Sunday, January 30, 2011

Days of rage in Egypt

Victor Kotsev

TEL AVIV - "It is unclear what is stirring beneath the surface of Egypt," wrote influential American think-tank Stratfor three weeks ago, analyzing the internal situation in Egypt in the wake of the church bombings that shook the country at the time. This is even more true today, after three days of sweeping protests against the government of President Hosni Mubarak. As of Thursday, different reports claimed that the death toll in the clashes was somewhere between four and seven, with numerous wounded and at least 860 arrested. Reliable data is difficult to come upon, since the situation is dynamic, government officials are tight-lipped, journalists have reported facing restrictions, and social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have been partially disabled at times.

By Thursday night, some human-rights groups were reporting more than 2,000 arrested.

The demonstrations started on Tuesday - a holiday in honor of the police. They were inspired by the events in Tunisia, where authoritarian president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali was ousted this month in a popular uprising. According to The New York Times, the protests were driven by "Egyptian youth" rather than by the traditional opposition [1] - another parallel with Tunisia.

"We want to see change, just like in Tunisia," one demonstrator, 24-year-old Lamia Rayan, said, quoted by the Associated Press. Following the example of Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation set off the revolt against Ben Ali, a number of people have attempted to set themselves on fire in Egypt in recent days and weeks.

Early Tuesday, the demonstrations were largely peaceful, and the police showed unusual restraint. However, after tens of thousands of protesters calling for Mubarak's resignation poured into Cairo's Tahrir (Liberation) Square in the afternoon, this changed and clashes subsequently erupted in several cities.

In the next days, the demonstrations continued, albeit in lesser numbers. Violence was reported in many places, with rumors of particularly heavy clashes on Thursday in the city of Suez. Also on Thursday, Egypt's foremost democratic reformer, Nobel Peace Price recipient Mohamed ElBaradei, returned from self-imposed exile in Austria to lead the protests.

Friday is expected to be a critical day. As a rule in the Muslim world, Friday is a particularly propitious day for demonstrations, since most men gather in mosques for midday prayers, and can fairly easily be incited to take to the streets by the clergy. The Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the most powerful opposition movement in the country, had so far refrained from throwing its full weight behind the protests.

However, on Thursday evening this changed, and the group announced that Friday "will be the general day of rage for the Egyptian nation". This is an ominous sign, further boosted by the presence of ElBaradei as a leader of the secular wing of the opposition.

It is hard to predict what exactly will happen. Many observers remain confident that Mubarak, with the help of his well-organized security services, will weather the storm. On Tuesday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described his government as "stable", even as she called for restraint and reforms.

That the Egyptian president will come out on top seems to be also the conclusion of most analysts in neighboring Israel, where the affair is attracting a lot of attention, even as the government tries to stay away for it (excessive comments can lend support to conspiracy theories about Israel's meddling in the internal affairs of Egypt).

Still, an Israeli cabinet minister commented for the Israeli Ha'aretz daily newspaper on Thursday on condition of anonymity: "[Mubarak's] regime is well-rooted in the military and security apparatus ... They will have to exercise force, power in the street and do it. But they are strong enough according to my assessment to overcome it."

Israeli tourist groups, moreover, continue to arrive in Cairo - a positive sign that the government is not too worried for the moment.

On Thursday, one tourist, Dov Nahari, shared with Ynet that from the ground, reports in the international media seemed overblown. "We were a bit fearful while watching TV in Israel, but we overcame our fears," he said. "We are standing now before the pyramids and the Sphinx along with thousands of tourists from all over the world, so this fear has been completely allayed ... There are cops everywhere, but everything is great."

Some analysts, however, are less certain. For example, in a report on Thursday, Stratfor draws parallels to the situation to that in Iran in 1979. Marc Lynch writes in his Foreign Policy blog: "The scenes in Cairo [Tuesday] stand as a sharp rebuke to any analytical certainty. The Egyptian regime was fully prepared, its security forces on alert and deployed, the Internet disrupted and al-Jazeera largely off the table... and yet tens of thousands of people still poured into the streets and put together one of the largest demonstrations in contemporary Egyptian history."

Indeed, Mubarak is facing unprecedented levels of discontent. Such gross violations were reported during the parliamentary elections last November [2] that the main opposition parties (including the Muslim Brotherhood) withdrew from the second round and were consequently left without representation. The attacks on Christian churches a month ago underscore the tensions and radicalization inside the country. [3]

The poverty levels are appalling. In the past two years, the global economic crisis impacted Egypt adversely, and the current government was widely seen as too slow to react. According to Ha'aretz, "Egypt's population of some 80 million is growing by 2 percent a year. Two thirds of the population is under 30, and that age group accounts for 90 percent of the jobless. About 40 percent live on less than $2 a day, and a third is illiterate."

On top of this, there is a succession struggle in the country as 82-year old Mubarak tries to arrange the transition of power after he steps down. There are rumors that his original plan to have his son Gamal succeed him encountered heavy resistance from the army, and he has been looking for a compromise.

Stratfor believes that there is a hidden force behind the demonstrations, and this side plot motivates one of the think-tank's main hypotheses. According to Stratfor:

What we have to find out is who is behind this. It could be the military wanting to stage a coup to keep Gamal Mubarak out of power. They would be doing this to preserve the regime, not to overthrow it. They could be using the demonstrations to push their demands and perhaps pressure Hosni Mubarak to leave voluntarily ... It could also be the Muslim Brotherhood organizing quietly. Whoever it is, they are lying low, trying to make themselves look weaker than they are - while letting the liberals undermine the regime, generate anti-Mubarak feeling in the West, and pave the way for whatever it is they are planning.

Not everybody would agree with this interpretation; the analysis of The New York Times sings the praises of "an unpredictable third force, the leaderless tens of thousands of young Egyptians who turned out to demand an end to Mr Mubarak's 30-year rule."

Regardless, it is important to pay close attention to the structure of the demonstrations and the cohesion between the different groups that make up the protesters.

There is another parallel with Iran (besides Stratfor's reference to 1979) that might help us understand what is going on in Egypt. In a story for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting titled Why Tunisia can but Iran can't (Asia Times Online, January 21, 2011), Ali Reza Eshraghi argues that in 2009, Iran's government avoided the fate of Ben Ali because in the Islamic Republic, there was no clear enemy and no unity in the opposition. "Paradoxically," he writes, "it is the widespread and divergent nature of dissatisfaction that allows the regime to carry on."

Whether Egypt will follow the path of Iran (2009) or Tunisia (2011), may thus depend in large part on whether the protesters will be able to form a broad coalition united behind well-defined goals. Both the secular and the religious opposition have issued conciliatory statements, but it is uncertain how much they trust each other, or how much their agendas can overlap. The decision of the Muslim Brotherhood to join the fray with full force could be a crucial test for their unity and a make or break moment for the protests.

1. Egyptian Youths Drive the Revolt Against Mubarak, The New York Times, January 26.
2. How the Egyptian Elections Were Rigged: An Up-Close (And Personal) Look at the Madness, The New Republic, November 29, 2010.
3. Egypt and the Destruction of Churches: Strategic Implications, Stratfor, January 4, 2011.

Victor Kotsev is a journalist and political analyst based in Tel Aviv.

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