Egypt's Pakistani future?

Having living a long-time in Egypt, Londonstani has been following the election news  quite closely. Amongst the claims of counter coups etc, there's little giving a sense of where Egyptian politics is going. 

The ever insightful Juan Cole, however, has been one of the few observers putting events into a long term and wider regional context. 

In his most recent blog post the Middle East scholar compares political developments in Egypt to Pakistan, that other heavily populated, cultural hub of political Islamist ideology. 

"Ironically, in Pakistan since 2008, the president’s powers (originally based on martial law amendments to the constitution made at will by a series of military dictators after their coups) have been much reduced as a result of popular pressure, the insistence of opposition parties, and the country’s feisty courts. Pakistan may be the sort of system toward which Egypt’s SCAF is groping, where the officer corps controls aspects of foreign policy (e.g. Afghanistan) and has huge economic holdings that the civilian government cannot easily challenge. But the continued power of the military in Pakistan derives in part from the war the country is fighting against elements of the Taliban in the tribal belt, and from the weakness and corruption of the parliamentary parties. And, even in Pakistan, it should be remembered, a military dictator (Gen. Pervez Musharraf) was successfully removed in 2008 under threat of impeachment by the elected parliament, and the prerogatives of the officer corps have been whittled down in subsequent years. In Pakistan, big street protests and marches gave support to parties’ demands, a dynamic that we’ve seen in Egypt in the past year and a half."

Having spent a fair amount in each country, Londonstani would say that they main difference between Pakistan and Egypt right now is that Egyptians have found a public voice and a confidence to say what it is they expect from their leaders. And, this new-found expression is being tentatively exercised on a daily basis. Pakistanis, on the other hand, have little faith in the political system or their collective ability to change things for the better through the systems that presently exist. Despite talk of the lawyers marches a few years ago, in Pakistan there really is no such thing as "popular" dissent. Public protest in Pakistan only reaches significant levels when it is backed by an established political force. 

In Egypt, political actors have learnt to fear "the people". In Pakistan they fear particular political parties, the military, families that run madrassa networks or media bosses. 

The obvious exception to this rule is Imran Khan. He is still a political actor, but has managed to gain legitimate political following based on his ideas. In other words, he's not bribing people to back him. In Egypt, popular opinion has only become a political force since Mubarak's ouster. In Pakistan, politics has begun to be based on ideas since the rise of Imran Khan. Perhaps the real similarity between the two countries is that both have, for different reasons, discovered real politics very recently. 

 

"Running the country? Pah, easy"

Londonstani, as readers of this blog know, used to live in Cairo. And while there, he'd often wonder how it is that street cafes can be run like well-oiled machines, while the country was so badly run.

Well, in the new Egypt, a cafe owner has decided its time to put his awesome management skills at the disposal of his country.

"I met another of the candidates, Farghal Abu-Deif Atiya, holding court at his cafe in a poor neighbourhood.

"It is called the Freedom Club Cafe but he hopes soon to rename it the Presidential Cafe when he is successful.

"If I can run my cafe efficiently, why not Egypt - indeed the world?" he says.

(read Jon Leyne of the BBC's article on the hundreds of candidates running for election for the full story)

Before you totally dismiss this guy, it's worth remembering that in Pakistan, Imran Khan is running for election (and getting masses of support) while regularly citing his achievements as a former captain of the national cricket team.

Underworld Al Azhar

Londonstani read the Wa-Po article "At al Azhar mosque, struggle over Islam roils a revered Egyptian institution" and thought about the interesting points it alludes to about the millenium-long tussle in the Muslim world between the salafi and sunni interpretations of Islamic theology. And how the salafis, nearly a thousand years after their spiritual head, Ibn Taymiyyah, was imprisoned in Cairo are the closest they have ever been to claiming the highest seat of sunni religious jurispudence.

However, it's a cold Monday morning in London, and Londonstani doubts anyone is interested in reading a discussion on theological differences and their impact on the modern geopolitical order. Instead, watch this trailer for the movie Underworld about werewolves and vampires. It's about as useful as any of the articles you're likely to find online about the significance of the differences between these two Islamic worldviews - and it'll be a whole lot more entertaining. 


Democracy promotion - not-so-soft power

Is democracy promotion "soft power"? Over at Foreign Policy, Christian Caryl makes the very important point that, actually, no.

"We Americans tend to see promoting democracy in other societies as a gentle, win-win, do-gooding exercise. What we tend to forget, though, is that introducing democratic institutions into previously authoritarian societies means changing the structure of power. And we should hardly expect those who are losing power to step aside quietly. Those catchwords so favored by the humanitarians may sound harmless, but in certain quarters they have explosive force. "Transparency" is a curse to the intriguer in the shadows. "Accountability" is a nightmare for the unelected autocrat. And "good governance" fills the corrupt official with dread."

Like Caryl, Londonstani also believes that this sort of thing is very worth doing. But lets be clear that in terms of difficulty and effect, it's in no way the easier option.

Aid and the US-Egyptian psycho drama

Steven A Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations says it's time to cut aid to Egypt.

"I say we oblige [Egyptian Minister] Aboul Naga and wind down the aid program—including military assistance—as soon as practical."

Londonstani finds himself in agreement with Steven, but not exactly for the same reasons - well not this one anyway:

"It’s hard to run against the “foreign hand” if there is no foreign hand."

Whereas Steven might have gone too far in thinking local perceptions of US influence follow a simple linear logic, he doesn't go far enough in his labelling of US-Egyptian relations as a "psycho-drama".

It's way worse than that. It's more of a zombie horror movie - before the days zombies became funny.

At the crux of the aid issue is a dilapidated, clapped out, Egyptian self image manufactured a long time ago by leaders who saw the Soviet Union as an exemplary model of social control. This self image has taken a serious battering in the modern information age. 

As Londonstani remembers it, before about 2000, the Egyptian state wasn't too keen to talk about the aid it got from the US for two reasons: 1 - It wanted to avoid discussion around it's core reason for moving rfrom the Soviet to the US camp (its economy was a shambles and it needed help). 2 - The aid issue got in the way of the state's defence of its ideological frontiers. 

Londonstani would go as far as to say that existence of the aid was not common knowledge to most Egyptians. The reason why he'd go out on a limb with that last statement, is because US aid to Egypt was one of the first stories he covered as a journalist in Cairo. Thomas Friedman had published a mock letter from Bill Clinton to Mubarak asking, rhetorically, what the US got for its money. That evening, Londonstani did a bit of polling in the local coffeeshops and found that not one person could tell him how much aid Egypt got or when it started flowing. Most were openly surprised.

That changed. Over the next five years, as opposition to Mubarak grew more vocal, US news organisations mentioned the aid more frequently, and US officials became more comfortable with flinging around threats to cut it off. The end result was that many more Egyptians came to hear about the aid.

Mubarak's response was to carry on like before. The sociologist Saad Eddin Ibrahim, who was first arrested in 2000 for accepting foreign funds without permission, was dragged through the courts for nearly a decade in a case that drew local and international attention. A number of other democracy activists were prosecuted for similar offences.

The US, which was never popular in the Arab world past about 1967, was on an unpopularity high in the run up to 9/11 due to Israel's reaction to the the Palestinian uprising and continuing sanctions against Iraq. Then of course came the invasion of Iraq. As bad became worse, the Egyptian state capitalised on the US's public image misfortunes by insinuating (or outright stating) that all sorts of domestic irritants (from dodgy businessmen, to partying homosexuals to blaspheming false prophets) were part of a foreign (ie Western) plot to destabilse Egypt.

But the reason why Londonstani doesnt agree with Steven that taking away the foreign hand will end the cries of conspiracy is based on the reason why the Egyptian state thought it was such a great play to begin with; people want to believe it.

The military men who run Egypt realised a long time ago that conspiracy theories made people feel important. It made them feel that they were worth being conspired against. As someone clever once said, "There's nothing worse than being ignored".

Egypt's slow fall from prominence under a regime that came to power on the promise of restoring pride was easier to hide because it was too painful to accept.

Apart from that Londonstani is totally in agreement with Steven.

Egypt's new parliament

If you're interested in the Middle East, you need to read Marc Lynch's comment over at Foreign Policy on the new Egyptian parliament:

"There are many problems with the new Parliament and the political process which created it.  But the common dismissal of the Parliament by many activists is mistaken.  For one, the near complete wipeout of former regime, ex-NDP candidates -- the fullul -- doesn't get nearly enough attention.  Before the elections, most people expected the Parliament to be split between the Muslim Brotherhood and rebranded former regime elements.  Instead, the fullul lost badly despite lavish spending and well-organized campaigns.  Their failure should be seen as a major accomplishment of the revolution, and a vindication of the rejection of the old regime by the vast majority of the Egyptian population.  The fact is that there is now a popularly elected Parliament, recognized as legitimate by the SCAF, which is almost completely devoid of figures from the old NDP elite.  That's an amazing achievement."

What happens in Egypt will impact how the Middle East develops once the revolutionary dust settles. Riots, violence, resistance against state violence are always going to get news coverage, but if there's one place where the details of the political back and forth really do have an impact, it's Egypt.

"Egypt smells of paint!"

Really, really good article in the Daily Beast looking at Suzanne Mubarak, who it paints as the force behind the old dictator's throne.

Londonstani is particularly gratified to see discussion of something he and his friends used to talk about when he worked in Cairo. "The Mubarak's", the joke went, "think the world smells of fresh paint."

"Especially in her later years, Suzanne observed Cairo’s garbage-strewn streets through a gilded peephole. For her, walls were scrubbed, flowers planted, grass grown, Egyptians bribed to smile. If you were part of the royal convoy, Cairo was clean and Egyptians were happy."

Londonstani can attest that when Gamal Mubarak visited his office, the entire building got a makeover. When the president and his wife made the drive to parliament, flowers were planted on the sides of the road. Only to be dug up again after they passed.

So it seems it always is after a dictator falls, everyone suddenly has that 'Emperors New Clothes' moment. "How did they get away with it for so long?", "Why did the international community support them?" etc etc.

One thing that Londonstani suspects is being covered in the Egyptian Arabic press and blogs (the guys at www.arabist.net might be able to comment on that), but not so far in Western media, is how the Mubarak regime convinced ordinary Egyptians to support them.

There was nothing mediocre about the way the regime exploited Egyptians' own sense of pride and linked it to the figure of Mubarak through the clever use of media, the state education system and the manipulation of Egypt's recent history.

Egyptians older and far savvier than Londonstani have pointed out that the Mubarak branding machine was far more successful than that of his republican predecessors. Pre-2003, Mubarak faced a lot less direct criticism than Sadat or even Nasser, the Pan-Arab hero.

Mediocre they might have been, but they were doing something right (relatively speaking).

Anyway, read the whole article and ponder where you would lay the blame for the world's toleration of Egypt's three-decade long catastrophe.

* Major big up to Mandy Fahmy credited at the bottom of the article, who Londonstani has no doubt is responsible for securing the awesome sources.

The Salafi Cartoon Network

If you are a good, conscientious follower of world events, you are probably wondering about these "Salafis" that everyone keeps saying are gaining popularity across the Middle East.

In which case, you could do much worse than spend a few minutes reading Sarah Topol's Egypt's Salafi Surge.

"While the Brotherhood wants to talk about its plans to create new jobs, the Salafis will try to focus the debate in parliament on public social virtues, like headscarves, religious idolatry, and banning alcohol. The Brotherhood is also far more concerned with increasing the powers of parliament and sending the Egyptian military back to barracks, while Nour's red-meat issue remains the promotion of its conservative social agenda."

On the otherhand, if you are like Londonstani and would much rather have trends in international politics explained to you through the medium of an amusing cartoon, you sir (or madam) are totally in luck!