EGYPT CRISIS AND HISTORY'S WARNINGS

by Mark Scheinbaum

NEW, SECOND SUPPLEMENT ADDED!


The demonstrators in Cairo, met by riot police tear-gas, along with gathering soldiers and tanks, should make U.S. and other diplomats review events from 58 years ago, this month, when Lt. Col. Gamal Abdel Nassar Hussein shook up Egypt, the Suez Canal and the world.

In Washington this week President Obama, through comments on YouTube and through Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Clinton, has had to walk the foreign policy tight rope a layman might dub "Better the Devil We Know, or the Revolution Unknown?"

To even refer to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak as "the Devil" is pushing truth a bit, at least from Washington's perspective.

For three decades Mubarak has fought domestic crises to maintain strong support for U.S. Middle East initiatives -- before, during, and after the Sept. 11, 2011 attacks on America -- and has often defused tensions between Egypt and Israel. As one might observe with the demise of Marshall Tito of Yugoslavia, and the ouster of the Shah of Iran, "revolution" and "civil uprisings" come at a price, and the price does not always purchase anything remotely resembling U.S.-style democratic freedoms.

Nassar back on this precise week of 1953 considered himself too low ranking to garner wide public and elite support for a takeover in Egypt, so he manipulated his rise to power with surrogates. But the evolution of his strong rule, two wars with Israel, and the Suez Crisis (which most historians now feel allowed Washington to take the honorable high ground while France and the U.K. tried to influence and manipulate their own national interests in the region) have some familiar lessons for today's crisis.

While by well-to-do Egyptian standards, Nassar and his family were way below the level of influential military and political elites needed to climb the leadership ladder, using well cultivated patrons and various attempts at civil service, law, business, and military careers, the former Egyptian postman built a mass movement.

In fact, the work of the late Prof. James Davies in his "J-Curve Theory of Revolution" and other sociologists and political scientists often point to the mounting conflicts of rich vs. poor in Egyptian society from 1930-1950 and the rise of Nassar as a classic template of predictive revolutionary theory.

The United States, Western Europe, and moderate Arab states and emirates have actually applauded Mubarak's ability in recent decades to turn on and off the tap of government controls and repression of civil and religious rights, in favor of secular power and dampening the rise of radical Islamic activists.

The continuum of the Nassar legacy in the Mubarak variation on a theme, ironically dovetails with the rise of Social Networks and instant global internet communications. Mubarak who has used control of media and press to subdue growing young Islamic militants in recent years, and the force of a pseudo Police State to jail his opponents or worse has come face to face with cyber reality. He called Vodafone and other international cell phone providers and exercised the terms of their contract and license to operate in Egypt to cut off cell service. Egypt also shut down servers and links to Facebook, Twitter and other social networks to keep Egyptians from communicating with friends and relatives overseas and even in their own neighborhoods.

In a society which last year was touted at the next BRIC (Brazil-Russia-India-China) emerging investment market target (along with Vietnam, Colombia, Turkey, and Indonesia), Egypt still remains a third-world nation that derives 50% of its gross domestic product from overseas fund transfers from Egyptian ex-pat workers wiring money back home from abroad.

Cutting of internet and social networks only goes so far these days.

In a world of Blackberries, Androids, 3G, 4G, mobile CNN and BBC satellite uplink earth stations etc., many of us who roam the globe on business shrug off local restrictions and nationalistic attempts to cut off our livelihood. Even a low cost Kindle electronic reader can easily be configured into an entire library of global news and information by an average user anywhere in the world. BBC-TV reported early today that i-Phone and other high tech users in Egypt were simply contacting friends and family with detailed links and instructions for downloading new "applications" which basically takes Cairo -- or any other government -- out of the communications control business.

When CNBC-TV correspondents at the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland chatted in "long form" interviews with anchors in Fort Lee, New Jersey, at the New York Stock Exchange, and on the back of a truck in Cairo, the communications were seamless. The Cairo correspondent would not give specific details of the network he had cobbled together, but indicated "we established a direct satellite link and decided just to keep it on and never shut it down." The implication was that short of police tracking them down via the TV feed, arresting them or shooting them, the government of Egypt doesn't have the foggiest clue on how to compete with Cisco, AT&T, Cable & Wireless, Google, Apple, SAP, Microsoft or IBM.

The Emirate part of the equation, while still in the rumor stage, borders on the humorous. Wealthy mini-States such as Dubai, Qatar or Bahrain are owned by a few wealthy families, but run day-to-day by foreign workers who some feel are almost indentured servants from Bangladesh, the Philippines and a dozen other nations. Lest the lower levels and younger wards of the Sheiks and Emirs get restless for participatory democracy from Al-Jazeera or CNN feeds from Cairo or Alexandria. The rumor du jour is that one or more of the emirates had spread the word that each citizen is going to receive a $5,000 one-time gift from the government. At this point the foreign workers who can be deported at any time for no particular reason, don't seem to be included in the instant largesse.

While getting caught up in the excitement of the moment, international viewers might have noted that when local police monitored Cairo demonstrators for the first three days, things -- on the surface -- seemed rather calm. We now learn that behind the scenes youth leaders and "pro-democracy" activists were being rounded up, beaten, and allegedly killed in some cases.

As tens of thousands of Egyptians took to the street after Friday Prayers, many had received emails with guidance on how to behave, how to march, and what to wear to protect themselves from tear-gas and rubber bullets. Early TV broadcasts showed demonstrators marching rag-tag down the streets but police in riot gear clustered on sidewalks doing nothing.

To the distant observer it also appears that smashing, looting, and brick throwing at police started only when police attempted to halt the marchers. CNN reported a few hours later that demonstrators chanting the Arabic word for "Freedom! Freedom!" actually cheered the arrival of regular Egyptian Army Forces who -- with automatic weapons and tanks -- apparently are still viewed as more professional, honest, and restrained than local and national police forces who are perceived as more corrupt and under Mubarak's henchmen leadership.

The dilemma for the United States and other Egyptian friends and trading partners is that nothing reported by the Western press eliminates the suspicion that the same black-clad gangs of observant Moslem community activists and militants who have tried for decades to gain elected political power in the government, are not part of the street demonstrations. The cries off "Freedom" can easily be "freedom for secular democratic civil, artistic, religious, gender, and sexual rights" or "freedom for mobilization, expansion, and implementation of Islamic law a la Taliban and Afghanistan."

If the fluid state of events is further expanded, it is not much of a stretch to wonder if Iran, after thwarting its own fizzled "democracy" movement and continuing on a possible nuclear weapons path, has a dog in this fight. Would any successor regime to Mubarak follow a Jordanian or Dubai road to internationalism, commerce, and moderate Islamic religious freedoms? Or does it align itself with the drumbeat of anti-Zionist rhetoric as a surrogate for embracing political and trade ties to Iran and remaining anti-Western radicals in Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Take this entire palate on canvas in progress in the context of anti-government movements in recent weeks in Yemen, Tunisia (an overthrow), Sudan (an election), and even Libya and scary times could be ahead.

Of course commodity and equity markets do not like "scary" and mounting concerns during the day from Egypt killed off a nine week sustained rally in Wall Street, and added volatility to oil stocks. For those investing in those stocks it might have been a good day, but anything which threatens stability in Egypt threatens the flow of trade through the Suez Canal.

An estimated half of the world's sea commerce and petroleum is directly or tangentially impacted by Suez transit. A threatened or actual closure of the Canal usually leaders to a "force majeur" where insurance companies, bonding agents, and shippers say "all bets are off" on guaranteeing the safety of oil and other cargo shipments.

The windfall of projected higher oil prices turns to huge costs and possible losses for oil companies. Delayed shipments, delivery failures, or destruction of tankers - and pollution caused by ships caught in the crossfire of war - scramble the balance sheets.

The world of Nassar included a three year experiment called the United Arab Republic which failed. Allowing theocracy to dictate a policy of hate and exclusion failed Nassar. Using the fear of a theocracy to slam shut freedom of expression may ironically mean the downfall of Mubarak.

The Devil Unknown is waiting in the wings.

- Mark Scheinbaum -


THE FOLLOWING DAY ... NEW SUPPLEMENT:

EGYPT'S FUTURE AND THE "GIMME" GENERATION

Looting, civil unrest, and a perceived lack of direction of the "revolutionary" movement in Egypt seem to have forced the USA and others to rethink their relationship to Hosni Mubarak, and revealed the sad truths of the "Gimmetocracy."

I listened to Secretary of State Clinton make the rounds of Talking Head Shows this Sunday morning, and actually heard the opposite of what seemed like President Obama's Friday night tacital endorsement of a peaceful overthrow of longtime ally Mubarak.

While pundits argue about whether or not the Muslim Brotherhood has a role in the street demonstrations, and prisoners have been freed, stores looted, and arsenals raided (ummmm, guns for Gaza?), the State Department now focuses on a promised September election and maintaining law and order.

The mob sentiment and headlines are too fluid for valid predictions.

The complexities of Egyptian class structure and Mideast politics are beyond my expertise and pay grade.

But listening to some of the demonstrators interviewed in English and watching the "social media" and "standard of living" or "elite" concerns of many demonstrators suddenly flashed the perfect parallel. It is not oligarchy, or meritocracy or democracy, it is the latest consumer and self centered manifestation of a Gimmetocracy. The "Gimme, Gimme" Generation has now surfaced once again.

The flash of recognition, came from this one news report in Spring 2003 from Baghdad.

If you agree that there are similarities nod your head and tell a friend.

If you think I am off the wall, well tell my wife, she probably agrees with you.

But:

....The scene is a suburban technical high school in Baghdad, trashed, some windows broken, and some supplies and equipment looted or destroyed by rival gangs, remnants of Saddam Hussein loyalists, and finally routed and arrested by U.S. forces.

….. The camera pulls back from scattered papers, broken glass, smashed furniture, and defaced chalkboards, A few young U.S. soldiers who had put their lives on the line for the Iraqi people--in full battle gear in 90 degree plus heat--pick through the rubble as the voice of a reporter tells what happened. Apparently the tape was from a few days earlier.

. . . Now back with an update the camera shows seven or ten young and middle aged Iraqi men. Beards neatly trimmed. Nike and Ralph Lauren golf shirts. What appears to be expensive wristwatches. Full toothed white smiles flash at the camera. Trappings of status. Trappings of wealth or certainly upper middle class."

"When will the Americans clean up this mess. They contributed to the mess. This is a disgrace, This is our school, this is not what we were told would be happening. It has been more than a week and this school is still not fit for classes," were the comments of the men in translated Arabic and broken English and sometimes in more forceful verbiage.

My wife and I simultaneously turned from the TV and looked at each other ...

We both were struck with the same thoughts.

After Hurricane Andrew people in Miami were in the streets with shovels and boxes and brooms in six hours. In the German Blitz of London during WWII when the all clear sirens wailed civil defense crews were locating, defusing, or detonating bombs, rescuing victims, and cleaning away debris.

Okay, it was just a sudden flash, an image, a connection.

We have seen Hamid and Hanna Doe, in a middle class neighborhood of Cairo, picking up sticks and protecting shops and stores, and trying to keep roving bands of gangsters from their streets, and trying to put their asses on the line to fill the void left by fleeing police. There are indeed people who care and care passionately about their future. One assumes many are willing to do the heavy lifting and pay the price to build a new nation.

But there is also the nagging feeling that those with cell phones Twittering and Facebooking, and angry at a cut in bandwidth and connectivity, have a bad case of the "give me’s."

In the "liberation" of Iraq none of those young men with passion and conviction in their faces similar to the Cairo mobs, lifted a broom or a brush or a hand to clean up a school in their own neighborhood. It was fine work for kids in uniform from Erie, Edinburgh, Winnipeg, Budapest, Perth and Dothan, or Taos and Bakersfield, but not for Iraqis.

Gimme! Gimme! Gimme!

Keep in mind that the legitimacy of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the first place has nothing to do with getting to work and taking your future into your own hands.

"Give me liberty or give me death" in some circles has now become more like the lyrics of an Abba song. If U.S. support of Mubarak -- at least until a "peaceful electoral transition" fails, and Hosni and his posse sneak of town after dark -- the Cairo masses might be singing "Gimme, Gimme, Gimme a man after midnight."

- Mark Scheinbaum -
 


Dear friend, MARK SCHEINBAUM is a multi-topic journalist and longtime Political Scientist ...

He would be nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, additionally securing a Political Science Association award for his thesis, ‘Cuban Foreign Policy in the English-Speaking Caribbean’. Mark would also teach Political Science, US Foreign Policy, and ‘The Role of The Press in Foreign Policy Formulation’ at a variety of universities.

Over the years, Mark has haunted many news media halls - from United Press International, to ABC News in New York, additionally providing nationally syndicated radio commentaries, along with special reports for CNN radio - and much more ...

It's an honor to have Mark - again - gracing the pages of JosephMind with his thoughtful analysis.


 

Send an Email to JosephMind

 

RETURN TO CONTENTS MENU



RETURN TO THE MIND ENTRANCE

 original contents copyright © joseph bambach