Egypt: The army's fateful choice
The president's obstinacy puts the military on the spot at a time when the power of the people has spilled across the country's political landscape
President Mubarak last night laid a powder trail that could explode today in the disastrous confrontation between the army and the people which Egypt has managed to avoid until now. The military now faces an enormous dilemma. President Mubarak's brief and mumbling reference to handing over some powers to his vice-president last night will satisfy nobody. Will the army now attempt, on the back of suppressive action in the streets, to shape a new version of the Nasserist state, or will the demonstrators shouting "We want a civilian government" in Tahrir Square prevail?
The president's obstinacy puts the army on the spot at a time when the power of the people, like the Nile flooding its banks, has spilled across Egypt's political landscape in a torrent hardly imaginable only a few weeks ago. As the waters recede a new Egypt will be revealed, but still nobody knows how much of the old will remain and how much of the new will persist. What is clear is that the army must move swiftly to demonstrate that they are in charge and that Mubarak is now an irrelevance if a violent deterioration of the situation is not to take hold.
In effect the soldiers have to decide whether Egypt is revisiting 1952, to create a supposedly better version of the hybrid military-civilian state that was set up by the Free Officers, or going back to the revolution of 1919, to renew the British-style parliamentary democracy that was created after that upheaval. It is a momentous decision.
Egypt is split between an older generation of leaders, including some in the established opposition, most of whom appear mystified by what has happened, and a younger generation, who have been propelled by events into the political frontline. Many of these newcomers may be as confused as their elders. If the older generation have shown themselves reluctant to cede power, the younger generation is unprepared to exercise it. But that is the way things are when the impulses for change have been dammed up for so long.
The most notable thing about the situation in Egypt is the absence of strong leaders on all sides. The barons of the army and the ruling party are elderly, and compromised by their complicity in the oppressive system they have served. On the opposition side, both the head of the Muslim Brotherhood, Muhammad Badi, and the secular lawyer Mohamed ElBaradei are also old, and they have been followers of the revolution rather than leaders. Then there are the young men and women in their 20s and 30s whom we barely yet know, except for a couple of figures like Wael Ghonim.
Egypt has not had such a youthful renewal since the original Free Officers' revolution in 1952 brought majors and captains to power. Gamal Abdel Nasser was 34 at that time. The styling of yesterday's military announcement as "Communique No 1" suggests a conscious harking back to the early days. But this is not the army of 1952, when those majors and captains gathered great popular support for their own political project.
This army has a very different duty before it now, indeed one that should be staring it in the face. Confusion on both sides, the gap between the generations, and the mixture of elation, anxiety and now fear which characterise Egypt mean that Omar Suleiman was right to speak of the need for a road map, but the correct one is not the regime-friendly path he was pushing last night as he called for the protesters to leave the streets and return to work.
The military needs to isolate Mubarak and help install a national unity government which has representatives of every group and class, including some military officers, but not dominated by them. In the end the army needs to move out of politics. But before then it has the choice between facilitating change or blocking it, with possibly bloody results. Like the rest of Egypt, the army must break with the past.
The shaping of a New World Order
If the revolutions of 2011 succeed, they will force the creation of a very different regional and world system.
by Mark LeVine
[This is an abridged version of this article.]
The following description, I believe, sums up what Egypt faces today as well as, if not better, than most:
"It is not a revolution, not in the literal sense of the term, not a way of standing up and straightening things out. It is the insurrection of men with bare hands who want to lift the fearful weight, the weight of the entire world order that bears down on each of us - but more specifically on them, these ... workers and peasants at the frontiers of empires. It is perhaps the first great insurrection against global systems, the form of revolt that is the most modern and the most insane.
One can understand the difficulties facing the politicians. They outline solutions, which are easier to find than people say ... All of them are based on the elimination of the [president].
What is it that the people want? Do they really want nothing more? Everybody is quite aware that they want something completely different. This is why the politicians hesitate to offer them simply that, which is why the situation is at an impasse. Indeed, what place can be given, within the calculations of politics, to such a movement, to a movement through which blows the breath of a religion that speaks less of the hereafter than of the transfiguration of this world?"
The thing is, it was offered not by some astute commentator of the current moment, but rather by the legendary French philosopher Michel Foucault, after his return from Iran, where he witnessed firsthand the intensity of the revolution which, in late 1978, before Khomeini's return, really did seem to herald the dawn of a new era.
Foucault was roundly criticised by many people after Khomeini hijacked the revolution for not seeing the writing on the wall. But the reality was that, in those heady days where the shackles of oppression were literally being shattered, the writing was not on the wall.
Foucault understood that it was precisely a form of "insanity" that was necessary to risk everything for freedom, not just against one's government, but against the global system that has nuzzled him in its bosom for so long.
This is a radically different image of Islam than most people - in the Muslim world as much as in the West - are used to seeing: Islam taking on state violence through militant peaceful protest; peaceful jihad (although it is one that has occurred innumerable times around the Muslim world, just at a smaller scale and without the world's press there to capture it).
Such imagery, and its significance, is a natural extension of the symbolism of Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation, an act of jihad that profoundly challenges the extroverted violence of the jihadis and militants who for decades, and especially since 9/11, have dominated the public perception of Islam as a form of political spirituality.
Needless to say, the latest images - of civil war inside Tahrir Square - will immediately displace these other images. Moreover, if the violence continues and some Egyptian protesters lose their discipline and start engaging in their own premeditated violence against the regime and its many tentacles, there is little doubt their doing so will be offered as "proof" that the protests are both violent and organised by the Muslim Brotherhood or other "Islamists".
A greater threat than al-Qa'eda
As this dynamic of nonviolent resistance against entrenched regime violence plays out, it is worth noting that so far, Osama bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, have had little - if anything - of substance to say about the revolution in Egypt. What they've failed to ignite with an ideology of a return to a mythical and pure beginning - and a strategy of human bombs, IEDs, and planes turned into missiles - a disciplined, forward-thinking yet amorphous group of young activists and their more experienced comrades, "secular" and "religious" together (to the extent these terms are even relevant anymore), have succeeded in setting a fire with a universal discourse of freedom, democracy and human values - and a strategy of increasingly calibrated chaos aimed at uprooting one of the world's longest serving dictators.
As one chant in Egypt put it succinctly, playing on the longstanding chants of Islamists that "Islam is the solution", with protesters shouting: "Tunisia is the solution."
For those who don't understand why President Obama and his European allies are having such a hard time siding with Egypt's forces of democracy, the reason is that the amalgam of social and political forces behind the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt today - and who knows where tomorrow - actually constitute a far greater threat to the "global system" al-Qa'eda has pledged to destroy than the jihadis roaming the badlands of Afghanistan, Pakistan, or Yemen.
Mad as hell
Whether Islamist or secularist, any government of "of the people" will turn against the neoliberal economic policies that have enriched regional elites while forcing half or more of the population to live below the $2 per day poverty line. They will refuse to follow the US or Europe's lead in the war on terror if it means the continued large scale presence of foreign troops on the region's soil. They will no longer turn a blind eye, or even support, Israel's occupation and siege across the Occupied Palestinian territories. They will most likely shirk from spending a huge percentage of their national income on bloated militaries and weapons systems that serve to enrich western defence companies and prop up autocratic governments, rather than bringing stability and peace to their countries - and the region as a whole.
They will seek, as China, India and other emerging powers have done, to move the centre of global economic gravity towards their region, whose educated and cheap work forces will further challenge the more expensive but equally stressed workforces of Europe and the United States.
In short, if the revolutions of 2011 succeed, they will force the creation of a very different regional and world system than the one that has dominated the global political economy for decades, especially since the fall of communism.
This system could bring the peace and relative equality that has so long been missing globally - but it will do so in good measure by further eroding the position of the United States and other "developed" or "mature" economies. If Obama, Sarkozy, Merkel and their colleagues don't figure out a way to live with this scenario, while supporting the political and human rights of the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa, they will wind up with an adversary far more cunning and powerful than al-Qa'eda could ever hope to be: more than 300 million newly empowered Arabs who are mad as hell and are not going to take it any more.
Mark LeVine is a professor of history at UC Irvine and senior visiting researcher at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at Lund University in Sweden. His most recent books are Heavy Metal Islam (Random House) and Impossible Peace: Israel/Palestine Since 1989 (Zed Books).
My revolution betrayed
After revolutions, counter-revolutions may follow. But how can the spirit of an uprising be kept up as the years pass?
by Yuliya Tymoschenko
From snowy Kiev, I have watched the revolutions in Cairo and Tunis with joy and admiration. Egyptians and Tunisians are right to be proud of their desire to peacefully overthrow despotic governments. But, as someone who led a peaceful revolution, I hope that their pride is tempered by pragmatism - because a change of regime is only the first step in establishing a democracy backed by the rule of law. Indeed, as my country, Ukraine, is now demonstrating, after revolutionary euphoria fades and normality returns, democratic revolutions can be betrayed and reversed.
The first of Ukraine’s lessons for Egyptian and Tunisian democrats is that elections do not a democracy make. After all, what if the enemies of freedom use elections to entrench their anti-democratic agendas? What if elements of the old regime, or the cadres of militant minorities, only pretend to embrace democratic norms in order to hijack the new democracy?
In Ukraine today, these are not abstract questions. Six years after our Orange Revolution, not only is my country’s democracy under threat - but the rule of law is being systematically perverted and our national independence bartered away. Indeed, the hybrid presidential/parliamentary system that Ukraine established as part of the settlement which brought a peaceful end to our revolution is being hollowed out in order to concentrate all political power in the hands of a supposedly democratically elected president.
Of course, Ukraine’s plight does not mean that the people of Egypt and Tunisia should spurn the call for free elections. Determining the will of the people does require expression through the ballot box. But elections alone cannot solve the fundamental political problems confronting Egypt and Tunisia. In particular, they cannot create a liberal order and open society.
To be effective, elections must be preceded by an extensive debate, in which political arguments are made, attacked, defended - and, ultimately, embodied in ideologically coherent party organisations. Democratic consent can truly be given only when voters know what they are consenting to. Whoever refuses to make a public case for what he or she intends to do when in power, or lies about it – as Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovich, did during his campaign against me last year – is no supporter of the democracy that citizens risked their lives to establish.
Yuliya Tymoshenko was prime minister of Ukraine and is now leader of the opposition.
This article was first published by Project Syndicate.
Suleiman: The CIA's man in Cairo
Suleiman, a friend to the US and reported torturer, has long been touted as a presidential successor.
by Lisa Hajjar
On January 29, Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s top spy chief, was anointed vice president by tottering dictator, Hosni Mubarak. By appointing Suleiman, part of a shake-up of the cabinet in an attempt to appease the masses of protesters and retain his own grip on the presidency, Mubarak has once again shown his knack for devilish shrewdness. Suleiman has long been favoured by the US government for his ardent anti-Islamism, his willingness to talk and act tough on Iran - and he has long been the CIA’s main man in Cairo.
Mubarak knew that Suleiman would command an instant lobby of supporters at Langley and among 'Iran nexters' in Washington - not to mention among other authoritarian mukhabarat-dependent regimes in the region. Suleiman is a favourite of Israel too; he held the Israel dossier and directed Egypt’s efforts to crush Hamas by demolishing the tunnels that have functioned as a smuggling conduit for both weapons and foodstuffs into Gaza.
According to a WikiLeak(ed) US diplomatic cable, titled 'Presidential Succession in Egypt', dated May 14, 2007:
"Egyptian intelligence chief and Mubarak consigliere, in past years Soliman was often cited as likely to be named to the long-vacant vice-presidential post. In the past two years, Soliman has stepped out of the shadows, and allowed himself to be photographed, and his meetings with foreign leaders reported. Many of our contacts believe that Soliman, because of his military background, would at least have to figure in any succession scenario."
From 1993 until Saturday, Suleiman was chief of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. He remained largely in the shadows until 2001, when he started taking over powerful dossiers in the foreign ministry; he has since become a public figure, as the WikiLeak document attests. In 2009, he was touted by the London Telegraph and Foreign Policy as the most powerful spook in the region, topping even the head of Mossad.
In the mid-1990s, Suleiman worked closely with the Clinton administration in devising and implementing its rendition program; back then, rendition involved kidnapping suspected terrorists and transferring them to a third country for trial. In The Dark Side, Jane Mayer describes how the rendition program began:
"Each rendition was authorised at the very top levels of both governments [the US and Egypt] ... The long-serving chief of the Egyptian central intelligence agency, Omar Suleiman, negotiated directly with top [CIA] officials. [Former US Ambassador to Egypt Edward] Walker described the Egyptian counterpart, Suleiman, as 'very bright, very realistic', adding that he was cognisant that there was a downside to 'some of the negative things that the Egyptians engaged in, of torture and so on. But he was not squeamish, by the way'. (p. 113).
"Technically, US law required the CIA to seek 'assurances' from Egypt that rendered suspects wouldn't face torture. But under Suleiman's reign at the EGIS, such assurances were considered close to worthless. As Michael Scheuer, a former CIA officer [head of the al-Qaeda desk], who helped set up the practise of rendition, later testified, even if such 'assurances' were written in indelible ink, 'they weren't worth a bucket of warm spit'."
Under the Bush administration, in the context of "the global war on terror", US renditions became "extraordinary", meaning the objective of kidnapping and extra-legal transfer was no longer to bring a suspect to trial - but rather for interrogation to seek actionable intelligence. The extraordinary rendition program landed some people in CIA black sites - and others were turned over for torture-by-proxy to other regimes. Egypt figured large as a torture destination of choice, as did Suleiman as Egypt’s torturer-in-chief. At least one person extraordinarily rendered by the CIA to Egypt — Egyptian-born Australian citizen Mamdouh Habib — was reportedly tortured by Suleiman himself.
Suleiman the torturer
In October 2001, Habib was seized from a bus by Pakistani security forces. While detained in Pakistan, at the behest of American agents, he was suspended from a hook and electrocuted repeatedly. He was then turned over to the CIA, and in the process of transporting him to Egypt he endured the usual treatment: his clothes were cut off, a suppository was stuffed in his anus, he was put into a diaper - and 'wrapped up like a spring roll'.
In Egypt, as Habib recounts in his memoir, My Story: The Tale of a Terrorist Who Wasn’t, he was repeatedly subjected to electric shocks, immersed in water up to his nostrils and beaten. His fingers were broken and he was hung from metal hooks. At one point, his interrogator slapped him so hard that his blindfold was dislodged, revealing the identity of his tormentor: Suleiman.
Lisa Hajjar teaches sociology at the University of California - Santa Barbara and is a co-editor of Jadaliyya..
This article first appeared on Jadaliyya.