Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Egypt's End-game Still Far over the Horizon

If you're looking for a relatively concise summation of where things stand in Egypt on the evening of 2 February 2011, you could do a lot worse than look into the post made to the New Yorker site by Jordanian political analyst Salameh Nematt.  In essence,
  • Mubarak is not going to leave quietly or quickly;
  • the initiative lies mostly in the hands of the Egyptian military, from whose ranks has emerged every Egyptian leader since the 1952 coup that ousted King Farouk
  • If the pro-democracy protesters continue their uprising and prolong the chaos in Cairo's Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt, the military leadership may decide to crack down, severely.  In that case, the protesters may knuckle under, and Mubarak will play out his string (probably handing off power to his newly named V-P, Omar Suleiman).

Or, all hell will break loose. 

If the army cannot restore control, there's no immediate aftermath that can likely be anything but nightmarish.  As this BBC report noted, some of those who were demonstrating in favor of Mubarak today (which was, by the way, perhaps the day's most arresting development) claimed to be fearful that deposing him would produce chaos in Egypt similar to what Iraq witnessed between 2004 and 2009.  Egypt does not have the ethnic and sectarian divisions that continue to bedevil Iraq, but it does have a substantial minority of Christian Copts, who suffered several high-profile attacks in the weeks leading up to the current revolt. And it has a huge population of impoverished urban and rural workers and under-employed, angry young people who may decide to vent their frustrations against anything that they might associate with the regime. (That, unfortunately, could include both the Egyptian Museum in Cairo and other archaeological sites across the country.  Many Western archaeological teams are streaming out of the country, amid reports of looting at important sites like Saqqara.)

And it's a well-known historical phenomenon that when chaos erupts, groups that already possess some modicum of organization tend to be position themselves to intervene in order to pursue their own agenda.  Think back to the emergence of al-Qaeda in Iraq in the wake of the chaos sown by the US invasion in 2003 - and then recall that the men who flew the planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon included a number of Egyptians, and that the current second-in-command and spiritual leader of al-Qaeda is an Egyptian, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Meanwhile, Israelis all up and down the political and journalistic spectrum are proclaiming that the rise of a radical Islamist leadership under the umbrella of the Muslim Brotherhood is only a matter of time.  Some (like Yossi Klein Halevi, in an NYT essay disingenuously titled "Islamists [read 'Barbarians] at the Gates") are reverting to the old trope of poor little, surrounded Israel, once again a David confronted by the Muslim Arab Goliath).  Mr. Netanyahu is now demanding that, no matter what kind of government emerges, the Western powers must insist that Egypt abide by its 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel.

Netanyahu fails to understand - or perhaps, understands all too well - that the West's ability to insist that the Egyptian leadership do anything more or less went out the door as soon as the demonstrators began to mass in Tahrir Square (or even from the moment that the Tunisian vendor set fire to himself in protest only a few short weeks ago). As Nematt notes:
apart from expressing hope that the situation unfolds peacefully, the best thing [Obama] and other Western leaders can do is to refrain from making any statements that imply a vested interest in things going in this or that direction. What the U.S. and Western allies have done in Afghanistan and Iraq remains fresh in the minds of people and governments in the region. And they do not feel they need advice from the West—or anybody else for that matter.

The fact of the matter is - as Marjorie Cohn put it (as did I, yesterday), the chickens have come home to roost in Egypt.  Cohn cites appropriately -and convincingly - the case made by Jane Mayer and others about how the US not only supported Mubarak's harshly oppressive regime, but also called upon it regularly to "manage" "high-value" detainees in Mr. Bush's "war on terror":

Torture is commonplace in Egypt . . . . . Indeed, Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s intelligence chief whom Mubarak just named Vice-President, was the lynchpin for Egyptian torture when the CIA sent prisoners to Egypt in its extraordinary rendition program. Stephen Grey noted in Ghost Plane, “[I]n secret, men like Omar Suleiman, the country’s most powerful spy and secret politician, did our work, the sort of work that Western countries have no appetite to do ourselves.”

In her chapter in the newly published book, “The United States and Torture: Interrogation, Incarceration, and Abuse,” Jane Mayer cites Egypt as the most common destination for suspects rendered by the United States. “The largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid after Israel,” Mayer writes, “Egypt was a key strategic ally, and its secret police force, the Mukhabarat, had a reputation for brutality.” She describes the rendering of Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi to Egypt, where he was tortured and made a false confession that Colin Powell cited as he importuned the Security Council to approve the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Al-Libi later recanted his confession.

The State Department’s 2002 report on Egypt noted that detainees were “stripped and blindfolded; suspended from a ceiling or doorframe with feet just touching the floor; beaten with fists, metal rods, or other objects; doused with hot or cold water; flogged on the back; burned with cigarettes; and subjected to electrical shocks. Some victims . . . [were] forced to strip and threatened with rape.”

In 2005, the United Nations Committee Against Torture found that “Egypt resorted to consistent and widespread use of torture against detainees” and “the risk of such treatment was particularly high in the case of detainees held for political and security reasons.”

About a year ago, an Italian judge convicted 22 CIA operatives and a U.S. Air Force colonel of arranging the kidnapping of a Muslim cleric in Milan in 2003, then flying him to Egypt where he was tortured. Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr told Human Rights Watch he was “hung up like a slaughtered sheep and given electrical shocks” in Egypt. “I was brutally tortured and I could hear the screams of others who were tortured too,” he added.

A former CIA agent observed, “If you want a serious interrogation, you send a prisoner to Jordan. If you want them to be tortured, you send them to Syria. If you want someone to disappear – never to see them again – you send them to Egypt.”

One bright spot here: some brave, principled Israeli journalists (like Anshel Pfeffer) are declaring their support for the Egyptian people - Muslim Brotherhood or no Muslim Brotherhood.  Bradley Burston in Haaretz declares "As an Israeli, I want the Egyptians to win."  He then goes on to point his finger directly at the leaders and people of Israel:
The myth of Israeli exceptionalism goes far deeper than our leaders, of course. And so do its consequences. From an amalgam of the concept of the Chosen, the wounds of the Holocaust, and the awe and shock of the 1967 and 1973 wars, it is this sense of entitlement that fuels the settlements, and enshrines the Occupation whose purpose is to shield them.

These are the mantras with which the entitled among us hold the rest of us hostage:

We deserve to build settlements because we have suffered and the Arabs are violent.

We deserve to reject compromise because we are too generous and the Arabs want us dead.

As long as the Arabs refuse to accept us, we dare not show weakness.

The Arabs hate us no matter what we do, so we get to do what we want.

If it wasn't for the left, the world would understand us and we would be just fine.

Democratic freedoms and the rule of law are vital, but we are in a state of war.

Would that more American journalists had the guts to be so forthright - and that America's leaders had had the guts, and the foresight, years ago, to look squarely at the short-sighted, ill-conceived policies that inevitably brought US pride and credibility to this oh-so-predictable nadir.

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