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:

Context, No Comment August 28, 2015, 12:16 pm

Beltway Secrecy

In five easy lessons

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.

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

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

February 2016

The Queen and I

Disunified Front

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Isn’t It Romantic?

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trusted Traveler

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Trouble with Iowa

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
Isn’t It Romantic?·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“He had paid for much of her schooling, something he cannot help but mention, since the aftermath of any failed relationship brings an ungenerous and impossible impulse to claw back one’s misspent resources.”
Illustration by Shonagh Rae
Article
The Trouble with Iowa·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“It seems to defy reason that this anachronistic farm state — a demographic outlier, with no major cities and just 3 million people, nine out of ten of them white — should play such an outsized role in American politics.”
Photograph (detail) © Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Article
Rule, Britannica·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“This is the strange magic of an arrangement of all the world’s knowledge in alphabetical order: any search for anything passes through things that have nothing in common with it but an initial letter.”
Artwork by Brian Dettmer. Courtesy the artist and P.P.O.W., New York City.
Article
The Queen and I·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Buckingham Palace is a theater in need of renovation. There is something pathetic about a fiercely vacuumed throne room. The plants are tired. Plastic is nailed to walls and mirrors. The ballroom is set for a ghostly banquet. Everyone is whispering, for we are in a mad kind of church. A child weeps.”
Photograph (detail) © Martin Parr/Magnum Photos
Article
We Don’t Have Rights, But We Are Alive·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“If I really wanted to learn about the Islamic State, Hassan told me, I ought to speak to his friend Samir, a young gay soldier in the Syrian Army who’d been fighting jihadis intermittently for the past four years.”
Photograph (detail) by Anwar Amro/AFP/Getty

Amount by which the number of government jobs in the U.S. exceeds the number of manufacturing jobs:

5,129,000

The sound of mice being clicked may induce seizures in house cats.

In Turlock, California, nearly 3,500 samples of bull semen were stolen from the back of a truck.

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

HARPER’S FINEST

Two Christmas Mornings of the Great War

By

Civilization masks us with a screen, from ourselves and from one another, with thin depth of unreality. We habitually live — do we not? — in a world self-created, half established, of false values arbitrarily upheld, largely inspired by misconception, misapprehension, wrong perspective, and defective proportion, misapplication.

Subscribe Today