Saturday, January 29, 2011

Egypt burning

So, after Tunisians revolted two weeks ago to overthrow a corrupt, autocratic ruler, Egyptians appear poised to do the same. Overnight, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak (president for 30 years now due to rigged elections and the crushing of opposition parties) sacked his government and created the position of vice president for the first time in an effort to appease the protesters. The Shah made similar appeasement gestures in Iran back in 1979, which only signaled his weakness and emboldened the opposition. I've seen reports this morning that Mubarak's sons--one of whom he's groomed as his successor--have fled to Britain, but these reports seem to vanish almost as quickly as they appear. If true, this raises the Egyptian revolution to a whole other level, but events are so chaotic, and communications in and out of Egypt so spotty that it's well nigh impossible to tell what's going on.

In an interesting development, reports are emerging that the U.S. has encouraged and supported Egyptian opposition groups, although the extent of this support isn't entirely clear.
In a secret diplomatic dispatch, sent on December 30 2008, Margaret Scobey, the US Ambassador to Cairo, recorded that opposition groups had allegedly drawn up secret plans for “regime change” to take place before elections, scheduled for September this year.

The memo, which Ambassador Scobey sent to the US Secretary of State in Washington DC, was marked “confidential” and headed: “April 6 activist on his US visit and regime change in Egypt.”

It said the activist claimed “several opposition forces” had “agreed to support an unwritten plan for a transition to a parliamentary democracy, involving a weakened presidency and an empowered prime minister and parliament, before the scheduled 2011 presidential elections”. The embassy’s source said the plan was “so sensitive it cannot be written down”.

This isn't entirely surprising, considering the United State's advocacy of freedom and democracy worldwide. The Obama administration's more nuanced response, however, dominated by calls for restraint on both sides, pretty clearly shows that dramatic regime change in Egypt probably wasn't the desired goal. Modest reforms and incremental change appears more in line with the goals of U.S. foreign policy, as Egypt has been, and remains one of the United States' crucial allies in the Middle East. Despite the fact that President Mubarak is an autocratic dictator who is not above brutality to protect his rule.

The U.S. has a centuries-long habit of supporting despots, as long we viewed them as "better than the alternative" and willing to accommodate our national interests. We supported the Shah of Iran as a proxy against Soviet interests until that blew up in our face. Then, for more than a decade, Saddam Hussein wasn't such a bad fellow as long as he was fighting the Iranians. Mubarak doesn't seem to be as bad as Chile's Pinochet, for example, but if you're Egyptian, does it really matter?

Ultimately, on a wider scale, I see Israel as the big loser no matter how this shakes out. If recent al-Jazeera reports that the Palestinian Authority offered bold concessions in secret negotiations with Israel in 2008 and was still rejected, the Israelis are probably going to seriously regret the missed opportunity to further isolate and marginalize Hamas in the Gaza Strip and bring some stability to their border.
Nabil Shaath, a Palestinian negotiator, alleged that the papers were leaked by someone who wanted to embarrass his team. “The idea was to show that, yes, we sold out and got nothing in return,” Shaath said today in an interview with Israel Radio.

I view this, rightly or wrongly, as analogous to the Palentenian's "Arafat moment" more than a decade ago. Behind a heavy lobbying effort from the Clinton administration, Israel offered a generous compromise framework for a final, two-state solution. Among other things, the proposal would've given the Palestinian State sovereignty over Islamic holy sites within Jerusalem, and allowed the Palestinians to expand non-Israeli sections of East Jerusalem and claim that as their capital, among other things. Yasser Arafat, former terrorist and the Palestinian leader at the time, rejected the proposal because 1) it didn't concede to all Palestinian demands, and 2) even though his stature was such that he could've pushed the deal through, his power would be greatly eroded because of hard-line opposition. Ultimately, he put his personal interests ahead of his people. Israel's stance hardened after that, sensing that the Palestinians had no serious interest in compromise, the result being a decade of unparalleled suffering for the Palestinian people, the rapid weakening of the moderate (though corrupt) Palestinian Authority and the rise of the radical Hamas and subsequent capture of the Gaza Strip.

The tables seem to have turned, now. Why would Israel have rejected Palestinian concessions out of hand--concessions so close to Israel's own positions--if not for hubris? The belief that a weak Palestinian Authority could be strangled and squeezed to cave in to all Israeli demands? That's not negotiation, that's not compromise. That's arrogance. At the very least, the Palestinian overture offered a new, realistic starting place for negotiations, untainted by Arafat's destructive self-interest, a chance to establish the West Bank as a Palestinian nation and stabilize--at least to a degree--that source of tension on the Israeli border and marginalize Hamas. That opportunity looks to be all but lost now. If Mubarak falls, then there is indeed hope that Mohamed ElBaradei, the pro-reform leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, can pull together a coalition and turn Egypt into a stable democracy. Such a system has succeeded in India despite crushing poverty, population and environmental challenges, so it's not an impossible dream for Egypt. On the other hand, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood could well rise to power and radicalize Egypt. That, in turn, would turn Egypt into a hostile neighbor sharing a long border with Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip. The Muslim Brotherhood is sympathetic, if not outright backers of Hamas, and that would spell the end of the Palestinian Authority and even threaten Jordan's stability. This isn't a powder keg anymore, its Mutual Assured Destruction with Iran and Israel more than willing to lob nukes at each other in a suicidal fit of ideology, with the apocalyptic-minded religious right in the U.S. cheering them on.

There is opportunity here for great good to come out of these events. There is also the opportunity for much horror, and difference between tipping one way or the other is scant. If, by some chance the world avoids disaster, I would hope that all leaders of the respective nations and factions involved recognize tragedy they've avoided, and make the most of second chances.

Now Playing: The Kinks Something Else

1 comment:

  1. Huh. Looks like some in Israel share my assessment:

    MK Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a leader of the shrinking and essentially moribund Labor Party, warned that the Egyptian uprising signals the beginning of renewed conflict. “There will be a new order in the Middle East,” he said recently, noting that he has been in discussions with Mubarak. “It will become more extreme, militant and radical towards Israel from an Islamic point of view. The conclusion that we will draw is that we did not take advantage of the potential for agreements when the Middle East was more moderate.”