Saturday, February 12, 2011

Egypt - Now what?

Mubarak resigns.  Millions cheer.

Iran is joyous.

Hamas says it is "beginning of the victory of the Egyptian Revolution".

I am pleased, cautiously.  I am slightly optimistic on balance.   Let's look at the overall picture.

Mubarak gained power at a critical time when Islamists had assassinated Anwar Sadat, because he made peace with Israel.   The real risk was that Egypt would fall into Islamist hands, but Hosni Mubarak took charge and maintained the status quo.  That was a good thing at a time when the USSR was actively seeking to use the Muslim world to wage war against the West and Western allies like Israel.

Egypt had already been rewarded by the US for peace with Israel in the form of aid.   However, Mubarak's first priority was to avoid another Iran.  Islamist backed terrorist actions were sporadic in the 1980s against Christian and tourist sites.  Tanzim aj-Jihad was led by Sheikh Omar Abdel-Rahman (most recently convicted of seditious conspiracy to commit terrorism in the US and now serving a life sentence), who called for attacks on Christian Copt targets including robberies.   Israeli tourists were also targets in the 1980s and 1990s, as were foreign tourists more generally.   1993 being one of the bloodiest years with over 200 killed.   Gama'a al-Islamiya was responsible for the infamous 1997 Luxor massacre where 62 tourists were murdered by Islamists.

In short, Egypt has spent much of the past three decades under siege from within by Islamists.  Let's be clear, the Muslim Brotherhood itself has not been the instigators of these attacks, but it has not been unsympathetic.  Mubarak's regime has been authoritarian because of its response to attempts to destroy Egypt's tourist industry through terrorism.

Only blind anti-Americanism would ignore the good done by maintaining confrontation against such thugs.

Yet Mubarak himself and his cronies have been politicians, and with that comes corruption, nepotism and theft.  His family's reported wealth of US$42 billion is scandalous.  Whilst he did open the economy, it is strangled by privileges, monopolies, a sclerotic bureaucracy and a judicial/police system that is barely independent.  I say barely because it outdoes most others in the Arab world which tells you how bad it is elsewhere.

In other words, he acted as a politician.  He wielded power to benefit those he liked, took it from those he didn't, and enriched himself, his family and friends like a mafia don.  The best that can be said is that he stopped far far worse outcomes for many years.  The worst is that he ran an authoritarian state, with strict press controls (although next to none on the internet) and a rabidly cruel and random police force that would use torture and brutality against whomever it wished.  It is no excuse that he is not even in the same league as Qaddafi, Saddam Hussein, Hafez or Bashar Assad, or the oil rich Wahhabi royal kleptocracies.

The problem with any such authoritarian rule is that at the same time as suppressing the forces of darkness of Islamism, it suppresses legitimate criticism, public debate and discussion.  It protects the inept and incompetent.   It protects those who thieve, bully and sideline other citizens. 

Without an independent judiciary, a police force that is remotely accountable for its actions and a thriving independent press, politicians and their lackeys could act with impunity.  Mubarak's downfall is of his, his family and his supporters' making.  Egyptians do have legitimate concerns with the misrule that has suppressed accountability and has brought much injustice to so many of them.   It is the way of any authoritarian administration, and also the way of politicians who are above the law, and politicians who are given the power to act in ways private citizens never could.

That is the problem not just of Mubarak, but unfettered government.   Politicians have only one set of tools that make them special - the ability to use force.  Unless that is kept in check to only be used to protect citizens from force, it ends up being used against them.
So for now Egypt will have a transition.  It is probably more free now that it will be for some time, as the screws are removed from the press and political discourse.  The main goal of many will be elections, but what matters more is civil society, discussion, debate and the freedom of expression that is so rare in that part of the world.   May Egyptians keep that, but they need more.

A rewritten constitution must defend the rights of all Egyptians to freedom of speech, including freedom of religion and for the state to not discriminate on the basis of religion (or no religion).  Alas, this mere guarantee of a secular state is unlikely.   What is likely is for Egyptians to get perhaps free and fair elections, and select a new set of politicians, seeking to enrich themselves and wield power over people.

Yet there is no alternative likely.  It is likely that no single political group will win an election, so a coalition will emerge that will seek compromise, that may erode the freedoms that now exist.  Yet the priority must be to clear out corruption, raise the performance of the judiciary and police to levels of accountability, balance and objectivity.   This wont happen quickly.

As much as Israel is not popular in Egypt, the appetite for war will also be low.  The army is dependent on US aid, and knows that will end if there are any attempts to take on Israel.  Of course Israel does possess the ultimate deterrent.

So I suspect Egypt will muddle along, get an election and have a government of compromises, coalitions with a strong Islamic tinge to it.   Egypt is not Turkey, but it may be more like Indonesia.

As for the rest of the Arab world, there have been protests in Algeria, which already suffered a civil war with Islamists in the 1990s.  Yemen faces the same, with Al Qaeda waiting in the wings.

Political freedom is always to be welcomed, as is free speech.  However, some want to use that freedom to gain power then shut it down.  That must be the great fear.  For now strength must be given to liberal minded Egyptians who do believe in secularism and do believe in maintaining that freedom, and peace.

No comments: