Sunday, January 30, 2011

The wannabe Pharaoh and the will-be future

The 33 dynasties of ancient Egypt were characterized by a smugness of succession; a certain civic ruthlessness; and the ability of most of those god-kings and -queens and their enablers to impart to their minions a sense of the inevitability of the world revolving around them, the few, the elite, the rulers. The succession drama playing out in Egypt now — this minute — may well rewrite the social and geopolitical script of the modern Middle East, and the only stones left to mark the passing of Hosni I may well be those littering the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.

The unrest riveting the attention of the world seemingly erupted with a blinding speed. In five days the 29-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been challenged not by court intrigues but by a revolt of the Egyptian people. It’s already way bloody; to this point, more than 100 people have been killed and more than 2,000 wounded or injured. Maybe as many as 10,000 prisoners in Egyptian jails and prisons may be loose. And equally big damage has been done to Egypt’s standing as the bulwark of Arab-state stability in one of the world’s more volatile regions.

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Mubarak has long played the strongman. While he inherited the onerous Emergency Law, which since 1967 has endowed the police with broad powers of arrest and imprisonment without trial, he’s done almost nothing to rescind it (though there was an 18-month period in which it was suspended). He’s been re-elected by majority vote almost automatically. At one point, Mubarak won reelection by having himself nominated by the parliament, then confirmed with no opposition.

It’s as though the citizens of Egypt dropped their votes in a ballot box that concealed a paper shredder under the table.

Bowing to pressure in early 2005, Mubarak sought a change in the Egyptian constitution to permit elections with multiple candidates, but even with that vote, that September, the election machinery remained under his control. Censorship flourished, political prisoners were arrested and jailed by the thousands.

By all the meaningful metrics marking an evolving society, Egypt’s government has been suspected of or responsible for human rights violations and corruption almost panoramic in scope.

According to a November 2010 list of countries researched in a United Nations Human Development Index, Egypt ranks 101th out of 169 countries.

According to a 2010 ranking by Reporters Without Borders, Egyptian media ranks 127th in the world out of 178 in press freedom.

According to the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International, which monitors political corruption around the world, Egypt ranked 98th out of the 178 countries included in the report.

And according to a 2008 World Health Organization report, a staggering 91 percent of Egyptian girls and women have been forced to undergo female genital mutilation.

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It’s all led to an uprising that has grown almost faster than the world’s ability to absorb it. One reason is because of its breadth. “This is a leaderless movement,” said Shibley Telhami, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, on CNN Saturday.

That’s what gives this revolt so much power and resonance among the Egyptian people. The events of the last five days haven’t yet coalesced around one central opposition figure (despite interviews and news-conference comments made against the regime by Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, who may yet emerge as the player to be named later); they’ve occurred organically among the nation’s everyday people — a collective cry of Enough.

Those people have taken to the streets armed with the social-media weapons of Twitter and Facebook, triangulating their positions in the streets using cell phones with GPS capability, or (once the government took down mobile service) finding like-minded protesters face to face, signaling through the flames.

He could have seen this coming. We should have seen this coming. In power since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in October 1981, Mubarak is just short of 82 years old. The current situation is the stark indicator of a decades-long shortcoming of American vision.

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And it won’t do to drop this turd in President Obama’s lap alone. Previous occupants of the White House should have known that, pending a repeal of human mortality, Mubarak’s bid for a Pharaonic permanence was doomed to failure. Now the need to move toward a successor to Mubarak takes place amid a backdrop of chaos, which necessarily means it’s being done in a hurry. Making enormous decisions in a hurry is a recipe for disaster.

In an interview with NBC News on Sunday, Thomas Friedman of The New York Times explained how things got this bad: “We got to this moment basically because our concern about having a stable Egypt — first and foremost to preserve the peace treaty with Israel, and later to be a partner in the war on terrorism — let us give Mubarak a pass on democratization.”

“Egypt, and most of the Arab world, has been on vacation from history for the last 50 years ...”

Vacation is over. The days of the rule of the wannabe Pharaoh are, in all probability, seriously numbered. For Mubarak and the phantom government that exists in Cairo, what remains is to deftly find a way to take the first baby steps towards democratic reforms that are long overdue — and to do it before its own probable exit.

That’ll require a balancing act unprecedented in the region: to juggle the demands of millions of Egyptians seeking better lives; the geopolitical expectations of Washington, Egypt’s long-time foreign-aid benefactor; and the regional concerns of Israel, its uneasiest neighbor. All this while resisting the potential opportunism of terroristic entities seeking their main chance to exploit the current instability.

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For the United States, which provides Egypt about $1.3 billion in military aid every year, the immediate options are more limited. In the short term, the only viable option for America is to do what it can to facilitate Mubarak’s departure as elegantly as possible (behind the scenes, of course) and wait for this explosion of pent-up rage to play itself out, in the tragically inconvenient forum of the Egyptian streets.

But President Obama’s already given us a blueprint of what the posture of the United States will ultimately be. He did it when he came to Cairo in June 2009, to speak at Al-Azhar University in Cairo:

“America does not presume to know what is best for everyone, just as we would not presume to pick the outcome of a peaceful election. But I do have an unyielding belief that all people yearn for certain things: the ability to speak your mind and have a say in how you are governed; confidence in the rule of law and the equal administration of justice; government that is transparent and doesn't steal from the people; the freedom to live as you choose. These are not just American ideas; they are human rights. And that is why we will support them everywhere.”

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Ironically, Hosni Mubarak’s attempt to direct the modern history of his country has resulted in his being imprisoned by that history, and what it’s led to. Mubarak has held sway over a country of 80 million people, with a median age of 24 years old and a ruinous unemployment rate that’s damaged the prospects for the country’s professionals and intellectuals.

Now the wannabe Pharaoh faces a future of a populist aggression that’s as irresistible as it was almost certainly inevitable. The fourth president of the Arab Republic of Egypt may have privately harbored dynastic designs. With his present term as president already set to expire this year, he no doubt thought it was time to hand the reins of power to his son, Gamal — the better to continue the autocratic control of Egypt in a manner not unlike the rulers during the eras of the pyramids.

But the people of the most populated country in the Middle East and the third most populous in Africa have, in no uncertain terms, made a clear distinction between ancient history and the history being made right now.

The slaves who built the pyramids didn’t have Twitter accounts.

Image credits: Cairo protester: MSNBC. Mubarak: © 2009 Presidenza della Repubblica. Street unrest I: Associated Press. Street unrest II: Via The Huffington Post. Obama in Cairo 2009: Still from MSNBC.

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