Thursday, February 10, 2011

Wailing Walls: Nile Style

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.

The Slow Death of A Fat Failed Pharoah

The Mubaraks are finished, and have been for over a week. The pharaohs of ancient Egypt thought they would live on, even after death. Staring at Ramses II's mummy in the Egyptian Museum, it is difficult to see how. He certainly seems dead. Yet a fringe of blonde ringlets, rolling over his leathery forehead, is visibly preserved, a final concession to the vanity of an old man. His rotted teeth and crackling blisters are preserved in the jaw. Here was the father of Egypt, his brains pried from his nostrils in expectation of immortality. Since he got dragged out of his Luxor tomb, Ramses has been guarded by Tourist Policemen, like the mustachioed, swarthy sergeant at the front gate giving me two thumbs up. "Obama good!" he beamed.

I wonder what he thinks of Obama now; certainly he was pressed into action near Midan Tahrir, only a stone's throw away from his post. I wonder if he was one of the goons cracking heads in the square this week, all truncheon and tear gas. I wonder if he was one of the faceless looters who mysteriously materialized the moment the police presence evaporated. If so, the policeman's new duties weren't too dissimilar from his old assignment. Mubarak, the ancient authoritarian, thinks like a pharaoh, thinks the world is owed to him. You can almost smell the mothballs and dust when he opens his mouth to speak. He thinks he is going to live forever, even if it takes killing everyone in his country. Hosni Mubarak is a dye-job Dracula, his inky hair as contrived as that mummy's perm.

The beautiful rose-red Egyptian Museum stands near Midan Tahrir. Liberation Square, nexus of the protests that have rocked Egypt; the nearby Ramses Hilton is a birddog spot, once for TV crews and now for government snipers, who last Thursday picked off at least two protestors with high-powered rifles. Amin Dowla (state security) goons rampage through the Hilton's hallways, seeking foreign journalists and their cameras; on February 3r, they succeeded in cutting off all live filming from the Hilton. And now, now that Gamal's been likely retired to the relative poverty of a London currency speculator, the Hilton is the domain of Egypt's strongmen, men who couldn't wear a suit if their life depended upon it. It's a good metaphor for the power shift within the regime of the past week, from technocratic snobs to truncheon-wielding slobs.

The army spooks and Amin Dowla are ascendant on Midan Tahrir, running interference for the pharaoh, the one who on Wednesday finally went Bull Conner on the protestors. In a maneuver about as convincing as the "my condom won't fit" move, a jackal pack of hardened cons, drug addict cops, and paid goons — some on horses and camels — pounced on Tahrir's occupants, apparently in a spontaneous show of support for their beloved Hosni! "There will be a full investigation," pledged new Vice President and very old Mukhabarat spy chieftan Omar Suleiman, who went on to state he was "shocked, just shocked" to find gambling going on in Rick's Casino. And yet the protests remain robust, extracting concessions which would have been unthinkable a week ago.

Why did the Egyptian Revolution begin? I don’t know, nor do I particularly care. Revolution is the rarest political phenomena, the equivalent of one of those perfect Wizard of Oz-style rope tornadoes. The vagaries of why revolutions do or do not happen — why authority crumbles, why people lose their fear, why the armed forces don't fire, why the ancien régime's usual means of bribery or bullying stop working — are abundant enough that I won't even try to enumerate them. As it stands two weeks after the beginning of the January 25 protests, the following appear true.

One: the protestors aren't afraid of Mubarak. The police didn't do the job they normally do, terrorizing citizens with randomly visited violence. Efforts to intimidate them came too late and only enraged the protestors; the gang of "pro-Mubarak" Cro Magnons unleashed on Tahrir Square last Wednesday might've strangled the protests a week earlier. Mubarak, probably because of his aging faculties, disconnection from average Egyptian sentiments, and arrogance, didn't take the protests seriously, and thus allowed his authority to crumble.

A comparison with the neutering of the Iranian "Green" protests is instructive. In the wake of their clumsily rigged presidential elections, the coercive institutions of Iran showed little compunction about bashing the fight out of any brave protestors. Protestors were not able to occupy Tehran's Azadi Square in the robust manner of 1979, or as in Tahrir Square; physically, protestors were dispersed. Instead of contemplating a Tiananmen-style bloodbath on such a massive concentration of protestors, the Iranians had merely to target concentrations of unrest (as when gunmen shot up Tehran University) and raid pockets of protestors on the street using motorcycle-borne Basij goons (such as those who shot Neda Agha-Soltan). This bought the Revolutionary Guard and internal security forces the time they needed to identify protest coordinators, a "mopping-up" accelerated through mass arrests and communications blackouts. In the case of Green sympathizers too high-profile to touch directly, the regime plied more subtle tricks; the daughter of wealthy Assembly of Experts chair Ayatollah Rafsanjani was arrested, candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's nephew was murdered, and ex-president Mohammed Khatami was banned from overseas travel.

The Egyptian regime hasn't succeeded in imitating any of these steps. Police have proven unable to keep the protestors from reaching and holding Tahrir Square, making them much more difficult to dislodge. The disappearance of police that first weekend, followed by the "in NO way related" spate of looting, street violence, and prison breaks, failed to create panic, as Egyptians coolly took over policing duties. It was so clumsily orchestrated by the most hated institution of Egypt, that the protestors had no choice but to bravely rise to the occasion, forming neighborhood watches and protecting their homes — from the police. Last Wednesday’s dispatching of the "Egyptian Basij" to Tahrir Square — ex-prisoners, drug addicted-cops, and paid muscle, some riding camels — backfired. Rumors ran wild, that the "pro-Mubarak" attackers were being paid one hundred pounds a day, that the Army had let them armed into Tahrir, that they had Police IDs. Whatever the truth, their murder of several people in the Square, and the introduction of firearms to the street fighting, forced the Army to finally intervene.

Perhaps most remarkably, the regime appeared totally unsuccessful in rolling up any coordinators. Internet access was restored, probably after American pressure. Arrests appeared either too haphazard to terrorize the masses, or, when targeting well-known figures, like blogger Wael Abbas, ex-presidential candidate Ayman Nour's family, or "We Are All Khaled Said" Facebook administrator Wael Ghonim, totally backfired. Ghonim, anonymous as the creator of arguably the most important web resource during the protests, is a hero today, with thousands urging him to play a leadership role in negotiations with the ruling regime. It's often said that the Iranian Revolution was the most popular revolution in history; there were probably two million people on the streets the day Khomeini returned. I think Egypt may beat that. The sheer diversity of the protestors and apparently spontaneous organization of most of their supporting services — ranging from security watches to medical care to delivering food and water — is as grassroots as it gets.

Two: the protestors have demolished the Mubaraks' claim on authority, that of their ability to keep the peace. This has been the uncharismatic Mubarak's only trump card, ever since he was dragged away bleeding from the VIP box where Anwar Sadat had been gunned down in 1980. Through his maintenance of the "cold peace" with Israel, fierce and brutal crackdown on Islamists in the 1990s, and complicity in the post-9/11 American rendition/torture program, Mubarak has depended on his image as a stalwart authoritarian. Once stained, that reputation can never be restored; he's now just a liability for his base of power, the Egyptian armed forces.

The first casualty of the protests wasn't the military dictatorship itself, which might yet emerge stronger from this ordeal, nor was it even Hosni the Pharaoh. The single biggest scalp hacked by the January 25 protest movement thus far is the slicked-back 'do of Gamal Mubarak. Gamal, the scumbag scion who played a starring role in Daddy's rubber-stamp National Democratic Party, symbolizes better than anyone the parasite class of Egyptian entrepreneurs who transmogrified state assets into private riches. The area around Liberation Square, sometimes known as Nile City, was one of their playgrounds. Before the protests, it was the spoilt cream of Egyptian society who bubbled in the Ramses Hilton, the class of profoundly corrupt regime toadies who got rich off obscene privatization schemes, gambling in casinos rife with liquor and call girls. They shopped, dined, lived in the Nile island paradise of Zamalek, the only clime in Cairo free of air pollution, or in the northern suburbs, designer car dealerships and clothing boutiques ringing Mubarak's obscene, militarized concertina palace in Heliopolis.

This was the realm of Egypt's Ramses-in-waiting, Gamal, a hotly-hated pretender to the throne, whose incipient succession to his eighty-three year old father seemed a certainty. With his polished American University of Cairo English and Savile Row suits, a glimpse of Gamal's resume reveals just how terrifying the prospect of his leadership would be. Musharraf-lovin' autocrat-humper Fareed Zakaria interviewed Gamal breathlessly, the Egyptian kleptocracy apparently being one of the "good dictatorships" he salivated over in his dreadful book, The Future of Freedom. Wikileaks revealed a potentially tantalizing relationship between would-be Viceroy of Tehran Joe Lieberman and Gamal. The discussions were probably relating to Iran, Gaza, and Israel, but I'd like to think Joe was looking for advice on getting reelected by a populace that hates you. Most terrifying of all, however: Gamal is a former Bank of America executive.

Gamal, who seemed destined to lead Egypt, has had to see himself dismembered limb by limb these past few weeks, first by the protestors, then by the regime. Obviously, most Egyptians loathe him, both for his economic policies and for the certainty of a hereditary presidential succession his prominence indicated. But if Mubarak the elder will at least receive a grace period of indeterminate length while the military decides how to ease him out, Gamal gets jack shit. Mubarak's chief hatchetman and spook, General Omar Suleiman betrayed no emotion during an interview as he blandly assured the audience Gamal would not be a contender for the presidency — shortly before his cronies and him were shoved out of the NDP hierarchy. Off-camera, Suleiman must have loved it, though.

As the crisis intensified, the world was treated to the exposure of how Egypt really works: when push comes to shove, it's the military that runs things. Once the regime began to take the protests seriously, it was the military that gained momentum, as Suleiman moved into the Vice Presidency, ex-general Ahmed Shafiz became prime minister, and the Army moved into Tahrir Square. It makes sense, in hindsight; a hereditary succession to Gamal would've relied on the good graces of Egypt's most important institution, the military. While Hosni Mubarak can afford to be stubborn (for now), owing the Army's greater deference to him, Gamal has no such luxury. The weakness of his bloc of NDP "modernizers" and neoliberal bloodsuckers has been on full display this past week, as some fled the country, some lost their influence, and some, such as Gamal's good buddy, crooked steel magnate Ahmed Ezz, face the prospect of a show trial. Look for the military's fingerprints on everything the regime does; I doubt Mubarak can in any way be considered the ruler of Egypt today.

De Tocqueville made the case that rising expectations of political reform, followed by sharp disappointment, was the catalyst for the French Revolution. Perhaps for Egyptians — the Parisians of the Middle East, the Arabs who, as a Jordanian friend put it, "think they're so great" — the Tunisian Revolution provoked both of these sea changes. If little Tunisia could slough off their shitty little dictator into a Riyadh penthouse, why the hell couldn't Egypt, the powerhouse of the Middle East, do the same to Mubarak? And yet, right now, only Jordan and Yemen have seen even remotely similar protests, unrest that seems positively docile compared to the street combat in Cairo. Why Egypt?

The factors feeding resentment in Egypt are shared in many other Middle Eastern states. Young people comprise a remarkably disproportionate percentage of the region's population. They graduate from higher education, crammed hundreds at a time into Brutalist lecture halls, staffed by pitifully paid professors, to a barren job market. Not one cab driver I ever hired in Cairo was hacking full-time; for all of them, it was their second or third job, something they did in the afternoon or evening as a supplement. Hell, most cab drivers didn’t even know the city driving that well. I can still remember my fifteen-year-old driver shouting through an open window for directions from the cabbie one lane over — as both hurtled sixty miles per hour across the Sixth of October Bridge. No wonder that many of the Islamic extremists Egypt produced in the 1980s and 1990s emerged from the university system, especially from much-vaunted engineering programs. Young people graduate and find nothing for them — no scrap not nibbled on by the disgusting nouveau riche of Egypt.

And yet, with all of these things considered, the tone of the protests have remained remarkably conciliatory, brotherly — inspiring in the hard-bitten, tooth-and-nail way selfless sacrifices are made. The regime's response has been thuggishness with all the subtlety and élan of a Mike Tyson weigh-in. And the American response is to call for "restraint" and non-violence from "all sides" — the same way you would chide one of Michael Vick's pit bulls to just try to fight better, or counsel famine victims to not be picky eaters.

The Arabs of Egypt are doing what every loathsome Foggy Bottom apparatchik, Beltway tastemaker, and think-tank nonentity has been airily demanding of the Middle East for decades: rise up, peacefully, without appeals to anti-American or anti-Israeli haymaking, and create an organic democracy. And now that they are doing it, America hedges, empathizes with our bought-and-paid for tyrant, worries that we're about to queer the corrupt bargain that's defined a country for decades. Obama fiddles while Cairo burns, unable even to lay the blame for the bloodshed on the red-handed hatchetmen. And yet I haven't seen one burning American flag. This isn't your dad’s Middle East.