Tag Archives: Cairo

The Second Anniversary of Tahrir Square Rising

25 Jan

 

 

            The rising in Tahrir Square two years ago electrified the world and achieved the impossible: forcing the departure of Hosni Mubarak, the harsh and corrupt dictator of Egypt for the prior 30 years. What inspired the world was the spontaneous spirit of unity, a movement guided by exhilarating visions of democracy and freedom and hope, generating a new kind of populism that dispensed with ideology and leaders, a sense that the people of Egypt had acted creatively and bravely to recover their country from the clutches of neoliberal predators and their domestic collaborators. Even the armed forces had seemed mainly to welcome these developments, partly because of their own fears that Mubarak harbored dynastic dreams. Although the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia preceded Tahrir Square, it was the developments in Egypt that made it plausible back in 2011 to speak about and to dream of the ‘Arab Spring.’

 

            A year later in 2012 there was still some afterglow from the drama of Tahrir Square, but there were also growing signs of disunity. It was becoming clear that Muslim Brotherhood, as well as the Salafis, enjoyed the benefits of grassroots organizing and support, which translated into electoral dominance. It was also evident that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that was providing governmental authority was not clearly committed to the values and practices of constitutional democracy and human rights. For many Egyptians, SCAF was becoming a threat of new structure of governance describable as ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak.’ Labor unions, minorities, and special interest groups were all seeking to put forward their grievances. There was a growing concern in some economic sectors that the new situation was unable to revive confidence and trust, creating a kind of backlash, ‘nothing has changed,’ and ‘we are worse off than when the Mubarak regime was in power.’ At least, before the rising of 2011, tourists came, and shop owners in the cities flourished. After one year, the excitement had died down, and there were severe worries about political leadership, human rights, and economic revival, and many of those that had been in the front lines of the challenge to Mubarak were no longer politically active and visible, or were now confronting the Morsi government.

 

            On this second anniversary the situation has definitely deteriorated. Tahrir Square and other city centers around the country are increasingly sites of struggle between the governing Islamic Brotherhood and discontented liberal, secular, and minority forces. On this day of anniversary early reports indicate that there were clashes in many cities throughout the country, which resulted in at least one death and 186 reported injuries. Mohammed Morsi has pleaded for unity, but his leadership has been widely perceived by his adversaries as pushing the country in the direction of Islamism, which is serving as the ideological vehicle for the hegemony of the Muslim Brotherhood.  There is also a growing atmosphere of polarization in which it has become express policy that for the anti-Morsi opposition nothing less than the removal of Morsi from the presidency of Egypt will quiet their opposition. There are also a variety of hostile claims that the proposed new Egyptian Constitution embodies a deal with the armed forces, which jeopardizes democracy by ensuring SCAF’s economic private sector interests and gives it wide ranging powers to interfere in the political life of the country without even providing mechanisms to guard accountability to the constitution.

 

            Not all Egyptians buy into the politics of polarization. There are a few, too few, who stand above the fray, pointing to the exaggerations on both the Morsi and the opposition side. Their contention is that Morsi is implementing a generally inclusive constitutional scheme under difficult economic circumstances and that the secularists have reason for concern about Islamic influence and ambitions, but not for seeking to produce chaos in the country by challenging after the fact outcomes of democratic elections. The damage done by this polarization is to strengthen extremists on both sides, and to render problematic prospects for either humane governance or economic recovery.  Unfortunately, the intensification of polarization in recent months is approaching a point of no return, which inevitably casts a dark cloud over the future of Egypt.

 

            There are some younger activists who are more hopeful, partly because they are looking away from Tahrir Square, and find encouraging a variety of local developments throughout the country. These developments take the form of labor and environmental activism, the organization of local markets, and a lowering of expectations with respect to the central government in Cairo. In effect, this perspective sees a trend toward the invention of democratization-from-below that is working toward a just and fair society outside the conventional framings of political parties and elections. Such populism in one sense keeps the flame of Tahrir Square burning, but not on the square itself, which has been taken over by secular/Islamist ugly encounters.

 

            At this point in Egypt’s evolution, there are plenty of reasons for concern, but also for patience. It may be that the opposition forces will tire of confrontation and that the governing authorities will moderate their policies in ways that credibly heed the promise of inclusivity. Let us hope that some of these reasons for worry will no longer be present a year hence when the third anniversary of the 2011 rising will be celebrated. It is already clear that this rising did not produce a ‘revolution,’ but it is not yet evident whether what is emerging in Egypt can be welcomed as fundamental ‘reform’ of state/society, civilian/military, and public sector/private sector relations, a program of reform that protects and promotes human rights, including economic, social, and cultural, as well as political and civil rights. For now, it is best for people of good will to withhold judgment, and wish the people of Egypt success in their ongoing struggle for justice, freedom, dignity, and substantive democracy (that is, rights and justice, as well as the procedures of elections and institutions). 

Egypt: Between a Rock and a Hard Place

10 Dec

          

 

            I have had the opportunity to be in Cairo three times for brief visits in the last 20 months, the first a few weeks after the departure of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, the second in February of 2012 when the revolutionary process was treading water, and this third one over the course of the previous ten days. What is striking is how drastically the prevailing mood and expectations have changed from visit to visit, how fears, hopes, and perceptions have altered over time, and why they are likely to continue to do so.

 

I. The Overthrow of Mubarak

 

            On the first visit, shortly after the extraordinary exploits in Tahrir Square that started on January 18, 2011, there was a spirit of stunned amazement that made it seem as though the ‘Arab Spring’ was a genuine historical phenomenon of epic proportions and that Egypt had become the core site of a new post-Marxist radical politics that relied on militant nonviolence and a radical ethos of transformation, but avoided ideology and hard power tactics. Gandhi and Gene Sharp were most often invoked as the inspirational influences, not Lenin, Mao, Castro. It was being widely celebrated as a remarkable expression of democratic populism, especially the empowerment of youth, women, with social networking via the Internet being accorded a special prominence during the popular mobilization process. The sentiment could be summarized in different ways: ‘the impossible happened,’ ‘I never expected to experience this rising up of the people of Egypt,’ ‘We have our country back,’ ‘I have never been so proud to be an Egyptian.’ It was an upheaval with transformative potential, magnified and catalyzed by the immediately prior Tunisian rising, which exhibited what seemed to be an innovative form of largely nonviolent radical politics that almost miraculously wrote the script on the set of its unfolding while occupying Tahrir Square along with other less media exposed arenas of protest and opposition. (And not so incidentally, inspired the occupy movements that  spread around the world in the following months, with Occupy Wall Street being the appropriate epicenter.) It was treated as an amazing instance of ‘spontaneous empowerment’ at the time, although more knowledgeable observers and participants tended to stress a cumulative process with distinct roots in reactions to prior abuses by the Mubarak police apparatus and in important labor protest strikes.

 

            Of course, even during this period of afterglow, there were deep concerns in Egypt just below this surface of enthusiasm. There were a wide variety of cautionary reactions relating to the lasting significance of what had taken place, and skeptical viewpoints as to whether the deeper challenges of Egyptian poverty and class inequalities could be effectively addressed without a more ambitious political process that challenged and dismantled the institutional infrastructure of the old regime. On the one side were a variety of sentiments that expressed doubts about whether it was enough to be rid of Mubarak, and gave a range of opinions about what was not done and still needed to be done if Egypt would be able to find a path to sustainable and equitable social, economic, and political progress. This outlook was reinforced by the understanding that if forward momentum of this sort was not achieved post-Mubarak, the likely sequel would be regression. There was also widespread skepticism as to whether Egypt could both solve the problems of democratic transition and at the same time address the inequities and failures of the inherited neoliberal economy. Such a challenge could only be met through constituting a new economic order that was far more responsive to the needs of the Egyptian people and less hospitable to capitalist style investment, a process that would certainly undermine investor confidence, at least in the short-run.

 

            Egyptian friends expressed other concerns to me, as well, including worries about what the United States, and Israel, might be doing or plotting behind the scenes to embolden the armed forces to move in counter-revolutionary directions and reverse an emancipatory process that might threaten the regional status quo. There was an anxiety that these outside forces that had exerted such a strong influence in the former configurations of state power in Egypt would not give up their former leverage without trying to restore the substance, if not the form, of the old reliable order. It did seem at the time that democratizing forces were almost certain to become hostile in the future to the geopolitical arrangements favored for the region by Washington and Tel Aviv, and that the political self-determination of Egypt was threatened by the likely machinations of these external forces. At this stage, there was broad agreement that American support was one of the props of the discarded Mubarak leadership, and that Egyptian democracy depended on curbing Washington’s future influence.

 

            There was also debate in early 2011 about three elements of the domestic political scene: (1) whether the armed forces would facilitate or obstruct the establishment of a constitutional democracy in the country; (2) how to allow the Muslim Brotherhood to participate in political life while retaining the belief that it would be disastrous if it end up dominating the democratizing process; and (3) intense speculation about who would carry the presidential torch across the finish line.

 

            With respect to the MB there was uncertainty and controversy as to the orientation of its leadership, some suggestions of inter-generational conflict between the traditionally conservative older generation and a more modernity oriented and moderate younger generation. There was also disagreement as to whether its Islamic orientation was rather insignificant because its real goals were to promote private business interests and to gain access to the commanding heights of governmental authority. There were estimates at the time of MB strength as being somewhere between 25-30%, almost no mention of the Salafis as a political force to be reckoned with, and a liberal secular consensus that it was fine for the MB to take part in the political process, assuming that MB strength did not turn out to exceed those estimates. Some anti-Mubarak secularists did say that if it turned out that the true strength of the MB was 40% or more then Egypt would be in deep trouble of a not clearly specified nature. In effect, the secular consensus implicitly believed a year and a half ago that a political process dominated by the MB, even if it came about by democratic procedures, was unacceptable. But such a prospect was widely dismissed as so unlikely as not to be worth discussing. Implicitly, there were some prophetic fears even before the MB grassroots nationwide strength was disclosed in a series of electoral moments, that majoritarian democracy was not a legitimate outcome for Egypt. In a way, the MB seemed, at first, to acquiesce in this understanding, signaling their agreement by pledging not to compete for the presidency, presumably to avoid threatening the kind of ecumenical unity that was so powerfully displayed at Tahrir Square a few weeks earlier.

 

            The balance of opinion that I encountered in late February 2011 seemed to feel that an active role for the armed forces was a necessary feature for any successful transition to constitutional democracy. The alternative was assumed to be a descent into societal chaos, followed by economic collapse. On the role of the armed forces in the upheaval, there were differing assessments, some thinking that the military leadership had itself been eager to avoid a Mubarak dynasty, abhorring the prospect of power shifting to his younger son, and thus initially allowed, even welcomed the popular rising, so as to let the movement get rid the country of the Mubarak factor rather than to stage a coup on its own. Yet, the armed forces were certainly not willing to loosen their grip on the reins of power and privilege that included a major stake in the private sector economy, and thus favored a rapid return to societal normalcy. The surviving military leadership remained tied to an authoritarian style of politics, which was in effect, meant business as usual from the perspective of Tahrir activists. Others in Egyptian civilian society were more hopeful about the intentions of the armed forces believing that the upper echelons of the military, while not revolutionary, shared the reformist goals of the uprising, favored constitutional reforms, and sought to withdraw as quickly as possible from the political arena, limiting its role to facilitating order during a transition to a law-based political democracy.

 

            There were opposite worries, as well, in the afterglow of the Tahrir Square victories. Above all, a sense among those who understood politics in a conventional Western liberal manner that this movement that was so exciting during the days of struggle that culminated on January 25th lacked leadership, cohesion, program, and vision. As such, it would not be able to the challenges of the next phases–managing the practical procedures of governance or competing effectively in electoral arenas for a major role in policymaking circles. This innovative political revolutionary process had the short-term effect of allowing the battle for the future of the country to be waged by two essentially anti-democratic forces with hierarchical structures of organization that were at odds with kind of disorganized unity exhibited during the days of struggle in Tahrir Square: the MB and assorted remnants of the old order, an unholy alliance between the Mubarak beneficiaries, the old bureaucracy that had not been deconstructed, big business interests, economic sectors such as tourism and small shopkeepers, and Copts deeply worried about moves toward Islamism. This eventuality culminated in the presidential runoff between Mohamed Morsi and Ahmed Shafik.

 

            Many of those that had flooded the streets a year earlier never cohered sufficiently to envision ‘next steps,’ and seemed either to retreat from political arenas altogether or leave the field to those who were more traditionally organized to compete for power. On a more radical side were those who were outside the mainstream of the earlier uprising, but remained engaged on the basis of believing that the movement that took shape in Tahrir Square could only reach its necessary transformative goals if it persisted in a populist mode that kept the poor masses in Egyptian society fully mobilized. Among such activists there existed a shared conviction that the revolutionary process needed to be deepened in a spirit of urgency or else the system would quickly slip back to its old ways. This radical element while affirming the originality of the Tahrir style and outcomes rejected all efforts to achieve revolutionary goals by means of party politics and elections, including traditional leftist approaches. At the same time, without being willing to endorse a blueprint for transformation, radicals identified their preferred movement with the realization of a just and independent future for the country, especially for those Egyptians so long disempowered and barely subsisting. This Egyptian radicalism remained committed to the Tahrir politics based on maintaining popular unity across the typical divisions of class, religion, and ethnicity, without advocating its own program or promoting particular leader, affirming the continuing need for confrontational tactics, and comfortable with the idea that chaos might ensue and persist for some years. Chaos was accepted as the price that must be paid if the movement that overthrew Mubarak was to grow into a genuine ‘revolution,’ and not degenerate into either a ‘counter-revolution’ or a species of ‘liberal reform’ that left the majority of Egyptians in as miserable a shape as during the Mubarak era.  In the end this radical vision was based on beliefs in local empowerment and emancipation, the creativity of people, a robust labor movement, and a bottom up view of political reconstruction, rejecting both MB and liberal secular views of top down political order. This radicalism drew its inspiration from a sense that a new kind of transformative politics had been revealed in Tahrir Square, but that it was a flowering that would wilt if not nurtured by an uncompromising insistence that the wellbeing and dignity of the Egyptian masses was the core challenge, and could not be achieved by elections, parties, and government.

 

            As for the impending electoral process, there was an emphasis on speculation about the presidency. Who? When? Among Cairo liberals who had been uncomfortable with the Mubarak past, but had long coexisted with it, there was a widespread sense that Amr Moussa would prevail. Moussa was not fully trusted even among secular liberals to advance the democratic values that were affirmed by all who had gathered in Tahrir Square and other city public spaces throughout the country. Although long prominent in the Mubarak regime, Moussa had jumped ship early enough to have mainstream credibility, and was thought to be on good terms with the military, moderate in relation to the MB, and widely known inside and outside of Egypt having serverd both as Foreign Minister and Secretary General of the Arab League. There was also some enthusiasm for the candidacy of Mohamed ElBoradai, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace Prize laureate. More than Moussa, ElBoradei had clean hands, having been outspoken in his rejection of the Mubarak past and appearing along side the Egyptian activists in the square. At the same time, his prospects were discounted because he lacked a national political base, was not an effective speaker or experienced as a politician, and was perceived as an outsider who had lived too long in foreign countries. The more radical voices were dismissive of this preoccupation with who would emerge as the leading candidate or how political parties would fare, believing that their kind of politics would need to discover how to govern without a government of central institutions, an inchoate vision of the need for a ‘new politics’ and a distinct lack of confidence, even interest, in the vagaries of ‘old politics’ (parties, elections, bureaucratic institutions, governmental leadership), in effect, what was being sought was a ‘human security regime’ that had never been established anywhere, ever. At the time, such dedication was at once moving and troublesome, an embrace of what Derrida called ‘democracy to come’ with a kind of trust that the modalities of enactment would be discovered in the process of struggle.

 

II. Treading Water

 

            A year later in early 2012 these divisions persisted but hardened, and anxieties seemed far more intense, and the aura of excitement that followed  the victory of the January 25th Movement had definitely receded. There was, first of all, a new sense of impatience, especially among those who needed economic normalcy if their livelihoods were to be sustained. I met tourist guides at the pyramids and storekeepers in Cairo who expressed disappointment about the results of the upheaval of a year ago, acknowledging that while they had originally been glad to see the end of the Mubarak regime, they had fared personally better back then, and seemed ready to support whatever leadership that could restore stability. Even a

 

            On a different level of perception, the far greater than expected strength of the MB in the intervening parliamentary elections, as well as the abandonment of the early MB pledge not to field a presidential candidate and the surprisingly strong showing of the Salafis, changed the electoral landscape considerably. It was evident that the folks in Cairo were out of touch with the grassroots sentiments of a conservative society imbued with an Islamic identity. This assessment was discounted by liberal critics who explained MB dominance as misleading, representing an underestimation of its organizational strength. The Salafi emergence was similarly discounted by secularists as being mainly a product of Qatari and Saudi Arabian massive infusion of funds, but also as a consequence of the fact that in the past Salafi groups had shunned conventional party politics. All in all there were widespread and growing worries about the Islamization of Egyptian political life, with threats to civic freedoms, constitutional democracy, and the labor movement.

 

            The biggest development was the definite undertaking of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to undertake the task of establishing order in Egypt, and assuring a measure of continuity with the past. Although the SCAF leadership insisted that it was only managing the transition, its autocratic style, the recurrence of state violence and torture, and its reluctance to hold Mubarak operative accountable for past crimes intensified suspicions that SCAF ambition was to control the political future of the country. The SCAF also seemed to constrain democratic choice by disqualifying on highly technical grounds several presidential candidates.

The process had gone so far that ElBoradai withdrew as a candidate, and Moussa no longer seemed a favorite to win.  Among the negative scenarios that were being discussed during this period in various forms was the idea that the MB and the armed forces had struck a deal that doomed the future of the country to an unacceptable political future.

 

III. Late November, Early December 2012

 

            Of course, lots had happened. The presidential race had run its course in two rounds. The runoff was between Mohammed Morsi of the MB and Ahmed Shafik a former air force commanding general and outspoken advocate of a ‘law and order’ presidency, the two leading Egyptian institutions with least in common with the spirit of Tahrir Square. The SCAF seemed to hesitate before finally declaring Morsi the winner in a closely contested final vote, and even then appeared determined to constrain presidential power, but Morsi struck back, retiring the top generals, and effectively asserting presidential authority. Morsi also moved to entrust the drafting of the constitution to a commission of the Parliament dominated by Islamists, and now subject to a national referendum scheduled for December 15th. Then came Morsi’s November 22nd bombshell that claimed presidential authority to issue decrees that could not be judicially reviewed, but in response to the protests, has been substantially rescinded, although sweeping powers have been asserted by Morsi to control future demonstrations and protect the polling process relating to the referendum on the draft constitution. As matters now stand, the opposition is not pacified, and repudiates the process by which the draft constitution was prepared and the substance of several provisions that give the text an Islamic slant, as well as the failure to affirm the equality of women, labor rights, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and other international human rights treaties.

 

 

            The anti-Morsi forces have returned en masse to Tahrir Square with an agenda that seems to demand a reversal of these recent developments, which would plunge the country into a deep crisis or an insistence on following through with the adoption of a constitution that was seen as flawed in its endorsement of Sharia law as the basis of state/society relations and by its deference to the anti-democratic demands of the armed forces (including a non-reviewable defense budget, the right to try civilians in military courts, protection of vested interests in the economy).

 

            So far there have been almost daily clashes, some deadly, in Tahrir Square and throughout the city of Cairo, and in other cities around the country. There are several lines of response to these developments: the dominant one applauds the return to the streets to renew the struggle for democracy and economic equity based on its claim that the MB has an undisclosed plan to impose an authoritarian form of Sharia on Egypt with backroom alliance with the armed forces and neoliberal business and finance interests; the opposition claims to be fighting for an inclusive and pluralistic form of democratic political order, which recognizes as stakeholders in constitution-making, the several distinct communities that together make up Egyptian society, including seculars, Copts, and liberals. Another more radical assessment is that the fundamental issue involves the utter bankruptcy of conventional state-centered politics coupled with the complaint that ‘nothing has changed, absolutely nothing.’ What seems to be happening, expressed in the fighting and the mass protests, is a new subjectivity associated with local empowerment in specific communities and among societal sectors, especially women and labor. It is striking that pictures of the confrontation give prominence to women as a major presence among opposition forces, while those that seem to be all male are taken from visual representations of the ranks of MB militants.

 

IV. A Few Tentative Conclusions

 

            In the end, there are several issues, which have come to the surface in this unfolding Egyptian drama:

 

            –a deep division as to the nature of political legitimacy in the Egyptian context, with Islamists resting their claims on the will of the majority, what in

the American 18th century context was derided as ‘the tyranny of the majority’,  while the opposition insists on stakeholder democracy that is protective of distinct constituencies that are fearful of each other and of a Sharia Egypt; in this light, both sides seem uncompromising, and resting their encounter on contradictory views of democratic legitimacy;

            –a new fear that the rise of the MB is leading to the hijacking of the Egyptian Revolution by the forces of Islam in a manner that took place in Iran in 1979; in effect, that it is unacceptable to have Egypt governed by the MB no matter what the outcome of a series of elections. This unacceptability is accentuated by accusations that the MB has made deals with the armed forces and neoliberalism, the two most resented features of the Mubarak past. In this regard, no compromise is possible so long as Morsi remains president, and the unrest will continue. This rejectionist position has been expressed by the announced boycott of the December 15th referendum, which has been interpreted as a recognition that it would in any event prevail. In this respect, the opposition is staking its future on resistance rather than democratic procedures, although a less extreme reading would stress the refusal of Morsi to delay the referendum as demanded. The opposition believes that Egyptians have lost their fear of state power, learned to say ‘no,’ and that while repression may turn to harsh measures, it will not be able to achieve legitimacy or even stability;

 

            –a few brave souls in Egypt are sharply critical of and disturbed by this polarization, insisting that common ground exists among the contending forces, and must be found to avoid national disaster. The claim is that Morsi is far more sensitive to the pluralist claims than the opposition contends, although he has made serious ‘mistakes’ by pushing the panic button that have alarmed opposition elements. In practical terms, the draft constitution is not as flawed as claimed, and that the Morsi leadership has indicated a willingness to be receptive to accommodating amendment in the likely event that the referendum is approved. Similarly, that the opposition has over-reacted, rejected the democratic mandate of the electoral process, and risks pushing the country into a civil war.

 

            

When is an ‘NGO’ not an NGO? Twists and Turns Beneath the Cairo Skies

14 Feb


             A confusing controversy between the United States and Egypt is unfolding. It has already raised tensions in the relationship between the two countries to a level that has not existed for decades. It results from moves by the military government in Cairo to go forward with the criminal prosecution of 43 foreigners, including 19 Americans, for unlawfully carrying on the work of unlicensed public interest organizations that improperly, according to Egyptian law, depend for their budget on foreign funding. Much has been made in American press coverage that one of the Americans charged happens to be Sam LaHood, son of the present American Secretary of Transportation, adopting a tone that seems to imply that at least one connected by blood to an important government official deserves immunity from prosecution.

           

            Washington has responded with high minded and high profile expressions of consternation, including a warning from Hilary Clinton that the annual aid package for Egypt of $1.5 billion (of which $1.3 billion goes to the military) is in jeopardy unless the case against these NGO workers is dropped and their challenged organizations are allowed to carry on with their work of promoting democracy in Egypt. And indeed the U.S. Congress may yet refuse to authorize the release of these funds unless the State Department is willing to certify that Egypt is progressing toward greater democratization. President Obama has indicated his intention to continue with the aid at past levels, given the importance of Egypt in relation to American Middle Eastern interests, but as in so many other instances, he may give way if the pressure mounts. The outcome is not yet clear as an ultra-nationalistic Congress may yet thwart Obama’s seemingly more sensible response to what should have been treated as a tempest in a teapot, but for reasons to be discussed, has instead become a cause celebre.

 

            The Americans charged are on the payroll of three organizations: International Republican Institute (IRI), Democratic National Institute (DNI), and Freedom House. The first two organizations get all of their funding from the U.S. Government, and were originally founded in 1983 after Ronald Reagan’s speech to the British Parliament in which he urged that help be given to build the democratic infrastructure of newly independent countries in the non-Western world put forward as a Cold War counter-measure to the continuing appeal of Marxist ideologies. From the moment of their founding IRI and DNI were abundantly funded by annual multi-million grants from Congress, either directly or by way of such governmental entities as the U.S. Assistance for International Development  (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy. IRI and DNI claim to be non-partisan yet both are explicitly affiliated with each of the two political parties dominant in the United States, with boards, staffs, and consultants drawn overwhelmingly from former government workers and officials who are associated with these two American political parties. The ideological and governmental character of the two organizations is epitomized by the nature of their leadership. Madeline Albright, Secretary of State during the Clinton presidency, is chair of the DNI Board, while former Republican presidential candidate and currently a prominent senator, John McCain, holds the same position in the IRI. Freedom House, the third main organization that is the target of the Egyptian crackdown also depends for more than 80% of its funding from the National Endowment for Democracy and is similarly rooted in American party politics. It was founded in 1941 as a bipartisan initiative during the Cold War by two stalwarts of their respective political parties, Wendell Wilkie and Eleanor Roosevelt.

 

            Against this background the protests from Washington and the media assessments of the controversy seem willfully misleading. Since when does Washington become so agitated on behalf of NGOs under attack in a foreign country? Even mainstream eyebrows should have been raised sky high when Martin Demsey, currently the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, while visiting Cairo was reported to have interceded with his military counterparts on behalf of these Americans made subject to a travel ban and faced with the threat of prosecution. When was the last time you can recall an American military commander interceding on behalf of a genuine NGO? To paraphrase Bob Dylan, ‘the answer my friends, is never.’ So even the most naïve among us should be asking ‘what is really going on here?’

 

            The spokespersons for the organizations treat the allegations as a simple case of interference with the activities of apolitical and benevolent NGOs innocently engaged in helping Egyptians receive needed training and guidance with respect to democratic practices, especially those relating to elections and the rule of law. Substantively such claims seem more or less true at present, at least here in Egypt. Sometimes these entities are even referred to by the media as ‘civil society institutions,’ which reflects, at best, a woeful state of unknowing, or worse, deliberate deception. Whatever one thinks of the activities of these actors, it is simply false to conceive of them as ‘nongovernmental’ or as emanations of civil society. It would be more responsive to their nature if such entities were described as ‘informal governmental organizations.’ (IGOs)

 

            It is hardly surprising that a more honest label is avoided as its use would call attention to the problematic character of the undertakings: namely, disguised intrusions by a foreign government in the internal politics of a foreign country with fragile domestic institutions of government by way of behavior that poses at the very least a potential threat to its political independence. With such an altered interpretation of the controversy assumes a different character. It becomes quite understandable for the Egyptian government seeking to move beyond its authoritarian past to feel the need to tame these Trojan Horses outfitted by Washington. It would seem sensible and prudent for Egypt to insist that such organizations, and especially those associated with the U.S. Government, be registered and properly licensed in Egypt as a minimum precondition for receiving permission to carry on their activities in the country, especially on matters as sensitive as are elections, political parties, and the shaping of the legal system. Surely the United States, despite its long uninterrupted stable record of constitutional governance, would not even consider allowing such ‘assistance’ from abroad.  If it had been proposed by, say, Sweden, an offer of help with democracy would have been immediately rebuffed, and rudely dismissed as an insult to the sovereignty of the United States  despite Sweden being a geopolitical midget and U.S. being the gorilla on the global stage.

 

            And these Washington shrieks of wounded innocence, as if Cairo had no grounds whatsoever for concern, are either the memory lapses of a senile bureaucracy or totally disingenuous. In the past it has been well documented that IRI and DNI were active in promoting the destabilization of foreign governments that were deemed to be hostile to the then American foreign policy agenda. The Reagan presidency made no secret of its commitment to lend all means of support to political movements dedicated to the overthrow of left-leaning governments in Latin America and Asia. The most notorious instances involving the use of IRI to destabilize a foreign government is well known among students of American interventionist diplomacy. For instance IRI funds were extensively distributes to anti-regime forces to get rid of the Aristide government in Haiti, part of a dynamic that did lead to a coup in 2004 that brought to power reactionary political forces that were welcomed and seemed far more congenial to Washington’s ideas of ‘good governance’ at the time. IRI was openly self-congratulatory about its role in engineering a successful effort to strengthen ‘center and center/right’ political parties in Poland several years ago, which amounts to a virtual confession of interference with the dynamics of Polish self-determination.

 

            Although spokespersons for these organizations piously claim in their responses to these recent Egyptian moves against them to respect the sovereignty of the countries within which they operate, and especially so in Egypt. Even if these claims are generally true, ample grounds remain for suspicion and regulation, if not exclusion, on the part of a territorial government. An insistence upon proper regulation seems entirely reasonable if due account is taken of the numerous instances of covert and overt intervention by the United States in the political life of non-Western countries.

 

            Against such a background, several conclusions follow: first, the individuals being charged by Egypt are not working for genuine NGOs or civil society institutions, but are acting on behalf of informal government organizations or IGOs; secondly, the specific organizations being targeted, especially the DNI and IRI are overtly ideological in their makeup, funding base, and orientation; and thirdly, there exist compelling grounds for a non-Western government to regulate or exclude such political actors when due account is taken of a long American record of interventionary diplomacy. Thus the Washington posture of outrage seems entirely inappropriate once the actions of the Egyptian government are contextually interpreted.

 

            Yet the full story is not so simple or one-sided. It needs to be remembered that the Egyptian governing process in the year since the uprising that led to the collapse of the Mubarak regime has been controlled by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAP), which is widely believed by the Egyptian public to be responsible for a wave of repressive violence associated with its fears that some democratic demands are threatening their position and interests in the country. A variety of severe abuses of civilian society have been convincingly attributed to the military.  As well the military is responsible for a series of harsh moves against dissenters who blog or otherwise act in a manner deemed critical of military rule. In effect, the Egyptian government, although admittedly long concerned about these spurious NGOs operating within its territory even during the period of Mubarak rule, is itself seemingly disingenuous, using the licensing and funding technicalities as a pretext for a wholesale crackdown on dissent and human rights so as to discipline and intimidate a resurgent civil society and a radical opposition movement that remains committed to realizing the democratic promise of the Arab Spring.

 

            There is another seemingly strange part of the puzzle. Would we not expect the United States to side the Egyptian military with which it worked in close harmony during the Mubarak period. Why would Washington not welcome this apparent slide toward Mubarakism without Mubarak? Was this not America’s preferred outcome in Egypt all along, being the only outcome that would allow Washington to be confident that the new Egypt would not rock the Israeli boat or otherwise disturb American interests in the region. There is no disclosure of U.S. motives at this time for its present seemingly pro-democracy approach, but there are grounds for thinking Washington may be reacting to the success of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Nour (Salafi) Party in the Egyptian parliamentary elections and even more so to the apparent collaboration between these parties and the SCAF in planning Egypt’s immediate political future. In such a setting it seems plausible that sharpening state/society tensions in Egypt by siding with the democratic opposition would keep alive the possibility of a secular governing process less threatening to U.S./Israeli interests, as well as inducing Egypt itself to adopt a cautious approach to democratic reform. Maybe there are different explanations more hidden from view, but what seems clear is that both governmental in this kafuffle have dirty hands and are fencing in the dark at this point, that is, mounting arguments and counter-arguments that obscure rather than reveal their true motivations.

 

            In the end, Egypt, along with other countries, is likely to be far better off if it prohibits American IGOs from operating freely within its national territorial space, especially if their supposed mandate is to promote democracy as defined and funded by Washington. This is not to say that Egyptians would not be far better off if the SCAF allowed civilian rule to emerge in the country and acted in a manner respectful of human rights and democratic values. In other words what is at stake in this seemingly trivial controversy lies hidden by the smokescreens relied upon by both sides in the dispute: weighty matters of governance and democracy that could determine whether the remarkable glories of the Arab Spring mutate in the direction of a dreary Egyptian Autumn, or even Winter. 

Reflections on Two Occupations

23 Nov

 

Not long ago I took part in a workshop in London that was jointly organized by young Palestinians and Israeli, and discussed prospects for a just peace, emphasizing the imperative of ending ‘the occupation.’ At about the same time I experienced the radiant energy of the young occupiers at Wall Street and near St Paul’s Cathedral. Several months ago I was in Cairo not long after Mubarak left power, and visited Tahrir Square still alive with its memories of occupation by the protesters. Occupation became a word of many resonances, both favorable and heinous, and this poem tries to acknowledge this interplay of feelings of solidarity and alienation. Perhaps, it is too personal to be sharable.

*********

 

 

Reflections on Two Occupations

 

To live             to love

                                                is to occupy           

                                                to be

                                                            occupied

 

By whom             with whom           

Occupy/ing

                        Tahrir Square

                        Wall Street

                        St Paul’s Cathedral

                                                            the world

 

To hope to dream

                                    to act

                                                is

                                                to

                                                            occupy

 

By whom            for whom

To fear to hide

                        to resist

                                                is to be

                                                                        (pre)occupied

            from within

            from without

 

It was once your land

I entered your land

                        picking olives

                                                settling there

Buying occupying

 

Above all remembering

                                                another distant tale

Filled with tears and dying

                                                                       

                                                                        my land

                                                                                    my law                       

                                                            my birthright

 

And now ours to keep:

                        history forgives

                                                what is stolen if time passes quietly

                                   

 

Long ago now

I did ask you to leave

            in a polite voice

                        then a raised voice

                                    then a scream

                                                            then no voice at all

                                    to go             get out

 

All I wanted then was for birds

                                    to sing some old songs

All I wanted was for flowers

                                                to bend toward home

 

And now I declare

            to myself to you

                                    to the world

                                                this occupation will end:

 

The graves

                        already full

 

            as dawn

                                    splits

                                                            the Jerusalem sky in two

 

What is occupied with love lives

What is occupied with force kills

                                                            before it dies and lives again           

                                                                                                            elsewhere

 

I never wanted this earth scorched

                                                            moist with

                                                                        native blood

 

amid the ruins

                        I fight              resist    pray           

 

 

XI/22/2011

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