Egypt in Turmoil/ Hezbollah gets its way
Jan 28, 2011 | AIJAC staff
January 28, 2011
Number 01/11 #07
Today’s Update deals with the fallout from the extraordinary three days of protest in Egypt, following the example of Tunisia. It also has some analysis of Hezbollah’s apparent success in getting its preferred candidate, businessman Najib Mikati, in position to become Lebanon’s next PM (a short profile of Mikati is here.)
We lead off with a look at Egypt from diplomat turned scholar Zvi Mazel, a former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt. He looks in detail at the various grievances and groups involved in the unrest, as well as the assets the Mubarak regime possesses. He says the key fact may be that the loyalty of security forces is not in doubt, but that the regime will emerge, if at all, weakened, and having to pay a considerable price to quell the unrest. For Mazel’s detailed look at the forces at play in Egypt, CLICK HERE. More on the crucial role and loyalty of Egypt’s security services come from military analyst Jeffrey White of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Next up, author and Middle East analyst Lee Smith gives his take on the unrest, which he sees as directed as much at the proposed succession of Mubarak’s son Gamal as at the regime itself. He looks at the position of the security forces, and the main possible alternative to Gamal Mubarak, intelligence chief Omar Suleiman. Smith also reminds readers that street unrest over prices, economic conditions and other grievances is actually fairly common in Egypt and it is a mistake to pretend to “know” what the protesters want – in reality it is probably many different things to different participants. For this look at what the protest are really “about”, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Eric Trager, a Western scholar in Cairo, reports on the growing Islamist nature of the Egyptian protests. Meanwhile, internet access and SMS are reportedly being blocked by the Egyptian authorities.
Finally, Lebanon expert Tony Badran looks at Mikati, the role Hezbollah sees for him, and the policy challenges he represents for the West. It is clear, Badran notes, that Mikati faces a cold reception from the US and Europe, as well as Arab states like Saudi Arabia, and there will be two critical issues which will shape whether there will be a direct clash with the West or not – any government crackdown on political opponents and his government’s relationship to the UN’s Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL) invesigating the 2005 murder of former PM Hariri. Badran notes that while Mikati has indicated that he understands that either of this issues could result in a clash, the people who put him in power will be pushing hard on both, meaning outside players must now make it very clear to him what the costs to Lebanon will be if he gives in to those pressures. For Badran’s full analysis, CLICK HERE. Meanwhile, Barry Rubin is arguing that what is happening in Lebanon is of extreme importance, but being ignored in the US and other centres of power.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Former New York Times correspondent Youssef Ibrahim offering a fairly optimistic and positive assessment of the goals and prospects of the demonstrators in his native Egypt. Plus an interview on the Middle East unrest with noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami, who is also optimistic and hopeful for a democratising result.
- Some reports on Israeli views, responses and concerns about events in neighbouring Egypt here and here.
- What the Hezbollah success in Lebanon means for Israel.
- Yemen is now also suffering unrest.
- Editorials on the unrest from the Jerusalem Post and National Review.
- Some views on both Lebanon and Egypt from former top US official Elliot Abrams.
- More misrepresentations in news reports about the “Palestine papers”, and other already widely-known “non-scoops” being headlined – here and here – plus noted Israeli Arab affairs expert Pinhas Imbari looks at al-Jazeera’s agenda in the whole affair.
- Fatah gunmen attack an al-Jazeera studio, while in Gaza, thousands march against Abbas.
- Some more analysis of the “Palestine Papers” revelations here, here and here.
By ZVI MAZEL
Jerusalem Post, 01/28/2011 02:42
But the ruling party will do its utmost – which is considerable – to stop the Tunisia domino effect producing a similar result.
“Egypt has a strong and stable regime.” That is how most political pundits have been starting their recent analyses of the fast-moving events in the region.
And that was true enough until three days ago. But the situation is changing, in Egypt and beyond. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was brought down by the first popular revolution in Arab history, and the ripples are spreading.
Though it is still doubtful they will bring about similar results in other countries, the mass demonstrations in Egypt were born in Tunisia. That display of people power ignited the smoldering anger of the Egyptians, unleashing years of pent-up resentment against the Mubarak regime.
“If it worked for them, why can’t it work for us?” the Egyptians mused.
And not only them. Even in Syria, the mighty Assad is worried now. His civil servants got an unexpected raise, and Facebook was shut down.
In Jordan, the protests have been taking place for weeks now. Foreign workers in Dubai have demonstrated over the pittance they are paid; 70 of them were jailed for their pains.
Things seem to have quieted down in Algiers after the recent turmoil, but unrest could start anew at any time. In Morocco and in Yemen, which saw protests on Thursday, it is feared that poverty, unemployment and corruption could lead to some sort of popular outburst.
Col. Gaddafi, who initially berated the Tunisians for getting rid of Ben Ali, quickly reconsidered and changed his tune to one of congratulation.
The king of Bahrain wants to convene an urgent summit of Arab rulers.
So where is Egypt headed? It’s not only other Arab countries that are asking the question; the United States and Israel are closely monitoring the situation.
Mubarak’s is the biggest Arab country; were his regime to topple, the entire Middle East might be thrown into disarray.
Egypt is also the centerpiece of American policy in the region, receiving more than $1 billion in military aid. The alliance has been based on America’s conviction that the government is stable and that there will be no reconsidering the peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt has not known such violent and determined mass demonstrations since the bread riots of 1977, which forced president Anwar Sadat to cancel an increase in the price of bread and other basics. But the economic situation is far worse today. Poverty is everywhere.
An estimated 40% of the population earns less than $2 a day.
Official figures put unemployment at 10%; the truth is probably twice as bad. Twelve percent of the people suffer from malaria and hepatitis C. Corruption is pervasive among the ruling elites.
Mubarak did enact much needed economic and financial reforms, but only the richest benefited. Nothing was done to improve the lot of the masses.
And in today’s world of satellite television, internet and social networks, the people are far more aware of their plight.
Once upon a time it was complacently argued that no popular explosion could ever occur in Egypt, since the people were as slow to react as flow of the Nile. Not anymore.
The Nile may still flow slowly, but the Egyptians have been simmering for several years.
Recent uncertainty around the future of the regime has made the situation worse.
Now nobody knows what will happen in the presidential election, due to be held in September.
Will Hosni Mubarak try to be reelected for a sixth time? What of his health? Will his son Gamal succeed him? Mubarak hasn’t been saying; he may not have made up his mind. He may have wanted to decide at the last minute, according to the situation at the time. But the situation is changing right now.
There is a new player, too.
Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has bolstered the opposition to Mubarak and brought hope for change. The parliamentary elections held in November demonstrated that the regime was not ready to make the slightest concession, and almost all opposition representatives were kicked out of parliament through intimidation or outright fraud.
The Jasmine revolution brought renewed resolve. A handful of Egyptian youths set themselves on fire, emulating the Tunisian graduate whose desperate gesture sparked the process that ousted Ben Ali.
Next came a massive demonstration, orchestrated by the so-called Six April bloggers, young people who have been leading smaller protest movements in Egypt for the past two years.
They were joined by smaller opposition parties and the movement for change created by ElBaradei. He chose to stay in Austria, where he has maintained a home, until flying back on Thursday.
Egypt’s main opposition parties did not associate themselves with the demonstrations to date, and are still hesitant.
The Muslim Brotherhood allowed just a token few of its leaders to participate and told its supporters to demonstrate if they so wished. It is known that Egyptian security services expressly warned the Brotherhood throughout the country not to call on followers to take part, but such warnings have never much deterred the Brotherhood, whose aim is to encourage chaos to topple and replace the regime. What probably happened is that the Brotherhood, which has its own agenda, came to the conclusion that now was not the time for a direct confrontation.
Likewise in the secular largest opposition party, Wafd. Its leaders have not been seen at the demonstrations, but its members were given free rein to participate. The leftist Tagammu party and the Nasserist party also refrained from calling on their activists to get involved. Here, again, the parties were evidently not convinced that the protests would be successful and decided not to directly anger the regime.
What is more surprising is that the Coptic church asked the faithful not to demonstrate, but to come to church to pray for Egypt – again in a bid to avoid confrontation with the regime. Nevertheless, several associations of young Copts did call on their members to join in the demonstrations.
Subsequent events showed how wrong the opposition parties had been. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of young protesters, with no leaders in sight, demonstrated in 15 cities in the last few days. They stood their ground and even used force against the police and the security forces. They knew what they wanted and it wasn’t just food and work.
They called for the removal of the president and his family.
“Go away Mubarak,” their makeshift signs urged.
And for the first time in history, portraits of the leader displayed in the streets were torn down.
They also chanted that they did not want his son Gamal to succeed him. They demanded democratic elections; they wanted the infamous emergency laws repelled. Never before had such fierce criticism been leveled against the president and his family. Indeed, until now, no one could criticize Mubarak. If this has changed, then everything has changed.
The Egyptian security apparatus had prepared well. Massive forces had been deployed in places where trouble was expected. Efforts were made at first not to use force, but that changed when the police realized that the demonstrations would get out of hand if the protesters were not dispersed quickly.
So far five people have died, hundreds have been wounded and there have been a thousand arrests. Yet the protests go on, and it is not clear when they will end, even though the government has now expressly forbidden them. This is all new territory – a new phenomenon, led by a previously unknown breed of players: students and young adults with college degrees who cannot find work, people from the lower-middle classes, impoverished and wanting a better life. They want democracy, freedom of expression, work, Internet, Facebook, Twitter. They want another world, not a closed totalitarian or religious regime. These are not the bearded Muslim Brothers, shouting “Allah Akbar.”
And this, too, links them to the Jasmine revolution.
Will ElBaradei galvanize these forces? Is he the leader they seek to replace the old parties they feel have betrayed them? The Mubarak regime is based on a huge ruling party present in every village and every city, and on a disciplined army and security forces whose allegiance is not in doubt. They will do their utmost – which is considerable – to stop the protests.
But they will have to act with great restraint, avoiding a blood bath while being sufficiently determined to show the protesters they had better go home.
Mubarak will have to pay a price: He may need to take economic measures to alleviate some of the poverty, perhaps put an to the emergency laws and organize credible, free democratic presidential elections.
If he manages to weather this crisis, he and his regime will emerge weakened.
It is too early to tell what all this might mean for the US and Israel – two countries that, notably, have not been mentioned in the course of the demonstrations. The Egyptians want democracy, human rights and better living conditions, and they will need American financial assistance more than ever.
The Obama administration was slow to support the Jasmine revolution. Indeed the president waited until it had succeeded to signify his approval. But it has cautiously asked the Egyptian government to respect freedom of speech and legitimate protest.
Regarding Israel, there is no reason to anticipate moves to reconsider the peace treaty, which could lead to conflict that would be disastrous for the economy and for the country’s links with the US.
In Tunis, the chain of events quickly ousted a president, and sparked ferment across the region. In Egypt, the hope has to be that it will force the government onto the path of progress and reconciliation.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt, and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
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What are they really about?
January 27, 2011 8:00 AM
Egyptian sources are dismissing reports that Gamal Mubarak and his family have left Cairo for London. If those earlier accounts were not outright propaganda, they seem to have been based more on wishful thinking than reality.The Mubarak regime is not as brittle as that of Tunisia’s erstwhile president-for-life, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, and right now seems to be in little danger of falling. However, it does seem to be the case that the protests erupting throughout Egypt’s major cities are less about President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year-long reign than they are about the succession of the man who seems to be his chosen heir, his 47-year-old son Gamal.
The test of an Arab dictator is not the virtue of his rule, but the length of it, and to be followed by his progeny extends his name further into the future. In this regard Arab presidents are no different from Arab monarchs—Bashar al-Assad inherited the presidential palace from his father Hafez; Qaddafi’s son Saif al-Islam will rule Libya once his father is gone; and Saddam’s boys would have shared his father’s spoils until one had figured out how to murder the other. Hosni Mubarak would seem to be an exception insofar as it is rumored that it is his wife Suzanne who most wants Gamal to be the next ruler of Egypt. If the president himself is less enthusiastic that is perhaps because he understands that the nature of the regime and the career of his son are not an ideal fit.
To the IMF and the World Bank, a few European capitals, and even certain sectors of Washington, Gamal looks like the future of the Arab world: a Western-educated, pro-business technocrat who worked as a banker in London and has surrounded himself with a cadre of young businessmen responsible for liberal reforms that have grown the Egyptian economy for more than half a decade. Never mind that little of this has trickled down to the Egyptian masses, 60 percent of which live on less than $2 a day. The real question is how much of this money will it take to ensure the loyalty of the military and security officials who are responsible for the day-to-day operations, and security, of the Egyptian government.
It seems that Ben Ali lost Tunisia because his wife’s family had a hand in every business in the country, including those that the military was accustomed to profiting from. Thus last week the Tunisian army made the only logical decision when it chose not to fire on civilians: perhaps they would shed the blood of innocents to protect their own interests, but certainly not to secure the stake of precisely those people who are taking money out of their wallets. What we are seeing in the streets of Egypt is perhaps something similar. Cairo’s military and security apparatus is using the demonstrations as leverage in order to improve its position; the men who run Egypt are deciding whether or not they want Gamal to be the next president, and if so what it will cost him.
If Gamal goes, the likely successor will be intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the man rumored to be the young Mubarak’s chief rival, or alternately, the future power behind Gamal’s throne. Gamal’s problem is that he has no military experience whatsoever, a liability for the prospective head of a regime whose coherence and internal legitimacy is based on nothing other than its symbiotic relationship with the military. Nonetheless, even if Gamal really were to leave for London and even if his father stepped down, or just decided not to run for president later this year, the Mubarak regime would not fall because in reality there is no Mubarak regime as such. Rather, it is a Free Officers regime, one that has lasted almost half a century, or dating back to the 1952 coup that deposed King Farouk. During that period, the regime has survived 3 wars with Israel and another in Yemen. And that’s not all: almost as bad as Gamal abd-el Nasser’s public humiliation after losing the six-day war in 1967 was the regional isolation imposed on Cairo after Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Jerusalem. But the regime survived both, as well as Sadat’s assassination and a subsequent civil war throughout the 1980s and 1990s with armed Islamists, many of whom went on to form the leadership of al Qaeda. A regime that has been tested under that kind of fire is unlikely to fold in the face of 50,000 protesters throwing rocks.
For all the excitement surrounding the demonstrations, it’s worth remembering that the nominally docile Egyptian masses take to the streets with some regularity, especially when it involves food prices and living wages. More to the point, it is an unfortunate fact of modern Egyptian history that its people are often susceptible to ideological politics. For instance, Nasser led the country to disaster and yet compared to Sadat the peacemaker or Mubarak the stolid pharaoh who has kept the country stable, if static, it is Nasser who owns the affections of the Egyptian masses. That is to say, we don’t know exactly what the protestors want. There are those who hate the regime because it jails and tortures bloggers and those who hate it because it won’t make war on Israel. No doubt some of the young are just fed up they have never known another Egyptian ruler in their lifetimes. Some of the youth are democrats and others are decidedly not.
It is not always a good thing when people go to the streets; indeed the history of revolutionary action shows that people go to the streets to shed blood more often than they do to demand democratic reforms. Perhaps it is an appetite for activist politics that explains why so many Western observers are now captured by the moment. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why it seems as if no one had learned from the failures of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda—namely the Palestinian Authority elections that empowered Hamas—or could remember its successes. The Iraqis and Lebanese went to the streets, too, and our allies there are under pressure and ignored not only by the Obama administration, but also by a press corps and intelligentsia that mostly seems just fascinated by the spectacle of Arabs throwing themselves against a wall, regardless of the outcome.
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By Tony Badran
NOW Lebanon, Thursday Jan 27, 2011
The reactions from Washington, Paris and Riyadh following Najib Mikati’s designation as prime minister suggest that we are now in a watchful, wait-and-see period. Everyone is keeping a close eye on where Mikati will stand on the key issues, namely the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL). However, the prime minister-designate’s recent comments indicate he realizes he is in the hot seat facing both careful international scrutiny as well as pressure from Hezbollah. The US and its allies should ensure his feet are kept to the fire, clearly spelling out the consequences of rubber stamping Hezbollah’s agenda.
It’s been obvious that Mikati’s designation, and the way it came about, was received rather coolly and cautiously by the US, France and Saudi Arabia. At best, it’s been made clear that Mikati is on probation. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton summarized the prevailing mood: “As we see what this new government does, we will judge it accordingly.” Though, understandably, the US has already begun a broad review of its assistance to Lebanon.
Meanwhile, a State Department press statement made a point of emphasizing the violence and intimidation underpinning Hezbollah’s drive, which culminated in the toppling of Saad Hariri’s government. Tellingly, the statement spelled out two specific demands the US expected Mikati’s government to abide by: preventing any retribution against former government officials, and continued commitment to all relevant UN Security Council resolutions and the STL.
The French Foreign Ministry echoed this position, calling on the future government to uphold Lebanon’s international obligations, especially with regard to the STL.
But what about Saudi Arabia? Officially, the kingdom has kept mum after having publicly placed the failure of its mediation effort at the Syrians’ feet. However, the Saudi media has provided enough hints as to where Riyadh stood on the developments in Lebanon.
In his column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, Abdel Rahman al-Rashed mirrored the two conditions highlighted by the State Department’s statement: “All of us will be watching how Mikati will deal with the state’s obligations toward the international tribunal, which has become legally binding for the government. And everyone will watch how the Mikati government will behave vis-à-vis going after and threatening senior former government officials.”
Hezbollah and Syria had made it rather clear that such retribution against certain opposing figures was a central aspect of their intended coup. Be it the Syrian arrest warrants against Hariri’s closest associates, or the open threats against Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, or the menacing campaigns against key judicial and security figures, Hezbollah and the Syrians never hid their intentions in this regard. Indeed, it was unambiguously understood that the push to bring in Omar Karami as premier was intended to affect precisely this type of complete overhaul of the political scene.
An anonymous diplomat in Beirut told Le Figaro correspondent Georges Malbrunot that Hezbollah’s next step would be a purging campaign, targeting people like Ashraf Rifi, head of the Internal Security Forces, and Chief Prosecutor Said Mirza. The latter in particular had been the target of a relentless campaign by Syria’s allies. Of course, the ISF and Mirza represent Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL.
Mikati’s statements to a number of media outlets in the last 48 hours signaled much reluctance to go ahead with such plans. He was at pains to show that he had no interest in antagonizing the US and the international community, pleading to be given a chance to prove himself, all while trying to craft prudent language when addressing the central issue of the STL.
Hezbollah and its allies have made clear that they intend to include a clause in the next government’s policy statement ending Lebanon’s cooperation with the STL. Mikati’s language was carefully worded: “I am not going to make any move against the tribunal without full Lebanese consensus.” Clearly, no such consensus exists. However, it remains to be seen what Mikati will do should Hezbollah and its allies decide to go all the way and push for a vote on the matter in the new cabinet (whose nature and makeup are still unclear).
All this suggests keen awareness on Mikati’s part of his vulnerability domestically, regionally and internationally.
Take for instance, what the editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat wrote regarding Mikati’s standing with Saudi Arabia: “We don’t know if Mikati has arranged his affairs in the Gulf, especially since there are states that didn’t approve the manner in which he was designated. More importantly, there is no confirmation of a Saudi consent.”
Aside from domestic political and communal pressure, as an international tycoon Mikati is also personally susceptible to financial pressure should he submit to Hezbollah’s and Syria’s writ on the STL. If he should sign off on the abrogation of Lebanon’s commitments to UN Security Council resolutions, Lebanon’s international standing would change dramatically.
Mikati has said he recognizes that Lebanon has no interest in such a disastrous confrontation with the international community, and the US in particular, and that he himself has no intention of leading Lebanon in that direction.
The premier-designate has begged to be given a chance to prove himself. However, those who voted him into office have other ideas and priorities, which they will surely try to impose on him and the rest of the country. During this probationary period, it would behoove the US and its allies to articulate clearly and forcefully what the implications of such a decision would be.
Tony Badran is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.