveyors of fine translation services and more. 

 

A critical stance in support of my colleagues in the Revolution

By Samer Soliman, al-Shurouk, 9 January 2012

The revolution’s one-year anniversary represents a chance for reassessment and self-criticism by all those who participated in it. From this standpoint, the criticism that I direct at the positions and ideas of some of my revolutionary colleagues is the criticism of a comrade and has no trace of superiority. Its aim is to improve the performance of reform and revolutionary currents and get past unnecessary divisions in order to achieve our shared goal: establishing a state based on freedom, social justice and human dignity. I have four criticisms for some of my colleagues.

First: Absolute hostility to parties and to organizing is a fatal mistake

Politics, by one definition, is the management and organization of shared and collective interests. You are responsible for managing the affairs of your own home. However, managing the affairs of the entire building is not your responsibility alone, but rather the responsibility of the union of landlords, tenants or the like. This is politics. Politics is nothing but a collective activity that aims to organize the affairs of the state and society. Consequently, whoever is hostile to organizing is unwittingly hostile to politics. If you refuse to organize yourself in a party or group, how can you engage in an activity that basically aims at organizing society and the state? If you accept being organized in small groups, but absolutely reject parties, then you are hostile to the politics that aims to run the state apparatus. As a result, you insist on marginalizing yourself on the pretext of keeping your “revolutionary purity” away from party maneuvering. Yes, politics does not depend on party organizations alone, but is also based on non-party organizations such as pressure groups. However, these pressure groups are not an alternative to parties. Environmental groups, for example, push through their demands to limit pollution by communicating with parties, and cooperating with them and offering them support to the extent that they adopt programs to protect the environment. Whoever decides to act through politics must be a member in an organization of some sort: a party that aims to reach power or participate in it; a pressure group that does not wield power directly but which exerts influence on it; a union that defends workers’ rights in a certain profession, etc. The important thing is that members of every type of organization cannot do without the other types, and that true change only comes through integration and forming alliances among different types of organization.

Second: Revolution does not mean toppling the regime immediately, and revolution is not opposed to reform

People usually do not rebel against the group monopolizing power until after all means of gradual reform have been exhausted and they have participated in small, partial revolutions. The proverb goes that revolution is nothing but failed reform. There is no shortcut for a total revolution. For people to rise up against the group clinging to the summit of power, they have to go down a long road of attempting to reform the situation and rebelling against lesser authorities. The real revolutionary is someone who marches with people when reform is possible. In fact, it is his duty to be among them even if he is convinced that the possibility of reform is very low. Only when you are among the people during reform and minor revolutions can you preach total revolution and convince people that gradual reform is not the only choice. The revolutionary should maintain his credibility while he is engaging in revolution, and not raise a clarion call to topple the head of the regime without reading the real balance forces on the ground. For this reason, those calling for a new revolution to be launched on January 25 in order to topple the Military Council does not want to see that there is a People’s Assembly emerging that has a great deal of legitimacy to represent the people, and that many people are placing their bets on this Assembly and on the new government that will be formed by the winning parties. If this takes place, and the Military Council does not hand over power to the parliament, the new government or the next president, or if people discover that elected institutions take power for real and they do not live up to expectations, then the clarion call to topple the head of the regime can be raised. Before this time, struggling, sit-ins and protests go to achieve partial victories and limited demands, and do not topple the regime. The real revolutionary is the one who is one step ahead of people, not several steps. Because if you are several steps ahead of them, you will turn and find yourself alone against the powers-that-be. It will not benefit society much for you to be a hero confronting power alone with your chest bared. In any case, before you bring down power on your head, you should consider well who the alternative power is. Political power is nothing but that which organizes individuals and groups. The Military Council only received power after the fall of Mubarak, the police apparatus and the NDP because it was at the apex of a large, cohesive organization spread throughout Egypt: the army. If we topple the Military Council, what is the strong, cohesive organization spread throughout Egypt that will take up power? Please do not say honorable officers outside the Military Council. We have had enough of military coups and military rule.

Third: The older generation is the wrong enemy

The worst thing possible for the revolutionary movement to do is to lose potential allies and put those who are really their supporters in the enemy camp. One symptom of dictatorship in Egypt was the old age of the ruling clique, like Hosni Mubarak, Fathy Sorour, Safwat al-Sherif, Omar Suleiman, and Hussein Tantawi, etc. However, the old age of the elite was only one symptom of the disease, and not the disease itself – just like the fever that afflicts the body after it has been hit with influenza. The old age of the rulers is not the root of the illness, but one of its symptoms. The alternative to this is that the military dictatorship in Egypt started out young. Nasser and his colleagues reached power in their early 30s. It was a reproach to the Free Officers at that time that they were “almost children.” As time passed and the same ruling group remained with some minor changes, the ruling group became more middle-aged, which the regime tried to rectify in its last days by mobilizing a group of young people behind Gamal Mubarak, “leader of the future generation.” If Gamal had succeeded at taking his father’s place and replacing aging top leaders with other, young leaders, this would not have changed the reality of tyranny in Egypt in the least. The corrupt, tyrannical clique that controls Egypt is multi-generational, comprising the old, the middle-aged, the young and maybe children as well, since their children are raised from childhood to have contempt for the people and look down on God’s creatures. Likewise, the current that wants to get rid of this group and reach power must be multi-generational. Look around you. If you find that all the members of your organization or group are from one generation, I know you are moving on the wrong path, since in this case your group will not represent the diversity of your people. I know that you have undoubtedly lost because a mono-generational group is a poor one, and is not allowed to benefit from the diverse skills and resources that enable a multi-generational organization to win.

Fourth: Construction cannot wait for demolition to be complete, and the economy cannot wait for the revolution to be complete

The Egyptian Revolution is long and extensive, and has many waves of attack and retreat, ebb and flow, toppling the head of the regime and putting pressure on the new leaders. It is natural then that the task of building institutions coincides with the task of protesting and sitting-in. For this reason, I was astounded when I asked one of them “Why don’t you join a political party?” and he told me, “Because we haven’t finished tearing down the old regime yet”! Aren’t political parties (some of them, of course) one of the tools for tearing down the old regime? Power is not a building that needs to be completely torn down before a new power can be erected on its rubble. The alternative power emerges in society, delves into it and exerts its influence and control in areas left unoccupied by the reigning power. When it achieves this, removing the existing regime becomes simply a matter of time, and the downfall of the state apparatus at its hands becomes all but inevitable.

One of the most important areas for the emergence of the new power is the economy, which some revolutionaries have been taking very lightly, or rather opportunistically – for example, brandishing the minimum wage as a slogan in Tahrir Square in the hopes of drawing blue- and white-collar workers to the sit-in, and hence to topple the Military Council. You do not mobilize social classes and groups in this way, and it is not through sit-ins alone that you topple regimes, but rather through general strikes. A general strike cannot be realized without a high level of organization of the working and middle classes. The glorious January Revolution overturned the grip of the regime and its security apparatus on the unions that has lasted nearly 60 years. We shall only reap the fruits of this historic victory after several years, because the old unions have not yet been reformed, and the new unions need several years to gain strength.

Egypt will only attain political and social democracy through a struggle lasting many years, in which destruction is mixed with construction, reform with revolution, and calm, foundational work with victorious revolutionary activity. It is normal for some of us to lean more toward destruction than construction, or toward reform more than revolution, or toward victorious activity more than calm, foundational work. The important thing is that we do not fall into the mistake of feeling superior toward one another, and that we do not fall into the sin of breaking with our allies and our comrades simply because they operate within different frameworks or follow a different course to reach the same goal. There is only one goal: establishing a state based on freedom, social justice and human dignity.

 

The history of Egypt's revolution

Jack Shenker has a fine piece in the Guardian on The struggle to document Egypt's revolution:

On any given evening Cairo's Tahrir Square creaks under the weight of its own recent history: trinket-sellers flog martyrs' pendants, veterans of the uprising hold up spent police bullets recovered from the ground, and an ad hoc street cinema screens YouTube compilations of demonstrators and security forces clashing under clouds of teargas. This is collective memory by the people, for the people – with no state functionaries around to curate what is remembered or forgotten.

"Egyptians are highly sensitive about official attempts to write history and create state-sponsored narratives about historical events," says Khaled Fahmy, one of the country's leading historians. "When Hosni Mubarak was vice-president in the 1970s he was himself on a government committee tasked with writing – or rather rewriting – the history of the 1952 revolution to suit the political purposes of the elite at that time. That's exactly the kind of thing we want to avoid."

Fahmy knows only too well about the inherent tension between acts of mass popular participation and official attempts to catalogue and record them. Less than a week after the fall of Mubarak, the professor received a phone call from the head of Egypt's national archives asking him to oversee a unique new project that would document the country's dramatic political and social upheaval this year and make it available for generations of Egyptians to come.

"I was initially very reluctant," says Fahmy. "I didn't want people to think we were producing one definitive narrative of the revolution. But then I started thinking about the possibilities, and suddenly I got excited."

Khaled Fahmy, who is quoted above, is a noted historian of Ottoman Egypt (at AUC, formerly at NYU) and I've had the occasion to talk to him about the project. In a few months we intend to interview him about it, perhaps for the podcast.

Importantly the story includes links to websites documenting the revolution, which are reproduced after the jump.  

 

Remembering revolution: five additional projects attempting to archive Egypt's political upheaval

• Tahrir Documents Provides scans of dozens of printed leaflets that were circulated in the streets during the anti-Mubarak uprising, from religious tracts to lists of political demands.

• R-Shief An ambitious data-mining project that draws content from Twitter and hundreds of other websites documenting the Arab spring, and provides tool and visualisations to help analyse it.

• University on the Square A collection of revolutionary stories and memorabilia shared by the staff, students and alumni of the American University in Cairo.

• 25Leaks.com The definitive home of documents seized by protesters from state security headquarters in the aftermath of Mubarak being ousted. The site's creators have remained anonymous for their own safety.

• Memory of Modern Egypt An initiative in Arabic by the vast Bibliotheca Alexandrina on the Mediterranean coast that seeks to collate material on the revolution from across Egypt, including the stories of martyrs.

 

Facebook's role in Egypt's #jan25 uprising

Facebook was more involved in ensuring protection for the Facebook groups organizing the January 25 and subsequent protests than is known, NewsBeast says:

Email records obtained by Newsweek, conversations with NGO executives who work with Facebook to protect activist pages, and interviews with administrators of the We Are All Khaled Said page reveal the social media juggernaut’s awkward balancing act. They show a company struggling to address the revolutionary responsibilities thrust upon it—and playing a more involved role than it might like to admit.

On the night of January 25, Richard Allan, Facebook’s director of policy for Europe, responded to the worried administrator. “We have put all the key pages into special protection,” he wrote in an email. A team, he said, “is monitoring activity from Egypt now on a 24/7 basis.”

It's an interesting story involving coordination by Facebook executives, Egyptian activists, and Washington-based democracy advocates who push pressing issues onto the executives.

Haenni and Tammam on #jan25 and religion

Two of my favorite commentators on religion and religious movement, Patrick Haenni and Hossam Tammam, collaborate on an excellent summary of various religious movements and institutions desultory participation in the Egyptian protest movement:

The Salafist movement condemned the protests; the Muslim Brothers first retreated, then got sucked in by the dynamism of the dispute, then tried to open up a negotiation process which the demonstrators, bolder in their demands, didn't want. Though that was not necessarily the position of all Egyptians, many of whom would have settled for a compromise, with Mubarak running the transition and the demand for democracy postponed until the next elections: the voice of the street isn't necessarily the will of the people. The Islamist groups were without doubt the most detached. Among these, various parts of the Salafist movement condemned the demonstrators very clearly from the time of the first appeals.

The official religious institutions, both Muslim (al-Azhar and Dar al-Fatwa) and Christian (the Coptic Church), had ties of allegiance to the regime, and were even further from grasping the new revolutionary spirit. 

The grand sheikh of al-Azhar, Ahmed al-Tayyeb, first supported the regime, then with some difficulty changed course, talking of the demands of the uprising in words that were less aligned to the regime, but extremely late. At the height of the dispute, in early February, the sheikh of al-Azhar called for calm and condemned the deaths of Egyptians – but without saying clearly that the deaths had been part of the confrontation between a regime which had resorted to violence through its usual outlets (the civilian police, the party-state) and young thugs from the poor parts of town. Pope Shenouda, for his part, called on the Christian population throughout the uprising not to join the protests. 

Let's face it: none of the establishment, Islamist, religious or secular, was actually backing this from the get-go. And the emerging counter-narrative that this was not a largely youth-driven protest is ridiculous. Yes, of course older people participated too, later. But the young were the key igniters of this movement. I see that Joseph Massad doesn't like it being called a "youth revolution" — but then again I find that Massad is almost always wrong. Demographics matter in what's going on.

Getting back to the above article, obviously their early opposition to the protest movement does not mean religious movements and institutions don't stand to benefit from the uprising, particularly as it gets co-opted by the Military Council and the like of the Council of Wise Men who basically took a pro-Omar Suleiman position during the occupation of Tahrir (I mean really, Naguib Sawiris as a revolutionary? Give me a break.) Salafists are still around and can still be mobilized by security. The Muslim Brotherhood is still doing its dance with the regime, aside from its youth branch that may now stand to create a breakaway movement (or at least a political party) with reformist Brothers like Abdel Monem Aboul Fotouh.

The Brothers in Tahrir Square, truly mobilized and strongly influenced by the other groups who started the protest movement, continued to call for Mubarak's departure ahead of any negotiation. But on 5 February, their leadership began talks with then vice president Omar Suleiman, former head of Egyptian intelligence. According to a close observer, the Brotherhood's leadership thought it could not pass up such a chance of winning some sort of recognition, even a legitimate presence. This exasperated the young Brothers out on the streets.

 And the final bit is extremely important:

This dynamic profoundly affects the Brothers. As dialogue opened between some of the young Brothers mobilised in the streets and the Brotherhood elite, the disagreement was deep. A cadre from the Brothers spoke; he was close to Abu al-Foutouh, leader of the Brothers' reformist wing, nearest to the (Turkish) AKP model, and the least ready for accommodation with the regime. He said: “The rupture between the Brothers in the streets and the political leadership is total. Since dialogue opened, and with the dynamic of mobilisation, the young Brothers are calling into question the very foundations of the Muslim Brothers, based on bottom-up transformation, through educating militants. What they want is top-down transformation, still toeing a line of peaceful opposition. Abu al-Foutouh managed to capture this sort of spirit. He thinks one must break with what he calls the 'oppression syndrome' and the political passivity it brings.”

The young Brothers, especially on Tahrir Square, are now rallying to the militant spirit which is coming from the new network initiatives which were at the heart of the uprising and which the Brothers had difficulty in catching up with: the Khaled Said group, the young mobilised around Amr Khaled, the “control group” (an electoral monitoring group set up by young Brothers during the 2010 elections which kept going and which monitored police management of the uprising) - groups which owe little to the mobilisation of the parties, and even less to their spirit.

Through all this, the dynamic of opposition is showing the exhaustion of the authoritarian models of the regimes in place, but also the exhaustion of the traditional forms of opposition to them. What is happening in Egypt is not just the contesting of a regime, but the calling into question of a political culture.

One important thing to remember is that neither the leadership of the secular parties, the Muslim Brotherhood, the army or the wider regime wants to see that culture of reverence for the older leaders to end. The paternalism of the Military Council, the support it generally has from the over-40/50 crowd (with exceptions such as Aboul Fotouh or ElBaradei of course) is just another evidence that generational divides are an important aspect of what's going on. 

Crisis Group: Egypt Victorious?

The first Crisis Group report on Egypt's revolution is out. An excerpt from the executive summary:

This was a popular revolt. But its denouement was a military coup, and the duality that marked Hosni Mubarak’s undoing persists to this day. The tug of war between a hierarchical, stability-obsessed institution keen to protect its interests and the spontaneous and largely unorganised popular movement will play out on a number of fronts – among them: who will govern during the interim period and with what competencies; who controls the constitution-writing exercise and how comprehensive will it be; who decides on the rules for the next elections and when they will be held; and how much will the political environment change and open up before then?

Shukri: Mazel Tov, Egypt!

Israelis, you need to read this: your government has done you one more disservice with its pro-Mubarak position during Egypt's crisis. Ezzedine Shukri, who knows your country well, highlights its mistakes

First, Egypt's revolution has been about Egyptian affairs only, with almost no reference to foreign policy. No one was chanting death to the US or to Israel. The dominant themes were related to freedom, social justice and dignity. Egyptians who took to the streets in millions were expressing their rejection of an ossified regime which ignored their concerns for decades. It is somehow miraculous that no one tried to capitalize on the ‘Palestinian cause' or ‘anti-American' sentiments. People ignored these issues; why Israeli leaders injected themselves into the story and brought undue attention upon themselves is a mystery to me.

Second, even if the Egyptian revolution posed serious questions to Israel, is it conceivable to quell the voices of eighty-five million people and practically enslave them in order to avoid facing these questions? Shall we then support those who ordered security forces to shoot at protesters at will, killing three hundred Egyptians in two days? And how many are we prepared to kill in order to keep an unpopular ruler in place -- and for what aim? If the only answers to these questions entail supporting the moves of a right-wing government in Israel to keep a couple of isolated settlements or annex a couple of square kilometers in the West Bank, then  we're talking about something morally reprehensible indeed.

Third, preemptively antagonizing a whole population is nonsensical. Policy towards Egypt is too important to be based on prejudice and stereotypes. What is happening in Egypt is not a replica of 1979 Iran or Hamas in 2006 (if its comparable to anything at all, Iran in 2009 would be the closest case). The Egyptian revolution is in large part the making of a generation that for too long suffocated under the garb of old men running Egypt according to archaic rules. Those who took to the streets do not want violence or vendetta; they want to be part of the modern world. They express a deep desire for renewal, and are doing so in peace and in diversity.

The US, Egypt, Israel and the revolution(s)

One of the big media memes of the toppling of Hosni Mubarak is what it means for Israel and US policy in the region (which for the last 20 years has largely been about Israel). Some see a huge change coming, with the idea being that the poor, vulnerable Jewish state will once again be at the mercy of bloodthirsty Arabs who, deprived of tough leadership, will revert to their irrational hatred of all things Semitic. 

Well, hold on to your horses. First of all, a lot of this meme is based on the idea that Israel is weak and helpless, which might justify insane amounts of money spent on it by US taxpayers but simply isn't true. Israel has probably one of the top five armies in the world, is perfectly capable to defend itself in the unlikely event of an Egyptian attack (because that worked out so well for the Egyptians before) and, rather scarily, has both a massive nuclear arsenal and a gnawing inferiority complex fed by guilt at having rather nasty policies towards its non-Jewish neighbors. Secondly, Egyptians have have other problems right now.

Nonetheless, it's worth thinking about the opportunities for a better Egyptian foreign policy at this juncture. The military council now in charge indicated early that it will respect all international agreements, which was basically a guarantee that Camp David still holds. I have a tough time seeing any government, even a Muslim Brotherhood one, wanting to declare war on Israel. But the next government does have some opportunities:

  1. Start being tough on Israel on the settlements, notably taking a leadership role in international institutions;
  2. Push for the current Middle East peace process roadmap to be abandoned and replaced by a more coherent, fair framework;
  3. Stop collaborating with Israel's blockade of Gaza (which doesn't mean that Egyptian concerns about Hamas go away — but they can be managed a lot better);
  4. Encourage real Palestinian reconciliation, even at the expense of US support for the peace process, which hasn't led anywhere anyway;
  5. Work towards the return of full Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai.

The last one is the one that many Egyptians will find the most exciting. Ever since Camp David was signed, limits on Egyptian military deployments along the border with Israel have gnawed at national pride. It is a long-term, if unacknowledged, goal of the military. The current chaos in Sinai gives it plenty of opportunity. But it needs to be done carefully, notably by not causing the Israelis to panic. I don't see General Tantawi making an address to the Knesset anytime soon, guaranteeing the peace while exercising Egypt's natural right to full sovereignty over its territory.

I don't know if that day will come anytime soon. But in the meantime, it's worth thinking about how Camp David and the American security umbrella over Israel, while providing peace between Egypt and Israel, has been tremendously damaging to the rest of the region and particularly prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine. I don't have to do it because two great writers have already done so:

Obama's Choice — FMEP - Henry Siegman writes:

Israel’s indifference to popular outrage throughout the region over its 44-year occupation was sustained by its belief that authoritarian Arab regimes, whose survival depended to a considerable extent on the US security umbrella, would keep their subjects’ rage in check. The regimes’ deference to the US was responsible for the stability of Egypt’s and Jordan’s peace accords with Israel and for the historic Arab Peace Initiative, agreed in 2002, which committed all Arab countries to full normalisation of relations with Israel, provided a peace accord with the Palestinians was reached.

But America’s credibility and influence had begun to be eroded even before the popular eruptions in the region, in part because of Obama’s capitulation to Netanyahu. Whatever willingness there may have been among Arab regimes to join Israel and the US in an anti-Iran coalition, it will be weakened by the fall of Mubarak. Iran’s influence in the region will be strengthened. The enmity of most Arab regimes towards Iran is not shared by their citizens, primarily because they saw Iran as having assumed leadership in the struggle against Israel’s occupation of Palestine that their own leaders abandoned.

After the revolution, the future of the (de)stabilizing Israel-Egypt peace treaty by Patrick Seale | The Middle East Channel

By removing Egypt -- the strongest and most populous of the Arab countries -- from the Arab line-up, the treaty ruled out any possibility of an Arab coalition that might have contained Israel or restrained its freedom of action. As Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan remarked at the time: "If a wheel is removed, the car will not run again."

Western commentators routinely describe the treaty as a ‘pillar of regional stability,' a ‘keystone of Middle East diplomacy,' a ‘centerpiece of America's diplomacy' in the Arab and Muslim world. This is certainly how Israel and its American friends have seen it.

But for most Arabs, it has been a disaster. Far from providing stability, it exposed them to Israeli power. Far from bringing peace, the treaty ensured an absence of peace, since a dominant Israel saw no need to compose or compromise with Syria or the Palestinians.

Instead, the treaty opened the way for Israeli invasions, occupations and massacres in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, for strikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sites, for brazen threats against Iran, for the 44-year occupation of the West Bank and the cruel blockade of Gaza, and for the pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel' agenda by fanatical Jewish settlers and religious nationalists.

In turn, Arab dictators, invoking the challenge they faced from an aggressive and expansionist Israel, were able to justify the need to maintain tight control over their populations by means of harsh security measures.