I've been watching the coverage of the protests in Egypt on Al Jazeera and CNN the last few days. Throughout this, it's impossible to avoid seeing varying levels of relationship between Egypt and the United States.
I'm glad that the Egyptian Army has refused to fire on protesters. Instead of shooting, army officers are trying to persuade the protesters to go home and resume normal life, on the 12th day of protests. It's not working too well; people keep coming back to the crowd despite the last few days' violence.
For the past two days, while Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron (whom I saw on Al Jazeera) and others have pushed for an orderly transition of power, the pro-Mubarak forces have done their best to crush protest with clubs, machetes, and any force possible, even while military personnel in the streets have stood aside to let these armed enforcers past. I'm not sure how the army justifies this as non-interference with the protesters.
...Barack Obama, in reply to Mubarak's promise to slowly relinquish his grip on power, said that after his address he had spoken "directly to President Mubarak. He recognizes that the status quo is not sustainable and that a change must take place ... an orderly transition must be meaningful, must be peaceful and it must begin now." Clearly, Mubarak and Obama are coordinating their communications, as well as their strategies. They should be: Egypt receives $1.3 billion of military aid each year to make sure it follows American orders.
Cutting that aid went unmentioned, so the nature of the "change" to which Obama was referring was unclear - but it is quite unlikely to be the change the people massing in Tahrir Square demand. When they burn Mubarak in effigy, they show their disdain not just for the man but for the system for which he stands.
Mubarak and Obama are well aware of this, which is why, on Wednesday, February 2, Mubarak sent paid goons, demurely referred to in the Western press as "pro-Mubarak demonstrators," into Tahrir Square and other major centers of resistance to provoke chaos. With the streets racked by violence, state managers reason, Mubarak will have justification to set in motion an orderly, top-down transition to a new figurehead at the head of the same governmental system.
Early indications are that he will try to put in place his new vice president, Omar Suleiman. Perhaps Suleiman won't work out so well, and Mubarak will revert to another high-level officer from his inner circle. Notwithstanding the particulars, the general framework of Egyptian and American policy is clear: maintain the system. To that end, "pro-Mubarak demonstrators" swore on Wednesday to "liberate Tahrir Square with blood." "Liberation" has yet to be accomplished; there's been plenty of blood. The counterrevolution has begun.
Part of the work of preparing for this counterrevolution is in dismissing the protests as "spontaneous," a momentary outburst of rage that will be quieted by a bit of change at the top. In the Momentary Convulsion School of History, people briefly spasm in the streets in response to outside provocation but go home as soon as their masters throw them a few dry bones of change. Grievances are not deeply felt injustices rooted in economic and political structures, but more like itches to be briefly scratched.
In more advanced versions of this fantasy, the Egyptian protests are just ripples from the revolt in Tunisia, and, like any ripple, they will pass through Egypt, rock it lightly, and then it will be still again. History tells a different story. As Egyptian journalist Hossam el-Hamalawy comments, "Revolutions don't happen out of the blue. It's not because of Tunisia yesterday that we have one in Egypt mechanically the next day." These are ripples, but they are big ones, set in motion long ago, and they originated in socioeconomic tremors that predate the Tunisian uprising by decades....
Labor revolt emerged as a countermovement to the Mubarak regime's neoliberal economic reforms. Those reforms shattered the authoritarian populist model, put in place by former president Gamal Abdel Nasser, which protected basic living standards, often by controlling the prices of basic staples. Amidst rocketing inflation, stagnant wages - many in Egypt live on 400 Egyptian pounds a month, equal to around $70, or close to two dollars a day - and structural unemployment concentrated amongst the youth, this social compact broke down. The population is extremely polarized, split on the model of most societies in the global South: a sparse middle class, with a small wealthy sector living in Zamalek or Maadi, or in outlying suburbs like Heliopolis, suspended above their society, while masses of poor inhabit the slums of Cairo and struggle - literally - for their daily bread....
Unrest has not merely been a response to destitution, but also a reaction to the systemic foreshortening of the social horizon, a phenomenon that cuts across social classes. Seventy-five percent of the unemployed are below the age of 30, while those with the lowest levels of education have the lowest levels of unemployment. University graduates, on the other hand, have a 30 percent unemployment rate. The protests have cut across a wide cross-class segment of Egyptian society: workers, teachers, Islamists, women and youth, including some of the underemployed children of the middle and upper classes. Some of the upper-class anger at Mubarak is fury at a dictatorship fused with corruption that has crowded out magnates running businesses with poor connections to state elites. The common thread is an intolerance of anymore living under an authoritarian police state....
I checked the US Federal Budget documents, available online; the $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt is the same amount budgeted for child care for children of military personnel in the 2011 Defense Department budget (pdf).
Unfortunately, what Egyptian protesters are seeing of America's influence right now are not ideals of liberty and democracy but weaponry aimed at them. When tear gas is deployed against protesters in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere, it comes in canisters made in the USA.
...The photographs show that the tear gas comes from a company named Combined Systems Inc (CSI), which describes itself as a "tactical weapons company" and is based in Jamestown, Pennsylvania. A similar picture from the protests in Egypt was posted on Twitter of a "Outdoor 52 Series Large Grenade" grenade made by CSI, which is designed to discharge "a high volume of smoke and chemical agent through multiple emission ports". (CSI did not return calls for comment.)
Although CSI markets these products as "less-than-lethal", several incidents indicate that they can cause injury and death. Bassem Abu Rahmah, a Palestinian man, was reportedly killed on 17 April 2009, when a CSI 40mm model 4431 powder barricade penetrating tear gas grenade struck him in the chest, according to a report by the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem. Nels Cooper Brannan, a US marine deployed to Fallujah, Iraq, unsuccessfully sued CSI for injuries caused by an allegedly defective MK 141 flashbang grenade that caused serious damage to his left hand when it exploded accidently.
While the Egyptian protesters were facing tear gas grenades fired by security forces in Cairo, another delegation of Egyptian senior military officials led by Lieutenant General Sami Hafez Enan, the chief of staff of Egypt's armed forces, was back in Washington to meet with Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (No public records have been filed yet, so it is unclear if Miner and Livingstone were escorting them again.)
Within hours of the news of the huge protests, Enan cut short his trip and dashed back to Cairo last Friday, but his boss, Minister Tantawi, has kept in touch with Washington, making daily phone calls to US Defence Secretary Robert Gates. Both men Ð together with Egypt's spy chief, Omar Suleiman Ð are among President Hosni Mubarak's closest allies and enjoy close ties with Washington, according to the diplomatic cables published by WikiLeaks. And it was these men that Thomas E Donilon, the US national security adviser, was frantically phoning last weekend to try to gauge how to prevent the collapse of the Mubarak regime.
It could days, maybe even weeks, before the future of the Egyptian government is decided, and with it, the relationship with the US. But one thing is clear: the Egyptian protesters are well aware of the close ties between officials in Cairo and Washington and not happy about the US training and tear gas shells supplied to the Egyptian military. Crowds gathered in Liberation Square last week chanted: "Hosni Mubarak, Omar Suleiman, both of you are agents of the Americans." The protesters believe that the billions in military aid that kept Mubarak in power have helped him keep democracy from flowering in Egypt.
There are no official numbers of casualties. United Nations estimates include 300 dead and 3,000 wounded. The Egyptian government estimates 8 dead and 900 injured, though officials from Cairo hospitals counted 45 deaths. Other estimates suggest that 5,000 people may have been injured since the start of the protests.
As they gathered in force for an 11th straight day, anti-government demonstrators spotted an unexpected face in their midst in Tahrir Square: Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, the Egyptian defense minister.
"The army and the people are united!" crowds shouted hopefully after his presence was announced Friday afternoon on a loudspeaker. Tantawi mingled with some of his troops and chatted with protesters, telling them that they had made their point and urging them to go home. But his presence underscored the degree to which both President Hosni Mubarak and the people calling for his head are counting on the country's military leadership to secure Egypt's political future, even if neither is sure where its loyalties will end up.
The 470,000-strong Egyptian military is far more than just a defense-related institution; like the Chinese military, it controls a wide array of factories, hotels and businesses, and its generals constitute a stratum of Egypt's elite.
"Egyptian military officers are in the upper echelon of society," said one former U.S. general with extensive experience in the Middle East and Egypt who spoke on the condition of anonymity to preserve his relationships in the region. "The biggest question for the Egyptian military is whether or not there will be a whole-scale change in the Egyptian elite, because the senior military officers are so much a part of that elite. . . . They may be indifferent on whether Mubarak stays or leaves."
But current and former U.S. officials described the Egyptian General Staff as fairly unified in its support of Mubarak. "If you are a general in the Egyptian army, you are beholden to Mubarak. You were handpicked by Mubarak," said a former U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he still consults with the Egyptian armed forces. "What you have is bureaucrats who were promoted because they were good managers and were loyal to Mubarak and Tantawi."...
Last weekend, when Mubarak reshuffled his cabinet in a failed attempt to defuse the protests, he elevated his old ally to the rank of deputy prime minister.
Since then, Obama administration officials have assiduously urged Tantawi to avoid an army crackdown against the protesters. His counterpart at the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, has called him four times, most recently on Friday.
At the same time, other U.S. officials have repeatedly delivered the same message to Lt. Gen. Sami Enan, Egypt's chief of the armed forces, in the hopes that the military can gently maintain a measure of stability amid attempts to usher Mubarak out of office....
U.S. officials say they are reluctant to cut off military aid right now, as some analysts and lawmakers have suggested, because they think the Egyptian military has mostly acted well and remained neutral in the conflict.
If Mubarak were forced from office, some Egypt analysts speculated that Enan would probably leave his post as well. "He is too close to Mubarak to stay," said Gawdat Bahgat, a professor at National Defense University in Washington who has worked extensively with Egyptian officers attending the school.
Some senior U.S. officials, however, view Enan as a trusted partner. Retired Army Lt. Gen. R. Steven Whitcomb, who oversaw joint exercises with the Egyptian military while stationed in the Middle East, invited Enan and his wife to his home at Fort McPherson in Atlanta for a private dinner in 2007. According to Whitcomb, Enan complained about the effect that budget cuts were having on the military as the Mubarak administration dealt with political and economic problems.
Despite the cuts, U.S. officials said that the Egyptian military continued to function well. "Their equipment was old, but pretty well maintained," Whitcomb said.
Others played down the roles of Enan and Tantawi as Egypt moves forward. "Enan is a figurehead. He really doesn't matter," said the former U.S. military official....
The former U.S. general doubted that the Egyptian military would be able to work closely with a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. "They have been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since 1952," he said. "Sometimes they have tried to reach an accommodation with them. But it has never worked. There are deep scars between the two."
Despite this history of antagonism, analysts said that cooperation was not out of the question. "The Egyptian army will accept the Muslim Brotherhood because it has no other choice," said Bahgat, the National Defense University professor. "The Egyptian army is the best-organized institution in Egypt. The Muslim Brotherhood is the best-organized political group. They must work together."
Indeed, leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have spoken favorably in recent days about Enan, saying they would support his taking a role on a "transition council" that would govern until elections can be held...
So little seems to be known about the Muslim Brotherhood that it's unclear to me whether outsider (non-Egyptian) views of them are based in fact or colored by fear of the unknown. American officials, specifically, seem uncomfortable about dealing with a group that the US does not control and that has been opposed to Mubarak for decades. Is this discomfort justified?
...The threat of the long-outlawed Brotherhood, the great-grandfather of every jihadist and Islamic fundamentalist movement in the Middle East, is the key reason why the United States and most European countries have continued to support Hosni Mubarak and his kind for decades. It's the reason, according to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's spokesman, why Canada rather shockingly continued to support Mr. Mubarak this week. Mr. Mubarak himself continues to warn that, after his demise, a deluge of Islamist ÒchaosÓ will follow, somehow worse than the chaos he'd unleashed.
What happens when Islamist parties gain power? First, we should ask what happens when they're explicitly denied power. And we know that outcome. When these popular movements are repressed, as Egypt has done brutally for six decades, the frustrated adherents have switched to non-political, violent means: All jihadist movements, including al-Qaeda, were born as responses to this frustration. You can draw a direct line between the crushing of the Brotherhood and the attacks of 9/11.
When these parties are allowed a role in democratic government, there's a pattern. Remember, however alarming their ideas about women and Israel, the Muslim Brotherhood and its neighbouring parties represent the people who explicitly rejected the violent option (and were shunned and sometimes attacked for this by the jihadists) because they wanted a place in a legitimate government. There's zero chance of Egypt's uprising turning into the 1979 Iranian revolution or the terrorist violence of Hamas; there are no parties, and no Egyptian constituency of any size, seeking a theocracy.
ÒThese parties definitely reject the Iranian model,Ó George Washington University political scientist Nathan Brown told me. ÒFirst, the Muslim Brotherhood is against a theocratic state or any role for clerics Ð it's led by a university professor of veterinary medicine. And second, they prefer to work within a pluralist system. Their slogan is, ÔWe seek participation, not domination.' The idea of creating an Islamic state does not seem to be anywhere near their agenda.Ó...
The most prominent example is Turkey, whose governing Justice and Development Party (AKP) began as an illegal Islamist movement but then, seeking electoral credibility, purged its sharia faction and won a majority. It has ruled for nearly a decade as an aggressively pro-European government that has co-operated with Israel and has done more for women's rights than its secularist predecessors. Its leaders tell me they are ÒIslamic in the same way that Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Party is Christian.Ó
The Muslim Brotherhood insists that Mubarak must leave the presidency; if he does, they are willing to be involved in discussions of the next government. However, they have said they have no ambitions toward the presidency and do not plan to field a candidate for a September election.
In an interview with German media, the deputy leader of the Muslim Brotherhood said the government is explicitly responsible for the violence against protesters.
The government alone is responsible for the chaos. I swear that the Muslim Brotherhood has not called for violence and will not do so,' al-Bayoumi, 76, told the weekly Spiegel news magazine.
He said the radical Islamic group had four key demands - regime change, new elections, the release of political prisoners and the formation of a transition government representing all opposition parties.
The Muslim Brotherhood had not yet met with government or army representatives, he said, adding that the revolution would continue until their demands were met.
Al-Bayoumi insisted that the Muslim Brotherhood was taking part in the mass popular protests across the country, but deliberately maintaining a low profile.
'We don't want this revolution to be presented as a revolution of the Muslim Brothers, or an Islamic revolution. This is a popular uprising of all Egyptians.
Western fears of an Islamist Egyptian state were unfounded, he added.
'We are no devils. We want peace, not violence. Our religion is no devilish religion. Our religion respects followers of other faiths, these are our principles,' al-Bayoumi insisted.
He said the regime of President Hosny Mubarak had deliberately misrepresented the Muslim Brotherhood, adding that they enjoyed support across the country.
The Revealer ran an excellent series of articles a while back on the meaning and uses of Shari'ah, which seeks to disentangle the multiple meanings and applications of a word that many Americans only encounter in connection with the law in strict Islamist regimes. There's more to it than that.
As I write this, Mubarak has resigned as head of the ruling NDP political party.
The ruling National Democratic Party is - for all practical purposes - no more. Egyptian TV has announced that President Hosny Mubarak has resigned as party leader. The NDP, which is the successor of a whole chain of ruling parties established after the Revolution of 1952, is inherently a party of the state, and it is almost impossible to conceive its existence in any meaningful form, once it loses that essential raison d'etre. Moreover, the NDP's top leading body resigned en masse.
Reformist Hossam Badrawi, replaces Safwat El Sherif, the General Secretary of NDP and Gamal Mubarak the head of the party's policies committee. The new secretary general of the party is seen as a member of the reformist liberal wing of the party.
Badrawi is a member of the board of directors of the NDP and chairs the Business Secretariat. He is also one eight members comprising the Policy Secretariat and chairs its Education Sub-Committee and co-supervises its Health Sub-Committee....
How much of a reformer is Badrawi? Is this actually a reform or just more of the same? And who will really be in charge? Where does Egypt's relationship with the United States go now?