North African Dispatches The Winds of Change

In this week's North African Dispatches, Kateb Salim reports on how revolution has spread from Tunisia to the streets of Egypt

New in Ceasefire, North African Dispatches - Posted on Wednesday, February 2, 2011 12:02 - 2 Comments

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by Kateb Salim

In 1960, British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan prophetically spoke of the colonies’ coming independence in the following terms: “The wind of change is blowing […]. Whether we like it or not, the growth of national consciousness is a political fact.” Half a century later, the anti-colonial winds of change have been replaced by a paradoxically peaceful storm in the streets of North Africa. After Tunisia, the wind of public revolt has extended to Egypt where Hosni Mubarak is besieged as ever.

Millions of Egyptians this week continued to defy the government curfew, calling for President Hosni Mubarak’s departure from office. Protestors all over the country were met with riot-police that did not hesitate to use the full extent of their arsenal. The tear gas, steel batons and powerful water cannons (made in the USA of course) did little to control dissent.  The army is – as usual- playing a central role in the confrontation the ‘Rais’ (President) has engaged with the protestors.  In an unexpected move, it showed support for what it called the protestors’ “legitimate concerns” and promised to refrain from any coercion of the January 25th movement. The successful week of protests organized by the opposition, culminating in yesterday’s ‘Million Man March’, illustrated the street’s unwavering readiness to see the movement through. They show no sign of relent.

Meanwhile, the embattled Mubarak seems to be digging in his heels despite overwhelming domestic opposition. Following a televised speech at the height of the protests, he appointed Omar Suleiman, head of the dreaded ‘Mukhabarat’ (intelligence services) to be his vice-president. He went on to dismiss his cabinet only to reshuffle the previous one alongside newly appointed military officials at key ministerial posts.  I think it’s safe to say Mubarak is not fooling anyone. The defiant autocrat’s makeshift games of governmental musical chairs, reminiscent of Ben Ali’s final hours, are merely aimed at circumventing the real problem in all of this: himself. Furthermore, the president’s distressing endeavors at dividing the opposition, by letting the police and released prisoners engage in widespread looting and aggression, has demonstrated the extent to which he is recklessly prepared to leave behind him a nation in ruins just so as to salvage what is left of his authority. Though the aim was to frighten a domestic/outside audience that the shadow of civil war loomed large over the country should he be ousted, Egyptians reacted remarkably by organizing themselves in local neighborhood watchdog committees to capture looters and bandits.

The international community’s reaction to all of this has mostly limited itself to the usual diplomatic banter capable of putting anyone to sleep.  Tel Aviv is understandingly agitated, the EU and the UN are nowhere to be found, Paris is confused and Washington is, well Washington.  Ironically, Israel’s fears of change are shared by the Arab world’s other leaders. Whilst Israel fears for its security, Egypt’s sister nations fear democratic contagion to their capitals. Both have not hesitated, publically and behind closed doors, to voice said apprehensions. Conversely President Obama has shied away from a historic opportunity to truly pressure Mubarak towards a hasty exit. Instead, he has reluctantly endorsed the empty- shell proposition of an ‘orderly transition’. What this proposal may or may not entail is yet to be understood by anyone.

The reason for the West’s diplomatic tip-toeing, one can assume, lies in a fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. In a CNN interview several days ago, Tony Blair noted that Egyptians deserved better than the Muslim Brotherhood. My immediate reaction was: Who is he to decide for Egyptians what is better or worse? Forgive my naiveté when I ask: Isn’t democracy the people’s choice? Tony Blair’s comments, which in effect mirror a wider disregard by the West of what Arabs may want for themselves, are all the more baffling when one knows the trappings of western foreign policy in the MENA region. If the brotherhood’s current influence over Egyptian society is so strong, it’s the result of political exclusion by closed military regimes themselves propped up by Western Powers. This is the case in many other Arab states where puppet regimes stifle public debate thereby sending a hopeless public opinion into the arms of fundamentalists. Even in a desert one must sow seeds of change and needless to say, this was never done. Sadly, it seems that the lessons from Western support for the Shah of Iran in the 70’s and its dire consequences have not been fittingly assimilated.

The outcome to the crisis, American/Israeli meddling set aside, will be decided by which of the actors I’ve mentioned above, blinks first. If anything, the army’s recent volte-face is a sign of disagreements at its highest echelons and might prove a sign of things to come. Should the obstinate Mubarak decide to stay, analysts predict the army –like Tunisia’s- might step in to deliver the final blow.  The fall of Mubarak is indisputably imminent but what truly lies at the heart of everyone’s concerns is the fate of the Egyptian regime beyond his demise. Will democracy truthfully be the result to all this tumult? One should hope so. The materialization of a modern democracy in Egypt would have earth-shattering consequences in the region. While Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution did plenty to inspire the region, a change in Cairo would be more significant for many reasons.  In a nutshell, Cairo is the historical center of the Arab world, the birthplace of Nasserite pan-Arab aspirations for regional unity. As such, it has remained the cultural hub for contemporary Arab civilization, is the home to the Arab League and that of the respected Al-Azhar Islamic University.

The very existence of the January 25th movement of Egypt and the traction it has gained has already begun affecting other states throughout the region.  The King of Jordan found himself in the obligation of sacking his cabinet as anti-government protestors repeatedly marched over the past few weeks.  In Algeria, Syria and Sudan, several civil society coalitions are tirelessly working behind the scenes to organize coming marches aimed at recovering democratic rights or outright regime change .Was Tunisia the demolition of a wall of fear? Is this the Arab world’s collective Prague Spring? Though I’m tempted to agree, the coming months might bring reversals which might sadly cancel out all these gusts of freedom. One thing is certain; we are unquestionably witnessing geopolitical transformations of historic proportions. Watch this space.

Kateb Salim writes weekly on African and Maghreb affairs for Ceasefire. His interests include politics, current affairs and Real Madrid FC.

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Zainub
Feb 2, 2011 14:42

It certainly is interesting to see neighbouring despotic Arab leaders respond to the events unfold in Egypt and what means of coercion they may employ to maintain the status quo in their countries. The Tunisian example has taught Egyptians the overthrowal of a dictator is possible, and so they are less willing to settle for anything short of that.

Really good point about Tony Blair and the general attitude of the West towards the Arab world.

Sabrina
Feb 4, 2011 22:26

I think that the “If not Mubarak than Islamist fundamentalists” rhetoric that we hear coming out if Israel, the US and the West in general, is political hype that doesn’t reflect the reality on the ground. The reality on the ground is that people are united not because of their political or religious orientation, but because they want one thing: an end to Mubarak and his regime. All too often we’ve seen the US preach democracy and freedom, yet their so-called core principles fall short of materialising into support for such, when it involved the MENA region *que Tony Blair*. The West’s weak and diluted response to the events in Egypt, bare testimony to the fact that when faced with the choice of supporting a dictatorship (be it Mubarak or anyone else) and supporting the people’s rights to democracy, they will choose the former if it safeguards their strategic political and economic interests-ESPECIALLY when the dictator is the friendly neighbour of Israel.

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