Sunday, 6 February 2011

Notes on Egypt

There isn’t much to add to all the commentary—some expert, some not so much—to be found on Egypt in the papers and the Web. In the spirit of adding something to the conversation, here are the things I found most surprising and/or significant during the week:

1. The democratic movement’s (I hate the term ‘protesters’) capacity to hold off and repel the murderous mid-week assault by Mubarak’s thugs in Freedom Square. The army high command probably permitted this attempt to put an end to the uprising by force (note reports that the people are thoroughly searched for weapons, but these guys got through with iron bars) without having to take the heat for firing on the crowds.

The plainclothes goons—many of whom were found to be police officers—tried their best, with military collusion, to beat the masses into submission and failed. It was one of the many heroic moments of the Egyptian revolution and changed the equation as it is now clear that only concessions or a massacre led by the army itself will defuse the movement.

2. The air of confusion emanating from Washington. Granted, Obama left himself few options by never pressuring Mubarak after his lofty Cairo speech in 2009, including no response to the refusal to end the 30-year-old emergency that underpins the regime’s dictatorial character. But the U.S. has been consistently inconsistent: Clinton saying Mubarak’s regime was ‘stable’, Biden denying he is a dictator and finally the special envoy Wisner saying Mubarak has to stay on through the transition.

The impression of a weak Obama buffeted by free-lance policymakers getting the jump on him is overwhelming. If Obama had ever done anything unexpectedly tough in his dealings with client states like Israel and Egypt, people might be afraid of his opinion. Instead, they thumb their noses at him, and his underlings carry on without adult supervision. According to one report, the National Security Council urged Obama to dump Mubarak entirely to prevent further radicalization of the revolt, but Israel and Saudi Arabia convinced him otherwise. If radicalization does occur, Obama will get the blame anyway, and he’ll deserve it.

3. The sustained attack on reporters trying to cover the events. No dictatorship used to massaging the message likes people snooping around, but the mob assaults on Anderson Cooper and others have been extreme examples of reactionary touchiness. While this is not surprising, it might focus the minds of some U.S. news organizations that otherwise would be more attentive to the concerns of the increasingly nervous Israelis.

4. The curious detachment of our fellow bipeds here at home. The most amazing and world-historic Middle Eastern events to occur in a generation attract barely a mention on the local news despite the impact on Israel, the Islamic world and a major U.S. ally. Maybe if Snookie were Egyptian . . .

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