No Comment — January 31, 2011, 11:54 am

Some Questions About Egypt

I spent the last week watching the developments in Egypt from London, where U.S., European, and Arab media are equally accessible. Watching them side-by-side, sometimes over many hours a day, I was struck by the weakness of the American coverage. Almost every broadcast news source has its high and low points, but the American cable news coverage, which used to command a global audience, was languishing behind its competitors. It contrasted most sharply with Al Jazeera, which has been doing a superlative job in hour-by-hour coverage from across Egypt and clearly has emerged as the broadcaster of choice for news junkies. The major difference lies in the mix of fact and opinion reporting. Al Jazeera has overwhelmed its competitors with hard, on-the-ground reporting. By contrast, U.S. broadcasters had fewer assets on the ground and filled up their time slots with talking heads, many of whom seemed poorly versed in Egypt and the current developments.

Bush Administration alumni, for instance, were arrayed in two opposed sides: the neoconservatives tell us that the uprising vindicates the Bush Doctrine, bringing democracy to the Arab world, while the war on terror fearmongers insist that the fall of Mubarak can only mean the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the transformation of Egypt into another sponsor of anti-Western state terrorism. Neither group seems to have any real mastery of the dramatis personae of the conflict and its economic and social underpinnings, or to understand Egyptian law as it affects succession, and so forth. The message they deliver seems keyed to domestic partisan politics and not towards helping us understand what’s happening in Egypt.

It’s dangerous to venture summary opinions about the developments in Egypt without understanding something about the country’s culture, economy, history, and political structures. I know enough to recognize that the great bulk of the “experts” being offered up on the U.S. media feed are no experts at all. Here are some questions that should be engaged.

First, we often associate mass unrest with an underperforming economy and with the lack of a middle class or its destruction. But Egypt had economic growth running at a healthy 7 percent before the global crisis, when it cooled down to about 5½ per cent, which is a very respectable showing by world standards. Why didn’t this give Mubarak a cushion? I suspect the answer has something to do with unemployment, especially among young males—that population growth was running far ahead of economic growth and that this produced a population of young men who couldn’t find work and despaired of the future. If this is so, how is a new government going to grapple with this problem? And why is American aid channeled overwhelmingly to Egypt’s military, when America claims to be focused on reform that will strengthen democracy and the country’s economy?

Second: what role have technological developments in social networking played in the unrest? We were told that the Green Revolution in Iran was driven by social networking technology. In Tunisia and Egypt there is a good deal more evidence for that claim. WikiLeaks’ disclosure of U.S. Embassy cables from Tunis, talking in detail about the corruption of the former regime, clearly seems to have added fuel to the unrest by validating popular criticisms. The Egyptian government’s decision to “pull the plug” on the Internet and on Blackberry communications demonstrates their belief that it has been a powerful tool for their adversaries. On the other hand, it’s clear that these technologies can be used by authoritarian states as much as by those seeking to overthrow them. The developments in Tunisia and Egypt so far suggest that local security forces are much less skilled in managing new networking technologies than, say, the Chinese or the Iranians.

Third: how has Egypt’s brutal state security apparatus contributed to the current crisis? At the outset of the war on terror, Dick Cheney expressed admiration for the ruthless methods that Mubarak used to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood and shore up his own regime. Lawrence Wright described them penetratingly in The Looming Tower (generally, an excellent resource for those wanting a glimpse inside of Mubarak’s Egypt). These methods were widely seen as effective in insuring Mubarak a measure of stability. But the current developments show how deeply hated this internal security regime is and how ineffective it has been—so far—in quelling the uprising. The situation in Egypt seems to raise an old Machiavellian question: a leader may be enhanced by being feared, as long as those who fear him simultaneously recognize that he is guided by reason and at least a measure of justice. But once the fear-inspiring leader becomes an object of broad popular hatred, he is in a very difficult position.

Fourth: who is Omar Suleiman and why did Mubarak tap him as his presumed successor? Suleiman has extremely tight connections to the American CIA. He managed the Egyptian end of the CIA’s extraordinary renditions program. On the other hand, he dealt with Egypt’s international intelligence operations, not the hated domestic security and intelligence service. While Suleiman’s emergence as vice president has been the subject of speculation for a couple of years, it still seems an odd choice in the present circumstances. Why does Mubarak tap the CIA’s man in Egypt? What message is this choice intended to send to the street in Egypt? To Egypt’s defense and intelligence establishments? To Washington?

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

From the April 2015 issue

Company Men

Torture, treachery, and the CIA

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

June 2015

Loitering With Intent

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Polite Coup

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Findings

What Went Wrong

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Shooting Down Man the Hunter

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
What Went Wrong·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In the seventh year of his presidency, Barack Obama was presenting himself as a politician who followed the path of least resistance. This is a disturbing confession.”
Photograph by Pete Souza
Article
Surviving a Failed Pregnancy·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If this woman — who spent her days studying gray screens for early signs of gestation — could not see my pregnancy, what were the chances that anyone else would?”
Illustration by Leigh Wells
Article
Interesting Facts·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“My husband is forty-six. I am forty-five. He does not think that, in my forties, after cancer, chemotherapy, and chemically induced menopause, I can get pregnant again, but sisters, I know my womb. It’s proven.”
Photograph by McNair Evans
Post
Kid Chocolate’s Place·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Cuban eyes often look close to tears.”
Illustration by the author
Article
Thirty Million Gallons Under the Sea·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If you short-circuit the bottom, you threaten the entire cycle,” Joye told me. “Without a healthy ocean, we’ll all be dead.”
Illustration by John Ritter

Length in days of the sentence Russian blogger Alexei Navalny served for leading an opposition rally last year:

15

Israeli researchers developed software that evaluates the depression of bloggers.

A teenager in Singapore was convicted of obscenity for posts critical of Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s founding father, that included an image of Lee having sex with Margaret Thatcher.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Subways Are for Sleeping

By

“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”

Subscribe Today