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?

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