Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt on my mind

This is not going to be some in-depth analysis. Rather, it is just some general observations. I'm not entirely happy with the clarity or insight of what follows, some of which may prove in a rather short time to be jaw-droppingly naive, but it's what I have now.

The first thing is to point out, as others have, that what happened in Egypt was essentially and almost completely a nonviolent revolution. It was a revolution driven by emotion and passion, by courage and commitment, and not by guns or murder or bombings; indeed, its nonviolence stood firm even in the face of the murderous violence of the state and even on that one day and night of stones and Molotov cocktails being tossed back and forth it did not allow itself to lose so much control as to enable the state to justify the imposition of the most massive official repression. It was a demonstration of precisely what is so often denied: the power of the people, the power of unarmed determination, the power yes of nonviolence. Watching this unfold has been, well, frankly exhilarating.

At the same time I have to say that I am thoroughly sickened by hearing praise for the nonviolence of the demonstrators come out of the mouths of those who have been the architects of so much violence, the authors of so much blood, violence against the people of Iraq, of Afghanistan, of Pakistan; of hearing that praise come from those who preferred "stability" above freedom until it was politically inconvenient, who have coddled and condoned dictators (who were, we were told, not even really dictators), who have endorsed and financed the oppressors and the occupiers.

But enough of that for now. The important question, the one that actually matters, is what now? What happens in Egypt, what happens to the hopes and ideas and ideals of the protestors?

There is still a huge "if" hanging over the whole situation. The army, which took power when Mubarak was forced out by the protests, has in the wake of his downfall repeatedly done things or made statements that can be seen as encouraging or ominous depending on how you want to interpret them, and so far there simply is not enough experience of this new situation to favor one such view over the other.

For example, the army ruling council has promised elections within six months - which is actually a fairly short time line given that it requires a new, even if interim, constitution and more importantly, if the elections really are going to be free and fair, political parties and groupings that have been repressed for so long will need some time to get organized and establish a presence in order to effectively campaign.

On the other hand, six months is more than enough time for the military to establish a direct and firm grip on the country if it is of a mind to, something Robert Fisk fears is already happening. Additionally, it is easy to read a sinister meaning into the army's statement that
it intends to retain power for six months or longer while elections are scheduled and will rule by decree,
the phrase "or longer" being a loophole more than big enough to drive a military dictatorship through, especially one that has spent those months ruling by decree.

Combine that with the calls for "stability" and a declared intention to crack down on those the army accuses of creating "chaos and disorder" ("Plus ├ža change?" Fisk asks.) while effectively banning strikes and you have more than enough reason for concern.

Yet it must be said that the people of Egypt largely trust and respect the military and welcomed many of the moves, such as suspending the constitution and dissolving Mubarak's rubber-stamp parliament. I think it can be reasonably said that when the military declares that it fully intends to hand over control to a civilian government, most Egyptians honestly believe it. And, being as fair as I can, it should be noted that during the protests the military on the whole - not completely, surely, as there were several reports of the military arresting and even torturing protestors and turning them over to the police, but the qualified "on the whole" - tried to avoid taking sides. Which tells us little about longer-term intentions, but does at least suggest that the army is not particularly interested in being responsible for running the country, preferring its politically (and for officers, personally) comfortable role of "respected defender of the nation" to a "new boss, just like the old boss" status. It suggests, putting it another way, that the army is prepared to back up the state, but is not so much interested in formally being the state.

On the other other hand, some of the protestors are not satisfied, angry over the retention of Mubarak's cabinet and upset at the lack - at least so far - of civilian participation in the transition planning. Some of the organizers are trying to set up a civilian council to deal with the military and establish civilian control of the changeover. In the meanwhile, some protestors - I have seen numbers ranging from "hundreds" to "a few thousand" - have sworn to remain in Tahrir Square and continue to protest until there is civilian rule. Military attempts to push them out caused some scuffling but the BBC said this afternoon that "the situation on the square has become a good-natured standoff." Which again can be seen as either damning (the army tried to push them out) or encouraging (it's reluctant to push really hard).

(A related point here which I don't think I've seen mentioned elsewhere - although I'm sure it has been - is drawn from something I wrote in a post about Egypt sometime last century, i.e., about two weeks ago: Middle-ranking officers appeared to sympathize with the protestors while soldiers on the ground freely mingled unarmed among the crowds in the square. Does the upper echelon of the military really have complete confidence that if it did order a mass crackdown that it would not face some form of rebellion from within its own ranks?)

At this point, while I'm not as sure as I was about declaring that Mubarak was on the way out, I have a fair degree of confidence that the military will be true to its word and that a civilian government will emerge. Besides wanting to cling to a Pollyanna moment - I have few enough of them - the baseline reason is that the military has no reason to fear any threat to its position or its members (particularly, as always, high-ranking officers) from a civilian government. It has not been connected in the public mind with the repression and cruelties of the past decades and there is no reason to expect any investigations or prosecutions. So I don't see where the military would see any gain, any advantage, in retaining direct power with all the hassles of dealing with an energized citizenry and the undermining of public respect and confidence that would entail.

I think another week or two will tell the story. Does the military forcibly clear Tahrir Square? Does it aggressively break strikes? Or do the "good-natured standoffs" continue? Perhaps most significantly in the short-term, there have been calls for protests on Friday to continue to press for a rapid move to civilian government and to complain about the retention of Mubarak's cabinet. If those protests look like they are going to be large, what does the military do? Does it try to repress them? Disrupt them? Or not? If that civilian council comes together, does the army talk to it? Or not?

The move for change in Egypt has scored a major, potentially an historic, victory for sheer people power. But the cause is not complete and the song has not reached its coda. Perhaps the best source of hope is that I am quite sure that the people of Egypt know that.

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