Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egypt at a crossroads

It is coming up on Day Three of the running street fights and protests against the government in Egypt. Unhappiness has been a way of life there for decades, to some extent, but no large political movements have ever effectively tapped into the dissatisfaction to produce a meaningful opposition to President Hosni Mubarak's functional autocracy... at least no movements intent on peaceful change. But now, somehow, protests as large as several hundred people are breaking out in several cities... and they appear to be genuinely spontaneous. That's not real big, but... since they have been sustained in the face of repression by the authorities, the day will soon come where the Egyptian 'street' will rise up alongside them. Then there will be a real challenge to the continuation of the regime. The problem with that is three-fold:

. The Mubarak regime has had an absolute lock on power. That means that the security forces are (at least for now) completely loyal and more than willing to use force to break up demonstrations. Arrests of over 700 people for demonstrating are known as of now, with some reports claiming up to twice that many in custody. For those used to the Western idea of "bust 'em, cite 'em, and release 'em" regarding political protesters, it may come as a shock to learn that the Egyptians hew to the old fashioned idea of dropping the arrested into crowded holding cells and pretty much forgetting about them until the courts get around to hearing their cases, on some pretty serious charges, perhaps weeks later. This is great while the regime is winning; it makes problems disappear. When the popular tide turns, however, having a reputation as inhumane brutes actually makes it morally easier for the masses to start taking reprisals and that leads to lots of streetlamp decorations, if you know what I mean.

.. Because the only opposition of note prior to this has been Islamists of the Moslem Brotherhood, and many of the more motivated Islamists have taken up arms against the government in previous uprisings, the authorities have placed a nearly complete ban on such groups and considers any sign of them reason to pull back the police and send in the Army. In its own way, that's almost reasonable. The gunbattles during the last couple of insurrections have been legendary in ferocity and that's going to lead to a "take no prisoners" approach by the authorities if for no other reason than self-preservation. The Islamists, of course, take this as a challenge. But that all means that the most organized source of any opposition to the government is also the one group that no friend of democracy would ever want to get close to gaining power. (cf. HAMAS in Gaza, which is by the way the Gaza branch of the Moslem Brotherhood)

... Other than that, again because the Mubarak regime has had absolute power for so long, there really is no one of any stature within the country to take the lead of a political (rather than revolutionary) opposition to the government. Moreover, if the "Opposition" ever did bring down the House of Mubarak, there is no one with any meaningful experience in governance to form a new administration. This opens the door to one of two kinds of opportunists: The Outsider and The Man on a White Horse.

The Outsider of record, right now, is former United Nations functionary Mohamed ElBaradei. Typical of Outsiders, he is far better known through foreign media than at home, which means his supporters are foreigners too... virtually no one in Egypt likely has the slightest idea what M. ElBaradei has been doing the last couple of decades, and it is a fair bet that most Egyptians wouldn't even be able to put a face to his name. Note to foreigners reading this, by the by... M. ElBaradei is no friend of the West. He spent most of his years at IAEA covering up for Pakistani and Iranian misdeeds and feathering his own bed. This is not the kind of fellow that "the International Community" should be speaking favorably of.

Which leaves us with... The Man on the White Horse... the typical military commander or poseur to such that feels the disorder simply can't be tolerated, for the good of the nation don't you know, who then 'rides' into public view at the head of what is either a coup or a counter-revolution. Sadly, this is one area where Egypt has far too much recent experience: Both G. Nasser and A. Sadat gained access to power through a takeover(in the Revolution of 1952), although Sadat remained in the Vice Presidency until Nasser has the good manners to die and leave the office as an inheritance. H. Mubarak himself got the job by having been Sadat's Vice President... when Sadat was assassinated. Men from the military succeeding men from the military, albeit with the cloth of political office draped over their uniforms. Might be time to be checking the lists of Vice President (nope: there isn't one. the office is vacant) and Chiefs of each branch of the military (maybe: a couple of names come to mind) to see who is next in line seniority and reputation-wise.

Because the real enormity of this isn't going away even *if* the Mubarak regime crushes all dissent this time...

Hosni Mubarak has been in power for 29 years. He's 82 years old.

...and other than some trial-balloon-floating on behalf of his second son Gamal, there is no one currently clearly in line to succeed. Even the possibility of G. Mubarak stepping up has taken a hit today as reports are he has fled the country, bound for Britain, with his family and a couple boxcars-worth of luggage. (The government, of course, denies that happened.) That looks more like 'getting out with the loot' than getting ready to take power...

So hang on to your hats, folks; it looks like Egypt is in for one heck of a ride.

Here's hoping for the emergence of a genuine secular and democratic opposition movement, and a bright future for Egypt. 'Till I see that, though, I'd advise planning for the country to face a bit more dark and troubled times.

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