Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Watching (or not) the collapse of Egypt's police state

To fail to be fascinated by the popular uprising with revolutionary characteristics occurring in Egypt reflects a society uninterested in how power itself operates—let’s call it ‘politics’ as Aristotle might have understood it—an essential aspect of our lamentable biped species. Dr Johnson said, ‘When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life’, and hearing what our bobblehead commentators have to say about the Egyptian events, one is tempted to conclude that they are addressing a polity never very inspired by it in the first place.

Curiosity about Egypt and its 80 million people at the heart of the Arab world seems limited to two topics: (1) will I have to pay more for gasoline when I drive over to the Wal-Mart; and (2) will oppressive Islamic radicals take over and foment terrorism that will threaten Israel? In all fairness to the casual TV watcher, the programmers apparently feel that these topics are the only ones we are capable of grasping.

The superficial attention paid by our news deliverers to the unfolding events caused many to assume that the trouble was over given that Tahrir Square was not occupied by Bastille-like crowds for a brief period. Then suddenly yesterday, it was again—so what happened?

All eyes were on how the dramatic testimony of Wael Ghonim, the Google employee and creator of the anti-Mubarak Facebook page, galvanized a renewed protest movement, which plays into our self-satisfied fantasy that Egyptians can’t even stage a revolt without American technology. But the interview with Ghonim on Egyptian TV—which I recommend watching in full here—telegraphed an entirely different message: it was a tearful, terrified, bitter complaint about the horrors of daily life under a police state.

How rare it would be if all or any of the white people in their fife and drum Tea Party costumes parading as defenders of liberty could pay attention to people actually suffering under a real dictatorship paid for with U.S. dollars over the last three decades. ‘Oppression’ for the SUV crowd is having to pay money for the services they expect to receive from the state—not police-state impunity, which they have never (yet) experienced.

But I digress. Yesterday’s developments suggested an ongoing and accelerating revolt, and the fact that new participants joined the massive crowds to denounce Mubarak hints at the deep revulsion Egyptians feel about being occupied by a system of constant thievery and brutality with every policeman operating as a free-lance Gestapo agent. It’s bad enough not to have enough food, but the chants and demands arising from the populace are very much about freedom and justice, too—what a concept.

But Egyptians are not only chanting for freedom but practicing it, and the reports of strikes in Suez for higher pay are a good example of what they plan to do with it as the debilitating terror of the secret police and their dungeons (described so eloquently by Ghonim) dissipates. That’s why the reports of collapse at the upper echelons of the regime make sense—people may simply not be cowed any more as Ghonim is alive and well and the new Vice President Omar Suleiman (himself a notorious torturer, despite our commentators’ shyness on this topic) has to promise on national television that there will be no reprisals against demonstrators. Note that Mubarak isn’t even making the key statements any more, another hint that he’s already achieved de facto irrelevance.

Obama’s response has been characteristic, to follow the line of least resistance and respond to conditions as they unfold rather than try to shape them. He was reportedly told by his National Security Council to cut Mubarak loose but instead bent to Israeli, Saudi and domestic lobbying and held back. If Mubarak tumbles, Obama will nod sagely and intone his satisfaction with that outcome, too.

Meanwhile, Suleiman is reduced to warning of a ‘coup’ if protests don’t end, as if a country run for 30 years by an air force general under emergency laws isn’t more or less that already. He may be expressing his own anxieties given that any uniformed officers who tried to seize power might not need or want his services.

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