Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Egypt points to Arab political Future

Palm Beach Gardens

In the Arab world, virtually all political rulers live in the shadow of the military. How the military deals with change is crucial.

The popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have been miraculous. The masses have discovered the power of coordinated, collective action in a new era of digital communication. Arabs will never be the same: fear of the ruler has dissipated from the street of many capitals. The youth want jobs and justice. But the road to freedom and equality is long and steep.

As we see governments fall and rise with a new face, we must keep in mind that the Arab army is not impressed with street demonstrations.

The Arab world is watching where these two pilot uprisings are heading. Attention has largely shifted from Tunisia to Egypt, the largest Arab country: where Egypt goes, the region tends to follow.

In Tunisia, political change has reached a plateau. There is a new government which is run by a prime minister who was close to the deposed President Ben Ali. Life is returning to normal. The army backs the new government. People are hoping that the newly formed national salvation cabinet will lead the country to a new political order. After this dramatic “intifada”, time will tell how life will be for Tunisians

So far, Egypt largely follows the Tunisia model, with a key difference: the massive presence of the Egyptian military covertly intimidates the opposition and tries to limit demands for change. The sequence of events is more complicated. An uprising shakes the system. The president retreats, but stays in office. A new leader from the old regime is appointed as Vice President. The VP effectively replaces a weakened figurehead. A new cabinet, largely from the military, is formed. Timid concessions are made. The opposition examines concessions and assesses the cost of continuing the struggle, knowing well that the army has the last word.

The Egyptian army is ascendant now because it has monopoly on use of force. The military has covert commitment to the old regime and some vested interest in a corrupt political order. And lastly, the army depends on Washington as a major donor.

Washington heavy investment in the Egyptian army makes it defensive about this “client”. Observe how “kind” Washington is in describing the army action, and how “polite” it is to Mubarak. In contrast, witness how negative Washington is in depicting the Muslim Brothers, a party that has been banned from political activity for decades. The fatal flaw of the Muslim Brothers, as many Americans see it, is mixing religion with politics. It is as though America were free of religious fundamentalism.

The narrow and myopic policy focus in Washington has been on servicing the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel -with big money, equipment and training- without giving the Palestinian and the Syrian peace tracks the attention they deserve. Meanwhile, reliant on Egypt’s pacification, Israel has gone wild in annexing the occupied Syrian Golan Heights and a good part of the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Israel’s peace treaty with Egypt looks fragile now, not because Egypt has an organized Muslim political party, but because the 1978 Sadat - Begin peace process was violated and allowed to drift.

Anxiety about future relations between Cairo and Tel- Aviv has sucked up much of the enthusiasm of Washington for an “inconvenient” Arab awakening.

Washington’s misreading of this awakening could derail it and deepen the anger of Arab masses toward Uncle Sam. However, giving this awakening the benefit of the doubt could immensely serve US national interest and cement regional peace.

Leaders of the uprising are right to insist on pressuring Mubarak to leave. The beleaguered 83 year old president insists that this is a “passing storm” of protest of young people, who are “infiltrated by outside agents”. The media report on Egypt as a global event. This intensive reporting feeds the morale of the demonstrators and alert Washington to review its foreign policy priorities.

Egyptians are resilient: patient, peaceful and tolerant of suffering. On the 14th day of this uprising, the opposition issued seven concrete demands: Departure of the president, lifting of emergency rule, dissolution of parliament, formation of unity cabinet, free parliamentary election followed by amending of the constitution, punishment of crimes against the opposition and prosecution of theft of national wealth.

If the demonstrations could last one or two more weeks the army is likely to abandon Mubarak. Should the army lose patience and use force against the persistent demonstrators, it would be a grave miscalculation. There will no winners in a blood bath. The army should be neutral to allow the transition of power to become empowering and transformative.

Many in Egypt and the Arab world are looking for a new political era. However, if the protesters prematurely accept the cosmetic concessions now promised by Vice President Omar Suleiman, they would be delivering the country back to a regime lacking legitimacy.

No clean army would tolerate corruption for too long, except if it is part of it. How far the uprising will go in changing the country depends on how the army views reform. Is reform seen as progress or conflict of interest?

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