Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Wailing Walls: Death On The Nile

Note: As Egypt struggles toward democracy, we, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? turn for insight to General Rehavam "Gandhi" Ze'evi, former Israeli Minister of Tourism. Having faked his assassination in the Mt. Scopus Hyatt Hotel, the General has been in deep cover, in Judea and Samaria, posing as an American goy pursuing graduate studies in the Middle East and slowly learning Arabic, focusing especially on settlement activity in East Jerusalem. In his free time, he enjoys saying very little about himself, because he's terrified of Kachist/Islamist extremist internet aficionados.

Out, Out, Long Candle

There was a joke in the mid-nineties among CIA functionaries about how to brief Bill Clinton on the prospect of regime change in Iraq. "Mr. President, we cannot definitively predict the identity of Saddam's successor, but we know his first name: General."

You'll remember, dear reader, that far from his pre-2008 Iowa Jefferson-Jackson dinner assertion that he had "opposed the Iraq [War] from the beginning," Clinton had in fact been an open, rather zealous proponent of icing Saddam Hussein's leprous mafia government once and for all. Bubba spent two terms as president dropping thousands of tons of bombs on Iraq, financing all sorts of creepy, terroristic exile groups and engineering a truly monstrous sanctions program which succeeded only in enriching Ba'athist cronies and killing a few hundred thousand kids. While most people have forgotten about the sanctions (with some exceptions), the joke became newly relevant this past week. As with all CIA information on Iraq, the Langley water cooler brigade were totally wrong with their "Saddam successor" joke. But replace "Saddam" in that punchline with the name of Hosni Mubarak, and by Allah, that joke is dead-on. It explains exactly what finally happened last week.

Mubarak was going to survive so long as the Army didn’t view his continued presence as constituting an immediate liability. And Mubarak’s unbelievable Mr. Magoo speech two Thursdays ago — an incoherent word salad of Arab nationalist boilerplate and paternalistic condescension — finally did the trick. The media was awash with leaked assurances that Mubarak was about to submit to the inevitable and bow out, a buzzing zeitgeist playing soundtrack to the odd new images of the day. The Supreme Council of the Egyptian military — which last met, I think, when Ariel Sharon’s tank column was surging towards Cairo during the 1973 War — suddenly convened a televised meeting, in which Mubarak and churlish dungeonmaster Umar Suleiman happened to be absent. Hassan al-Roueini, the general tasked with security in the Cairo Governate, had the most fun assignment: go to Tahrir Square and tell all the protestors, "All your demands will be met today."

Who knows what they were saying to the Americans — though I don't view it as coincidental that CIA director Leon Panetta and Obama both seemed to think Mubarak would quit later that evening. And then, of course Mubarak went and embarrassed everyone, made the Army look like real schlemiels who can't deliver on their word, building up everyone for a demented primetime Ceauceascu karaoke. Adding to the confusion: that testicle-shocking ghoul Suleiman doubled up with his own speech, practically mimicking Mubarak's tone. But then, why exactly was the vice president getting airtime? Equal to that of the actual president?

I assumed in my last article that the palace coup had been slowly coalescing since the Friday of January 28th, the day the protests really took on force. I also argued the Army was preparing to dump Mubarak, but on their own terms. And when Mubarak had the chance to bow out with some excuse about his health, or even a face-saving abdication in the name of the good of the country — when he had that chance, Mubarak told the Army and the protestors to go suck eggs. That was when he finally got pushed; they didn't take any chances, didn't let Mubarak speak for himself. Suleiman delivered the information in a thirty second announcement, his very presence, despite his unconstitutional assertion that the Army command would now be in charge (some Middle Eastern cover of an old 1980s tune; call him al-Haig) sounding the Suleiman regime's first reveille.

So now Mubarak is out, waiting to die at Sharm el-Sheikh, artificial tourist paradise as far from Egypt as Timbuktu. (Fun historical sidenote: the first development of Sharm as a tourist site was undertaken by Israel, when they held the Sinai Peninsula in the 1970s). Now the Egyptian military is in a very difficult position. I don't know whether "Egyptian Revolution" is an accurate name for these events: as the protests wore on, it seemed as though "Down with the regime" was rejiggered, the message reduced to "Death to Mubarak."

The most obscene functionaries of Mubarak, the lily-livered neoliberal scum that his son Gamal attracted like so much Cairo smog under his fingernails, have already been decimated. Ahmed Ezz, the steel magnate and National Democratic Party election fixer, likely faces criminal charges, and a few of Hosni's favored strongmen will have to be sacrificed. The Army has already detained extravagantly corrupt ex-Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, who earned his bones torturing any Islamic nutjob with a pulse following the 1997 Luxor Massacre. But none of these sacrificial piƱatas are near and dear to the Army and Suleiman. The Egyptian group that Tahrir protestors and American policymakers alike need to be most worried about is definitely not the Muslim Brotherhood. It's the military, whose grip on power remains tight.

I laugh when I hear pundits — from the "Real Time With Bill Maher panel" Left to the "Glenn Beck Undiagnosed Schizophrenia" Right — fret about the Muslim Brotherhood. The Muslim Brotherhood, for years under Mubarak and especially following the spate of jihadist anti-tourist terror attacks of the 1990s, has not been the James Bond-style S.M.E.R.S.H boogeyman syndicate every Beltway sycophant soberly indicates. The best book you can read as an introduction to modern Egypt is also the only one Mubarak ever bothered to officially ban. (Though curiously enough, I saw a three hundred percent marked-up copy for sale in the American University bookstore a year ago, which is situated right on... Tahrir Square. Odd.) Inside Egypt, by the British journalist John R. Bradley, was the follow-up to his excellent study Saudi Arabia Exposed, and in the wake of Mubarak's fall is getting the attention it deserves. Bradley should basically be given the deed to the Arabian Palace, or maybe the Suez Canal, such were his marvelous predictions about a revolution no one else saw coming.

After reading or seeing work by Westerners who actually "do" the Middle East, like Bradley, Robert Fisk, Juan Cole or NBC's terrific Richard Engel, who carve sacred cows and — gulp — know Arabic, one cannot go back to the infantilized U.S. media. Bradley convincingly makes the case that Mubarak has consistently exaggerated the strength of the Ikhwan to scare DC shitless, going so far as to jerry-rig the 2005 election results to give Brotherhood-backed candidates a disproportionate twenty percent share of the vote. The American talking heads buy into this fallacy hook, line and sinker — parroting the party line of a cunning, now-deposed tyrant with the smug self-assuredness of someone who Googled "Muslim Brotherhood" right before their 5:15 spot on Hardball with Chris Matthews.

No, don't worry about the Muslim Brotherhood; they contributed very little to the protests besides the goodwill of mostly keeping their mouths shut. I expect Muslim Brotherhood supremo Yusuf Qaradawi will look like Ayatollah Khomeini to any George Mason or GWU graduate brownnosing their way up the think-tank ladder, but Islamists were embarrassingly detached from the protests, the same way the PLO was caught by complete surprise when the First Intifada began. Hell, Qaradawi is just the Egyptian version of Israeli ultraorthodox party boss Ovadia Yosef, and no one would ever say on television that Israeli religio-nationalists pose a major threat to regional security... and keep their job.

Already Egypt is receding from the American consciousness, before the revolution has even really finished. That Lara Logan sexual assault story didn't help. It must have been a relief to "clash of civilization" purists, after the sustained dignity of the Egyptian protests, to hear of something so vile, so horrid, so Oriental. Yet, once again, the media — like David Gregory on Meet The Press, America's gummy mouthjob to power, who made the Logan attack question three in his interview of UN Ambassador Rice — bollixed the story. I don't know exactly what the horrific assault on Logan constituted; the details that have emerged are sufficiently gruesome that I don't really want to know the rest. But I do know that such sexual assaults are perhaps the signature form of coercion practiced by the Mubarak regime — and not usually against women. Multiple detainees during the recent protests witnessed, were threatened with, or suffered rape at the hands of security goons, while on February 2nd, pro-Mubarak goons began specifically targeting journalists for attack. Maybe the attackers were thuggish, opportunistic, angry urchins amongst the protestors — but then, the protestors were so largely peaceful. Is it too much to ask that someone on television might be interested in whether a U.S.-backed regime ordered its security establishment to beat and rape foreign journalists?

Maybe nothing was learned by us Americans following that most sublime of political action, the revolution. We revert back to our basest, crudest instincts, our view of the Mideast once again colored by the same ethnocentric worldview. The rape of a Western journalist and specter of Muslims being elected dogcatcher deflates our airy beneficence towards those adorable Arabs, scuttling about and demanding a flat tax or health savings accounts or whatever we assume they must be lacking. To us, ex-Israeli Prime Minister/ex-terrorist Yitzhak Shamir was right: "The sea is the same sea, the Arabs are the same Arabs."