Magazine | February 21, 2011, Issue

Arab Agony

(Corentin Fohlen/Sipa/Newscom)
What the Egyptian unrest says about, and portends for, the region

Upheaval is shaking the Arab world. Countries there are alike in being under one-man rule, and this authoritarianism is being tested to destruction. The outcome might be political reform and peace, but it could as well be another round of tyranny and war.

The current demonstrations are under one-man rule what a vote of no confidence is in a parliamentary democracy. The people confront their rulers with a choice: either to flee the country in ignominy, or to resist, call out the security forces and the army, and if need arises, order them to regain control by opening fire on the crowds. Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, president of Tunisia these last 23 years, threw his hand in and flew shame-faced to Saudi Arabia, the refuge of Muslim dictators. In a last-minute heist, he took a ton and a half of gold from the national treasury.

In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, president these 30 years, in contrast is daring the crowds to do their worst, although at press time he has said he will not seek another term of office in September. Force is the motor of these politics. To date, as many as 300 people have been killed, more than 1,000 injured, and some 3,000 arrested. Should the army refuse to resort to strong-arm methods, Mubarak too will have to flee.

In today’s world, a political order that rests on compulsion and corruption is antiquated, impracticable. The consent of the ruled has to be taken into account. An incident in out-of-the-way Tunisia revealed the psychological pressures at work in millions obliged to undergo injustices against which they are completely unable to defend themselves. A young university graduate could find no employment and was making a living selling vegetables from a barrow. Refusing to give him a license unless he paid a bribe he could not afford, the authorities confiscated his barrow. Slaps from a policewoman completed the humiliation and the brutality. He set himself alight, and died.

Arabs everywhere immediately identified with the fate of this unfortunate man. They aspire to stop being subjects and instead become citizens; force is the motor for that too. Ali Abdullah Saleh has been president of Yemen since 1990. In the capital, Sana’a, tens of thousands of demonstrators demanded his resignation — an astonishing event in a country that is barely centralized and caught in incipient civil war. Moammar Qaddafi has ruled Libya for 42 years. As soon as they make themselves known, Libyan dissidents disappear, never to be seen again. The downfall of his friend and neighbor Ben Ali greatly distressed him. Tunisians, he said, should have waited for elections due in three years’ time, never mind that Ben Ali, who like Mubarak had promised not to stand for president again, could always change his mind and arrange to be unopposed. In Algeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika served the two statutory terms as president and then changed the constitution for a third. In Syria, the Assads, father and son, have held the people in their unforgiving grip for four decades. Their atrocities in the Arab world are exceeded only by Saddam Hussein’s.

#page#A population of 80 million gives Egypt special weight in that world. Egyptians take the lead in the Arab media and cinema, in women’s emancipation; they are proud of their preeminence and continuous identity as a nation. “The first lesson from Tunisia is that revolution is possible. You have to remember that there hasn’t been anything like it in the Arab world for decades.” Speaking like that, one among many others, a popular blogger in Cairo was as good as summoning everyone to turn out for the biggest and best revolution of them all.

The Mubarak years have seen economic growth, a beneficial relationship with the United States, and continued peace with Israel. Eighty-two now and in poor health since a recent gall-bladder operation in Germany, Mubarak is basing a last defensive stand for one-man rule on a record of stability. A military man, he trained as a pilot in the Soviet Union of old. Anwar Sadat appointed him vice president, while making it plain that he did not think too highly of Mubarak’s political skills. Sadat’s assassination by Islamists was the unforeseen turn of events which brought Mubarak to power. He inherited the indispensable security and police forces as well as a single party, the National Democratic Party, by means of which control and patronage become almost indistinguishable. A lot of the dirty work has been entrusted to Omar Suleiman, the chief of the intelligence services until his recent appointment to the vice presidency, and a man with the capacity for it. Few know more than he about the twists and turns of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Pointedly Mubarak had made sure never to appoint a successor to the position he once held as vice president. His personal and exclusive power has been a stranglehold. The sole suggested alternative to his rule has been the promotion to the presidency of his son Gamal, “Jimmy” to friends, a 47-year-old former investment banker in London who leads a life very different from that of the half of the Egyptian population said to subsist on four dollars a day or less. At the moment the crowds are enjoying burning the posters put up everywhere of father and son. They have a slogan: “Gamal, tell your father the Egyptians hate you.” Suleiman is a one-man ruler in waiting, and his abrupt appointment as vice president is late in the day but ends the unwisdom of having Gamal next in line as president.

Tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets incite protesters to raise the level of force correspondingly. Disregarding daily curfews, they have been burning police stations and National Democratic Party offices. Tanks are now stationed to protect bridges, the television center, Tutankhamen’s museum, and other potential targets. Here is a classic test of strength approaching the endgame, Kill or Be Killed.

#page#One-man rule ends almost invariably in death or a coup (often the same thing). The White House, European leaders, Arab emirs, and international officials are preoccupied with finding some other way out for Mubarak. He must be spending all his time on the telephone listening to advice and pleas. The space for a political solution is exceptionally bare, he has made sure of that. Playing safe at the time of the 2005 parliamentary election, Mubarak arrested Ayman Nour, the only politician at the head of a genuinely democratic splinter group, sent him to prison for five years, and seemingly broke his spirit. A hopeful contender for the presidency is Mohamed ElBaradei, day after day down on the street with a loudspeaker in hand. The claim to fame of this mournfully uncharismatic man is that at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna he won the Nobel Peace Prize for turning a blind eye to Iran’s evolving nuclear-weapon program.

Egypt is the home of the Muslim Brotherhood, with its membership of millions and its unsettling disposition to jihad and violence; Hamas in the Gaza Strip is an offshoot. Fearing the destructive potential of Islamism, Mubarak and Suleiman banned the Brotherhood officially while tolerating it unofficially, arresting leading militants but leaving alone the rank and file. Once the Brotherhood held 88 seats in a parliament of 454, but Mubarak manipulated the most recent elections to exclude them altogether. Ominously, imprisoned Muslim Brotherhood leaders have succeeded in breaking out, and they are supporting ElBaradei’s campaign. Using him as a stalking horse to gain power, they are repeating the tactics that made the takeover of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran appear initially to be a victory for democracy. And while waiting to discover who has won the test of strength, looters are out stealing whatever they can. As in Baghdad when Saddam was overthrown, law and order is breaking down. Quite truthfully, Mubarak can tell the dignitaries on the telephone that if he weakens now, compromises, and is finally forced out, Egypt will immediately experience anarchy followed by Islamism. Is that what they really want?

Speaking in Cairo in 2009, President Obama found Mubarak “a force for stability and good in the region.” Reversing into incoherence, the administration now stresses reform and orderly transition, oblivious to the fact that there is no mechanism for this, and the recommendation is anyhow incompatible with stability. Mubarak is urged to refrain from any violence, warned that aid may be cut; in other words, that he may be punished for having been dependable. Confusion and panic in the administration is shaking the position of the United States in the Middle East to pieces. Turkey is ever more resolutely Islamist; Lebanon has become a fiefdom of hostile Iran. Knock-on tests of strength between rulers and reformers are shaping in Jordan, perhaps in Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf emirates. A Muslim Brotherhood regime emerging from a revolution in Egypt might see fit to revoke the peace treaty with Israel, and via Hamas come to some sort of understanding with Iran. It’s going to be a close-run thing. War and a clash of civilization hang in the balance.

David Pryce-Jones is a British author and commentator and a senior editor of National Review.

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