Friday, February 25, 2011

Reading Tea Leaves

            There are signs and portents in the Egyptian street for those who care to read them.  As any good scholar in the 13th century could have told you, however, signs and portents just like tea leaves don’t read themselves.  They need a skilled interpreter to uncover just what is hidden in the order of things.

            Walking back from today’s demonstration in Midan al-Tahrir on a different route than I usually take just how deeply embedded the truth of contemporary Egyptian reality might be (or then again might not be) in the geography of the downtown area.   I usually walk to and from the Midan by taking the Qasr al-Nil bridge which means that I pass near (but not exactly by) a large statue of Saad Zaghloul. Zaghloul was a prominent politician in the early 20th century.  He was a leader of the movement for independence movement, was exiled by the British, and served as the first prime minister heading a popularly elected majority government. He was a leading figure in the 1919 revolution, a massive movement for independence during which the British essentially lost control of the country for a month.

            Today I walked from my apartment to Midan al-Tahrir the regular way and noticed that, along with hundreds of thousands of Egyptians (and at least one of my foreign students) the army had returned tanks to both ends of the Qasr al-Nil bridge.  The checkpoints for entry into the square, however, were on the eastern side of the bridge and were manned by soldiers only rather than, as had been the case in the past, by ordinary citizens.  In point of fact the checking was less intrusive since it wasn’t necessary to show identity papers and the soldiers were mainly interested in checking bags. 

            The demonstration today was called a Friday for “purification” and for “solidarity.”  By purification, organizers meant the resignation of the existing government which was appointed by Hosni Mubarak although it has undergone some changes since.  By solidarity they meant an ongoing commitment to the sense of community that has powered events here.  Today also marked one month since the initial demonstration of January 25 that began the entire process we are still living through. 

            One reason for the importance of today’s demonstration is that for the time being there are really two forces at play in the country: the army which stands, broadly speaking, for order and the leadership of the January 25 movement which, broadly speaking, stands for mass mobilization.  To keep things moving forward it is, at least for now, important that when demonstrations are called lots of people do show up even not necessarily a million each time.  I’m not sure how many people were in Tahrir at the height of the events of the last month.  People came and went and the crowd expanded and contracted.  I’m quite comfortable with the idea that between 500,000 and 2 million people participated in the socalled “million person” events.  There were, it seemed to me, fewer people today than a week ago or two weeks ago.  Whole areas that were packed with people, tents, and aid stations were largely empty (for example, the entire stretch between the Metro station entrance on the southern side of the Midan and the Omar Makram mosque).  But there were a lot of people and the center of the square was packed so it’s clear that people are still motivated to show up and not just to buy flags, t-shirts, posters and the other paraphernalia of revolutionary commercialism which has been raising its head for the past two weeks. 

            One frequently overlooked aspect of the last month was clearly on display today: the Egyptian people have, at least for the time being, taken the right to assemble peaceably and remonstrate for redress of grievances for their own.  As far as I know it is still technically illegal for more than 5 people to assemble without a permit.  And as far as I know the government doesn’t really like the idea that it has to give up control over anything.  But at least for now the government has reconciled itself to the idea of “losing” control over the downtown square for a day.  To be honest even if nothing else comes of these events, this in and of itself is a significant and positive change for the people of Egypt.

            For those who worried because Yusuf al-Qaradawi gave the sermon last week, all I can say is that he didn’t come back this week for a smaller crowd.  One other well-known preacher also returned to Egypt this week for the first time in a decade: the television personality Amr Khalid.  Unlike Qaradawi who is a classically trained Islamic scholar (although to my mind not a terrifically intellectually interesting one), Khalid is a very popular television personality.  If Qaradawi is the Bishop Fulton J. Sheen of contemporary Islam, Amr Khalid is its Joel Ostrom (with all due apologies to those sensibilities are offended by my having crossed all the generational, cultural, and theological wires).  Amr Khalid did preach in a square but it was in Suhag, a town in Upper Egypt.

            So you can think of walking into Liberation Square as a trip from the 1919 revolution and its mass mobilization from the world of three piece suits, and the fez, and, celluloid collars, through the looking glass of the Nasserist revolution into the contemporary world).

            Besides being present at Tahrir in case I was re-called to duty in alternative revolutionary service, I also had to get some xeroxing done.  I waited for a bit until it was my turn in a small copying establishment.  The very self-important client before me was having them photocopy the text of the old constitution as well as notes of a meeting that had evidently been held sometime in the past.  While we were waiting a young man came in and asked him if he would write down a couple of necessary legal phrases on a piece of paper preliminary to some administrative action he was pursuing.  The young man knew neither what to write nor particularly how to write but had been told by someone that the man in front of me was an attorney who could help him.  You could see how little the attorney wanted to help.  He clearly didn’t want to get involved but couldn’t quite figure out how to refuse.  Finally he announced what his interlocutor wanted was really a personal issue and he had to go off and deal with the constitution which was something that concerned the country as a whole.  And with that, after having spent 15 minutes explaining to all and sundry the importance of the new constitution and what the committee to reform it was doing he suddenly gathered up his papers and stormed off, leaving his unhappy petitioner without any help whatsoever.

Statue of Saad Zaghloul

            As in many other quite casual interactions I’ve been in recently it’s clear both that the old ways in which an older and presumably more important man could simply refuse such a request are no longer fully operative.  And it’s also clear that everybody wants to get into the act of re-writing the constitution since a really important constitutional legal scholar would not have been standing around in a hole in the wall Xerox establishment off Midan al-Tahrir waiting to get his own copying done on a Friday afternoon.

            I went off to a nearby café to wait until my copying was finished and read the two papers I usually read every day.  After I picked up my copying I started to walk home past the now-closed “Greek campus” of the American University in Cairo down a fairly nondescript street, Yusuf al-Guindi.  As I first turned into Yusuf al-Guindi I realized I was walking past the apartment building in which the Egyptian communist attorney and labor leader Youssef Darwish had lived.  His entire generation is now gone, but their children and grandchildren continue to play a public role in contemporary life and I think I recently saw his daughter quoted in the press.

            Yusuf al-Guindi takes you past some remarkable European architecture of the early 20th century; big apartment blocks that look like they were transported nearly whole from Paris sometime around 1910.   Finally I reached Midan Talaat Harb where the famous (but no longer terrifically fashionable) Groppi’s café is located.  I haven’t been in either Groppi’s in years (there is another one, the socalled Garden Groppi, not far away which has become even more tired).  Nearby is the old Café Riche where in the 1970s it was possible to catch a glimpse of the famous (but not yet Nobel laureate) Naguib Mahfouz.  Café Riche isn’t even a functional restaurant anymore and certainly it’s no longer a place where the intelligentsia meet.  It’s easy to wax nostalgic about these places but in simple point of fact they no longer play the old role partly because tastes have changed but also partly because the new intellectuals are a much more diverse group without a single established place or two.  One may mourn the loss of the Algonquin Round Table in New York but we’re better off with a recognizably more diverse intellectual culture as well.

            If it’s no longer a prime area for intellectuals, there are some political forces in the Midan.  The offices of the man who challenged Husni Mubarak for the presidency in the 2005 elections, Ayman Nour, are there and while he was in prison on trumped up charges of voter fraud there was a huge banner in his defense hanging from one window.  Nearby is also the headquarters of the Tagammu party, which Anwar Sadat had allowed to come into existence in the 1970s as a leftist fig leaf for what amounted to a single party regime (with all due apologies to political science colleagues for whom arguments about “regime type” are very important and who might be inclined to call it a “dominant party” regime).  The Tagammu, like the Café Riche and Groppi’s, has been in slow decline for years and when it opposed participating in the January 25 demonstrations it abandoned what little credibility it might have had left after years of dancing back and forth with the regime.

Cafe Riche

            Midan Talaat Harb is graced with a large statue of the founder of Bank Misr and the patron saint of Egyptian industrialization, Talaat Harb.  Harb played a role not only in creating a nationalist bank but also national factories including a famous spinning and weaving plant in the Delta city of Mahallah al-Kubra as well as other industries.  Despite a tendency to look on the 1920s and 1930s as a kind of golden age of private enterprise, Harb (like many industrialists of the time) was only able to make his investments profitable to the extent that he had very high levels of government protection amounting to near-monopoly conditions.

            One interesting feature, if you’re interested in signs and portents, is that if Saad Zaghloul’s statue looks across the Qasr al-Nil bridge in the direction of Midan al-Tahrir, Harb is looking the other way.  He’s looking away from the Midan.  So if you want to see Harb as the avatar of capitalism and the market, that’s not very reassuring. 

            By an accident of placement Harb is looking further east.  In fact he’s looking further up Qasr al-Nil street.  And he’s looking more or less at another statue.  The statue he’s looking at is Mustafa Kamil, the young nationalist leader who died in 1908.  And Kamil, in a strange way, is something like the Facebook youth of his day; a strange and early echo in reverse of the Google executive Wa’il Ghonim.  Kamil was born in 1874 so he was 26 when he founded about the newest media of the time in Cairo: a newspaper. In 1900,  Al-Liwa’ (The Flag or The Standard) was not the first newspaper.  Al-Ahram had already been around for a quarter of a century but it was a passionate voice against injustice.  Kamil was a key figure publicizing the Dinshaway affair as an atrocity committed by the government (in this case the British Occupation)  against Egyptian peasants.  To make a longer story quite short, when peasants tried to prevent some British soldiers from shooting pigeons the soldiers opened fire.  Villagers were killed and injured and ultimately one soldier also died (of heat stroke).  Several villagers were tried for the “murder” of the dead soldier and others were jailed and flogged.  While harsh it is far from clear that the response of the British or the Egyptian government in this case was particularly unusual.

Statue of Mustafa Kamil

            Before his death in 1908 Kamil, among others, turned Denshaway into a rallying cry of the moral bankruptcy of the British regime.  As with the web-page “We are all Khaled Said” which transformed the murder of a young Alexandrian man into an indictment of an entire political order, Denshaway undermined the legitimacy of the old order.  Kamil died before the 1919 revolution but it seems quite plausible to see the events of 1919 as a result partly of the moral bankruptcy of the imperial state coupled with the economic crisis sparked by the war and the sudden belief that Egypt could, in the new international order promised by President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles conference, become an independent and liberal democracy.   And that the process would be one of more or less peaceful mass mobilization.  

            Whatever happens Egypt and Egyptians are looking in the 21st century, with some new tools, to try once again to accomplish long-standing goals.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Tariq al-Bishri and Constitutional Revision

            News that the Supreme Comittee of the Armed Forces has appointed the former judge of the State Council, Tariq al-Bishri,  as chair of a committee to re-write or revise the Egyptian constitution is remarkably important.  It may also provide some insight into what the military is thinking and what possibilities they are willing to consider.  For a process that we are only a couple of days into, this announcement itself is laden with historical meaning (and irony) as well as possible ambiguity.

            Given that the ongoing labor conflict and the army’s advice that it end quickly is capturing most of the commentary, I want to write about Al-Bishri himself.  Even as I write state television is providing its own account of what his appointment might mean. 

            The deepest irony which cannot be lost on anyone who has been following events and most of the Western accounts of them is that the armed forces have turned to an 80-year old public intellectual and judge to guide the task of re-writing the constitution for the 21st century in the wake of a revolution made by three generations removed from him.  What few accounts in English I have seen so far refer to him as a moderate Islamist, an honest figure, and a former secular leftist who is a “bridge” between secular political figures and the Muslim Brothers. 

            Bishri himself is a more complex figure whose familial and personal history are revelatory of changes in Egyptian society over the last century.  His grandfather served in the position of Shaykh al-Azhar, the most important religious position in the Egypt, at the beginning of the 20th century.  His father was on the Court of Cassation, the highest state appellate court in the 1930s.  He himself spent his entire working career in the State Council which is the highest administrative court in Egypt and is modeled on the French Conseil d’Etat.  There is, insofar as I know, no equivalent in the American legal system.  The job of the State Council is to ensure that the state follows its own rules.  It is not, at any rate not directly, supposed to rule on the constitutionality of laws in the way the US Supreme Court does.  It is supposed to make sure that the administrative actions of the state conform to the rules it has already set in place.   Although this is a somewhat different way of looking at the rule of law than the Anglo-American one we are used to, it can be a powerful tool for disciplining the executive power but only if there is indeed an independent judiciary.  Egypt, of course, also has a Supreme Constitutional Court and it appears that at least a couple of members of that body also sit on this committee.

            Although Al-Bishri entered his career in the 1950s after graduating from law school he is old enough to have memories of what my old professor Afaf Marsot called Egypt’s liberal experiment.  Thus one of the ironies of appointing an 80 year old to chair the reform committee is that no one much younger has any memory or experience with an Egypt that had a functioning parliament or a commitment, however limited, to liberal institutions.  Younger people do, of course, have experiences with such systems but not in Egypt; to the extent that they have experienced liberal democracy it has been outside the country whether in the US or Europe. 

            Bishri has been an acerbic critic of Husni Mubarak and his government.  In his presciently titled booklet, Egypt Between Disobedience and Decay, Bishri outlined how the creation of an authoritarian state rooted in Mubarak’s person had worsened the dictatorial tendencies that had been present since 1952 but had added the burden of decreased competence as the regime sought compliance rather than capability from its agents.  He also pointed out the extremely unequal income distribution that became increasingly prevalent in the society during Mubarak’s 30 years in power.

Bishri is widely considered a leading (if not the leading) public intellectual in Egypt today.  This is not to say everyone agrees with him and in recent years he has evoked some significant criticism for his involvement in some very public controversies about the role of Copts and especially the Church in Egyptian society. 

Bishri has served as an adviser to several groups of younger activists (and these days almost all activists are younger than he is) including Kifayah (Enough) which can be considered the point of departure of the groups that initiated and led the recent mass protests.  Although he is personally close to members of the Muslim Brothers (including the noted attorney Salim Al-Awa) and has a high opinion of their importance in Egyptian political history, he has (to my knowledge) never been a member.  He is often bracketed in Western accounts with others who are considered Islamic liberals such as Awa or the constitutional law professor Kamal Abu al-Magd who Mubarak, in the waning hours of his government, appointed to his own committee to oversee constitutional reform.  That committee now appears to be disbanded.

In his younger days, Bishri was closely associated with the left although he was influenced at least as much by the writings of Max Weber and lawyers associated with the British Labor party as by Karl Marx. One of Bishri’s earliest interventions on the organization of the Egyptian state was a short book published by the Communist publisher, New Culture, in the 1970s on democracy and Nasserism.  This may be why he is often viewed as a lapsed leftist, although his analysis of the Nasserist state set out the themes which have dominated much of his political criticism in the intervening years:  the dangers of a state without an independent judiciary and an overly power executive.  One point Bishri made then and has made in different ways since is that to the degree the legislative and executive branches are unified as has occurred in Egypt over the past 60 years the independence of the judiciary is also compromised.  In other words, without a separation of the powers of legislation and execution there can be no real power of adjudication except perhaps at the most elementary level of arbitrating private disputes.

Without knowing exactly what mandate the committee he chairs was given by the military, it is hard to be very specific.  Even television comment here today points out that al-Bishri has long been a champion of judicial independence.  It would be difficult for Bishri to refuse service on such a committee at such a moment but it is also difficult to imagine he would have accepted to serve merely as a figurehead.

One plausible guess therefore is that the committee will at least pose the possibility of a much stronger parliament as a counterweight (rather than an alternative) to a powerful presidency.  Bishri may be one of the few legal scholars who would favor a working separation of powers rather than lodging authority either in the presidency or the parliament.  Such a separation would, at least in what he has written across the years, be the prelude to an equally powerful but independent judiciary whose role would then be, as in the US, to balance these two contenders. 

Although al-Bishri may have ideas about the organization of the institutions of the state that bear similarities to the US he is a strong nationalist and by no means particularly enamored of American policies. He has very strong sentiments about the strategic dangers that he sees Israel posing to Egypt.  That said, Bishri himself is tasked with how the institutions of the state should be constituted not with the day to day policies they should follow.  Along with a profound concern with judicial independence he may also have two other goals.  One, which will command little direct objection in today’s Egypt, is to continue the policies of the provision of social welfare in ways that mirror concerns of a generation of European Social Democrats and Egyptian nationalists when he was a young man.  Bishri will probably push for a strongly independent judiciary in ways that both Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg can agree with.  He is not likely to want the Egyptian state to adopt the vision of the economy that John Roberts, Samuel Alito or  Clarence Thomas would find compelling.  On the question of Islam he is extremely unlikely to push for excluding the revised Article 2 that shariah is the source of Egyptian law.  For better or worse he believes that most Egyptian law is already compliant with shariah and he generally argues that the role of shariah in Egyptian law is similar to that of natural law in European legal systems:  it provides judges (not so much legislators) with cues about what to do when the legislature has been silent or incoherent.  He does not seem inclined to allow the ulama (Islamic legal scholars) to interpret law for the regular judiciary except (and this is an important exception) in cases in which legislation has given them that authority. 

Bishri is profoundly antagonistic to the military tribunals and special courts as well as the state of emergency that the government has employed over the past decade.  Far more important for Egypt’s future, however, is his occasional suggestion (at least when he was much younger) of a very different vision of the Egyptian state:  one in which the high degree of centralization and hierarchy that currently characterizes it was sharply reduced.  What, in other words, if (without dismantling the current state which shares much in common with the various governments that issued from the French revolution) Egyptians were to gain much more authority to make decisions over their own lives?  Bishri will not (and I think very few Egyptians would)  propose transforming Egypt into a federal system whether on the American, German or Brazilian models.  But he might be interested in transferring power away from a hierarchical system centered in Cairo to one in which Egyptians gained more control over the institutions that affect their lives locally.  In some ways the past three weeks have confirmed some of Bishri’s earlier ideas that Egyptians could govern themselves if given the chance.  He now may be in a position to push that idea a little further forward.  y

Saturday, February 12, 2011

It looks as if I'm the lead on the Foreign Affairs website.  My 15 minutes.  Here.  And gone.  About which I have no complaints given what the Egyptian people have achieved.

Friday, February 11, 2011

As we enter a deeper crisis after the speech

During his highly anticipated speech late on the night of February 9 rejecting the demands of the protesters, Husni Mubarak at one point said Egyptians are in a ditch.  That was the only part of his address on which Egyptians can agree.  With millions of people crowding into and now overflowing beyond the Midan al-Tahrir and with strikes spreading across the capital and the industrial cities of the Egyptian delta, the country is indeed in a deep hole and President Mubarak did not extend the necessary hand to pull it out.

            Events in Egypt today are rare but not unprecedented.  The massing of hundreds of thousands or even millions of people has occurred time and again in the period since the end of World War II.  While the most common images seem to be those of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Iranian revolution, and Tienanmen Square there have been other such moments as well.  Tlatelolco Square in Mexico City, Santiago de Chile stand out as tragic moments in which governments used the same combination of thugs and the military to clear popular demonstrations as Egyptians now fear.  People Power in the Philippines, France 1968 and the collapse of the Indonesian dictatorship are others. 

            There is, it seems to me, no clear lesson that the masses must win or that popular demands for change must lose.  Much will clearly depend on discussions by the handful of military officers who make up the Supreme Committee of the Armed Forces and who are meeting in permanent session for the first time since the 1973 war.

            The speech itself was an act of defiance.  Mubarak said Egyptians were in a ditch but instead of extending his hand he (to be more colloquial than I would otherwise be) extended his finger.  He limited the mandate of the committee examining constitutional changes primarily to those provisions that deal with elections.  He avoided any mention of freeing political party formation, increasing the independence of the judiciary, or diminishing the centralized presidential system.  He also included amending the provision that governs the emergency law but precluded actually ending emergency rule “until the time is right.”

            There is a looming sense of increased uncertainty and again a sense that a major confrontation is about to occur today.  Vice President Sulaiman who now may have been entrusted with the powers of the president (it’s unclear to me if Mubarak has already given them to Sulaiman or if he considered his speech to be an act of transference or if, in fact, nothing has happened), has called on the demonstrators to leave Tahrir.  In response they seem to be set on doing what they didn’t do last week:  taking over the presidential palace.

            Not unprecedented in Egyptian history these are the biggest sustained demonstrations here since 1919 .  In some ways the situation resembles 1952 in which the officer corps is prepared to take power away from an authoritarian leader connected to a small group of corrupt businessmen and is also widely perceived as the agent of foreign influence.  Reports I've heard from people who have been arrested by the army suggest that the officers and men are influenced to some degree by Mubarak's claim that he has served the country and deserves to be allowed to finish out his term and complete his mission.  If this is widespread in the army it certain indicates one important difference in how the armed forces and the civilians view the current crisis and may indicate that Mubarak's audience is not the mass of the Egyptian population (and certainly not foreigners) but the armed forces.  Arguments that he is systematically mis-reading his audience assumes they are in Midan al-Tahrir but that may not be true at all.

            There are, however, important differences.  Unlike 1950s the armed forces do stand apart from politics and the soldiers as well as their officers are more educated.  Unlike the 1950s there are no political parties.  Unlike the 1950s this is no longer an overwhelmingly agricultural and peasant country.  While in many ways the educational system has failed the aspirations of Egyptians they are better educated and more connected to the rest of the world than was the case 60 years ago.  Unlike the 1950s there are no foreign troops on Egyptian soil and have been none since 1980 and none in a position to affect domestic politics since 1956.  Since I primarily read the Egyptian press and have only limited access to foreign media (by accident and my choice, not because it’s unavailable) the news reports this morning that the Israeli general staff is said to be considering re-occupying the Philadelphia corridor between Gaza and Egypt is worrying.  Any attack on sovereign Egyptian territory right now would be perceived, by the army and the Egyptian people, as a real threat of foreign interference and would probably bring about the rapid collapse of the movement for democracy.

            There is a primary demand is for a civil state (dawlah madaniyah) which stands in opposition to the police state (dawlah bulisiya) but also the military state (dawlah askariya).  That is, unlike 1952, when the parliamentary regime was seen as corrupt and ineffective, today it is authoritarianism that is seen as such.   But if Egyptians have to choose they will take the military state over the police state. 

            Today is shaping up to be a big day.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Random Thoughts on the Revolution, Islam and Islamism

            Having attended the Friday of Rage demonstrations and having recently watched a news clip of the particular location from which I marched I thought it might be worth while sharing a few observations about religion, current events, and what little I’ve been able to read about this in the American media.

            I’m not sure how clear it is to Americans that on the Friday of Rage (like most Fridays) things got started after the noon prayer.  Many of the initial gathering spots were in and around mosques or even “outside” them where men also spread mats to pray.  I was in the upscale area of Giza called Muhandesseen about halfway down the very large boulevard named Arab League Street. Although everyone was pretty much milling around as the Friday prayer proceeded, near the end everybody who wasn’t praying moved to the sides (the women, Christians and the small number of foreigners) so that the Muslim men could line up for the conclusion of the service.  The atmosphere was a little tense but the worshippers were not frightening.  The frightening part was realizing that tens of thousands of peaceful people—men, women and some children—were literally surrounded by guys who resembled the Imperial Troopers in Star Wars.  They had the helmets, they had shields, and they had clubs.  If they had been ordered to move in on us, it would have been a terrible bloodletting even without guns.

            Then all of a sudden we started to move in the one direction the Security Police had left open.  What wasn’t apparent to me that day but which stands out clearly on the film clip is that within a second of the conclusion of the Friday prayer what must have been thousands of men leaped up from their final prostration and moved into the street for the demonstration.  And within minutes they were yelling the day’s slogans:  “Bread, Freedom, Human Dignity” (it rhymes in Arabic) as well as shouting for the regime to go and, of course, “peacefully.”

            Both the regime and some European and American commentators have argued that, should the events of the last two weeks lead to democracy, Egypt will become a state ruled by the Muslim Brothers and will become a link in a chain anchored in Iran that runs through Lebanon and Gaza.  The Muslim Brothers, in this view, favor democracy but only in the hopes that it will bring them to power.  Once there, the argument goes, they will cling to it as tightly as Husni Mubarak but with vociferous antagonism to Israel and the US.  Partly in response many other analysts have stressed, correctly but somewhat incompletely, the degree to which the Muslim Brothers have been cautious participants in the recent events.   Others stress the conversations they’ve had with members of the Brotherhood that provide evidence they are (or some of them are) truly committed to democracy. Still others, such as the eminent and brilliant scholar, Richard Bulliet of Columbia University go further to argue that the Muslim Brothers will participate as a significant party in a democracy  but will fail to acquire a majority. He then suggests that democracy with the Muslim Brothers would be a final nail in the coffin of al-Qaeda. 

            Since I don’t know that much about the Muslim Brotherhood I’m not going to participate in the discussion about what they do and don’t think.  However, I think that they realize at this point that whether they wanted it or not (and I suspect the answer is not) they are now themselves riding the tiger of popular revolt.  Just to strain the metaphor, the tiger may not like the rider very much but he likes the tiger trainer who is standing in the corner with a whip and a gun even less.  And oddly enough the tiger trainer is intent both on regaining control of the tiger and blaming the hapless rider.  The tiger trainer, after all, lives by exploiting the tiger not the tiger rider (or more accurately riders).

            Several people who I trust (and who also don’t know each other) have told me that when the thugs attacked the protesters in Midan al-Tahrir in the first week of February it was the Muslim Brothers who saved the protest.  What they mean, pretty simply, is that when wealthy and conservative Egyptians sent thugs to attack peaceful protesters the Brotherhood effectively sent their own thugs to respond.  Now I realize that the use of the word thugs here may offend some of my readers.  But I spent too long in the trade union movement not to realize that when owners set thugs on striking workers, the workers need help.  And you can talk about masculinity and violence all you want, but most men in the normal flow of daily life have neither the desire nor the capacity to inflict really terrible violence on other people.  As Stanley Milgrom and Philip Zimbardo showed, you can organize things so people do it, but (for example) just hitting someone in the face as they’re walking up to you isn’t something most of us are willing or able to do.  So every trade unionist I ever met who lived through the great organizing drives of the 1930s and 1940s had a soft spot in his (or her) heart for the pro-union thugs who defended them against the violence of the anti-union thugs.  

            I haven’t seen any references to this in print yet so perhaps it’s an urban legend.  But I’ve heard it enough from people who don’t agree with and don’t particularly like the Muslim Brothers to give it credence.   This turns the American neo-conservative doctrine on its ear.  The Brotherhood may or may not be made up of convinced democrats.  But like everybody else in this society they know they in particular will pay a significant price for the protest movement’s failure to achieve significant gains.  They won’t be alone but they have quite a bit to lose individually and collectively.  So it’s worth their while to defend it and it seems that they will.

            Another point, however, is one that’s been made by the largely middle-class young people who set this whole thing in motion.  Early on and ever since as well it’s been fashionable to say that the middle-class youth don’t represent society as a whole here.  Older and poorer people, for example, aren’t crazy about people who let their pants hang down below their waist (yes, it happens here as well as in the US).  But what the middle class young people point out is that nobody, probably since the 1919 revolution, has been able to get this many people into the streets to demand change in such a sustained fashion.  That includes the Muslim Brothers.  The Muslim Brothers may speak for many Egyptians and I would guess that they do genuinely speak in many voices (although they also show remarkable discipline) but they haven’t been able to mobilize this kind of oppositional movement as long as they’ve been around.  They did really well in the 2005 parliamentary elections but for all the fear and awe they inspire in the US they never did and probably never could have instigated or led the events of the last two weeks.   And anyone who thinks it’s just the middle-class in the streets has been wrong from the beginning and is certainly wrong now as working class strikes are beginning to break out. 

            Which leads to another point.  Cautious as the Muslim Brothers have been it seems to me, admittedly as a somewhat casual observer, that there just hasn’t been much resonance to their slogans in the marches I’ve been in.  There have been attempts to get people to chant “God is Great” (which is by no means a call on which the Muslim Brothers have any particular claim) but even that has generally not gone anywhere.  Christopher Hitchens doesn't have many admirers here so it’s not that people don’t think God is great.  They do. They just don’t seem to think it’s especially germane to current events in Egypt to say it in street demonstrations.  I don’t think I’ve seen a single sign claiming the Islam is the solution or that the Qur’an is the constitution. These are the classic slogans of the Muslim Brotherhood.  And people have made up some pretty interesting, provocative, and amusing signs from claims that Mubarak has to go because he’s a coward and an American agent (again, it rhymes) to simple requests in essence that, if he’s a vampire, he needs to go to a blood bank instead of living off the Egyptian people.  So if you wanted to bring a sign that said Islam is the solution nobody is stopping you.  The blood bank slogan is in the picture with two signs I’ve uploaded with this entry.  And since early on there were even posters supporting the unity of the cross and crescent (that is Muslim-Christian unity).

            The absence of such signs doesn’t mean that Islam (or Christianity for that matter) is unimportant.  What it means for the present is that for lots of Egyptians being Muslim doesn’t carry the particular baggage that American pundits and politicians have spent so much time imputing for the last couple of decades.

            To say that it doesn’t necessarily carry the baggage of prejudice, however, doesn’t mean it never carries that baggage or that there aren’t forces in this society that would like to increase mistrust and hatred between Muslims and Christians (both inside and outside Egypt).  During the last year Egyptians have witnessed some pretty horrifying examples of sectarian violence: a drive-by shooting a little over a year ago in the Upper Egyptian city of Nag’ Hammadi and the bombing during the Christmas season of a church in Alexandria.  In between a right-wing group of religious scholars from the Azhar issued a statement calling on Muslims to boycott Christian businesses.  Events of the last weeks, but perhaps especially the Christian mass celebrated in the middle of Midan al-Tahrir last Sunday, was a stunning riposte by ordinary Egyptians to attempts to spur prejudice.   Unfortunately many of those attempts over the past several generations appear to have been rooted in the activities of the state.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Seeing the Kidney Specialist

Nothing much happened to me today and I'll write something longer tonight to post tomorrow.  However I did spent much of the day in a successful attempt to see my kidney specialist and get some tests done.  What that means is that I spent several hours in the waiting room of a hospital that specializes in kidney and urinary tract diseases.  I was the only foreigner there.  People were very interested in events in Tahrir.  Nobody cared about me.  Not a statement about all of Egypt and foreigners; just a statement about one particular place and one particular set of people.  Oh, and life is getting back to normal.  Traffic is really really horrible again.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Spontaneity, democracy and change in Egypt

Even Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen have noted the presence of a remarkably tolerant and plural atmosphere inside Midan al-Tahrir.  They and other foreign observers have also noted elements of self-organization inside the Midan.  What they haven’t noticed, and probably haven’t really known or understood, is how events in the streets and neighborhoods of Egypt, as well as in the Midan, reflect a basic argument about democracy, people’s control over their own lives, and the possibility of self-organization.  This is a debate with a long and event boring history in political philosophy but it’s also been an academic and a practical debate in Egyptian life.

            There is a kind of constant referendum on trust and for much of the past two weeks Egyptians have been saying they trust each other more than they trust the hierarchical state.  The state meanwhile has been trying to get Egyptians to feel less trust in each other and a correspondingly greater need for the instruments of coercion and organization in the hands of state officials.  But this isn’t just a question of how academics can re-imagine ordinary behavior.  Egyptians have been talking about these questions:  what would happen if the coercive state withdrew from society for a long time.           

On an early fall day in 1987 two prominent political activists and amateur historians who had known each other for at least a quarter of a century had a falling out at an obscure academic meeting and the echoes of their dispute are, surprisingly enough, being heard in the squares of downtown Cairo, in its salons, and even in an interview between President Husny Mubarak and the famed reporter Christiane Amanpour.  Tariq al-Bishri, a prominent jurist and the author of several important meditations on contemporary Egyptian politics, had been invited to a conference on historiography.   Another participant, the late Ahmad Sadiq Saad, had been a prominent Communist leader in the 1940s, but by the 1980s had spent years as a factor manager in the state sector and was writing his own books on the roots of Egyptian authoritarianism. 

            Al-Bishri was already an extremely well-known and controversial intellectual because he had just re-issued an earlier study of the Egyptian politics in the period between World War II and the 1952 military coup.  When first published the book lauded the role of secular left and especially the communists, but in the second edition (which had then only recently been published) Al-Bishri appeared to have transformed his vision completely.  In a lengthy and self-critical introduction, he repudiated his former praise for the left and argued that the Muslim Brotherhood, as an expression of authentic Egyptian society, was both in practice and principle the dominant political force in Egypt before 1952.  The clear implication was that they, unlike the communists and the secular left, still deserved to be. 

            Many of al-Bishri’s former friends felt betrayed that a prominent jurist and a member of Egypt’s highest administrative court should have turned on the left and the secular liberals with whom he had long been associated.  Sadiq Saad recognized however that al-Bishri had posed another, even deeper, challenge to the Egyptian left and, somewhat to al-Bishri’s dismay, he pointedly referred to it.  Was al-Bishri really endorsing, Sadiq Saad asked, a spontaneity as a political principle?  Didn’t he understand that the dangers of romanticizing the activity of the masses along with the idea that they could somehow participate directly, without intervening organizations, in politics?

            Sadiq Saad was referring to an older debate about revolution that raged in early twentieth century Russia and that had come to dominate the thinking of communists and revolutionaries around the world by the middle of the 20th century not least in Egypt.  “Spontaneity” was an idea sharply criticized by the revolutionary Communist leader Lenin.  Initially it referred to his perception of the danger to the ultimate success of the revolution of allowing the masses to pursue their own interests as they perceived them.  In such a case, he argued, you might get anything from trade union activity that reinforced the capitalist system to ordinary liberalism to violent attempts to impose racist (and in the context of Czarist Russian viciously anti-Semitic) conceptions of community on society.  Far better, Lenin said, for there to be an organized political elite—professional revolutionaries—to provide leadership to the disorganized and ultimately untrustworthy masses.

            Wasn’t Al-Bishri proposing that the political elite, whether professional revolutionaries or not, follow rather than lead the masses?  Wasn’t this, the implication certainly was, a dereliction of duty by intellectuals?  And besides couldn’t it possibly lead either to political quiescence or to the imposition of even worse forms of political domination on society than the Egyptian regime then in place?  What al-Bishri went on, in later articles, to expound was a notion of the devolution of power down from the state into society at the expense of the power of the centralized government.  He has continued to link this vision to the

            Fast forward a quarter of a century to a moment when the largely spontaneous participation of the Egyptian masses in politics has profoundly dizzied the hierarchy of the state.  Midan al-Tahrir may be the center of where Egyptians are acting out this debate but it’s not the only place.   For the first two weeks of these events there have been some acts of terrible violence (especially in the countryside and some of the adjacent suburbs) apart from the unleashing of thugs on the demonstrators and the people.  But there have also been remarkable acts of civil society ascendant including people lining up in queues, engaging in intense and political conversations about the meaning of events as they occurred, and a remarkable openness to each other.

            Obviously it’s not going to be possible to organize the life of 80 million people through spontaneous activity for a much longer period of time, but this is why the issues raised by the protesters are so crucial to the future of Egypt and why the government is so anxious to forestall them and focus on limiting all change to the provisions of the constitution relating to elections.

            There are, it seems to me from talking to Egyptian friends, two crucial aspects to the demand that Mubarak go.  One of these is the demand that Mubarak himself go; the other is the demand that the presidential system that has been built around him in Egypt (but whose roots lie in the Nasser period) also goes.  The Egyptian presidency is, according to Egyptian scholars, one of the most ones in the world.  The president has very wide powers of appointment and direct decision making.  The curfew was, for example, decided by President Mubarak in his capacity as “military ruler” a position which is more encompassing than, for example, President Obama’s role as commander in chief.  The president also has a range of other powers, primarily embedded in his right to resolve conflicts between branches of government and government institutions.  Imagine, for example, that in a conflict between Congress and the Administration over funding a policy, the president (rather than Congress or an independent judiciary) was empowered to decide and then impose a decision.

        When President Mubarak told Christiane Amanpour in a television interview that the alternative was him or chaos he was also commenting on this long debate.  He was saying that without the existing hierarchical apparatus of the central state Egyptians themselves would be incapable of social cohesion or coherent economic activity.  Because Mubarak himself was out of the country for over a month last year while he underwent still mysterious medical procedures in Germany it is clear that the country actually can get along without his person for a while.  But whether those people in authority can get along without the presidential system or the existing president is a completely different question than whether Egypt can.

            The demand that Mubarak goes is a demand to change the system of the presidency.  But the system (including both its corrupt but also its simply repressive elements) is centered in a person who also is empowered informally by all the actors to make decisions resolving their conflicts.  If the system had to choose between Mubarak the person and the presidential system it would probably choose the latter but the top officials would prefer to retain both the person and the system. 

            Ending the state of emergency, freeing the media, guaranteeing that the youthful protesters not be punished, opening up other sections of the constitution for change, and electing a new parliament that can itself then enact further change are not important just because they allow a veneer of liberal democracy over an otherwise highly centralized political system.  They are important, and I believe the government knows they are important, because they are likely to be steps in the direction of taking power out of the hands of the central bureaucracy and placing it in the hands of Egyptians locally.  This would not be spontaneity but it would be a lot closer to real local self-government. 

            There is no doubt that, if Egyptians could make more decisions about how to live in their own communities (or even governorates and cities) it would have both positive and negative characteristics.  In some places it might lead to abuses based on membership in religious community; in others it might lead to a florescence of creativity.  But it would be a set of conflicts Egyptians would finally be able to have about how to live with each other and if the constitutional authorities I know had any impact, it would be subject to some substantive limitations given the existing (but completely formal) constitutional commitment to equality of citizenship.

            Free elections should be held and they do matter.  But they matter (I think) primarily insofar as they allow Egyptians to regain control over their own destiny in an admittedly imperfect way.  They matter insofar as they help to take power away from a handful of at the center of state apparatus and place it in a multitude of other hands.  The debate in Washington DC about Egypt has, as far as I can tell, overlooked this particular dimension of what is happening here.


Monday, February 07, 2011

Business and the "Wise Men"

Just a brief note while I work on a couple of longer posts for later in the day. The narrative of the masses against crony capitalism is a good one. It’s exemplified in the story of steel magnate and ruling party leader, Ahmad Ezz. Ezz made a fortune and played a major role in running and fake parliamentary elections last fall that wiped out the entire opposition and left Egyptians feeling angrier than ever at the government. Along with this story is the one that the masses have made the revolution and now someone is now trying to steal it from them. For some observers the likely guilty party is the Muslim Brothers and for others it appears to be the business elite.

From my little vantage point in downtown Cairo the main problem remains the headline in the (Saudi-owned) daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat the other day. The ruling party has made it clear that there are two options—either constitutional change or the army. “Constitutional change” means the current regime trying to retain as much of its power, personnel, and wealth as possible. The army means, well, it means a return to open military rule. If you liked Gamal Abdel-Nasser then you might like the return of the army to power; on the other hand, many here think they’re more likely to get someone who closely resembles Augusto Pinochet. And, yes, I’ve had more than one Egyptian friend ask me if I thought that was a likely possibility. It’s a question that sends shivers down my spine since I’ve known people imprisoned in military prisons in the past and there is a large stadium not far from where I live which I would guess is a convenient location if you started arresting large numbers of people in Midan al-Tahrir.

There is now an initiative by a group of socalled “wise men” which thankfully includes at least a couple of wise women. English readers can get the text of the document put forward by this group in the Egyptian newspaper on February 3 at the website of the Carnegie Endowment:

There are several of these “wise men” groups but they seem to be coalescing and for convenience I’m going to focus just on the group who signed this particular text. They could also be called the “Shorouk group” I suppose.

These proposals are a very reasonable attempt to figure out a way forward and they represent an important set of concerns about constitutional reform and constitutional legitimacy that profoundly affect how the future of this country plays out. Briefly they deal with the issue of restricting the power of the presidency (not just the role of Mubarak himself), ending the state of emergency rule, whether to re-write the entire constitution from the ground up, and the issue of a peaceful and legitimate transition to a new order. With the threat in the background that the army can always, as it has in the past, move in.

I’m not as knowledgeable about contemporary Egyptian life as I’d like to be but as one of the few Americans who seems to have elected to remain during these weeks I’ll have to do.

Now Shorouk itself is an interesting venue first of all. Many years ago Shorouk was basically the publishing house associated with the Muslim Brothers (which, by the way, even in its radical heyday of the 1940s ran a commercial printing house that published more than its own work). With the loosening of controls over freedom of expression private newspapers, like al-Misry al-Yawm, came into existence and publishing houses like Shorouk began to publish (and sell at their own bookstores) a much wider array of literature from within and outside the “Islamic current.” Several years ago the Shorouk newspaper came into existence and while it features a column by Muslim Brother intellectual Fahmy Huweidi it also publishes a very wide array of comment including by many secular liberals. It’s not and never has been a “Muslim Brothers” newspaper but it does indicate how one particular brand, if you would, has broadened its reach as the political and economic climate has changed.

So publishing this statement in Shorouk was itself an indication of the where the signatories wanted to place themselves: smack in the middle of the growing liberal middle-class intellectual concern with pluralism, tolerance, and legitimate constitutional change. Many on the list are well known intellectuals long connected to demands for democratization and liberalization such as Amr al-Shobaky (associated I believe with the semi-official Ahram Center for International Studies) and Kamal Abu al-Magd (associated with the liberal current of Islamist attorneys and law professors).

Those signed include Amr al-Hamzawy who has been associated with the Carnegie Endowment in Washington and whose presence strikes me as important not least because of his own qualities but because it is a clear statement that (and this is more so than with the international bureaucrat Muhammad al-Baradei) that Egyptians with direct connections to institutions outside the country, including the US, have as much legitimacy to ask for change as anyone inside. Not more, but also not less.

Two signers are former Egyptian ambassadors to the US including Nabil Fahmy who is now a dean at the American University in Cairo. So his presence clearly represents a degree to which people who were formerly closely associated with the ordinary functions of government (and I’m rather pointedly not saying with “the regime”) and capably carried them out now turn out not only to be critical but willing to say so in public. It’s easy to criticize people like Fahmy but he has metaphorically burned at least a couple of bridges of his own here (yes, I know he wouldn’t be out burning any actual bridges or throwing rocks in Tahrir but surely that can’t be the only criterion for trying understand events here).

Perhaps the most recognized signer outside Egypt is Naguib Sawiris. Sawiris is said to be the 374th richest man in the world and he is certainly a major magnate. He is an owner and board member of Orascom and plays a key role in the telecommunications in Egypt (Mobinil) and the world. There were rumors shortly after January 25 that Sawiris had left Egypt and indeed many very rich people (including some very famous entertainment figures) left the country. Sawiris announced that he was with his employes at a construction site (his larger family firm is also in the construction business as well as telecoms). His presence on the list is important again as an indication of the degree to which sections of the economic elite are breaking with the government. Given the importance of connections to the state for making business work here this is indicative of how broadly the incompetence and corruption of the regime has antagonized Egyptians. Although Sawiris is not in competition with the army-based industries which are mainly in metal-working, some food production, and the like he is providing at least a limited challenge to the idea of an economy in which not just the state but more specifically the army plays a large role. Although the size of the army’s role in the economy is disputed (and a state secret), it has moved into almost every part of the economy that directly or indirectly is connected to the needs of an army: from metal products, to the production of clothing, property management (it owns a lot of real estate), and food stuffs.

It is therefore worth noting one other signature on the list: Safwan Thabet (the name is mis-spelled in the English version where it appears as Safwat). Thabet, 63, is chairman of the board of Juhayna Food Industries. Juhayna, which has been in business since 1983, is an extremely large producer of milk, milk products and juice. His particular firm is closer to competing with the army which is also engaged in this sector of the economy. Thabet, unlike Sawiris, is not a member of the Coptic minority and cannot therefore be thought to be involved because of issues of discrimination. He also seems to be more closely connected to the rest of the business community through its many local organizations and associations. Anyone who has been in big business in Egypt for more than a quarter of a century is no political naïf.

So, again, what seems to be important here is that sections of the elite, while certainly not interested in bringing down the entire structure of the economy and the polity, have distanced themselves from the regime and begun to demand change. Despite some early panicky claims that the business elite and the middle class are sending everything out of the country thus causing a run on the pound and a collapse of the stock exchange, at least some very wealthy and prominent members of the business elite have chosen to stay. The focus up to now has been, and correctly so, on the remarkable bravery and steadfastness of the hundreds of thousands (or more likely millions) of people who have faced physical danger and death by demonstrating in Cairo, Alexandria and elsewhere. They are the ones who have changed Egypt, but in so doing they have also allowed others who will also have a role play, to come out into the open and demand structural changes. And much as the regime and Mubarak have resisted his departure they have equally, if not more strongly, resisted the demands for thorough-going constitutional change and tried to limit the damage, as Sulaiman has insisted, to only two articles of the constitution.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Meandering Around the Midan

One important aspect of Midan al-Tahrir yesterday and of the demonstrations up until now which has struck people who live here and may not have been so widely reported as the brutality against foreign reporters by pro-government thugs is the remarkable organization, cooperation, and good nature of the people demonstrating for change.

First let me break for a bit of humor before going on to make the necessarily ponderous academic points. People have been cleaning up in the wake of the huge amounts of trash left behind whenever hundreds of thousands of people come together. And inevitably as garbage is bagged it mounds up. Smack in the middle of the midan there was a huge pile of garbage bags which were awaiting removal. Some anonymous wag had posted a sign on top: “site of the new building of the National Democratic party” in reference both to popular understandings of the ruling party (it’s a corrupt pile of garbage) and to its need for a new headquarters (since the old one was burned in the first days of the protests).

More impressive, as a segue into my main topic here, let me describe waiting to get in to the square. Thousands of people were milling around at the at the western edge of the Qasr al-Nil bridge where there was an extremely narrow opening in an otherwise impressive row of soldiers behind barbed wire and a tank. At the point the crowd was funneled, single-file, in the direction of several groups of people waiting to check identity cards and pat people down. I was standing with another American and we were discussing, in English, whether to go in. As we decided we would suddenly somebody behind us shouted out in Arabic “Move on up, there’s plenty of room ahead” which struck me as hilarious because it’s exactly what the conductor tells you when you board a more or less equally crowded bus. I broke out laughing as did most of the crowd around us.

I’ve read accounts by other foreigners of their fear and mistreatment in the midst of the protest demonstrations, especially on the first day so I’m not going to say that the protests have just been one big happy outing for everybody. One account that I read is indeed frightening and sobering and I’m sure it’s an accurate description of what he experienced in the area around Talaat Harb square.

My own particular experiences have been different but I also have to admit that I’ve been more careful (doubly so since I have a transplanted kidney and have absolutely no desire either to take a blow to the abdomen or to spend a night or more locked up and away from my medications) than I would have been 40 years ago. It’s also very clear that the government is playing on xenophobia but this has some popular resonance. So I’m sure that the people who called in to the government television channel last night to say that they had heard people giving orders in English or distributing leaflets in foreign languages about how the demonstrations should go fully believed what they were saying.

Yet the atmosphere inside Midan al-Tahrir on what the demonstrators called the “Friday of departure” was exhilarating. The experience of having to move to the back of a crowded bus is a common one in Cairo. Its unpleasant, hot and stuffy being in the middle of people packed in like the proverbial sardines. It’s also not uncommon in such situations for women to be harassed, for pickpockets to ply their trade, and for people to be annoyed and annoying.

One thing that has been different in Midan al-Tahrir for most of the week (and again I can’t speak to reports of quite different behavior) has been the remarkable calmness, openness, and tolerance by large crowds of Egyptians. Completely covered women carrying children marched alongside chic young women dressed in shirts and sleeves and men with the traditional peasant robes and business suits and everything in between. Not only was Egyptian pluralism on display but nobody—from Azhari shaykhs to young hipsters—voiced any criticism of anybody’s else dress or looks or presence. It’s been widely remarked among Egyptian women I know at any rate that they haven’t been bothered, subjected to harassment, or even had anybody try to work his (or her) fingers into a handbag.

One reason this is important, of course, is that it shows how remarkably the events of the last week and a half have united as well as divided Egyptians. The other reason, though, as many Egyptians (but relatively few foreigners as far as I can tell) have noted is that it shows that Egyptian spontaneous activity in the absence of a cruelly repressive state is not chaos but order. Again, I don’t wish to romanticize the Egyptians: people here are not cut from some different cloth as other human beings and people here can be as petty and as mean-spirited as people anywhere else. But what the events of the last 10 days show is that Egyptians, like Londoners during the Blitz, can rise to the occasion. In another post I’m writing about a more intellectual discussion among Egyptians about these issues but for now I want to focus on behavior in Midan al-Tahrir and the streets.

There was certainly violence in many parts of Egypt in the past 10 days and while much of it was inspired by the government, it would be wrong to think that all of it was. Where the political movement was centered, however, there were relatively high levels spontaneous cooperation and tolerance. Many people here think has been reinforced by the so-called popular committees that have played so important a role in safeguarding neighborhoods (such as my own) from violence and looting. What one Egyptian friend after another has remarked is that people who previously didn’t talk to each other (for example, the butcher and the attorney or the plumber and the professor) have suddenly found themselves spending the night together with a common task and engaging in long (but not necessarily always political) conversations.

One Egyptian colleague has referred to it as indicative of much higher levels of “social capital” than any realized Egypt had. Given the absence of bowling alleys, choral societies, and cooperative local political endeavors (which had been completely foreclosed by the centralized state), this spontaneous cooperation or social capital seems to arise from mysterious sources and will, no doubt, be the subject of many an American doctoral dissertation in years to come.

I’m not going to weigh in on that subject except to say that, once again, it ‘s clear to me that the role of emotion and human solidarity has so completely eluded American social science (of both the rational choice and the postmodern persuasion) as to convince me it needs to be rebuilt from the ground up.

What I do want to conclude with is this thought which I’ll also try to flesh out later today and tomorrow here and for a post at the Social Science Research Council. Whatever we think we know about taking power out of the hands of the autocratic hierarchical state (you can call this democracy or local self-government or popular participation) is that people who live near each other need to be able to deliberate (talk to each other) and make decisions together with both the authority and the responsibility for their own lives. That they could not do this is something the highest officials of the Egyptian state have long maintained. What the pluralism of the demonstrations has shown is that it need not necessarily be true., Indeed for the last 10 days it has not been true that spontaneous activity here apart from the state is disastrous disorder. In this more profound sense than anything else Egyptians feel they have changed the world they live in.

NB: The photos are not themselves from Midan al-Tahrir or from February 4. They are either from the demonstration of the "Day of Rage" near Kubri al-Gala' or in the area of the Corniche the first day the army had its tanks out. What they do give is a sense of the diversity of Egyptians engaged in the demonstrations.

Saturday, February 05, 2011

On Israel and Midan al-Tahrir

I understand the concern among many Israelis and within the Jewish community in the US about events in Egypt just as I understand the fears that too sudden an access of democracy in Egypt will bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power which will more or less inevitably (so the argument goes) lead to a denunciation of the Camp David Accords and the creation of a solid bloc of Arab enmity against the Jewish state and, probably in collaboration with Hamas in Gaza if not with Fatah in the West Bank, the elimination of Israel in a paroxysm of war.

I understand those fears just as I understand those Americans who have been reluctant to do anything (as opposed to saying anything) to further weaken the regime. Mubarak has been our ally for 30 years and it would be at best unseemly and at worse wrong and unwise to abandon him at the first sign of trouble. We should, at least, wait a bit before abandoning him.

I understand those fears and concerns and as with all deeply felt understandings of politics I am far from telling those who hold them that they should simply dismiss them. They cannot.

What I fail to understand is the construction of Mubarak and his regime as being in any sense friendly to Israel or even a solid support for the Israeli state. Mubarak, as far as I can tell, no more cares for Israel than do most Egyptians and his regime has been as hostile to Israeli society and Israelis as any other element in Egypt.

As far as I can tell Mubarak, in 30 years, has visited Israel once very briefly: to attend the funeral of Yitzhak Rabin. Unlike Sadat he never addressed the Knesset nor has he shown any interest even in reciprocating state visits that Israeli leaders paid to Egypt. The Egyptian government (though perhaps personally not all of its high officials) has been unremittingly hostile to Israel through the print media, the television, and indeed the efforts of its police. Egyptian movies abound in descriptions of evil Israelis who kidnap, torture, or otherwise abuse good-hearted Egyptians and (more rarely) Palestinians.

So much is this the case that it has even become a bit of a joke among young middle-class Egyptians. In one film, an Egyptian is kidnapped to Israel as part of a nefarious and complicated plot. Managing to escape, the Egyptian hero then attempts the complex journey back to the homeland. Yet, as some Egyptian viewers noted, why doesn’t he just go to the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv which, as far as the movie is concerned, doesn’t exist. In other words, in the Egypt of Husni Mubarak although official Egypt has diplomatic relations with Israel this is not permitted to be part of the normal imaginative or cognitive map of ordinary Egyptians. And this is the regime on which the Israeli government wishes to rely?

The Muslim Brotherhood has said that they would abrogate the peace treaty. Some of my academic friends—people I respect—say the Brotherhood has by now become a different political force than they once were. They are now liberals or perhaps social democrats who simply happen to pray in the direction of Mecca. Others tell me that the Muslim Brotherhood are nothing of the kind: they are blood-thirsty fanatics who can hardly wait to get out of their confining suits and ties, don traditional robes and turbans and slit the throats of infidels.

For the moment let me simply state an argument I’ll make at length in another post. The question for now in Egypt is not whether the Muslim Brotherhood comes to power. The army is not, for its own reasons, going to let that happen. The question for now is whether there can be any significant changes in the rules governing a hierarchical and authoritarian military system that has been in place since 1952 and that fought its own wars with Israel when it pleased and made peace when it pleased and that obstructed Israeli policy in Gaza when it pleased and cooperated to make it more effective when it pleased.

And the reason it pleased to do what it did in the years since Anwar Sadat, himself an authoritarian leader, came to power after Abdel Nasser died has to do with some home truths (is this what my professors from the land of international relations call “realism”?). Egyptians got tired of doing most of the dying in wars with Israel; Egyptians got tired of facing the destructive barrage of the Israeli war machine in the pursuit of the chimera of Arab nationalism; Egyptians got tired of paying the price for the inflated and irresponsible rhetoric of military regimes that proved to be incompetent at doing what they claimed to do best: defending the national borders.

Egyptians got tired but that doesn’t mean they decided that the Israelis were their best friends (in the period before texting nobody even thought about the possibility of BFF). The best construction you can put on local feelings is that most Egyptians find Israeli policies toward the Palestinians in West Bank and especially Gaza somewhere between repellent and abhorrent.

But would a democratic Egyptian government be more inflexibly anti-Israeli than the present government? If you think of a democratic government as one that carries out the will of majority regardless of any other considerations (the will of the minority, prudence, the role of interest groups), then that might be the case. I notice that both the left and right in the US seem to wave the flag of anti-Israeli Islamism in the face of any government initiatives in support of democracy.

But if by democracy we meant something that many Egyptians have had in mind and have even experienced in the past 10 days then things might be different. Not immediately but perhaps—and let me underline that perhaps—in the longer run. What if by democracy we meant a system that allowed for and even encouraged the expression of pluralism in society: religious pluralism, political pluralism, and social pluralism. Israel would not become any more popular tomorrow but at least those who wanted to visit it, to describe—for worse as well as for better—what they saw, and to discuss what would be the most appropriate policies for achieving what many here want—recognition of a Palestinian state with its own secure borders and the end of Israeli settlements in the West Bank—would all have the opportunity to do so. Israelis have long complained of the so-called “Cold Peace” in which the interests of security state in Egypt have led it to cooperate with the Israeli security establishment but in which Israelis themselves remain largely unwelcome and unknown. A state committed not to a single inflexible and hierarchical truth but to the recognition of the plural nature of Egyptian society could not but make a wider discussion possible since the existing discussion is so extremely narrow.

Such an Egypt would, of course, put far more pressure on Israel than does the present government to change its policies. It might, depending on exactly what political and social forces upheld it, also be a far more powerful agent for change in Israeli policy than is the present government. For the moment, in other words, within Israel itself the notion that security is congruent with settlement in the West Bank remains a plausible political argument. That would be a more difficult argument to uphold if their interlocutor was a democratic government in Egypt committed both to peace and to Palestinian statehood rather than an authoritarian dictatorship. It is not so clear to me, in fact, that such a government would necessarily want to abrogate the treaty; it might simply, instead, insist that it has not yet been implemented and indeed that the Israeli government had a variety of obligations to which it could be expected to conform. (NB: the counter claim that the Israeli government would make that the PA and the PLO have obligations they have not upheld does not apply to the Egyptian-Israeli accords since it is clear that the Egyptian government has carried out its obligations under its treaty with Israel).

So, although I am far from religious, let me put this in terms that bring together both popular, contemporary Egyptian and traditional Jewish imagery. Why exactly is it that the security of the Jewish state is achieved by relying on Pharaoh?