'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Friday, 28 January 2011

Egypt is not Tunisia

Belgium doesn’t matter,’ Kenneth Waltz once quipped, asserting the predominance of some state-actors over others in the international system.
The world media documented the Tunisian ‘revolution’ (BBC World Service Podcast) as a curious onlooker – a detached First World audience revelling in the fog of Maghreb politics. Jihadi and Islamist entities attempted to associate themselves with the popular demonstrations – this was an apostate regime with Western backing, thus commensurate with most jihadi rhetoric but this is about base Fukuyama-esque principles of material prosperity and recognition – religion is absent here.

The Jihadis operate in a bipartite system – there being a dynamic only between the individual and God – all other aspects of the world are deemed subordinate to this fundamental relationship. Islamists, rather than being an umbrella group incorporating the Jihadis, have a statist agenda that sees a tripartite relationship between the individual, the state, and God. But these current protests are between the individual and the state; secular anger against tyrannical regimes overseeing rising poverty.  

Events in Egypt have engaged the West: to paraphrase Robert Fisk, more people go on holiday to Egypt than Tunisia, so events there have greater resonance for a Western audience. Action there has engaged policymakers, too. Sitting astride the Maghreb and Middle East. Egypt was the setting in the 1950s for Nassar’s unique brand of pan-Arab nationalism – so anathema was his government to Western policy in the region that 1956 saw the Suez Crisis unfold, a military action that led to the resignation of Anthony Eden as British prime minister. 

Today, other countries hold more sway but Egypt receives the second largest aid package from the USA to any country in the Middle East (second only to Israel) and Mubharak is a key US ally in a volatile region. Again this has the makings of an Islamist uprising – an apostate ruler backed by the United States – but this is once more a popular protest against tyranny. Sallust writing in the first century B.C observed that, ‘few men desire freedom, the majority want nothing more than fair masters.’ Islamist elements in Egypt, most notably the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement now almost a century old, will try to hijack the protests or juxtaposition the popular anger to its own, and unlike Tunisia, Islamist groups are well-embedded there.

But Mubharak, having ruled for over three decades, understands the nature of power. Recognising the unique role of social media in organising protest, users have experienced profound problems over the past 24 hours accessing the Internet/Social Media sites. In a sign of the potential magnitude of the unrest, Mohammed el Baradei has flown back to spearhead the protests, using twitter (in Arabic and English) to project his message to the world mediaThis will resolve if, or when, the Mubharak regime loses the monopoly on violence – in Weberian terms, the state’s authority rests on its monopoly on violence. Crackdowns thus far indicate that Mubharak still has control, but the army and police are key, particularly in Egypt where the police hold disproportionate civil power compared to the army.

In Jordan there have been protests against the regime, with economic disparity between rich and poor being the main focus of anger and resentment. Jordan is another key ally in the region with an extremely able intelligence service. The Muslim Brotherhood has led protests but the crux of discontent is economic, rather than Islamist
In Lebanon, there has been widespread protest against Hizbollah, who have toppled the three year-old unity government and ousted the Prime Minster Saad Hariri in favour of a Hizbollah-endorsed PM. The causal issue was the expected announcement of a UN Tribunal indicting three members of Hizbollah over the killing of Saad Hariri’s father, Rafiq, in 2005. In 2006, Hizballah received a huge boost in popularity following its battle against Israel in the 2006 (See, for instance, the poll numbers in Shibley Telhami, “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll,” Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland with Zogby International, 95‐97) but this ostensibly shadow government has lost popular support since its apogee in 2006 and risks large-scale alienation of the people.

In 2003, Philip H Gordon wrote an elegant article for Survival entitled Bush’s Middle East Vision which deconstructed the United States’ goal of coercing the democratic wave in the region. But it seems that Western images have little to do with this new popular discontent. Western back rulers are suffering Arab ire, seen as puppets that grown rich and disconnected from their people while the Street becomes increasingly disenfranchised. Neither is the anger religious. Religious vehicles may ride the wave, but el Baradei is a man of science, former head of the IAEA who often took on the US head-on and thus has impeccable credentials on the Arab Street.

Caution in analysis must be urged. In the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising, there were media elements already referring to the new ‘democracy’, but we are in a transition government that seems to favour retribution over reconciliation, and more bloodletting seems likely to follow. Transition governments, by their very name, suggest something ephemeral: the Transition Federal Government in Somalia, for example, is beset by Islamist forces (Al-Shabab; Hizb al-Islam) and has had to align with the Sufi umbrella organisation, Ahlu Sunnah Wal Jama (ASWJ). 




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