'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt Erupts: Checkmate(?) 

UPDATE 4: Ok, I can't actually sleep. Rumors are rife that Mubarak is stepping down. One protester tells the Guardian's Jack Shenker that if power simply gets handed over to Suleiman, "all that will happen is that everyone in Tahrir will rewrite their signs, and then carrying on demonstrating." More rumors that the personnel of state television and radio are evacuating their building, as well they should. The rumors that Mubarak is leaving have clearly reached Tahrir Sq. and one of the chants that has arisen is for the extension of the revolution. If Mubarak does step down tonight (or morning/afternoon for us in the US), the revolution is not over, I'm sure.

UPDATE 3: A slight bit more from watching Al Jazeera before I head to bed. This transition proposal is being described as involving a year-long transition period after the fall of the regime (I'm presuming that this of course involves the removal of Mubarak/Suleiman and their immediate coterie as well as the removal of the NPD), headed by the below-described presidential council and under a interim constitution, during which a "council of experts" would work to draw up a new constitution and preparations would be made for new parliamentary and presidential elections.

And, just as I wrote the last paragraph, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces made an announcement (with neither Mubarak nor Suleiman anywhere to be seen in the room) on state television, that they are going to "begin" convening regularly to address the "legitimate demands" of the Egyptian people and to "protect the property" of the Egyptian people. The crowds in Tahrir Square responded to the news with chants of "The Army and the People are one hand" and then returned to calls for the fall of the regime. Reuters is being quoted by Al Jazeera as reporting that a senior military leader had told crowds at Tahrir that "your demands will be met."

Make of that what you will, perhaps you will know its ramifications before I do, because I must go to bed at this late hour of eight in the morning. I'm sure any major developments will be ably discussed by Richard.

UPDATE 2: According to Al Jazeera:
We're hearing from our correspondents that the coalition of youth movements will shortly announce a refined list of demands for the transfer of power, including the dissolution of parliament and the adoption of a temporary constitution allowing a three-person presidential council - with a representative each from the military and judiciary - to supervise preparations for full presidential and parliamentary elections.
I can't imagine that the youth coalition actually thinks that this will push the intransigent Suleiman/Mubarak regime off their position, but it does suggest something about their thinking about the role of the military in the wake of revelations that the military has been involved in arresting and torturing protesters and threats from Suleiman and, more recently, the Egyptian foreign minister, Ahmed Aboul Gheit, threatening martial law. From the start, it seems to me, the organizers of the protests have sought to cultivate the sympathies of the military. Stated in these most general of terms, I personally believe that this was the proper tactic. There was certainly no way that the pro-democracy movement could possibly physically face off against the Egyptian military. It would be the end of the movement, and an extremely bloody end. Whether there was a failure to cultivate the rank-and-file and lower-level officers versus a reliance on trying to appeal to the top leadership, as deeply imbricated in the regime as they are, will likely be a subject of enduring debate, whatever the results.

UPDATE 1: The Guardian's Jack Shenker on the "micro-dramas" of the intervention of the masses (link):
What's been really interesting this morning though is the news filtering in about small-scale strikes and demonstrations breaking out in all manner of nooks and crannies across the country. When corruption and the primacy of wasta (connections or influence) is as institutionalised as it has been in Egypt over the past few decades, it affects everyone at every level – from the presidency down to the local cigarette kiosk at the end of the street. And when the anchors of that system appear to be crumbling at the top, as Ashraf Khalil persuasively argued in a piece for Foreign Policy yesterday, a sense that it is now possible to fight back quickly percolates down as well.

Hence entities that you would never normally associate with political activism are suddenly rising up in protest – from the Supreme Council of Antiquities to the Animal Research Centre, where staff claim their director has been siphoning off money destined for avian influenza programmes to buy personal villas in Alexandria.

Not all of these micro-dramas are explicitly political, and few of them will make headlines on their own. But they all add up to a growing sense that something fundamental is shifting in Egypt: people are no longer willing to accept the status quo power dynamics between themselves and their overlords, be they in the presidential palace or in the boss's office next door.

In answer to the question posed by Richard in the title to the last post, Esam Al-Amin, at least, seems confident of the answer: checkmate.

I recommend his article as an interesting and relatively comprehensive summary of what we've been seeing these past weeks. It also provides an interesting look at the structure of the youth leadership:
On Sunday Feb. 6, the youth groups that spearheaded Egypt’s revolution formed a coalition called the “Unified Leadership of the Youth of the Rage Revolution.” It consisted of five groups with a grassroots base and are considered the backbone of the organized activities of the revolution.

The coalition includes two representatives from each of the April 6 Youth Movement, the Justice and Freedom Group, the Popular Campaign to Support El-Baradei, the Democratic Front Party, and the popular Muslim Brotherhood Movement. In addition four independent members were also added to the leadership for a total of fourteen members. Maher, the coordinator of the April 6 movement, and Ghoneim, an independent, were elected to the leadership. All members are from the youth in their late 20s or early 30s.

The April 6 Youth Movement was formed in response to workers' strikes in 2008 as, originally, a Facebook group. The Muslim Brotherhood's youth wing has been included, likely, in recognition of their role in defending Tahrir Square on the night of the most violent assaults on Tahrir by state thugs, after the organization originally declined to participate in the protests. Al-Amin sheds a bit of light on this as well:

Muhammad Abbas, 26, is another leader of the coalition representing the youth of the Muslim Brotherhood movement (MB). After initial hesitation at the beginning of the uprising, the MB has brought since Jan. 28 tens of thousands of its supporters to join and help organize the efforts in Tahrir Squ are as well as in other demonstrations across the country.

On Feb. 2, government goons were beating up, throwing Molotov cocktails, and shooting at the demonstrators. Some of the female demonstrators under siege called Muslim Brotherhood leaders Mohammad El-Biltagi and Esam El-Erian pleading for help. Both leaders rushed to Tahrir Square after midnight leading over five thousand MB members to break the siege.

Ghoneim, of course, is the Google marketing executive who started the "We Are All Khaled Said" Arabic Facebook page and whose interview on Egyptian television following his release from arrest has been credited with providing a sympathy boost to the protesters at a moment when there was worry about energies flagging.

Al-Amin mentions one more of the independent members:

Dr. Sally Tooma Moore, 32, a Christian Copt and an independent member of the coalition’s leadership, is an Egyptian-British medical doctor. Under gunfire, she helped save hundreds of lives using a makeshift hospital in a Cairo mosque during the violent attacks of the security forces and the outlaws sponsored by the ruling party.
Meanwhile, Ahram Online, which as far as I can determine is associated with the state-owned Al Ahram daily newspaper, fills in a few more details (perhaps this is a sign of the increasingly shaky grasp of the regime over its own propaganda machine? It would certainly fit in with reports of state journalists protesting against their Mubarak-supporting editors over the past day or two. Their front page certainly seems to be far more supportive of the protesters than Mubarak/Suleiman):

According to Ahmed Ezzat, a HASHD [Popular Movement for Change-Rojo] and coalition member, the coalition is still expanding and intends to include other young and diverse political trends that have been part of Egypt's political sphere over the past few past years.

"Although it started with only these groups we hope it expands to include all the other young activists, including young members from the Karama party, Labor party, Kifaya and all others including independent bloggers and Internet activists,” says Ezzat.

Not claiming that they are talking on the uprising's behalf, the coalition was formed with an aim to provide representation for the young who have played a role in political life in Egypt and have contributed to the current revolt. However, the uprising has taken its own path, independent of these groups, and, according to many of their members, the coalition only aims to articulate its demands and keep them at the forefront of public consciousness as Egypt prepares for change.

Ahram Online, elsewhere, also describes some of the relationships between the youth coalition, the so-called "Wise Men," and the regime:

In the course of their meeting with committee, the youth representatives said they had been called by the office of the vice-president and asked to join yesterday’s dialogue with various opposition forces. They declined, and said they decided they would rather have the “dialogue”, or “wise men” committee, negotiate on their behalf. They were very clear however that they were ceding nothing to the committee, but rather asking it to deliver their demands and report back to them on the course of negotiations. This was readily agreed to by the committee; Abul-Magd [a member of the "Wise Men" described earlier in the article as former head of the Human Rights Council-Rojo] and others assured the youth representatives that they made no claims to speak in the name of the protesters in Tahrir sq or anywhere else in the country, but were merely trying to help facilitate the realization of the objectives of the 25 January Revolution, with which they are fully accord.

Representing the committee in the meeting with vice-president Suleiman were law El-Gamal and Sawiris. El-Gamal arrived at the committee’s ad hoc headquarters at the premises of Al-Shorouk daily newspaper, and briefed committee members and the youth representatives on the vice-president’s offers, which had been set down in a statement, later published as the outcome of an agreement between the government and the protesters representatives.

In separate meetings, both groupings wholly rejected the statement, which they described as a manifest attempt to circumvent the revolution and subvert its basic demands. Similar reactions were later declared by the protesters in Tahrir and elsewhere, as well as by the Muslim Brotherhood, which had won a newfound, if still de facto legitimacy by being invited to the dialogue.

According to this article, the "Wise Men" and the youth coalition have agreed on certain non-negotiable demands "if the negotiating process is to go on:"

1) Eliminating the state of emergency, in force for the past 30 years; 2) immediate release of all political prisoners, and prisoners of conscience; 3) immediate arrest and prosecution of NDP Oligarchs, officials and police officers and agents implicated in the “criminal” attacks on protesters (killing over 200 people and thousands of injured), and on public and private property, including the attempts to loot and burn the Egyptian museum. 4) Bring an immediate halt to all forms of incitement against the protesters, by state officials and the state owned media. And, finally 5) fire the minister of information, Anas El-Fiqi, and put Egyptian state TV under the oversight of an independent Board of Trustees.
Given that the Guardian report Richard cites below indicates that those disappeared during the past weeks alone amount to perhaps thousands of people and the fact that among those "NDP Oligarchs, officials, and police officers and agents implicated in the "criminal" attacks on protesters" are most certainly Mubarak, Suleiman, Prime Minister Shafiq, and Defense Minister Tantawy, to name the few most obvious, it's difficult to see how these demands could be met without fully pulling out the entire regime, root and branch.

A couple caveats, the latter of which thankfully mitigates against the first:

First, I have extreme doubts about the commitment of the "Wise Men" to any form of radical change or even to what they may now claim are non-negotiable demands. Contra Ralph Nader, I think its absolutely ridiculous and reactionary to assert that "Only the super-rich [or otherwise powerful] can save us." I suspect the "Wise Men" are wise to the extent that they are elites that have seen the writing on the wall for the Pharaoh earlier than most and have moved to manage the revolution in order to preserve what they can of existing class privileges while seeking a wider bourgeois political realm in which to maneuver, without any essential break in the broader global position of Egypt. In other words, continued subservience to the neoliberal financial and Camp David orders, with perhaps some symbolic changes as sops to the popular mood.

Secondly, and far more hopefully, the Egyptian masses appear to have decisively intervened in history and, as always when the masses consciously join history, all the plans of leaders, no matter how sincere or devious, youthful or decrepit, can turn to no avail.

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