Friday, February 11, 2011

The Egyptian people have toppled Mubarak, an extraordinary moment, but the regime has not been toppled, not yet.

The military has taken power, but in reality the military has--even since the 1952 coup-- held the balance of power in Cairo.

The Egyptian military has always lurked in the shadows of the Egyptian regime. The levers of influence were seldom exposed to view.  Yet, when senior civilian politicos, such as Osama al-Baz, reflected on the regime and its prospects for reform, they often pointed to the powerful role of the generals and vetoes they held in their back pockets.  For years, as expectations grew that Husni Mubarak's son Gamal would succeed his father, it was the military veto that thwarted him. 

Now the power of the generals is in the sunlight.  There are some reasons to be optimistic: the army generally showed commendable discipline in its response to the last three weeks of demonstrations, and the demonstrators--whether intuitively or shrewdly--embraced the soldiers; the officer corps is highly professional, promotions are based on merit not connections, and no officer or soldier wishes to be seen as an oppressor of the nation that it is pledged to defend; a skilled group of opposition figures is poised to negotiate a transition, and the Ikhwan have wisely forged consensus with the non-Islamist elements while also remaining in the background; and, the actions and misactions of the military will be in full international view.

Nonetheless, the senior officers have a big stake in the existing system, not least economic interests.  In retirement, many senior officers move to industries dominated by the military, and others move into the thriving private sector.  But many others infiltrate the civilian branches of government.  They will want to protect their prerogatives.  The military leadership will prove cautious about dramatic changes, and they will be nervous about permitting a powerful civilian government to challenge their privileges, or hold officers accountable for their misdeeds. The deep suspicion of the Ikhwan will not be erased, so the generals will want to be assured that the Ikhwan (still an illegal entity) will gain no more than a marginal role in politics. 

When Presidential elections are held, you can be sure that the military will have satisfied itself that its interests will not be jeopardized.  It is too early to determine who all the contenders for the Presidency will be, but it is now clear that Amre Mossa, is a front runner.  He is widely respected, and, indeed, is a man of integrity.  He was the popular Foreign Minister of Egypt, so popular that Mubarak that "promoted" him to become Secretary General of the Arab League in order to keep him well distant from Egyptian politics.  But a lot may happen in a year of transition, and many secrets will be exposed, so keep your bets in your pocket for now.
Read more on this article...

Sunday, February 6, 2011



A powerful regime, facing a rare moment of vulnerability, is all of a sudden interested in reform and willing to talk. It invites its arch-enemies to the negotiating table. But once the crowds are gone, what guarantee remains that the police state will not regroup and retrench and strike back with a vengeance?

Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman met with members of the opposition over the weekend. What remains unclear is if the Mubarak regime is sincerely extending an open hand of peace to the opposition, or trying to draw them in close enough so they can be slapped or lured into a trap. Is the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood a heartfelt bid to hear all sides or a plan to sow division in a protest that to date has been notable for being leaderless, secular, spontaneous and youthful?

Given the low esteem with which the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed in Israel, Europe and the US, extending an olive branch to the banned, radical opposition might seem paradoxical at first. But it is sometimes easier for entrenched power to deal with its arch-enemy, the enemy that it knows, and not only knows, but probably needs, as an existential doppelganger. On a certain functional level it may be easier for a ruthless power to deal with, if not respect, another ruthless, tightly organized entity, rather than deal with a random mass of peaceful moderates without a hierarchical political organization.

Certainly in other places, at other times, this paradoxical embrace of the opposite can be seen in effect. After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the US found it easier to work with Japan’s old wartime elite than the communists, pacifists and trade unionists who opposed Tokyo’s war on Asia. In recent decades, Beijing’s rulers have found it easier to engage the Communist Party of China’s arch-enemy represented by the KMT party on Taiwan, rather than deal respectfully with rag-tag individuals such as Liu Xiaobo, and many thousands of others, who demonstrated at Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Thus, what appears at first glance a gesture of inclusion on the part of the Egyptian regime might in fact be a bid to exclude the moderate core demonstrators and keep the focus on mutually antagonistic extremes instead.

Read more on this article...

Friday, February 4, 2011


Philip J Cunningham

Every uprising is different. But given shared human strengths and weaknesses, the dynamics of crowd behavior, crowd control, and crowd chaos play out in ways that strike a common chord. Having written about popular protest, cultural clashes and street marches in East Asia for two decades now, there are certain commonalities that come to fore as the events in Cairo, as reported by Al Jazeera and other Internet sources, unfold in real time on my computer screen.

-Truth is an early casualty of any conflict, and the media comes under pressure almost immediately. Competing media narratives diverge wildly, usually the storytelling of the government pitted against the storytelling of the protesters. Distortions to the truth range from outright lies and censorship, to mudslinging, misdirection and deliberate prevarications. There is obfuscation and startling clarity. There are also moments of heartfelt expression, courageous calls for change and sometimes shocking clandestine reports from the frontlines of the conflict.

-Television stations are a coveted resource for those seeking political control. State television, even when it is reduced to producing propaganda, is such an effective transmitter of information, (including mis-information, mis-direction, taboos and telling silences) in regards to an escalating crisis that it can inadvertently help fan the flames of nationwide protest. Even when the details of a mass incident in progress are garbled or distorted by heavy-handed censorship, the fingerprints of the heavy-handedness are visible for all to see. The odd, Orwellian quality of manipulated news, what with its revved up nationalistic fervor, glaring contradictions, threatening reassurances and a rather too loud pleading of innocence, is politically charged enough to betray meta-truths about the abject nature of the regime.

-Reporters and citizen Journalists are at risk. Be it for their truth-telling capacity or simply a vengeful way of blaming the messenger, journalists often get roughed up as public disturbances unfold. Journalists are detained and denied access to key locations, often in the name of safety. Western journalists are especially easy to find as they tend to hole up in luxury hotels where they are subject to surveillance, harassment, and confiscation of film, memory chips, cameras, etc.

-Al Jazeera TV. The upstart TV station based in Qatar has come of age, although it observes, like every news service on the earth, certain ground rules and avoids certain sensitive topics. Its unique take on world news is largely ignored by US cable TV providers, but luckily Al Jazeera Internet streaming can reach a truly global audience, providing a service to viewers whose television and cable service is tilted in favor of the national agendas of the traditional media giants such as CNN, BBC, Fox and ABC. In what might be understood as a backhanded compliment, Al Jazeera has been accused of meddling by the Egyptian government.

-The Internet. Online news services, specialist blogs, Twitter and social networking tools have helped get the story out as well. Advanced information technologies, and the costly, complex devices required to view the news on, are convenient when they work well, and they work especially well across borders at global distances, but remain largely out of the reach of the poor and can be rendered momentarily worthless when the plug gets pulled, as was the case in Egypt when the Internet was turned off. The technology itself is neutral, and there are various ingenious ways to get around blocking, but despite the freedom of expression hype, modern tools are no different from the printing press or radio in the sense that they can be used to further things good and bad and can be used to promote the cause of either side through skillful public relations and information control.

-Word of mouth. Fortunately, the information ecosystem is full of diverse platforms and incidental redundancies; if one technology fails, or is blocked, other ways of transmitting information remain. This includes everything from hardy, traditional technologies such as landline telephones and fax machines to hand-painted banners, chants, slogans and word of mouth.

-Rumors. Rightly or wrongly, rumors take the place of reliable information when reliable information is hard to come by. Rumors serve to excite people to action. The more severe information control at home, the more likely agitated citizens are to turn to the latest gossip on the street.

-Crowd dynamics. When a large crowd manages to gather and assemble, especially in an environment where political gatherings are generally banned and ruthlessly suppressed, success breeds success. If ten, a hundred, a thousand brave individuals get away with the impossible, it inspires others to follow.

-Something in the air. When a large crowd asserts itself in public space and coalesces on symbolic ground, a window is opened to possible political change, an opportunity not normally evident. An indefinable “something in the air,” combined with concrete opportunities for assembly, adequate channels for expression and a broad consensus that change is desirable if not necessary, helps kick-start a major public uprising. When this takes the form of staking out contested ground in the heart of the capital its significance is magnified in a way that enables a crowd to grow exponentially. Under the natural evolution of such circumstances, the crowd is likely to be diverse and composed of people from all walks of life.

-Safety in numbers. When the numbers soar to the hundred of thousands, not only do individual members of the crowd begin to feel uncannily safe –however illusory that protective aura might be – but it gives rise to a sense that a historic turning point is at hand. Suddenly, due to a confluence of rising frustration, mutual reinforcement, strength in numbers and chance developments, there’s a perception that an unprecedented and largely unexpected overhaul to the status quo just might be possible. It’s a bid to hit society’s reset button.

TO CONTINUE READING, PLEASE CLICK HERE Read more on this article...

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hard truths in Hardtalk

posted by Philip Cunningham

There's a telling moment in the February 1, 2011 BBC Hardtalk interview when host Stephen Sackur asks US publisher and billionaire Mortimer Zuckerman if he supports democracy. He does but he doesn't. The non-verbal shift of gears is comical, but the subject itself is not. The hypocrisy brings to mind another wealthy publisher, self-styled human rights activist and opinion leader, Robert L. Bernstein, formerly of Random House, who recently attacked Human Rights Watch, a group he himself helped to found and fund, for having the temerity to criticize Israel.

An excerpt of the exchange below sums up an attitude that permeates America's "democratic" elite.

Sackur: Do you believe in democracy?

Zuckerman: Totally...

Sackur: Totally?

Zuckerman: Without question.

Sackur: In the Middle East?

Zuckerman: Ah, well, no. The Middle East.... Read more on this article...