Friday, January 28, 2011


I'm following events in Egypt on Twitter and Al Jazeera, along with other outlets as convenient. It's quite remarkable to be ahead of some of the MSM.

What one sees on Twitter, of course, depends on who you follow. I'm mostly following American center-left commenters, who retweet selected material from those on the scene. @blakehounshell and @abuaardvark are particularly good.

I'm also following some leftish blogfriends who, up until Hillary Clinton's press conference this morning, were grousing about the Obama administration's not unambiguously backing the demonstrators, which they believe they would do if they were president. Marc Lynch (@abuaardvark) has a good response. He also suggested, via Twitter, that Clinton's comments were an offer to mediate between Egypt's president (for the last three decades) Hosni Mubarak and the demonstrators. I'm not sure how that would work.

Mona Eltahawy thinks it's beautiful that the Egyptian crowds seem to have no leaders. I've got my doubts. If the government is toppled and there is a power vacuum, it will be filled, and previous revolutions show that it may not be in a favorable or democratic way.

There have been a few tweets that the Egyptian army is befriending the demonstrators. This would be an important marker of how things will go; will the army decide that it can't fire on fellow citizens, will it decide to keep President Mubarak's favor, or will it decide to keep order in its own way?

Some of the tweeting is focusing on Mubarak's silence. There was a report that he would speak earlier today, but he didn't. Clinton's remarks seemed to indicate that the administration is putting heavy pressure on him, but to do what is not clear. This is one place where an analogy to 1991 might fit: As Mikhail Gorbachev did, resist the temptation to use force. But Gorbachev's outcome may deter Mubarak from his course of action.

It's easy for those of us not directly involved to get euphoric about change in a place that has been subject to dictatorship for so long. It was easy to believe that American soldiers would be met with flowers and candy in Iraq. It's easy to believe that bold public statements from President Obama would turn the demonstrations into a march to democracy. It's easy to believe that this will be a replay of 1989. But the cavalry charges over the hill with a bold bugle call only in the movies. Real life is messier. We're going to have to wait and see what happens.

More reading:
Massimo Calabresi: Is the Arab World Ready for Democracy? Better article than title.

NY Times on Wikileaks cables on US-Egypt diplomacy.

Emptywheel: The Neocons' Long Animosity toward Mohamed ElBaradei.

Andrew Albertson: Principled Neutrality? I would have left off the question mark.


helmut said...

I was one of those in DC who lost power for a day and internet for nearly three days after the latest snowstorm. It's moving so quickly that I've missed a lot of what's happening in Egypt and I'm probably just repeating what's been said days ago. But...

I don't see any reference anywhere to Algeria 1992, when decades of colonial and post-colonial dictatorial rule finally ceded some ground to democratic parliamentary elections. A great moment, despite a repressive government. But when it became clear that the extremely conservative Front Islamique du Salut was going to win the elections, the government called it all off. The FIS ran on a platform of strict sharia law, which included rejecting democratic elections. What is a repressive government to do? The result was a nasty civil war characterized by terroristic forms of violence.

Democratically-elected to outlaw democracy... one of the great modern reminders of the fragility of democratic institutions.

Not that Egypt is the same country or has the same history or situation. But it does have a growing Islamic fundamentalist movement. From what I understand, the Egyptian fundamentalist groups are splintered and the largest of them renounce political-religious violence. But the Coptic church attack a few weeks ago was a hint of the simmering potential - maybe of smaller groups using terroristic tactics, which make small seem a lot larger, but still.

Anyway, just a consideration. I spent a few weeks in Egypt once and know only a little about its modern history, so I'm sure someone else can shed light here.

My only point is that, although it's exciting to see the increasing boldness of democratic demands made on governments in the Maghreb and Middle East, there's the possibility of an entirely different direction for governance with just as significant consequences for regional and even global politics.

Cheryl Rofer said...

Welcome back to the Web, Helmut!

Imagine how the commentariat would gloat if that outage happened in, say, Moscow!

You make a good point - Algeria is one more possible example. My own feeling is that every revolution is sui generis and could go in any number of directions, depending on the fervor of the people, the recalcitrance of the government, the availability and desirability of alternatives, outside influences, and any number of random things that might or might not happen.

So one can consider historical precedents and see parallels. I can't believe that Mubarak hasn't thought about Gorbachev. But there's been a too-easy assumption taken from a totally inadequate understanding of the events of the late eighties that people go into the streets and then there's a democratic government with no blood.

Not that simple.

C.M. Mayo said...

Thanks for these informative posts and comments. While it is certainly possible (as many a book and PhD thesis demonstrate) to come up with stylized facts / general paradigms about revolutions, as I have been studying Francisco Madero and the Mexican Revolution of 1910, I have to agree with Cheryl, that each revolution really is its own wild card. A little known fact, well documented in recent books and open to the eyes of anyone who wants to go look in his archive, is that Madero was a spiritist and a medium and he ran for office and later led the Revolution on the advice of discarnate spirits. That is a bit of a square peg for the round hole of theory, no?Anything can happen. Maybe we all should have bought solar batteries.

Cheryl Rofer said...

One person I've seen - I think Marc Lynch - has mentioned Algeria since Helmut did.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman brings in the Philippines.