Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Of Protest and Prevarication

Never thought this would happen in my lifetime: protests and demos are so frequent that I'm scrambling to keep track. Whereas once upon a not so distant time, Egyptians woke up every morning to face an impervious reality, we wake up now and ask where--not whether--the protest of the day took place. Universities are always a good place to look; see the latest, notable for both Kifaya and Ikhwan participation. In Assiut, two Kifaya members were arrested for bearing aloft posters, despite their silent protest. Ending emergency rule has become nearly a household word; just a few years ago only politicos cared about it. Now even schoolchildren have a vague idea of its meaning. I love the protest slogan: "Ya huriyya faynak faynak, ettawari' beyni w'beynik!" (Freedom where are you? Emergency stands between me and you!) The protest cascade shows no signs of abating; Kifaya promises more.

In the midst of this and other genuinely new trends in Egyptian politics, leave it to armchair "analysts" to give us some of their clueless "analysis." One Robert Springborg, director of something called "London Middle East Institute" wrote:

Whatever the actual intent and ultimate consequences of the proposal to amend Article 76, it was immediately clear that it was a politically astute move by the President, who with it had underscored the weakness, disunity and lack of preparedness of the opposition and each of its components; and the centrality of his own person to the political system. That no credible challenger to his rule emerged in the wake of the announcement attests both to his political astuteness and to the intensity of his regime’s authoritarian character, which has succeeded in pulverizing all potential sources of opposition to the degree that they are unable to capitalize on potential opportunities for political participation.

Anyone following Egyptian events of late would be hard-pressed to see how Mubarak's move is evidence of his "astuteness" as Mr. Springborg tells us, not once but twice! Well, if Mr. Springborg says Mubarak is astute then it must be true! Toz. I don't know who Mr. Springborg is nor what he does, but I do know that the above statement bears no relation to Egyptian reality. Even if Egypt were a democratic state, it would take, um, more than a month for "the opposition" (can Mr. Springborg tell us who means by this?) to "capitalize on potential opportunities for political participation." The more important point is that Springborg contradicts himself; he titles his thoughts "diverting pressure for democracy" (talk about stating the obvious) but then he concludes that Mubarak's move is a "potential opportunity for political participation." Sigh. My bullshit monitor is overloaded as it is, can Mr. Springborg and his ilk give it a rest? Edward Said's ghost: why oh why can nobodies with paltry amounts of knowledge pontificate about the Arabs, get paid for it, and be taken seriously?

For an astute analysis of current Egyptian events, see Wahid Abdel Meguid's latest piece in al-Hayat. He's sometimes tendentious and a rabid anti-Nasserist (to the point of hysterial irrationality), but still always worth taking seriously. And unlike Springborg in his London redoubt, Meguid knows what's going on in Egypt.

As long as we're ruefully conjuring the spirit of Edward Said, let's review one more "analyst" and his latest effluvium about "the Arabs." This time it's our old friend, Mr. Steven A. Cook. Remember him? He was the one who proclaimed that bimbo-sycophant Hala Mustafa "has a reputation for intellectual independence." So what's Mr. Cook been cooking up lately? Well, in a piece laced with all the politically correct, trendy references to "institutions" reprinted in the New York Times, Mr. Cook advises the Bush administration to abandon its old civil society promotion-cum-punitive war policies toward the Arab world and instead adopt "an incentive-based approach." After describing his brilliant idea that the US should increase but "reconfigure" its military aid to Egypt, Mr. Cook peddles the benefits of his plan:

Such a program would offer a number of benefits both to the United States and to Egypt. First, restructuring U.S. military assistance in this manner would safeguard U.S. interests in the region by helping ensure that Egypt's military becomes technologically advanced and capable. Second, this new way of doing business would give Egyptians a more dignified role in their relationship with the United States: Cairo would be encouraged to undertake reform, but the ultimate choice would be theirs. Moreover, putting subtle pressure on the Egyptian leadership to reform will bolster U.S. credibility with the Egyptian public and help assuage general Arab
skepticism toward Washington--which has long talked about political progress in the region while doing painfully little to make it happen.

It warms my heart to see Mr. Cook's genuine concern with the Egyptian regime's dignity in its servile, slavish, and submissive relations with its American patron. But what the hell does this mean: "Cairo would be encouraged to undertake reform, but the ultimate choice would be theirs"? The funniest part of course is Cook's stupid notion that "subtle pressure on the Egyptian leadership" will suddenly make the public love America. So throwing more money at Arab regimes will help them save face and endear Arab publics to the US. My God, the arrogance-cum-ignorance of "analysts" like Cook is truly astounding. I'd take Bush's bumbling belligerence any day over the execrable ideas of aspiring court intellectuals and self-styled policy architects like Cook. Nowhere in his obsequious proposal does he address the fundamental, tangible cause of "Arab skepticism." Egyptian and Arab publics don't need more inept spin or "incentive-based" approaches dangled like so many goodies before a salivating pack of monkeys, they need to see tangible U.S. policy changes. Ditching "public diplomacy," quitting the invasion and occupation of Arab countries, and quitting kowtowing to Ariel Sharon's every whim and fancy would be a good start. But no, Mr. Cook would have us focus not on all these specific, focused policy changes but on Pavlovian "incentive-based policies" for the Arabs.

I promised myself I'd waste no more energy tracking the prevarication diarrhea of al-Ahram, but this is too important: today's front page is graced with a photo of Mubarak meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, both smiling and having a grand old normalizing time. The newspaper feels compelled to point out that their meeting lasted for 90 minutes (why is the president of the republic meeting with the Foreign Minister instead of the latter meeting with his Egyptian counterpart?) The headlines tell us Mubarak "tied Arab normalization with Israel to a just final settlement." For the real story, including Egypt and Israel finalizing a gas deal see al-Hayat. Also, the non-prevaricating version of al-Ahram includes an opinion piece on the fevered pace of normalization since at least the December 2004 signing of the QIZ protocol.

I'm growing fond of Abdallah al-Sennawi's weekly pieces on political intrigue in high places. This week he airs an ambient theory about the horrible al-Azhar attack last thursday: rumor has it that factions within the embattled Mubarak regime planned the bomb attack to justify prolonging emergency laws, undercut the domestic drumbeat for reform, and stave off increasingly American pressures. It's a compelling story with a seductive logic, but let's remember that those who benefit most from an event are not necessarily its perpetrators. Sennawi also relates the rumor of al-Musawwar editor Makram Ahmad being dispatched to warn reformers to stop their agitation and to "convince" them that currently there's no alternative to Mubarak. What a fool's errand that is, which if true shows how deeply desperate and clueless this regime and its hangers-on are. I wonder what the atmosphere's like in the corridors of Egyptian power these days. Pretty jittery, I'd imagine, but let's ask Robert Springborg or Steven Cook.