Monday, January 31, 2011

On The View From Egypt, Part Six, Or, Let's Review Where We Are

We’re a week into the Egyptian uprising now, and it’s time to reassess what has taken place so far and what might come next.

We know a few things, and we don’t know a lot—and from what we can tell, the folks on the ground are also not sure what might happen. That said, we do know enough to begin to figure out the right questions to be asking.

As was true Friday, things are moving fast, so let’s jump right in.

You know, David, there, there is a joke that went around Egypt for many years about Mubarak that he was on his death bed and an Egyptian delegation came to see him of the people. The nurse came in, said, "Mr. President, the people are here to say goodbye." And Mubarak said, "Oh, really? Where are they going?" So, you know, Egyptians have been telling this joke for a long time. It isn't funny anymore.

--Thomas Friedman, on Meet the Press, January 30, 2011

So let’s start with what we know: Friday and Saturday were indeed epic days for Egyptians as they hit the streets in such massive numbers that the Mubarak Government has appointed (NDP insider, chief of the Intelligence service, and “chief rendition manager”) Omar Suleiman as his first Vice-President in 30 years.

It was an attempt to try the “meet the new boss, same as the old boss” strategy, and it looks like it did not go well.

The wrath of the crowds were most particularly directed at the police who have been robbing them blind for decades (not to mention all the “tenderizing” and other forms of political repression we’ve talked about before), and police stations across the country were first stormed, then looted, then burned.

In response...the police disappeared, and they have not been seen on the streets since. (That may not be entirely true, however, which we’ll get to as we go along.)

A Fort Apache, the Bronx moment occurred as a standoff took place at the Interior Ministry (the headquarters of those same hated police), and it may be crucial to understanding how this entire crisis plays out:

Crowds were swarming the place, trying to get inside, presumably to loot and burn, and the police were shooting back, with rubber-coated bullets and clouds of tear gas.

The Army then arrived, with armored personnel carriers, and took up positions that seemed to be intended to protect...the protesters.

There are accounts that report that the Army attempted to negotiate a solution, which failed, after which police again began opening fire on the crowd.

The headquarters of President Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) was burned.

Vandalism occurred at the National Museum.

Since then the Army has taken up positions across the country (the Museum included), and they seem to be protecting Government buildings—but they are not attempting to enforce curfews or to stop the protests in any other way.

Something else the Army has not been doing is acting as a police force: looting is taking place, and it’s affecting homes and businesses alike. Communities have been responding by defending themselves, which is obviously going to create its own problems.

All this is already impacting daily life: the banks are closed, which means you better have cash, but many stores are closed, which means cash is of somewhat limited value. It is exceedingly difficult to move around the city as ad hoc roadblocks controlled by neighborhood residents go up around town

Along the way the Government tried to shut down information flow by disabling “device telecommunications” and broadband Internet access...even to the point of blocking access to the Egyptian Constitution’s web site (this according to the El Badeel newspaper)...and people have responded by downloading certain programs that might provide workarounds.

That modem you never use has suddenly become vastly more important as dialup and DSL services provide what access they can through the phone lines. (This obviously has its limits, and it’s hard to imagine how long it could take to upload video with a 56k connection.)

It’s like something out of “Casablanca” as tons of people try to get on whatever flight out of town might be available; numerous countries are or soon will be flying out their own citizens on charter aircraft, and the same is true for various private entities who maintain staff in the country.

Mohamed El Baradei is emerging as a potential interim leader; we’ll talk more about that in a minute.

The police are now trying to return to the streets.

As Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are “known unknowns”:

The police, as we said, are trying to return...but considering that they were the target of much of the anger in the first place, who knows how that’s going to work out?

That question becomes more interesting when you consider that there are many who believe that the police themselves have been “arranging” some portion of the looting and vandalism, either themselves, personally, or by releasing prisoners into the community who will do the looting themselves.

The Muslim Brotherhood, who represent the interests of something like a quarter to a third of all Egyptians, will be a part of the political conversation going forward (absent some incredible crackdown), and that could be a moderating or a highly negative influence: it is possible that the Brotherhood could restrain those who are far more radical—or the far more radical could be the Brotherhood themselves.

You should also know that a "split decision" is possible: there has been a movement by the Mubarak Government over the years to allow religious groups to have some say over certain elements of "civil law" that used to be enforced in a strictly secular manner; this to prevent the very type of unrest that we're seeing today.

There could be an outcome that makes that arrangement permanent--and considering how much religious diversity there is in Egypt today, that could be a source of future conflict as well.

The Suez Canal is important inside and outside of Egypt, and obviously we cannot say with certainty whether its operations will be affected. There have been threats made against the Canal by Bedouin in the Sinai—but the Army would be expected to be very aggressive in defending the facility, and attacking the Army is probably going to be much different than attacking the local police.

The Army is itself associated with some great big unknowns:

--will they side with the demonstrators and against the current Government?

--will they assist the police in reimposing their particular brand of “law and order”—or will they stop the police from abusing the citizens?

--will they (or the police) be unable to reestablish any form of law and order in certain neighborhoods, now that “community policing” has taken over?

Another big unknown: how does the business community deal with all this? Some (“...same as the old boss...”) may see the changes as detrimental; others may find great opportunity in a new Egypt.

Keeping in mind how we have related to Egypt over the years, will Egypt be less friendly to Israel and the United States after this? (My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that virtually any outcome is going to lead to a “yes” answer.)

How far beyond Egypt does this spread—and could events in Yemen or Lebanon or Jordan push Egypt in a way not considered likely today?

The last unknown is one I don’t hear others talking about: what happens if the NDP tries to stay in power without any Mubaraks as President?

“...this is a...a corpse in oaken oblong coffin, silky’s a dead body, Patsy.”

“Yeah, but is it art, Eddie?”

--“Pasty” and “Edwina”, from the television show Absolutely Fabulous

To finish out today’s story, let’s just toss out a final thought about what we’ve seen so far—and then let’s break all the rules and bury the lead, by ending the story with some “new” news:

As the crisis in Egypt unfolded CNN had 24-hour “all hands on deck” coverage with multiple reporters in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, Fox News was on the air with news, commentary, and some odd “happy talk”, Al Jazeera had the pictures everyone else was showing on their coverage—and MSNBC had some very special episodes of Lockup and Predator Raw: The Unseen Tapes (iced tea and cookies, anyone?) to supplement Alex Witt and the hourly Richard Engle stand ups.

(I’m a big fan, Mr. Engle, but you can’t be expected to do it all by yourself...)

Is it possible that MSNBC suffered a “credibility uprising” as damaging as Mubarak’s this weekend? And how much of that, if any, can be spelled C-O-M-C-A-S-T?

And what do you think are the odds that Jon Stewart, Aasif Mandvi, and Jason Jones will notice any of this on Monday?

Now for the “new” news: there has been a lot of talk about whether anyone outside of the Muslim Brotherhood could muster an organization that could govern, and it appears that Mohamed El Baradei is doing exactly that: Wa’el Nawara is reporting from his weekite blog that a ten member committee has gathered around Dr. El Baradei that includes:

Dr Baltagi from the Muslim Brotherhood, Ayman Nour from El Ghad Party, Dr Osama El Ghazaly Harb from DFP, George Ishak and Dr. Abdel Gileel Mostafa (NAC), Hamden Sabahi from Karama, and Abou El Ezz El Haariri representing the leftists.

They intend to start by negotiating with the Army or the Government (or both) to move to a unity Government first, then elections—and if I get my Egyptian politics right, that’s a pretty inclusive group.

As we said Friday, however, coalitions have a history of breaking down, and there is no way to know, today, how things will work out for this group.

So there you go: lots of knowns, big giant unknowns, and a network that has to figure out if they’re going to become a real 24-hour news network—or if they can find a better news scheduleler, so that less of the news takes place on the days they take off.

Today is likely to be another important day—in fact, there’s likely to be a bunch of them in a row—and if there is one thing I’m willing to predict it’s that whatever we’re seeing today, it won’t be what we see in a week, which could be either incredibly inspiring...or incredibly depressing.

Stay tuned to Egypt, folks—and to the rest of the neighborhood, as well—because big things are afoot, and if they come to fruition it could happen very, very fast.

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