Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt and Tunisia

One of the major developments thus far overlooked by this blog has been the successful Internet organized protest movements in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen.  Thus far, Tunisia's Ben Ali has been forced into exile in France while similarly long-serving despots Hosni Mubarak and Ali Abdullah Saleh have both agreed to step down.  The use of communications technology as a mechanism for mass organization of protesters has been particularly impressive - especially in Tunisia where controls upon the Internet have been semi-draconian.

Indeed, despite numerous previous protest movements in opposition to autocratic governments in the Middle East and North Africa, one wonders if these protests would have been nearly as successful in their aims.  The Arab world in certainly no stranger to effective protest movements - even before mass dissemination of communications technology, decentralized and rapidly responsive protest movements have seen some success - as was the case of the first Palestinian Intifada, well-documented in Thomas X. Hammes' The Sling and the Stone.  Hammes' a retired marine colonel, characterizes these types of protest movements as '4th generation' asymmetrical warfare. it is clear that the implementation of technology has further allowed for mass resistance, and preferably for more responsive, pluralistic and democratic governments to come.

The motivations for these resistance movements are interesting in and of themselves. In both cases, shame in response to potential international denigration following revelations about corruption seem to be pressing.  In Tunisia, the prevalent story seems to be that, while Ben Ali was long known to be debauched, it was the exposure of his corruption to the outside world (via the WikiLeaks diplomatic leaks) that motivated Tunisians, largely to save face, to seek his immediate removal.  This was a link drawn by Gaddafi in neighboring Libya, who ever desiring to shackle his fortunes to a proven 'winner', apparently viewed the leaks as 'diabolic' and has stated his support for Ali after Ali had been removed to Paris.  So much for playing to populist sympathies of Tunisians for the colonel then.

As Mubarak's withering regime writhes and grasps for the remaining tendrils of power, largely by visiting violence upon protesters, there remain several pertinent points about Egypt that are worth keeping in mind.  Firstly, the United States has a hand in supporting the Egyptian regime.  We subsidize Mubarak to the tune of around $1.5 billion annually, largely to placate the Egyptian government and insure that it remains on civil terms with Israel and ostensibly to fight creeping "Islamic extremism", most specifically the Muslim Brotherhood.  While some percentage of this money disappears into Swiss bank accounts and the like, some of it has gone to strengthen the military, largely to the detriment of the Egyptian people.  Further, the United States has provided many of the sinews of repression currently being employed by the regime.  The American stance should be one of understanding with Egyptian protesters, less we risk the venom of whatever government succeeds Mubarak.

Secondly, Egypt remains firmly dependent upon outside aid to both feed it's economy (tourism and shipping through the Suez Canal being key) as well as to feed it's population, with Egypt importing nearly 40% of it's food.  This means that, even if a new regime is made up of largely Muslim Brotherhood members, who despite being an illegal organization under the current regime, has it's ranks largely filled with educated professionals, and as a result, is likely to take positions of moderation.  Egypt is dependent on it's interactions with the rest of the World and no regime would be foolish enough to damn the whole of the population.

The Muslim Brotherhood has shifted radically from it's ideology following the state execution of Sayyid Qutb, who according to Adam Curtis (in the excellent The Power of Nightmares mini-series) represents the ideological father of modern Islamic reactionary thought.  Indeed, even the Islamism of Qutb called for ongoing Western-style scientific and technological advancement in the Arab world while simultaneously embracing Islamic legal codes. These Islamic legal norms have their roots in the Ottoman Empire and have historically been a perceived source of fair arbitration in the face of despotic rule, hence the reason for their popularity even among many more secular Arabs.  As a result, even an Islamic regime in Egypt is likely not to be feared and is likely to continue to support modernization efforts.

Thirdly, Egypt is undergoing demographic and humanitarian upheaval.  Much of Egypt - like Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria Libya and elsewhere in North Africa and the wider Arab World - is under 25.  This population is currently of reproductive age and underemployed.  Urban development and infrastructure remain heavily lacking for many Egyptians and large-scale informal squatter and slum settlements represent standard living conditions for many.  One of the reasons for Nasser's ongoing popularity in Egypt has little to do with foreign policy - despite nationalisation of the Suez Canal, Nasser's legacy includes, after all a quagmire in Yemen and terrible losses incurred during the 1967 Six-Day War - and has more to do with his emphasis in investment in the Egyptian population, in both infrastructure and education that saw living standards rise for many.

Given this failure of infrastructure and of despotic governments within North Africa and the wider Arab World to provide adequate services for their citizens, these protests should be viewed as a restoration of civil society.  Denizens of these countries have seen their talents squandered and living conditions deteriorate under the heels of frequently Western-backed regimes that have served as vehicles of corruption and repression.  The West should seek to begin to rectify these errors by supporting the liberation struggles of those resisting today and who are asserting a desire for self-determination and for basic services.  

The movement in Egypt is one that is  popularly rooted and bottom-up and thus represents something radically different from the region transforming power fantasies of the Neo-Conservatives.  This series of popular rebellions across the Arab world has local and personal meaning and resonance to many of those agitating.  The mealy-mouthed, group-think derived real politique that is frequently advanced as sensible foreign policy serves only affluent Western States and fails to address the considerations that these protests are about.  With this emphasis on the restoration of civil society within the region at the heart of these protests, it would be deeply cynical to not extend solidarity to these protesters, whether what new comes of it is secular or Islamic.


MVK said...

Nice perspective, my friend. What do you forecast will happen in Libya as a result of this? And Syria?

Alex Deley said...

Lybia - who knows, people apparently rather like Qaddafi there, and his son looks to be introducing some meaningful reforms - perhaps an eventual transition to Democracy. On the other hand, Colonel Q seems worried - so who knows?

Similarly, I can't see Syria deteriorating simply because, as bad as Egypt gets, Assad is capable of a lot worse. The Hama Massacre comes to mind in which, following a challenge to his power, Assad had a whole town he had labeled as dissident surrounded and shelled into the ground. I think instability in Lebanon is a very real possibility - and that looked like civil war last time.