Friday, February 11, 2011

Egypt: Liberation squared

“Every Egyptian is a different Egyptian today.”
                   — Mohammed ElBaradei, Feb. 11, 2011

Sometimes, contrary to the old saying, the future doesn’t “sneak up on you.” On certain occasions, it has a way of roaring up and announcing itself unmistakably, in a Cairo minute: “It’s time. I’ve arrived ... deal with it!”

That happened today in Egypt, when Omar Suleiman, the new vice president of the nation of 80 million people, announced that Hosni Mubarak, for 29 years and three months the president of Egypt — the only leader about 40 percent of its people had ever known — had been ousted from his office, sent packing (a day after vowing to stay in office) to Sharm el Sheikh, his in-country Elba on the Red Sea. Game over.

The way’s now open to the second presidential election in the history of Egypt, a vote with the potential to solidify Egypt’s arrival as a democratic force for change in a volatile part of the Middle East.

Getting to the September elections, however, will be a period of relative instability, as the country’s new interim military leader tests his muscle, and any number of political organizations outlawed or muzzled under the Mubarak regime try to find their voice and their message. At the same time, there’s the potential for this relative vacuum to be exploited by the bad actors and bombers whose brutal work defines so much of the Middle East.

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You didn’t have to be an analyst or a foreign-affairs professional to see that Mubarak was pretty much finished from the jump. Shortly after this started on Jan. 25th, that fact was as plain as observing the crowds that occupied Tahrir Square and  Liberation Square in Cairo, and the city of Alexandria — crowds visible from the live streaming video of the crowds from Al Jazeera, among other networks, as visible in the photographs from The Associated Press, Reuters and Getty Images.

Of course there were the usual children of revolt: young, testosterone-driven, rebellious by nature and chafing especially badly in a battered economy even more battered in the wake of 18 days of revolution. These were the ones who exploded the conversation, the ones who viralized the revolution on Twitter and Facebook, shrinking the world and riveting our attention on a square in central Cairo like it was the only place in the world.

But there were others. Solid nuclear families, middle-aged or older, middle-class or nearly so by Egyptian standards: mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, toddlers and young girls in tow, all driven to witness their country in an act of transformation as profound and, in some ways as immediate, as the morphing of a chrysalis into a butterfly.

That combination was irresistible. It spanned the national demographic of age and gender, and effectively put the lie to Mubarak’s early claim that all the trouble was the work of a knot of malcontents bent on overthrow. ElBaradei’s presence and statements gave the revolution an internationalist voice; it was the diversity of the pro-reformist population that gave it credibility.

When the Usual Suspects and the Silent Majority are on the same side against you, you’re in trouble.

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That there’s been a liberation of the Egyptian people is obvious. What will have the chinpullers on the Potomac working overtime will be how the fairly rapid outcome of the Egyptian situation plays out in Washington.

Practically speaking, it’s not much of a debate. The relatively swift resolution of the crisis redounds nicely on the Obama administration. They had to do a tightrope walk worthy of the Flying Wallendas: supporting the pro-democracy movement while careful not to be seen trying to crowbar Mubarak out of the presidency; working the backchannels to ratchet up pressure not on Mubarak directly, but on the institutions he relied on (chief among them the army) for power.

The result for the White House: a successful outcome. "The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same," President Obama said at the White House. The outcome wasn’t bloodless by any measure, about three hundred people died in the 18 days, scores more were wounded. Egypt has taken a huge short-term hit in tourism, its true stock in trade, and in the world of global business.

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And a lot can happen in the next seven months.

Reuters reported late Friday that U.S. officials believe that Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, chief of the Higher Military Council now running the country, is foursquare behind the peace treaty with Israel, but they’ve had misgivings about him before based on his “being resistant to political and economic reform.”

Reuters cites a 2008 U.S. State Department cable made public by Wikileaks and quoted by Reuters today. It described Tantawi:

“Charming and courtly, he is nonetheless mired in a post-Camp David military paradigm that has served his cohort's narrow interests for the last three decades," the cable said, referencing the treaty.

The cable says Tantawi "has opposed both economic and political reform that he perceives as eroding central government power."

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This is concerning, but for right now, only slightly. A lot has occurred in Egypt since 2008. However personally opposed to wider economic and political freedoms Tantawi may have been three years ago really doesn’t matter compared to what’s transpired more recently. After the upheaval that put him in his current position, it would be the height of hubris — even for a military man — to return to the same restrictions that led to the chaos of 18 days of revolution in the first place.

For all his expertise as a soldier, Tantawi is now compelled in the short-term to wear another hat: Statesman. A trip to Washington is already planned, and Tantawi has spoken with U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates at least five times already, Reuters reports. The escalation of Tantawi’s profile on the world stage will make it very difficult to turn the guns of the army he directs on his own people, whatever the short-term rationale might be.

A lot can happen in three years. A lot more can happen in three weeks.

Egypt is now poised to more fully enter the democratic sphere of influence, and to burnish its bona fides on the world stage, a Muslim nation ready to renounce terrorism and rebuild its economy. As business and tourism come back, as the electoral process unfolds, Cairo (already a benefactor of American foreign policy largesse) will be in a greater position to work with Washington to establish Egypt as a center of moderation in the Middle East, as Saudi Arabia is now.

The Foxes and Limbaughs and other professional haters will rail against Obama in the short term; the potential for a new Egypt emerging as a new bulwark against terrorism in the Middle East, in thrall to small-d democratic principles, is cause for at least a cautious celebration tonight in the White House.

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John Lennon once observed that “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

As of now, Hosni Mubarak is busy making other plans, having been forced to change the elaborate design of his professional life. And the Egyptian people, facing big challenges of their own, are in the first heady throes of knowing what democratic achievement feels like.

The devil, as always, will be in the details. But for the Egyptians the victory is there, as always and inescapably, in the big picture: Knowing that life doesn’t have to just happen anymore.

Image credits: Top two: via The Huffington Post. Obama: Still from White House video. Al-Ahram front page: © 2011 Al-Ahram. Crowd in Cairo: Hussein Malla/The Associated Press.

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