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伦敦书评2011.2.17 vol33, no4; czy

After Mubarak

Adam Shatz
Popular uprisings are clarifying events, and so it is with the revolt in Egypt. The Mubarak regime – or some post-Mubarak continuation of it – may survive this challenge, but the illusions that have held it in place have crumbled. The protests in Tahrir Square are a message not only to Mubarak and the military regime that has ruled Egypt since the Free Officers coup of 1952; they are a message to all the region”s autocrats, particularly those supported by the West, and to Washington and Tel Aviv, which, after spending years lamenting the lack of democracy in the Muslim world, have responded with a mixture of trepidation, fear and hostility to the emergence of a pro-democracy movement in the Arab world’s largest country. If these are the ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East’, they are very different from those Condoleezza Rice claimed to discern during Israel’s war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
The first illusion to crumble was the myth of Egyptian passivity, a myth that had exerted a powerful hold over Egyptians. ‘We’re all just waiting for someone to do the job for us,’ an Egyptian journalist said to me when I reported from Cairo last year (LRB, 27 May 2010); despite the proliferation of social movements since the 1970s, the notion of a mass revolt against the regime was inconceivable to her. When Galal Amin, a popular Egyptian sociologist, remarked that ‘Egyptians are not a revolutionary nation’ in a recent al-Jazeera documentary, few would have disagreed. And until the Day of Rage on 25 January many Egyptians – including a number of liberal reformers – would have resigned themselves to a caretaker regime led by the intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, if only to save themselves from the president’s son Gamal Mubarak. The first to be surprised by the uprising were the Egyptians themselves, who – in the lyrical early days of the revolt, culminating in the ‘million-man march’ on Tahrir Square on 1 February – discovered that they were capable of taking matters into their own hands, of overcoming their fear of the police and collectively organising against the regime. And as they acquired a thrilling sense of their own power, they would settle only for the regime’s removal.
The Mubarak regime was not the only Arab government to be shaken by the protests: the reverberations were soon felt in Yemen and Jordan, and in the West Bank, where Mahmoud Abbas’s police cracked down on a march called in solidarity with Egypt’s pro-democracy forces. What we’re seeing in Cairo is both new and old: not an Islamist revolt but a broad-based social movement bridging the secular-religious divide, a 21st-century version of the Arab nationalism that had for many years seemed a spent force. And though the Egyptian protests have found a provisional figurehead in Mohammed ElBaradei, the movement is largely leaderless, in striking contrast to the heroic age of Arab nationalism, dominated by charismatic, authoritarian figures like Nasser and Boumedienne.
The revolt that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt is a struggle against what Algerians call hogra, ‘contempt’, a struggle fed by anger over authoritarian rule, torture, corruption, unemployment and inequality, and – a lightning rod everywhere in the Arab world – deference to the US strategic agenda. Not surprisingly, US officials are nervous that revolts could break out in other friendly states. Asked whether he expected similar unrest in Jordan, John Kerry, who was admirably forthright in calling for Mubarak to stand down, dismissed the idea: ‘King Abdullah of Jordan is extraordinarily intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, in touch with his people. The monarchy there is very well respected, even revered.’
For years, Arab rulers told their Western patrons not to worry about their subjects, as though they were obedient, if sometimes unruly children, and these patrons were only too happy to follow this advice. There was nothing to fear from the Egyptians, accustomed as they were to despotism since the Pharaonic age. Mubarak might be hated by them, but he was our man in Cairo: ‘family’, as Hillary Clinton put it. (The Clinton and Mubarak families have been close for years.) So long as he opened the economy to multinationals, achieved high growth rates and honoured his foreign policy commitments – allowing swift passage for US warships through the Suez Canal, interrogating radical Islamists kidnapped by the CIA as part of the extraordinary rendition programme, maintaining the peace with Israel, tightening the siege of Gaza, opposing the ‘resistance’ front led by Iran – American military aid would continue to flow, at a rate of $1.3 billion a year.
A facade of euphemism had to be erected to disguise the nature of Mubarak’s regime, and press accounts seemed to bolster it. Reading Western – particularly American – newspapers before the recent crackdown, one would hardly have known the degree of discontent in Egypt. Mubarak was typically described as an ‘authoritarian’ but ‘moderate’ and ‘responsible’ leader, almost never as a dictator. Popular anger over torture – and over the regime’s cosy relations with Israel – was rarely discussed. But when the police attacked peaceful protesters throughout Egypt, and especially after Mubarak’s thugs – armed with grenades, knives and petrol bombs, some wearing pro-Mubarak T-shirts that seemed to have been designed for the occasion – charged through Tahrir Square on 2 February on horses and camels, the regime’s face was revealed: coarse, brutal, an unwitting parody of Orientalist clichés. Newspapers not known for their candour about Egypt began to describe it with a new, hard clarity.
The crisis in Egypt has also been a crisis for the Obama administration. Unlike the ‘colour’ revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Lebanese protests against Syrian troops or the Green Movement in Iran, the uprising in Egypt targeted an old and trusted ally, not an enemy. Coming out in support of the Tunisian protesters made the Obama administration feel good, but it required no sacrifice. Egypt, a pillar of US strategy in the greater Middle East, particularly in the ‘peace process’, was a harder case. Until late January, the US did not hesitate to call Mubarak a friend, or to extend all courtesies to visiting members of the Egyptian military. But when Egyptians went into open revolt, the US was suddenly very tight-lipped about its old friend in Cairo. A new discourse was rapidly invented. Some Western officials failed to catch on to the shift: Joe Biden was widely ridiculed for saying that Mubarak couldn’t be a dictator because he was friendly with Israel; Tony Blair praised him as ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’ – yesterday’s message. But when Blair said that Egypt’s transition had to be ‘managed’ – presumably by the West – so as not to jeopardise the ‘peace process’, he was only saying openly what Washington believed.

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