Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Now we know the short-term cost of standing up for yourself in Egypt.

The bloodbath the world expected to wake up to last Friday in Tahrir Square didn’t materialize. The “day of departure” arrived with only the comings and goings of the thousands of people at that Cairo site, and no departure from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, reportedly at his vacation digs at Sharm el-Sheikh, taking a break from the presidential palace six-odd miles from the epicenter of his people’s revolt.

But we may be getting a bloodbath in slow motion. According to a Human Rights Watch report released on Monday, at least 297 people have been killed since the uprising started two weeks ago.

The death census compiled by the U.S.-based human rights organization is based on visits to seven hospitals in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, and contact with the medical staff who are in a position to know: doctors and morgue inspections. The count includes 65 deaths outside Cairo.

Heba Morayef, a Human Rights Watch researcher in Cairo, provided the information on Monday to The Associated Press.

With Sunday’s return to something approaching normal, there’s been what seems like a lull under way, an entr’acte before we get to the third-act gunplay. Days earlier, of course, it was ugly and strange. Journalists assaulted on the street; Molotov cocktails and stones exchanged. Gangs of pro-Mubarak thugs roaming the square and its environs and attacking at will; Mubarak supporters riding camels through the square at a fast clip, charging and lashing their way through like an attack party in the ancient souk.

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Since then, the dance of the governments has started for real. Mubarak has made grudging concessions to reform, among them naming his first vice president and reportedly considering meeting with opposition leaders.

On Saturday, members of Mubarak’s ruling party resigned. But not the man in the big chair. The Egyptian leader is playing a waiting game, hoping that time erodes the passions of the opposition. “Dictatorship has its own pathologies,” said Fouad Ajami, of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, on CNN Feb. 2. “This man doesn’t really believe his people want him to go. He thinks these are a bunch of rabble rousers. ...”

The United States, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton very much on point, is navigating a tricky position, apparently solid behind the demonstrators but equally committed to the idea of a shift to the now-inevitable post-Mubarak era. The phrase “orderly transition,” which both President Obama and Clinton have used in recent days, seems to be the operational descriptor for that process.

On Sunday, the new and first Egyptian vice president, Omar Suleiman, met with pro-reform representatives in what appears to be the first credible attempt at addressing the long-term concerns of opposition groups — among them more press and media freedoms, and an end to the so-called emergency laws, the broad grid of restriction and authority so long and so much a part of Egyptian life, its very name has warped the boundaries of where “emergency” even begins or ends.

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But it’s Monday’s news that stays with you. With all the feints and weaves, moves and countermoves,  seems the only people in this evolving drama with the best idea of what’s at stake are the people in the square.

For two weeks, they’ve hunkered down against a president who has outstayed his welcome and cajoled an army negotiating how it will outlast the president. I’ll admit it, more than once over the last two weeks, I figured they were probably done, half-expecting to turn on the TV and watch a flattening straight outta Tiananmen “already in progress.”

Instead, they’ve toughed it out, done it in a way that’s drawn the respect and admiration of the world.

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The silent consensus (besides the one that’s concluded Mubarak is history) is that at least for now, Mubarak’s remaining in office is the linchpin to everything. Some analysts have accepted the devil’s bargain, gravely hinting that without Mubarak, the Egyptian sky will fall, the moon turns to blood and the peace treaty with Israel dissolves to dust.

In fact, Mubarak’s insistence on a long goodbye may be the most immediately unsettling thing Egypt has to contend with. Tourism has already taken a hit; the wider economy takes more body blows every day the crisis drags on. But even with that problem, there’s no reason to think the peace treaty is in any jeopardy. Abrogation of that treaty, by action or by default, would usher in the one thing Egypt won’t tolerate: marginalization (or worse) on the stages of the region and the world.

Until very recently, the gradualists and pro-Mubarak supporters have rationalized their preference for the way things are now — the stability of a government in an unstable position — by preferring that to the fear of the unknown, and the possible political and military vacuum an immediate absence by Mubarak would in their minds create. It’s this sense of inevitability that Mubarak and his government have been cultivating for years.

This après moi lé deluge crap indicates just how short-sighted foreign policy has been vis-à-vis Egypt. The idea that Mubarak — 82 years old on May 4 — is the sole or even principal guarantor of Egypt’s compliance with its peace treaty with Israel overlooks the fact that that treaty was signed by Mubarak’s predecessor, Anwar Sadat. Mubarak inherited that treaty, just as his successor will inherit that treaty, its terms and its restrictions, once that democratically elected successor is known.

And finding that successor is the only agenda the bloody, unbowed people in Tahrir Square believe in right now.

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The sentiment has been circulating around the world in the media for nearly as long as the conflict: “We are all Egyptians now.” It’s a feeling that’s achieved a kind of empathic default position amid the current backdrop, as any number of pro-reform rallies and observances around the world will prove.

Some people are enamored of impossibly granular perspectives, like Daniel Larison, whose recent column in the American Conservative bent over backwards to say, “no, we’re not all Egyptians now.” Dismissing the importance of moral support — both its immediate emotional boost and its longer-term value as a foundation for strengthening geopolitical bonds of a more tangible kind — Larison trots out a passage from Burke’s “Reflections,” one he then proceeds to abuse in the service of his incrementally high-handed argument.

Larison doesn’t see, this isn’t flattery, it’s solidarity; it’s not about extending “congratulations,” this concerns an expression of empathy with a nation of other people who aspire to have something better, to be something better, some more perfect realization of themselves in the face of a current upheaval.

Larison’s chosen to ignore the purely humanistic element to that sentiment, going straight for the judgmental and the punitive. And he’s apparently forgotten those harrowing days and weeks after the attacks on the United States of Sept. 11, 2001. He’s forgotten the news reports of bands in London and Paris playing “The Star-Spangled Banner” back then. He’s forgotten the time when the opinion pages of the world’s media shouted, almost in unison, “We’re all Americans now.”

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Whether we side with the regime for the sake of maintaining what passes for stability in the eyes of the world, or we back the demonstrators as an expression of fidelity with the democratic values of personal freedom, we’ve all got a stake in the outcome, however rapid or gradual it is. Common sense, and not a little enlightened self-interest, makes it very clear what side to come down on.

The forces that drove hundreds of thousands into the streets of Cairo and Alexandria over the last two weeks are irresistible. The future of Egypt is coming as inexorably as the next sunrise. The people with skin in the game are the ones with skin left on the street. And literally or figuratively, that means more than the people in Tahrir Square. That means pretty much everyone in Egypt.

Amr Moussa, president of the 22-nation Arab League, told CBS News on Feb. 2: “The message has been sent, the message has been received. It will never be the same again. I firmly believe that the Arab world, in one year time, will not be the same as we see it today.”

In an inescapably interdependent time, what affects their world ultimately hits us all.

Image credits: Mubarak and Angela Merkel, September 2010: The Associated Press. All other images via The Huffington Post; originating sources unknown.

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