Archive for the ‘Egypt’ Category

How Egypt did it.

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

It's difficult to write about a moving target. People are going to be studying this revolution for years, and I know anything I say now risks becoming obsolete within hours as new information comes to light. I want to write this down, though, because these are my immediate impressions. As time goes on, frames will change, facts that seem big now will be forgotten, and things that seem trivial will loom larger in light of future events. (I'm looking at you, Algeria, Yemen, Syria.)

Beyond that, I'm writing through a haze of exhilaration so strong there have been times I couldn't type. I know so many people who have wanted this so long, and so bad, that seeing their euphoria makes me a hater when I read calmer voices deliberating about what's next. I plan to join them later, no really, but for the time being I'm still bouncing around the house like I'm nine and it's my birthday.

Anyway. Mubarak resigned about 48 hours ago. This is how I see it now.

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"Leave already, my arm is hurting"

The revolution was a popular uprising, but it was not a spontaneous one. For the first two decades of Mubarak's rule, the only real opposition came from the Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood. In the past decade that started to change, when pro-democracy organizations, mostly but not entirely youth, began coordinating with labor. These groups aren't Islamist, but what's interesting to me is that they've avoided slamming the Muslim Brotherhood and have even worked with some of the younger members in tactical matters. I assume that's because the Islamists have more support in the baladi neighborhoods, where people aren't on Facebook. ("Pro-democracy activists" here means activists opposed to both Mubarak and the Brotherhood, although the Brotherhood also supports democracy.)

The last time I was in Egypt, just after the April 6 demonstrations, I posted this story and this op-ed from Al-Ahram. Someone else posted this article in a comment; all three are from 2008 and in retrospect they predicted current events (although Al-Ahram also emphasized Facebook's silliness which some believe was part of the government's strategy, to make protesters seem young and dumb — Al-Ahram is state-controlled).

At the time I was skeptical. I thought the "Facebook activists" were too middle-class to get popular support in working-class Cairo, much less Upper Egypt and among the fellahin. They were strategic about it, though, emphasizing economic concerns in neighborhoods like Bulaq and democracy and human rights with educated youth online. Lots of people are comparing this to Iran (both v.1979 and v.2009) but April 6 organizers were trained by the student movement that overthrew Slobodan Milošević.

I think the youth movement in Iran did have some influence. Then there were larger demonstrations last summer after Khaled Said's murder. (Mona Eltahawy wrote about them in June.) And then, just before a planned demonstration on Police Day (January 25), Tunisia happened. This wasn't the impetus, but it was the tipping point. The organizers' strategy depended on getting spontaneous participation from the neighborhoods, because if they'd gone out alone they wouldn't be able to get past police barricades. This also became important later when they occupied Tahrir. Judging only from the pictures, the square was filled with every demographic during the days, including lots of middle-class youth, but at nights it was older, middle- and working-class men who actually set up tents and slept in front of tanks. Tunisia provided that spark.

On nonviolence:

Egyptians aren't unfamiliar with violent attempts at overthrow. Al-Gamaa Al-Islamiyya, the Muslim Brotherhood offshoot, launched a terrorist campaign that went on through most of the 1990s. I was living there then and it was frightening. The difference between then and now is more qualitative than quantitative. Al-Gamaa killed hundreds of people, and hundreds of people were killed in this situation, too. What was different was the mood on the streets. In the 1990s, you learned to distrust the people around you, and to wonder if they were distrusting you. Although statistically speaking there was a low chance of getting hurt, every shop, hotel, school, cafe, and apartment building initiated security measures that had you constantly on guard. I developed an irrational fear of parked cars and unattended rubbish bins that is still with me today.

This time around, one of the main driving forces of revolutionary sentiment was the feeling that people could count on strangers. The mood was overwhelmingly one of love and acceptance and the goosebumps you get from realizing you're on the exact same emotional page with thousands of people around you. That is the polar opposite of the feeling Al-Gamaa produced. Nonviolent strategy was crucial to that.

Image and video hosting by TinyPicAt the same time, though, this definition of nonviolence wasn't passive. It meant nonviolence against people, not property. Activists understood that one of the goals was to shut down the economy and make Egypt a non-functioning state. To that end you saw graffiti, broken windows, burning cars, blocked roads, thousands of people breaking through police barricades, and (my favorite) the KFC in Tahrir "liberated" and turned into a makeshift health clinic. These are actions that are typically called "violent," at least in the U.S., because they create temporary chaos. Civil rights leaders were accused of it, too, when they boycotted segregated institutions and by virtue of their numbers, not their actions, filled jail cells and sent the police into the streets. The final straw in Egypt was the nation-wide labor strike the day before Mubarak resigned. He'd survived the closing of the stock market and the banks, but when work shut down there was no way he could convince foreign investors and Egypt's ruling elite that he was saving the country from chaos. Earlier, he had literally told activists in Tahrir to "have fun," i.e. that they were nothing to him. He could survive peaceful protests but he could not survive the collapse of the economy.

On emotion:

This entire experience has made me less critical of people who are reluctant to participate. Once a revolution becomes historical fact, it's easy to go back and see those who were on the fence as being in league with The Man or something. But following it as it happened was different. Egyptians were talking about real, human worries: from small things like the lack of proper toilets in Tahrir to big things like the fear of being gunned down in the streets. There was a shortage of food in the shops. Transportation was impossible. One of the looters was captured by protesters and sobbed in fear as he talked about the money he'd taken from the regime to say he loved Mubarak; he said his mother was dead and he had no other way to support his brothers. People understood this — it's the Egypt they know. There was very little of the I'm-smarter-than-you posturing that seems endemic to political movements here. People were patient with each other.

Some Egyptians actually worried about this. They said the emotional level was so high in Egypt that if Mubarak showed up and looked contrite, people would be eager to forgive him, not only to get back to their regular lives but because they felt real sympathy at seeing him so degraded. When Nasser lost the 1967 war with Israel, he cried on television and resigned, apologizing for failing his people. The people rose up and demanded he return, which he did. Some were expecting a moment like that. This is why I think the timing of the Wael Ghonim interview was so crucial. People were waiting for tears and apologies from Mubarak, and instead they got them from one of the prominent activists. Meanwhile Mubarak and Suleiman went on being the gruff patronizing angry dads they always have been.

On imagination:

Three other groups that provided unplanned but crucial support were the Arab expats, the Christians and Muslims who supported each other in prayer, and what I'll call the civic activists who swept Tahrir and formed neighborhood watch groups.

The expats held solidarity marches around the world and put pressure on foreign governments to stand with the Egyptian people, not Mubarak. During the internet blackout they transcribed phone messages from Egypt and uploaded them to Twitter. They gave interviews to the international media. They blogged. They translated the chants on YouTube videos. They set up Tor networks to let Egyptians in Egypt communicate anonymously. The night of February 2 will haunt me forever, the night of the government's worst attack on the protesters. I stayed up all night just listening to Al-Jazeera and watching Facebook refresh, as Arab friends in Canada, Malaysia, New York, Indonesia, Italy, Dubai, and of course Egypt itself kept up a steady stream of re-tweets and status updates, coordinating in English, French, and Arabic to monitor which escape routes out of Tahrir were clear and which ones were blocked, where to get medical help, which streets were burning, and which hospitals needed blood. As the sun came up in Cairo one Palestinian friend posted, "I can't do this shit anymore." His exhaustion was palpable. It was a long night.

Meanwhile, in Egypt, Christians were forming human chains around Muslims in prayer and Muslims formed human chains around Christians during Sunday mass. For years Mubarak had exploited tensions between these two groups, and I realize they won't magically disappear. But this act provided a vision for what a new Egypt could look like.

The same goes for the people who cleared trash from the streets. Aside from the demonstrations themselves, I think people talked about this more than anything else. Culturally, Egyptians have always had a sense of duty towards each other, but civic responsibility has been zero. And why not? They've had no voice in the bureaucracy or institutions of their country, so there's been no incentive to participate. Seeing people clean the streets "because this is our country now" was a powerful sight. So, too, were the neighborhood watch groups that formed after the regime opened the prisons and paid off the thugs and looters. In Alexandria, I heard groups of teenage boys walked through the streets at night chanting, "Sleep, Alexandria, we are your sons, and we will protect you."

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Good links:

How Cyber-Pragmatism Brought Down Mubarak:

"The fact that everything was very organized from the beginning made people feel safe and more willing to participate. For example there were maps to the protest locations and how groups should move and who should be in the front row," says Dalia. "This gave some sense of safety for the participants. In other words, it was not a random or spontaneous upheaval. No, it was well planned and organized." This web-based planning was critical, given that the vast majority of people on the "We Are All Khaled Said" page—and those who entered the streets on the 25th—were not veteran human rights activists and bloggers.

The Secret Rally That Sparked an Uprising:

Those present included representatives from six youth movements connected to opposition political parties, groups advocating labor rights, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

They chose 20 protest sites, usually connected to mosques, in densely populated working-class neighborhoods around Cairo. They hoped that such a large number of scattered rallies would strain security forces, draw larger numbers and increase the likelihood that some protesters would be able to break out and link up in Tahrir Square.

The Road to Tahrir:

This new relation between bloggers and other media forms has now become standard: not only do many of the opposition newspapers rely on bloggers for their stories; news stories that journalists can’t print themselves without facing state persecution—for example, on issues relating to the question of Mubarak’s successor—such stories are first fed to bloggers by investigative reporters; once they are reported online, journalists then proceed to publish the stories in newsprint, citing the blogs as sources, in this way avoiding the accusation that they themselves invented the story.

Into Egypt's Uncharted Territory:

Throughout the wave of protests, the youth coordinating the efforts, notably the April 6 movement, have offered opposition leaders no blank checks… Besides protecting their movement from outside opportunism, the protesters have steered it away from the ideological differences that have fragmented organized opposition political activity in the past. Avoiding and sometimes suppressing religious slogans, the demonstrations have maintained an image as a national uprising of patriotic Egyptians — nothing more and nothing less.

Al-Ahram English has a special revolution edition with lots of articles.

"People & Power," an Al-Jazeera feature of the April 6 movement, which I think was put together during the internet blackout (sorry about the eyeball – blame YouTube):

And this — which isn't about activism but is too awesome not to post — demonstrators in Alexandria meet below Khaled Said's mother's apartment after hearing that Mubarak stepped down. They recite the first surah of the Qur'an, a gesture of respect when there's been a death, and then sing the national anthem and chant his name:

Why military rule is okay for now.

Saturday, February 12th, 2011

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source: unknown

"The army took over. It's replacing one dictatorship with another."

No. I've been hearing this on the streets (and by "streets" I mean Facebook and blogs), but that's not what's happening in Egypt right now.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces taking over is a good thing, actually more than the demonstrators had hoped for. The options for power transfer, from bad to less-bad, were as follows:

Option #1 was Mubarak staying in power and slaughtering the protesters until the demonstrations stopped. Obviously that's the worst case scenario, but it's important to remember that just three weeks ago that was the expected outcome. It's what's always happened in the past.

Option #2 was Mubarak's early "concession" speech, in which he said he would not run again in September. He'd then have seven months to crush the movement, and anyway he's said this before. The protesters didn't accept this and held Tahrir.

Option #3 was giving more power to the vice president, Omar Suleiman, who was appointed all of two weeks ago. On Thursday night Mubarak was expected to resign, but did this instead. It was a joke.

Option #4 was Mubarak resigning and giving all power to Suleiman. This was the expected outcome Thursday night, and would have been considered an important victory because Mubarak, at least, would be gone. The people would not have accepted Suleiman as a legitimate successor but the mood seemed to be that he would be easier to oust than Mubarak. If they had even gotten this far down the list, it would be considered a revolution, not "unrest."

Option #5 was following the Constitution (which has been suspended since Sadat's assassination 30 years ago, but it does exist) and giving power to the speaker of parliament, in this case Fathi Surur, who is no better than Mubarak or Suleiman. This Post article explains the constitutional process.

Option #6 — and this is what happened — was Mubarak and Suleiman both stepping down and interim power being handed over to another person or organization while activists worked on developing political parties and the political process. The question was who? ElBaradei's name came up a lot in the Western press, but he's been living in exile for years and he's not this Nelson Mandela figure for Egyptians. They also could have also chosen Amr Moussa or one of the heads of parties who've run against Mubarak in the past, like Ayman Nour. But it was unlikely that Mubarak would appoint a former rival, and even if he had, it would have caused problems later as parties begin to move towards democratic reform. If the new head of the government had long-term political ambitions, he'd be tainted by being Mubarak's hand-picked successor, and without a working constitution or functioning parliament there'd be no check on his power.

The army is distinct from the police. Most of the violence in the past weeks has come from the police, who are trained by and loyal to the regime. The army is much larger, comprised of men from all over Egypt, since all Egyptian males do military service. The leaders of the demonstrations communicated early with the military's top brass, agreeing to peaceful protests and asking the army not to fire on the people. The army did not always comply and there are reports that they've been responsible for some of the human rights abuses, including torture, of demonstrators. As a body, though, they remained officially neutral throughout the conflict, which was one of the first signs that Mubarak was on his way out. He called in the army to "restore the peace" after the police presence wasn't sufficient to stop the protests, but this was welcomed by ordinary Egyptians, who saw the army as being of-the-people. Demonstrators greeted soldiers with "my son" and "my brother" and asked for help in stopping the looters (i.e. government-paid thugs). Although the military wasn't on the side of the demonstrators, the fact that it wasn't against them was astonishing to outsiders like me who were watching this all go down, but Egyptians themselves didn't seem surprised and in fact keeping the army neutral was part of the official coordination by activist groups like April 6.

Most importantly, the Supreme Council is a group, not a person, and it has no political ambitions the way a single individual would. They announced this morning that they would be meeting the demonstrators' demands, including the formation of a transitional government and holding free elections to form a civilian government. They also said they will honor all existing international treaties, including peace with Israel. Of course these may be modified by whatever new government comes in, but it's a positive sign for now because it shows the military understands its place isn't to be making political decisions.

This entire situation is atypical. Usually when an army takes over a government it's because the revolution was orchestrated by the military itself. In this case, the military was caught off guard, and have only stepped in at the request of Mubarak and with the consent of the people. If, in a few weeks or months from now, some of its leaders get power-mad and decide use their positions to reinforce the status quo, then you can talk about military dictatorship. Right now, though, that's not what's going on.

ETA: Why Mubarak is Out — A detailed analysis of the many different players in Egypt's security state

18 days.

Friday, February 11th, 2011

Click on CC for English subtitles
The graffiti behind the father and daughter reads "The streets belong to us"

My daughter was seven years old on September 11. For the past decade – i.e. the entirety of her childhood, the only one she'll ever get – she has had to endure taunts and slurs and snickers, or at best pinched "tolerance," about her ethnicity and her religion. She's handled it well and is actually quite articulate in countering the bias. But it's fatiguing, and over time she has distanced herself from her Arab Muslim background. I can't tell you how much this saddens me, but I know she's not alone in this reaction, I know her life needs to be more than an ongoing argument with other people's ignorance, and I've tried to give her space to work out who she is and how she identifies.

She turned seventeen this week, and it's a milestone. For the first time ever, I have seen her beaming, in that I told you guys all along way, whenever some only-sorta-follows-the-news American asks her, "Wait… aren't you Egyptian?"

شكرا يا مصر

January 25 – February 11

Friday, February 11th, 2011

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"The Chair Carrier"

Wednesday, February 9th, 2011

Short film with English subtitles. Directed by Tarek Khalil.

More women of Egypt.

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

In children's books, Rosa Parks is portrayed as a middle-aged woman who was too tired to stand up and yield her seat on the bus to a white man. This version has some poetic appeal to it — one woman standing, er, sitting, alone, against the institution of segregation — but it ignores Parks' history as an activist and undermines the work of the many people who organized with her.

Asmaa Mahfouz is likewise being portrayed as the girl who started the revolution in Egypt, by uploading her vlog (see below) to YouTube and Facebook. But Asmaa is not a "girl"; she's a 26-year-old woman with a BA in Business Administration from Cairo University. She also did more than upload a vlog. She was part of the April 6 movement, a grassroots youth organization that has been active in Egypt for the past two years. To treat her like she's Joan of Arc, a young girl "knowing neither A nor B," appeals to those who want to see Egyptian activists as sympathetic but ultimately disorganized and naive. While it's true this is not a top-down movement, and its success seems to have surprised everyone inside Egypt and out, it's also unfair to ignore the groundwork in democratic organizing that has been laid by activists for the past five years, including the April 6, Khalid Said, and Kifaya movements.

Read an interview with Asmaa Mahfouz here.

Wael Ghonim interview.

Tuesday, February 8th, 2011

Last June, Khalid Said,* a 28-year-old Egyptian man, was beaten to death by police officers outside an internet cafe in Alexandria. His death sparked protests last summer, and another young Egyptian, Wael Ghonim, set up an anonymous Facebook page called "We Are Khalid Said."** Ghonim is Google's head of marketing for the Middle East and North Africa. On the Facebook page he referred to himself only as "El-Shaheed" ("the martyr").

On January 27th, two days after the major protests began, Ghonim went missing. After 12 days in prison, he was released on Tuesday and gave this interview. Everyone is talking about this today, and with good reason. I really, really recommend you watch.

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5

*Alternatively spelled Khaled Said or Khalid Saeed.
**Ghonim's page was in Arabic. There is a separate English page on Facebook with the same name. Both are devoted to the same person and the same cause, but they are managed/monitored by different people.

Rumors, conspiracy theories, and the inequity of information access.

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

One of the challenges of the Egypt demonstrations has been controlling the rumors. Obviously that'll happen when you have a movement of over a million people. Shutting off the internet (that still sounds funny to me) probably controlled some of the worst misinformation, but it also closed down avenues of quick communication, allowing false information to spread.

This isn't new, though. Egypt, and the Arab world in general, are famous for propagating rumors and conspiracy theories. Many of these stories involve Israel, and more generally "the Jews," which maps so perfectly onto Europe and U.S. experiences with antisemitism that it's rare you'll hear any other explanation for it. Arabs just hate Jews. They hate them!

Arab hostility to Judaism is often exaggerated, but no one would suggest the region is a bastion of tolerance. Historically there was less animosity between Muslims and Jews than between Christians and Jews, but Israel's occupation of Palestine has eroded a lot of good will. Nevertheless, when it comes to conspiracy theories, I think there's more going on.

Conspiracy theories thrive in societies where the press can't be trusted. This really came home to me five years ago while visiting Romania, where I saw the same attitude towards rumors, and indeed some of the exact same conspiracy theories that are alive and well in Cairo. When you live under dictatorship, the one thing you do know, for sure, is that you're being force-fed bullshit. But it won't all be bullshit. So you have to sort out on your own what's reality, what's spin, and what's a lie. Sometimes you'll get it wrong. Your real source of news will be other people, not the television. Unfortunately sometimes they get it wrong, too. And just like anywhere, you'll have some friends who only give the most melodramatic version of any story, and that one uncle who is skeptical of all of it (which makes him just as unreliable, because sometimes the sky really is falling), and your mom who doesn't want to hear anything upsetting and your brother who's apolitical and your teachers who can't tell you what they really think without risking you'll inform on them and basically the whole information system is in disarray. But you won't be able to debate it openly.

Meanwhile, what to Americans seem like Hollywood plotlines are, in your country, normal historical events. The CIA really did help overthrow the democratically-elected president of Iran. The Mossad really does assassinate its enemies. Islamist groups really were plotting to take over your government. When Egyptians claim the Israelis are behind something, there's a chance it's their own paranoia and there's a chance that the Israelis are, in fact, behind it.

The Egyptian government, of course, exploits this. It encourages fears of Israel, of America, of unnamed "agents," because it deflects attention from themselves. It also makes ordinary Egyptians less credible when they talk about repression and torture they've experienced. It's happening right now; the government forcing protesters to appear on state television and say they were paid to do this by some foreign entity. Most people won't buy this, but some will, and even more will decide not to join the demonstrations because they don't want to risk getting caught and having to go through this humiliating ritual themselves.

There's nothing so blatant in the U.S. but we have the same inequity in information flow, where some peoples' stories are considered more worthy of attention than others. To name one bland example: A couple weeks ago there was a snowstorm that knocked out power for days in some parts of the Midwest, leaving people without heat and water, but the national news spent more time on the complaints of New Yorkers whose streets weren't plowed as soon as the mayor's was. When I moved to Boston I was amazed that I often couldn't tell whether I was listening to local or national radio, because the concerns of people in my city were represented in both. That never, ever happened when I was growing up in Iowa.

For historically oppressed groups, this isn't just annoying, it has real consequences. You can't rely on official channels to get information you need, and the fact that you are invisible or dehumanized by the media makes it easier for other groups to ignore you. I think one of the starkest differences between white people and people of color is that people of color are more willing to say, "I don't know you or your history, but I'll hear you out." With white people, there's skepticism. "If this thing you're saying really happened, I'd have heard about it. After all, if it happened to me, you'd have heard about it."

Thankfully, Al-Jazeera and new media are eroding some of this imbalance in information. It was easier to ignore Egyptians' oppression before you had video of them being beaten and shot, of security men on camels and horseback riding through the streets with swords, swinging Molotov cocktails over bridges, and driving over protesters with police vehicles. The torture still takes place behind closed doors, but now it's more likely that those who say it happened will be believed.

It's wrong to say this is a Facebook or Twitter revolution in the sense that social networking is responsible for it. Obviously there were revolutions before Facebook, and even in Tahrir the biggest events happened while the internet was down. This obsession with Facebook gives the demonstrators too little credit. But I think it's also wrong to discount the role of ordinary people having control over what the world gets to see about their country, and what they are able to tell each other about their country. One of the many many reasons I hope the revolution succeeds is because it has the potential to bring these stories to light. Mubarak can't compete with this.

Gladwell gets it wrong on social media (NPR) "We can engage these issues without taking anything away from the French Revolution."

Tunisia and the New Arab Media Space (Marc Lynch) "Al Jazeera and the new media ecosystem did not only spread information — they facilitated the framing of the events and a robust public debate about their meaning. Events do not speak for themselves."

During the internet blackout, Arabic-speaking volunteers around the world translated Egyptians' phone messages into tweets. There's a video of the spreadsheet updating in real time – fascinating. The resulting archive is here.

On a sadder note, the list of martyrs is also being updated on a shared Google doc. There are names, pictures, sources, and causes of death for the world to see.

"This is not chaos. It is planned strategy."

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

This is what they're willing to do to foreign journalists, ones with international name recognition, at a time when the story is being covered, live, across the planet. Now imagine you're an unknown and unconnected journalist or activist trying to tell your story three months from now, under the same regime, once the world's no longer watching.

The human rights implications are obvious. But so are the free press implications. The world is covering Egypt right now because events are astonishing and dramatic. Three months from now, hearing a politician talk pedantically about his party platform will be a yawner. Hearing two activists debate ideas in Mansoura or Ismalia isn't going to be breaking news on CNN. But those kinds of debates, boring though they may be, are inherent to democracy. You need and free and open LOCAL press for that. It doesn't matter how free and open Al-Jazeera is because Al-Jazeera covers Egypt, not Shubra. Opposition papers are widely available in Egypt but clearly it's not a fair debate when one, and only one, party has round-the-clock access to state television.

Mubarak is selling this idea that there will be free elections in September, but "free elections" aren't (only) about election day itself. Democracy needs to be institutionalized well in advance for the process to take shape. In some countries you have a clear opposition leader to rally around. In Egypt that's not the case. I submit that is a GOOD thing, because it fosters discussion and debate instead of hero-worship. But you can't have the media be status quo for seven months and then expect a real choice in the election.

The U.S. will support Egyptian democracy. If it has to.

Friday, February 4th, 2011

"You can always count on Americans to do the right thing—after they’ve tried everything else."
–Winston Churchill

The U.S. does not want global democracy for its own sake. That's where American conservatives are wrong. But progressives are wrong when they say the U.S. hates democracy for its own sake. This is a forty-year-old analysis that had its place a generation ago, but it's no longer a valid way of looking at the situation in Egypt. Yes, democratic regimes are harder to control. But the American government isn't doing that well with its dictatorships, either.

The U.S. government's only concern is stability in the region. It wants oil from the Gulf, cheap labor and cheap resources from poor Arab countries like Egypt, and it wants the entire region to be safe for American investment, shipping, military bases, and other economic and strategic goals. If it can get that by buying off a few dictators, great, we're rich and that's an easy way to get what we want in the world. I'll give you A BILLION DOLLARS to like me. Yay.

If that doesn't work, though, the U.S. likes regional stability so much that it is willing to support democracy as Plan B.

One example: Two years ago in Cairo, I was talking to a German businessman who was visiting Egypt because he was considering setting up shop there. I met him at the end of his tour, and he told me he'd decided against it and was now going to check out India. Egypt, in his opinion, was too stagnant and full of corruption. He needed to employ 300 people, and he didn't think products of Cairo's corrupt educational system would make innovative workers.

I'm not sharing this story because I have sympathy for a guy who's traveling the world trying to find cheap labor. He's just some dude I ran into at a restaurant. But the American version of this guy is the sort of person U.S. foreign policy is looking out for. The U.S. does not care about the freedom of Egypt's poor, but it does care about this kind of guy, and Mubarak's regime is no longer serving that guy's interests either.

This is why I say America cares about Egypt, the country, not Mubarak, the person. I don't mean it cares about the Egyptian people. I mean it cares about not losing Egypt the way it lost Iran. A generation ago, when Third World human capital was of the Charles Dickens variety, supporting dictators was more appealing. Today it's just produced state after bloated state full of educated youth who want real opportunity, but can't see their way towards it. The U.S. is uninterested in their struggles from a human rights point of view. But it does see them as a resource to be tapped, and to that end these stagnant dictators are outliving their usefulness.

I expect the U.S. to throw massive support to whatever party looks viable once Mubarak is gone. That party will probably not be the Muslim Brotherhood, but if it is, the U.S. will suck it up and fund them, too. Once again, with feeling! The U.S. likes regional stability so much it will support anyone who can make good on that. Even if means supporting democracy, something it's normally loath to risk. Even if it means supporting the Brotherhood, something that would make for incredibly bad PR at home. The United States government would support a stuffed rabbit or Paris Hilton if it meant making the Arab world safe for economic investment and keeping the Suez Canal open.

One last thing. Assuming the revolution is successful, we will hear a lot of self-congratulatory nonsense about this being the work of Americans. Democrats will say Obama's trip to Cairo was the decisive moment when everything changed, or his support of Tunisia in the State of the Union address just as things started to break in Egypt. Republicans will say no, it was Bush's invasion of Iraq that laid the groundwork for democracy in the region. This is all noise. There have been NO modern American presidents who have made the Middle East a better place. George W. Bush was the worst, but Clinton was a close second, with his ghoulish support for Iraqi sanctions, a policy that killed thousands of people, most of them sick children who could not get access to medical treatment. And as for Obama, I notice there are still drones flying over Pakistan.

The only people who deserve credit for this moment are the millions of Egyptians who finally said, enough.

This is a post about sports. No really.

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

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Mohamed Aboutrika, 2008

This is the first time and probably the last time I link to a Sports Illustrated article, but this piece about Egyptian soccer clubs' role in opposing the government is interesting.

The involvement of the clubs has signaled more than just the intervention of sports fans. The soccer clubs' entry into the political struggle also means the entry of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the mass of young people in Egypt for whom soccer was their only outlet.

As soccer writer James Dorsey wrote this week, "The involvement of organized soccer fans in Egypt's anti-government protests constitutes every Arab government's worst nightmare."

(There are two big teams in Cairo, Ahly and Zamalek. When I was in Egypt I was told Ahly was the "communist" team and Zamalek was the "capitalist" team.)

(And with that, I have exhausted my knowledge of Egyptian soccer.)

Why they're camping in Tahrir Square.

Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

Hosni Mubarak is not Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadaffi, or Idi Amin. All of those dictators suffered from megalomania and assorted other mental illnesses. Egyptians have a bigger problem. Their president is stark raving sane. Mubarak is not senile, or deluded, or out of touch. You don't control 80 million people since the days of disco and John Hinckley's crush on Jodie Foster without understanding how to master dissent.

In the last week of Egyptian protests, Mubarak has replaced his cabinet, appointed a vice president, and, last night, announced he would not run in the next election. These may seem like extraordinary concessions, but Egyptians have seen it all before. They're not still out there risking massacre because they enjoy the violence and the mayhem; they're there because they know that nothing short of Mubarak's immediate resignation is sufficient.


If the people go home now, there will be a few days of relief and peace. Those who only want stability at any cost will be appeased. The U.S. government and the American media will report it as a victory for Egyptian democracy, because Mubarak has agreed to step down in the fall and the protesters have "agreed" (by virtue of going home). There will be a respite of a week or two, and the story will fade from the international news.

Then it will begin. Mubarak's security team will start combing the videos that have been uploaded over the past week, making notes of names and faces. They will obtain phone and internet records. They will start tapping phones and monitoring Facebook. (In the U.S. the word "Facebook" means "ha ha I spend too much time here omg I should be studying"; in Egypt it means that too, but is also a way to organize politically in a country where there is no right to assemble.)

The prominent leaders will face some mild consequences, more humiliating than painful, like house arrest or exile. Western democracies will issue equally mild condemnations. People who participated in demonstrations will be identified and threatened. The most powerful opposition parties will be banned and their newspapers censored. There will be a long media campaign on state television shaming individual activists, saying they were aligned with Israel and whatnot.

Activists without name recognition will serve long prison sentences, where they will be tortured. One or two of them might make the CNN crawl on some Tuesday in June, but for the most part you won't hear about them. "Egypt," you'll think. "Wasn't there that thing about Egypt? How's that going?" The activists abroad who do stay on the story will look like left-wing cranks, hammering on and on about their pet issue like those guys who are still obsessed with who shot JFK. Mubarak, correctly, anticipates this reaction, and knows that the American people will never seriously push the American government to cut off aid. So he's gold on that front.

By September the opposition won't be silenced, but it will be chaotic and unorganized, with most of its leadership jailed or cowed. If there are still occasional protests in the streets, Mubarak will use them as an excuse to postpone (read: cancel) the elections. If there are not protests, he will either announce that he has changed his mind and that he has — for the good of the security of the state and for the good of the people of Egypt — decided to run again, or, in the best case, will have hand-picked and bankrolled a successor. An "election" (sic) will be held without the major opposition parties, there will be beatings and intimidation at the polls, the vote count will be mismanaged and altered, and, no surprise, the end result will be more of the same.

The only way to get fair elections in Egypt is for Mubarak to have NO role. He needs to LEAVE the country and have NO ties to the interim government. Even then, there will be enormous challenges in staving off corruption. But a transition with Mubarak in power is not transition at all.

More women of Egypt.

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

Reading Nawal El Saadawi when I was 17 was my gateway drug into Middle Eastern politics. Now she's 80 years old, living in Cairo, and still protesting. Here she's interviewed by Amy Goodman from Democracy Now!

This is an interview from Tahrir Square yesterday (Monday) with an activist who explains the current situation.

And I don't know who this woman is, but she's being called "The Bravest Girl in Egypt." I saw the original version of this on Facebook and she goes on like this for NINE minutes. This is only a third of it. Incredible.

Believe your eyes.

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

One of the remarkable things about what's happening in Egypt is that it's exactly what it looks like. I'm so accustomed to conversations about the Middle East having to come with endless history and background and context in order to be halfway intelligible, but this is one case where most of the false or misleading interpretations are coming from people trying to read too much into the situation.

For once, it's really very clear.

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photo credit: unknown

  • The masses in Egypt are protesting their government because the masses in Egypt protest their government.
  • Although it's too soon to tell definitively, there's no evidence that this is a movement of a single demographic. There's been a lot of talk about the youth ("the Facebook generation") and I think that's true. But I've also seen a lot of older people on the streets. There are both men and women, middle- and lower-classes. Last month, after an attack on a Christian church, Muslims were forming human shields around churches to protect worshippers. During the demonstrations this week, Christians returned the favor by forming human shields around Muslims while they prayed last Friday, the day of the largest demonstrations. Most of the news is coming from Cairo and Alexandria, because they're the biggest cities in Egypt, but some of the most radical actions have been in Suez. Most remarkably, I've heard about Bedouins burning down police stations. Bedouins see themselves as culturally distinct from Egyptians and are generally indifferent to its formal legal system, so if even they are seeing themselves as being in solidarity with The People, it's at best very premature and likely Just Plain Wrong to say this is a movement of one small part of Egyptian society.

    (For what it's worth, I've never met a single enthusiastic supporter of Mubarak. I've met a lot Egyptians who just see him as a joke, as something they have to put up with in their lives — as opposed to Lucifer Himself — but no one who loves him or cries while watching him give a speech on television. This is in contrast to Sadat and especially Nasser, Egypt's previous presidents, who were also dictatorial presidents-for-life who imprisoned political dissidents, but who had pockets of real devotion and support among the people.)

  • The U.S. response is tepid because the U.S. response is tepid.
  • The official U.S. government response could go one of three ways: It could openly support Mubarak, it could openly oppose Mubarak, or it could use a lot of carefully-worded language to hem and haw and try to appease both sides because who knows what's coming next and the U.S. wants to stay on the side of Egypt, the country, regardless of who rules it. Obama has chosen Door #3.

    I think Obama really does want democracy in the Arab world. He just wants it to come from the Peaceful Democracy Ballerina Fairy, without unrest, without instability, without crashing stock markets or panicked investors, without worrying Israel, without any hostility to American foreign policy, and so on and so forth. In other words, he wants exactly what he has now in the Middle East, but with some cosmetic changes that give it a democratic veneer. I also think Obama is intelligent enough to realize it doesn't happen that way, and unlike Bush, he actually feels like an idiot pretending otherwise. So he's trying to play it both ways, talking about "Egypt" (instead of Mubarak) and "free speech and access to the internet" (instead of human rights) and "democratic elections" (instead of immediate regime change). That'll work for a while.

    Just to be clear: I am not saying this is GOOD. I am saying it is UNSURPRISING. I would prefer Door #2, a clear statement that Mubarak should step down. But there is no conspiracy theory to be found here. The American response this week has been consistent with its stance towards Egypt for the past 50-odd years.

    I've heard a few progressives say Obama is being cautious on this because he's worried American activists might learn from Egypt's example and begin wide-scale protests here. This is an American-centric argument that discounts Egypt's strategic importance in the world. He's sweating Egypt because Egypt matters. Full stop.

    Remember the ladies!

    Sunday, January 30th, 2011

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    photo credit: Ben Curtis

    Some have asked where the Egyptian women are, since most of the protest photos are of men. It's a valid question. There have definitely been gendered uprisings: either men fighting for a change that would explicitly put women down, or, more often, uprisings in which women were told to table their concerns AS women — "just until the revolution comes!" …and then, conveniently, the men who take over never get around to that.

    This is NOT what's happening in Egypt right now. There are women of all ages and classes on the streets as we speak. It's true that they're outnumbered by men, but that's not because they support Mubarak. Of course there may be individual women who support Mubarak, just as there may be individual men who do, but this is not a case of men going out and demanding something that women hate but are powerless to stop. The vast majority of Egyptians, male and female, want revolution very badly.

    I'm not in Egypt now, but I've lived there, and if I had to guess why there are more men than women, I would say it's a matter of safety. As an American I was always surprised at how convinced Egyptians were that "barra" ("outside") was a dangerous place, despite the fact that Egypt is probably one of the safest countries in the world. Street harassment is ubiquitous, but violent crime is extremely rare. Nevertheless, I was constantly being warned that I should not walk alone, should not take a taxi alone, should not live in or even visit this neighborhood or that neighborhood, etc. Even a knock on the door was treated with alarm. I can't tell you how many times I would visit someone, there would be an unexpected knock, and then this ritual of shouting "meen? MEEN?" ("WHO?") before anyone would open their giant, thrice-deadbolted door. And this was AFTER the visitor had been let upstairs by the nosy doorkeeper downstairs. Men, too, are conscious of this kind of stranger danger, but women even more so.

    So now you have a situation where people REALLY ARE being shot point blank on the streets. What's amazing is not that so many women are staying indoors, but that so many are going out despite the risk.

    If Mubarak does leave, women AS women may have new concerns. Would the new government protect their rights? Would their situation improve or worsen? But even if that happens, it's important to know that Egypt has been through this before. In the revolution that ended British occupation — which older women will still remember, and younger women will have read about and heard about from their mothers and aunties and grandmothers — the Egyptian feminist movement (by that time 60 years in the making) had to fight for a place at the table. There were victories and setbacks with that, but these are not new questions.

    Even in the worst-case-for-women-scenario, where the Islamists take over, it's difficult to imagine that they would fare as badly as women in Iran, for various reasons having more to do with the history of class politics in those two countries than anything to do with feminism. Egypt would certainly not look like Afghanistan. (I feel stupid even pointing that out, but it is something I've heard: "They'll all have to around wearing those bedsheets and never go to school!")

    None of this is meant to downplay sexism, which is alive and well in Egyptian culture, and, sometimes, in Egyptian law. (For example, there are gendered aspects to divorce and custody laws, only men are drafted, and citizenship comes through the father.) But at the moment these are not issues at the forefront of people's minds. The issues right now are poverty, unemployment, the lack of a free press, government corruption, and state-sanctioned torture. These issues affect men and women alike.