Egypt . . . and Beyond

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on February 12, 2011

The momentous turn of events in Egypt is extraordinary to behold. After Hosni Mubarak sought to hunker down and defy the protesters, and after Omar Suleiman made it clear that he was willing to help in the effort, the army apparently decided that it had had enough, and forced Mubarak to resign. But of course, there ought to be no mistake; while the military may have needed to act in order to deliver the final push that sent Mubarak packing, the revolt against his regime was clearly a popular uprising, one with revolutionary overtones, if not outright revolutionary in nature.

The telltale signs of a coup in the making began to surface soon after Mubarak ordered the army out on the streets to restore order after days of deadly clashes between protesters and security forces in Cairo and much of the rest of the Arab nation.

“This is in fact the military taking over power,” said political analyst Diaa Rashwan after Mubarak stepped down and left the reins of power to the armed forces. “It is direct involvement by the military in authority and to make Mubarak look like he has given up power.”

Army troops backed by tanks and armored fighting vehicles were given a hero’s welcome by the protesters angry over brutal treatment by the police. The goodwill was reciprocated when the military vowed not to use force against protesters, a move that set them apart from the much-hated police who operated with near impunity under Mubarak.

The generals adopted a go-slow approach, offering Egyptians carefully weighed hints that it was calling the shots. They issued statements describing the protesters’ demands as “legitimate” and made halfhearted calls on the demonstrators to go home and allow normal life to resume.

Rather than quit the protests, the demonstrators turned out in ever greater numbers. Mubarak offered one concession after another, but they all fell short of the protesters’ demands that he immediately leave.

The military was clearly torn between its loyalty to the regime and the millions of protesters. Mubarak is one of their own, a former air force commander and a hero of the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

But as the president continued to defy the growing crowds and cling to power, the Egyptian army moved more definitively toward seizing control for the first time in some 60 years.

The question now is whether–and how soon–the military will give up power. One hardly thinks that the protesters will be satisfied with the outcome of their protests if that outcome is enduring military rule. There is hope that the military will give up power relatively soon; it allied with the people, after all, in their uprising against Mubarak, and unless it was using the people as dupes in order to achieve power, the military will likely remain loyal and responsive to the people and their demands.

The benefits of a military action, as outlined in the story linked above, is that it allowed Egypt to make a clean break with the regime. The coup leaders have suspended the pro-Mubarak constitution, and dissolved the parliament, something that has met with the widespread approval and agreement of the protesters. It is incontrovertible that after Omar Suleiman sought to ally himself with Mubarak, rather than using his position to try to ease Mubarak out, he became nearly as hated as Mubarak himself in the eyes of the protesters. It is perhaps a loss for national and regional stability that this is the case, but Suleiman has lost whatever claim he might have had to being an acceptable replacement for Mubarak, as far as the Egyptian people are concerned.

The man now in charge is defense minister Hussein Tantawi, who is described as “Mubarak’s poodle”:

“He’s the defense minister. He’s a career officer… Anyone that serves the ministry for that long is part of the regime,” Nathan Brown of George Washington University’s Elliot School of International Affairs told ABC News. “I would be surprised if he kept that job that long without being loyal [to Mubarak].”

However, John Sifton, a former investigator with Human Rights Watch and author of two major reports on Egypt, said that as far as abuses, “in comparison with the civilian institutions, the military — let’s just say we have a lot more faith and optimism about what’s going to happen” now that the military is in charge.

[. . .]

Though they erupted in applause at the announcement Mubarak was leaving and Suleiman would not assume control, some protestors said Tantawi may not be much different.

“He’s corrupt… He’s not favored in the military. He’s there because he stayed loyal to Honsi Mubarak,” 26-year-old Abdelaziz Abdel Nabi told ABC News. “We’re scared one of the military people steps up and controls us, like Mubarak did.”

A leaked U.S. State Department cable posted on the website Wikileaks, which cited “academics and civilian analysts,” called Tantawi “Mubarak’s poodle” and said mid-level officers in the Egyptian military were infuriated by his incompetence and blind loyalty to Mubarak. Tantawi has served Egypt’s military for years and fought alongside the U.S. and its allies in the 1991 Gulf War.

To the extent that these evaluations are correct, Tantawi has to go as soon as possible. He appears to be an unacceptable choice to lead Egypt into the future. About the only thing that Tantawi has going for him is that he has no connection to the feared and hated intelligence and police services. But this is true of the other military leaders in Egypt as well, and one wonders why a more competent and independent military leader cannot be found to fulfill the role that Tantawi has been asked to fulfill.

Assuming that it is accurate, this report is a somewhat optimistic one:

The Armed Forces Supreme Council, in charge after the resignation of President Hosni Mubarak, said it was committed to a democratic process resulting in civilian rule but urged respect for the reviled police forces that had brutally clashed with protesters in the early days of the uprising.

“The armed forces council calls on the people to cooperate with the policemen,” Lt. Gen. Sami Anan said on state television. “We ask our policemen to adhere to their slogan: “Police is at the people’s service.”

It was unclear whether the statement signalled a return of the police security apparatus, noticeably absent from the streets after the violent clashes and the deployment of the army.

Anan, the armed forces chief of staff, also announced other measures geared toward establishing stability.

He said Egypt would still honor international treaties and commitments, a statement perhaps aimed at calming a jittery Israel that has quietly watched dramatic change unfold in its Arab ally. Egypt signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1978.

“The supreme Council of the Armed Forces is confident in Egypt’s potential, institutions and people to successfully go through these difficult times,” Anan said.

Discussions regarding continuity on the foreign policy front bear particular attention.

And now, for the “and beyond” part of this post. Perhaps the next domino to fall will be Algeria:

Thousands of protesters flooded the streets of the Algerian capital Algiers on Saturday, defying a ban on demonstrations and calling for political reform in the North African country, one of the world’s largest oil producers.

The protest followed on the heels of Friday’s resignation by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. By late in the day, most protesters had dispersed, according to opposition officials.

Estimates of the size of the crowd, which started filling Algiers’ central May 1st Square, also called Concord Square, in the morning, varied. Organizers said as many as 30,000 showed up.

Thousands of state security officials and police had fanned out across the capital ahead of the protests, called by a coalition of opposition leaders, trade unionists and human-rights activists.

Hacene Mezoued, a top official with the Rally for Culture and Democracy, the main political party spearheading the protests, said 1,000 protesters, including 100 women, had been arrested. He said there had been some skirmishes with the police as the security services attempted to disperse protesters, including by firing tear gas.

The Associated Press estimated the crowd at about 10,000. Protesters shouted “Power Out,” and “$155 Billion, and We’re Still Poor,” a reference to the oil producer’s estimated foreign-exchange reserves.

More:

Thousands of Algerians defied a government ban on protests and a massive deployment of riot police to march in the capital Saturday, demanding democratic reforms a day after similar protests toppled Egypt’s authoritarian leader.

Heavily armed police tried to seal off Algiers, blocking streets, lining up along the march route and setting up barricades outside the city to try to stop busloads of demonstrators from reaching the capital.

But despite the heavy security, thousands flooded into downtown Algiers, clashing with police who outnumbered them at least three-to-one. A human rights activist said more than 400 people were arrested.

Tensions have been high in this sprawling North African nation of 35 million since five days of riots in January over high food prices. Despite its vast gas reserves, Algeria has long been beset by widespread poverty and high unemployment, and some have predicted it could be next Arab country hit by the wave of popular protests that have already ousted two longtime Arab leaders in a month.

Ali Yahia Abdenour, head of the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights, said women and foreign journalists were among those detained Saturday.

And look what is going on in Yemen:

Yemeni police with clubs on Saturday beat anti-government protesters who were celebrating the resignation of Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and demanding the ouster of their own president.

The crackdown reflected an effort to undercut a protest movement seeking fresh momentum from the developments in Egypt, where an 18-day uprising toppled Mubarak. His ouster raised questions about the long-term stability of Yemen and other Western-allied governments in the region.

The United States is in a delicate position because it advocates democratic reform, but wants stability in Yemen because it is seen as a key ally in its fight against Islamic militants.

Hundreds of protesters had tried to reach the Egyptian embassy in Sanaa, Yemen’s capital on Saturday, but security forces pushed them back. Buses ferried ruling party members, equipped with tents, food and water, to the city’s main square to help prevent attempts by protesters to gather there.

And Saudi Arabia:

Saudi Islamists and opposition activists have launched a political party in a rare challenge to the absolute monarchy, asking King Abdullah for a voice in the Gulf Arab state’s governance, its organizers said Thursday.

The move was apparently prompted by popular revolts in the Arab world that toppled Tunisia’s president last month and have loosened the grip of Egypt’s autocratic leader.

But it was more an act of protest than an effective start-up of a political party since Saudi Arabia has no elected parliament and parties and public dissent are banned by the Al Saud monarchy, which rules the world’s No. 1 oil exporting country in alliance with Sunni Muslim clerics.

There have been other attempts to form parties but analysts said the new “Islamic Umma” group appeared to be the first to be revealed publicly. They said members included Islamist intellectuals and lecturers, human rights activists and lawyers.

“You know well what big political development and improvement of freedom and human rights is currently happening in the Islamic world,” the group of ten activists said in a letter to King Abdullah, obtained by Reuters and also posted on their website.

“It’s time to bring this development to the kingdom,” they told the king, who is about 87 and now recuperating in Morocco after medical treatment in the United States.

A note: Mubarak’s ouster occurred yesterday, February 11. The date is an interesting one. Readers will excuse me, I trust, if I insert an personal preference in this story, and hope that Iran beats Algeria, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia in the race to become the next Middle Eastern country to throw off the shackles of dictatorship and tyranny.

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