Two essays on the causes of Egypt’s revolution

Having completed my second semester at grad school, here are two essays on the causes of the January 25 Egyptian Revolution.

The first is about how the Mubarak regime came to concentrate power and wealth in the hands of a tiny elite. Egypt had been called a paragon of neoliberalism. If that was indeed the case, without reducing the power of the state, neoliberalism is bound to be disastrous.

The second essay shows how street protests and online activism in Egypt led to the January 25 revolution, and the extent to which police brutality fueled this activism. It goes through a history of protests and police reaction, explaining the power of the police in the process.

The Egyptian army is no friend of the people

Egyptian military clears Tahrir Square tent city of sit-in protestersToday, the Egyptian army showed its true colours. Today, on the first day of Ramadan, a day of celebration and peace if ever there was one, the army cleared Tahrir Square of the tent city that had controlled the Square since July 8 and arrested some of its occupants. This overt use of force against the revolution should persuade the people that the army is not their friend.

Hosni Mubarak stepped down on February 11 under somewhat mysterious circumstances. After claiming he would remain in power the night before, Mubarak quickly disappeared to the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The Supreme Council of Egyptian Armed Forces stepped in. It is possible that the army persuaded him to leave, and equally possible that the power elites had planned this move to make the new government popular.

The army has paid lip service to the demands of the protesters, but has done little to satisfy them.

-First, the families of the martyrs of the revolution, many of them camped out in Tahrir, have seen no justice. They are demanding restitution, and they are getting the strongarm.

-Second, as many as twenty thousand of the peaceful revolutionaries jailed since the beginning of the revolution received trials lasting a few minutes and sentences lasting several years. The jailed youth, such as blogger Maikel Nabil Sanad, a 26 year-old blogger sentenced to three years in prison for criticising the military, usually have had no access to proper legal counsel. The people have been calling desperately for their release, and the military has not been forthcoming. “Egypt’s military leadership has not explained why young protesters are being tried before unfair military courts while former Mubarak officials are being tried for corruption and killing protesters before regular criminal courts,” said Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch. “The generals’ reliance on military trials threatens the rule of law by creating a parallel system that undermines Egypt’s judiciary.”

-Third, instead of trying the peaceful and innocent, Egyptians expected trials of the police, the thugs and the ancien regime. The police were the repressive hand of the government while Mubarak was in power, and have lost most of their power since the revolution. Police and interior ministry snipers are responsible for the deaths of many of the protesters killed in the early days of the revolution. The youth fought back and repelled the police, but the government had other tricks up its long sleeve. During the 18-day demonstrations that brought down Mubarak, the government released a number of thugs from prison to attack the people. They burst into Tahrir Square on the Day of the Camels, riding camels and horses into the Square and wielding swords and sticks. After the police fled, the thugs went to every neighbourhood to terrorise the people into begging the police to come back. Instead, the people banded together to protect their neighbourhoods. The corrupt ministers of the old government, too, are perceived to have been protected since the fall of Mubarak. Demonstrators have demanded a complete overhaul of the interior ministry, and have been given a shuffle. The people want justice, which to them means the trial and sentencing of the police, the thugs and the thieves, and they want their money back. Thus far, they have not found it.

-Fourth, the ever-present Palestinian question was supposedly answered when Egypt’s government announced in May that it would open the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip, giving at least some freedom and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians trapped in the prison camp of Gaza. Both Israel and Egypt have imposed a strict blockade of Gaza since 2007, when Hamas took it over. Restrictions on movement in and out of Gaza have eased slightly, but progress has been disappointing at best. All the real demands of the protesters have gone unheeded.

The army will do its best to ensure that the privileged position beyond the control of civilian government it has always maintained remains protected. For the past few months, volunteers have stood at every entrance to Tahrir Square, checking passports for anyone who might be a known thug. They have entered the Square once or twice nonetheless, with violent results. Today, the army seems to have ushered them in with the soldiers. Egyptian newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm stated that “[m]ilitary police, Central Security Forces and civilian supporters” destroyed the sit-in that has characterised the heart of Cairo for the past few weeks. Perhaps the paper does not want to editorialise, but it is probable that the “civilian supporters” are the same thugs that have been trying to wreck the revolution since the Day of Camels.

At last count, the military and its supreme leader, Gen. Mohamed Tantawi, enjoy wide support among Egyptians. This move may sour the belief that the army is a friend of the revolution. Either way, Egyptians have no reason to continue to trust the government or end the demonstrations of the ongoing Egyptian Revolution.

One week trying to understand Israeli and Palestinian newspaper bias

Day 3

Palestine Media Center

The official mouthpiece of the general secretariat of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). The two-state solution is a big thing here. Three headlines have the words “two-state” in them. Another headline uses the word “Apartheid”, and there is an apparently separate link saying “Israeli Apartheid” next to it. I would not deny that the plight of the Palestinians is apartheid, only that it is a very strong word. If life is as bad for the Palestinians as it was for non whites under apartheid, they are in trouble.

The most interesting thing is to hear Ehud Barak himself using the word. He says that, if there is only one state, and if the Palestinians cannot vote, “it will be an apartheid regime.” Fancy the defense minister of a right wing Israeli cabinet admitting something like that. Are we actually making progress?

Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak says, according to the leader, that a two-state solution is coming sooner or later. (Yet another article on foreign pressure for a two-state peace says is about Javier Solana, Foreign Minister of the European Union.) Egypt and Israel are on reasonably good terms—Egypt is one of the only two majority Muslim countries, with Jordan, that recognises Israel—so pressure for Palestinian independence is likely to come from them. The US is pushing for the two-state thing, and Egypt and Jordan are its allies, so they may feel emboldened to push too. President Mubarak also said the Palestinians must work hard to achieve unity. That might be the biggest obstacle to peace.

For the past two days, I have seen talk about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s speech on Sunday. The Palestine Media Center (PMC) says “Netanyahu will adopt ‘two-state’ language on Sunday speech.” Seems a little vague. They might as well have said “Netanyahu will give all the Palestinians a job and a pension”. Any politician can speak in terms that sound good. Only action can make peace.

According to the PMC, Netanyahu will be asking for a lot in return for Palestinian independence. The Palestinians must recongise Israel and “[h]e will ask [not demand?] Arab states to normalize relations with Israel during negotiations, rather than after Israel withdraws from occupied Arab land”. I do not feel the bitterness from the PMC that one feels in other media from Palestine. Of course, they are just as prone to bias as any other medium; but you let your guard down when you hear relatively conciliatory tones like these.

As the PMC points out, Palestinian independence is only one condition of peace negotiations. “It is unclear”, it says, “whether Netanyahu will accept the other condition, which is US President Barack Obama’s demand for a total halt to all construction in illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem.” In fact, the PMC has a set of links entitled “Permanent Status Issues”, and they are Jerusalem, Settlements, Refugees, Water, Borders, Summary of Palestinian Positions. Each is like an encyclopedia entry on Palestinian grievances for each issue, along with a long list of links regarding the issue you are reading about.

For instance, on the subject of Jerusalem, while the Israeli papers talk of the long history the city has had as capital of a (future) state of Israel, this section says the opposite. “For centuries, Jerusalem has been the geographical, political, administrative and spiritual center of Palestine.” It begins the Israeli story at the 1967 war, several thousand years after the Jews do, and says that since then, the Israeli state has taken over and expanded East Jerusalem in “a classic example of ethnic gerrymandering.” The PMC continues, talking about the illegality of Israel’s occupation of Jerusalem according to “a long line” of UN Security Council resolutions; discrimination against Arabs; Jewish settlement; and forced evictions and demolitions. “The Palestinian Position” (or that of the PLO, anyway), is, basically, follow Resolution 242 (here and here—apparently the PLO did not initially accept 242), and make Jerusalem a free city. They make some good points.


Like yesterday, the Holocaust museum gunman tops the list. I am interested that some senile American racist shooting up the Holocaust museum is so important to Jews (or the ones writing this newspaper, anyway) that they put it right at the top. The article was very long (more than 1100 words) and read as a mixture of a report of the shooting and the biography of a white supremacist.

“Rightists to Peres: Not your place to call for Palestinian state”. A picture of Israeli President Shimon Peres shows him looking deeply pensive in his chair. The president is largely a figurehead, so he does not have much power. For this reason, two right wing Israeli parties, one of which is in the governing coalition, spoke out against Peres discussing the two-state matter with Javier Solana. One of the parties, the National Union, said the president should cancel such meetings in future. Though the prime minister is likely to give some form of endorsement to the Road Map to Peace and the two-state solution in his speech on Sunday, it is likely that the parties that objected to Peres’ meeting with Solana feel it puts undue pressure on him. A link to this article from a couple of weeks ago says that President Peres criticised a right wing politician’s suggestion that Jordan should be the base of the Palestinian state. It was a fatuous suggestion, but was Mr Peres within his bounds to say so? And why is there so much stress on the right and left? The ideological divisions in Israeli society may be particularly wide; or perhaps Haaretz is keen to exploit them.

Another major story in today’s paper is that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released documents saying that Iran began its plan to enrich uranium in 1987 under the moderate Mir Hossein Mousavi. If a moderate could start a nuclear weapons programme, this implies, the Iranian state must be evil through and through. That said, buying centrifuges does not mean you are trying to make a bomb. The article does not mention that. And it repeats the fact that the centrifuges were bought on the black market.

The IAEA reported that the nuclear facility in Natanz was spinning 5000 centrifuges, up by 1000 from February, and has 2000 more ready to start enriching. I do not know how many that is. It is just a number. Do Israelis know how many bombs could be made with 7000 centrifuges? (According to the New York Times, it is enough to make one or two nuclear weapons a year.) I have noticed that numbers are a good way to win an argument. Since they can be manipulated, like all facts, numbers of bad things are always bigger on their side than ours, even if we do not know what the numbers denote. The article ended on the subject of the upcoming Iranian election in which Ahmadinejad and his opponent, Mousavi (the one who started enriching uranium) will be competing and left few wondering whom the newspaper was supporting. The public were reflecting “on whether they want to keep hard-line President Ahmadinejad in power or replace him with a reformist more open to closer ties with the West.”

Finally, Palestinian police found a 15-year-old boy hanged for allegedly collaborating with Israelis. His father, uncle and cousin confessed. Tragic and senseless, of course; but like the story about the little Zionist town in yesterday’s Palestinian Chronicle, we seem to be picking at small things about our enemies to exploit for propaganda’s sake. See how messed up they are? the journalist is saying.

The Alternative Information Center

To mix things up today, we are going to look at the Alternative Information Center, a joint effort between Israeli and Palestinian activists. The AIC calls itself internationally oriented, progressive (I like those words, even if I don’t know what they mean) organisation engaged in “dissemination of information, political advocacy, grassroots activism and critical analysis of the Palestinian and Israeli societies as well as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.” It strives for equality, freedom and rejection of separationist ideology. Perhaps not all news from the Middle East is anti- or pro- something. Or perhaps it is. Let us see what we can learn from this website.

The first thing that catches my eye is a video about a weekly protest of the separation barrier in a Palestinian village near Bethlehem. The speaker, a Palestinian, makes it clear he considers it apartheid, and says this wall is pushing the suffering of his people. Not all the protestors were Palestinians, however. An Israeli citizen had joined the demonstration, expressing his support for the tearing down of the wall. They are brave people, face to face with a dozen or more soldiers.

The podcast of a press conference by the parents of an American activist who was injured by the Israeli military. Jail time for those who deny the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, or who commemorate the Naqba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus). Criticism of Netanyahu for his inaction on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Photos of the Israeli attack on the UN mission in Gaza in January. A UN report on an Israeli order for more Palestinian housing demolitions. Another on checkpoints. A “new wave of unopposed attacks” by Jewish settlers on Arabs. If this truly is unbiased or evenhanded news, the Israelis have a huge amount to answer for.

But it is not. There are Israeli Jews on the editing team but that does not make it balanced. A neutral, equal parts Israeli and Palestinian perspective of reporting would not use words like “occupation”, because it is one-sided word. It would also show the perspectives of moderate Israelis, Jewish settlers and perhaps someone who had been injured by a Palestinian rocket attack. The AIC had none of those. While its points may be valid, even a cursory glance at the website evinces that its claims to critical analysis are unconvincing.

Tomorrow we will examine different newspapers, including the news from Hamas’s point of view.