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.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/95225262/The-nexus-of-power-and-wealth-in-Mubarak%E2%80%99s-Egypt

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.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/95224866/Activism-Online-and-Off-Confronts-the-Police-the-Brutal-Road-to-January-25

Advertisements

Syria’s Uprising: Ethnic Conflict and National Unity

Protests against the regime of President Bashar al Assad began on January 26, but did not turn violent until March 15, when security forces attacked protesters in the southern city of Deraa and Damascus held demonstrations in a “day of rage”. The UN estimates that 5000 people have been killed since then. Tens of thousands have been arrested, including some 14,000 reporters.  Some observers of Syria are speculating that we are seeing the beginnings of a civil war. The bolder among them believe that it will be an ethnic civil war, with the Sunni majority pitted against the ruling Alawi sect. My final paper of the semester holds that the forces dividing Syria are matched by the forces uniting it.

http://www.scribd.com/doc/75781642/Syria-s-Uprising-Ethnic-Conflict-and-National-Unity

Posted in Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , . Leave a Comment »

Egyptians demand an end to military rule

“Down with the field marshal!” yell the protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Thousands have been there since Friday, with many more spread out along the side streets. Most protesters are peacefully gathered, sometimes marching in groups of one or two hundred, but some are tackling the security forces head on.

Carrying the injured to an ambulance in Tahrir Square

One of the makeshift hospitals in Tahrir Square

A makeshift hospital in Tahrir

Down the side streets, protesters are throwing rocks and molotov cocktails and security forces respond with tear gas and rubber bullets. When one person is hit, others haul him back to the square where ambulances are running back and forth. There are a few makeshift hospitals in the square where people are getting treated for injuries. Many have been shot in the eyes; and a photo circulating the internet shows one of the lions adorning Qasr al-Nil Bridge, which leads to Tahrir, sporting a bandage over one of its eyes as well.

Thirty-three people are estimated killed around the country with thousands more injured or arrested. Among those arrested were three American students accused of throwing Molotov cocktails although they were actually delivering medical supplies. Fortunately, many Egyptians have become inured to the lies of their government from the roughly twelve thousand civilians sentenced in military kangaroo courts since the fall of the Mubarak regime in February. Most of them were peaceful protesters, bloggers and other activists charged with crimes such as “insulting the regime.”

The focus of their anger is the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt’s military interim government, and its head, Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi.

Monday’s news that Egypt’s cabinet, which many Egyptians consider puppets of the military council, resigned did not lead protesters to disperse. The basic demand is to end rule by the generals and turn power over to an elected, civilian government. The military has repeatedly postponed elections and it is not yet clear if it is about to relent.

At the moment, the violence appears to have subsided although protesters are marching in ever greater numbers.

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.

Egypt’s revolution is not over

It is said that Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s premier, was once asked what he thought of the French Revolution, and he replied “It is too soon to tell.” Whether or not this story is true, it reveals an important fact about revolutions: their true measure is not in the immediate outcome of the uprising, but how it pans out in the long term. When Egyptians speak of the revolution, they usually mean the three-week uprising that started on January 25. Hosni, the NDP and the police are gone, but the activists are still in the street.

Every Friday after prayers in Tahrir Square, crowds address one or more issues with speeches, cheering, flag-waving and debating in a clear sign that they love their new-found freedom and want their Arab brothers to enjoy the benefits. Today marks the 63rd anniversary of the Nakba, the day Palestinians commemorate their expulsion (some 700,000 people) from their homeland. This week, in crowds bigger than I have seen in my month in Cairo, demonstrators demanded rights and freedom for Palestinians. This video expresses the pain of living under Israeli occupation.

Here are some photos from Friday’s demonstrations.

Just down the road from Tahrir in Masbiro Square was a separate demonstration urging equal rights for Christians. Coptic Christians lived in Egypt before the Muslims came, yet today make up only 10% of the population. The recent clashes at the Imbaba church in Cairo that killed 12 and wounded nearly 200 sparked several days of protests by Copts and sympathetic Muslims (though I am led to understand protests were planned before the Imbaba incident). Copts argue that 47 churches were closed by the old regime, and that they should have the right to open new opens; and that Muslims (salafis) are kidnapping girls who convert to Christianity and forcing them to submit to Islam. (Though I do not know how many times that has happened, it was what led to the fighting at Imbaba.) This week’s demonstrations took place in front of the Channel One television station with slogans demanding that it tell the truth about Egypt’s Christians, and another that “Muslims and Christians stand united”. One area was cordoned off for women, to prevent their being harassed; space was created for Muslims to pray (as well as for Christians); and in the last photo you can see one of many people shuttling drinks back and forth for the demonstrators.

Sectarian fighting is said to be on the rise since February, though it may in fact be on the wane. Today’s demonstrations were a strong indication that Christians, like all Egyptians, are not afraid to stand up for their rights, and that Muslims will stand by them. That so many Egyptians are still not tired of taking their grievances to the streets is a heartening sign that the revolution is far from over.

A glance at Egyptian political attitudes: the mood is high

Today, on the three-month anniversary of the start of the Egyptian revolution, a new Pew Global Attitudes Poll of Egypt has come out. Now that freedom of speech is a reality, everyone is talking politics, and they are bursting with opinions.

The past:
77% of those polled said Mubarak’s resignation was a good thing. (Judging by the party blazing in and around Tahrir Square tonight, people are still pretty happy with the outcome of the revolution. I have met few young people here who had no involvement in the revolution.)

When asked what has concerned them most in Egypt in recent years, respondents answered corruption, lack of democracy, and then the economy. The first two of those are likely to change thanks to the revolution, as from now on Egyptian governments will need to listen to the people. (An end to corruption could help the economy, though a democratic government could create any kind of misguided economic policy.)

The present:
Most have very or somewhat favourable opinions of the Muslim Brotherhood and the April 6 Youth Movement. The Muslim Brotherhood has been the largest opposition group in Egypt since 2005, when its members ran as independents (because the party was illegal) and won 20% of the vote. The Brotherhood came a little late to the party, officially joining the revolution after its inception and declaring that the revolution was not an Islamic but an Egyptian revolution. Now, having maintained its organisation, it remains one of the most powerful political parties in Egypt. The April 6 Movement started as a Facebook group in 2008. They demanded democracy and an end to corruption. April 6 was one of the groups encouraging young people to come out into the streets on January 25. April 6 was also one of the reasons some observers said that, though the outbreak of the revolution was a black swan, some kind of uprising had been a long time coming.

The poll found Mohamed Tantawi, head of the Egyptian Armed Forces (and thus de facto head of state) and Amr Moussa, secretary general of the Arab League, the most popular leaders, though Tantawi will probably not contest the fall presidential election and Moussa probably will. The military is still seen in a positive light, with 88% approval. The people are more cautious about the religious leaders, though they approve with similar numbers. The police, widely viewed as agents of Mubarak’s oppressive regime, are seen by 61% of respondents as unfavourable. In the kind of irony typical of public opinion, Mohamed El Baradei, the former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, and the man who stood up to the US on Iraq and Iran, came fourth in the polls, after Tantawi, Moussa and Ayman Nour. He is seen as something of a sop to US warmongers, when in fact he defied them. Amr Moussa, meanwhile, seems to have lost no popularity despite his affiliation with the Mubarak regime.

Egyptian opinions of the US and Barack are low (20% and 35% favourable respectively) but have not changed much since last year. 52% disapprove of Barack’s approach to the other Arab revolutions. Now that the people’s views need to be considered more strongly by Egyptian politicians, these low ratings have become more important, and will affect Egypt’s future responses to US foreign policy.

More significant might be Egyptians’ attitudes toward Israel. By a margin of 54% to 36%, Egyptians believe their country should annul the three-decade-old peace treaty between the two countries. The end of a peace treaty does not mean the start of a war. Canceling the treaty would be a kind of rebuke, an insult, or a demarche, saying “we are not happy with you”. It is one way to put pressure on another state. Knowing Israel’s habit of not caring what the rest of the world thinks, this poll result, and even the cancellation of the treaty, is not likely to change much. I suspect that there will be meaningful pressure on the next Egyptian government to end Egypt’s role in the blockade of Gaza; however, for strategic reasons, I doubt it will cancel the peace treaty or end the blockade.

The future:
65% said they were satisfied with the way things were going in the country, and 57% said they were optimistic about the future. I think it is safe to say that the 77% who are happy Mubarak is gone are happy with the outcome of the revolution, implying that they believe Egypt is better off now. That too is a kind of optimism.

41% believe a free and fair election is very likely, and 43% say it is somewhat likely. Again, the mood is very or cautiously optimistic. And so it should be. Egyptians, like Tunisians, accomplished a great feat in a matter of weeks, and have become a beacon to the rest of the world’s oppressed peoples.

The Middle East’s 1789…or 1848


It is still far too early to know if the torrential protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Yemen, Iran and Syria will lead to meaningful change. Democrats around the world are hopefully predicting that every country will soon become a democracy. However, where will democracy come from? Democratisation is usually a long and winding road, unless it happens by revolution; and if it happens by revolution, a period of undemocratic violence could reign, as in France in the 1790s, which could lead to the election of another strongman who will restore stability, and the cycle of violence would begin again. After over a decade of experiment as a republic, France crowned Napoleon emperor in 1804, and brought in King Louis XVIII in 1815. Nonetheless, there is always the prospect for real change as well: after all, France is today a vibrant democracy.

Most of the protesters in the Middle East seem not to be demanding democracy but jobs, equality and an end to corruption. Rather than demanding democracy, they are protesting dictatorship. Some regimes will placate protesters by doling out gifts in the form of job-creation programmes, the sacking of the most corrupt ministers, wealth redistribution and so on, which is what democracies do, but others will be swept away. The important question is not have the Ben Alis and Mubaraks gone, but what will replace them?

Many of the democracies in the world are merely electoral democracies. In other words, there are basic freedoms and basic choices as to who will govern, but not much popular control of the government. Most governments are only accountable at election time. Egypt is certainly not a democracy yet, as the army is still in charge, and it might take a long period of hard work if the people truly want to be free. I expect many of the Middle Eastern dictatorships under fire are no more fortunate than Mubarak, but each country’s prospects for democracy are on similarly unsure ground.

In 1848, the people of Europe protested in nearly every major city on the continent. The reactionary governments in charge at the time were, like those of today, unprepared and insensitive to their people’s problems until revolt broke out. France’s terrified King Louis Philippe abdicated, much like the two dictators (so far) who have left their posts in North Africa. King Charles Albert of Piedmont issued a moderate constitution to quell riots. But the military everywhere knew they had the power to repress the revolts if they wanted. Prague was bombarded during its riots, which ended in failure. In Paris, radical republican and socialist protesters were suppressed. Austria’s new constitution was rescinded 1851, two years after its inception. International wars took place. Possibilities for all these occurrences exist in the Middle East.

Historian Robert Wiener explained the initial successes of the revolutions as indicative not of the strength and unity of the protesters but of the weaknesses of the governments they opposed. The protesters were not leaders and did not offer real economic or social programmes. The same might be said for today’s movements. Alexis de Tocqueville feared the revolutions he witnessed on the streets of Paris, because of the violent class struggle they indicated; Karl Marx, who wrote the Communist Manifesto in 1848, welcomed them.

Historian GM Trevelyan believed that the revolutions of 1848, the Spring of Nations, failed, because on the surface, nothing changed. Yet, Hans Rothfels, another historian, said that, in fact, the revolutions had major effects: a leveling of inequalities, universal male suffrage, and the understanding throughout society that the people would no longer be held under the thumbs of absolute monarchies. A new generation of leaders took over after 1848. Today, we are witnessing (probably) successful popular uprisings that may or may not bring what the people want. We can take hope from one fact, however. The people of all these places have shown that they will not simply put up with anything anymore. Like in 1848, some things will change: formerly unresponsive governments will need to sit up and take notice, and foreign powers will benefit less by choosing sides and propping up corrupt regimes. For at least a generation to come, the people of Tunisia and Egypt, and probably everywhere else that is in turmoil right now, will speak of the time when they rose up against their masters, and they will do it again if pushed.