Dog days for Arab autocrats - Mahir Ali - Wednesday, February 02, 2011

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ANOTHER week, another intifada. The swiftness with which Egyptians have sought to emulate Tunisians has exceeded expectations. It is also heart-warming, notwithstanding the uncertainties it entails.

Hosni Mubarak has for ages resisted pressure for reform on the grounds that its chief beneficiary would be the Muslim Brotherhood. But when the popular revolt eventually erupted last month, the Brothers appeared to have very little to do with it — if anything, they’ve been playing catch-up.

Mubarak, who has been in power since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, has been as adept at absorbing the lessons of Tunisia as Egyptians at large. Instead of announcing that he wouldn’t contest the next presidential election — due later this year — he reconstituted his government and has authorised his new vice president, Omar Suleiman, to open negotiations with all political parties, ostensibly with a view to instituting reforms.

As far as the masses congregating daily in defiance of curfew restrictions at Cairo’s Tahrir Square are concerned, it’s likely to be too little too late. They are hungry for regime change, and that means Mubarak’s departure from the scene.

Whether they will be willing to accept Suleiman as a transitional leader is an open question. As Egypt’s intelligence chief he has long been acknowledged as the nation’s second-most-powerful man. He has been instrumental in negotiations with the Americans and the Israelis, Mubarak’s closest allies, both of whom will be comfortable with him as a successor. On the other hand Suleiman’s key role in the Mubarak regime may well make him unacceptable to Egyptians at large.

The army’s leading role in national affairs has been well established since 1952, when junior officers spearheaded a revolution against the moribund regime of King Farouk. After this Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser was able to establish his popularity as a pan-Arab nationalist, not only within Egypt but across much of the Middle East to the consternation, inevitably, of traditional Arab rulers; a certain proportion of King Saud’s petrodollars were devoted to the task, invariably aided by the CIA, of thwarting and even assassinating Nasser. (Ironically, when Saud was sidelined by his brother Faisal, he sought — and was granted — refuge in Nasserite Egypt.)

In retrospect it may seem slightly strange that the US and Nasser didn’t warm to each other, given that the latter presided over a state that repressed Islamists and communists alike; they were both tendencies that Nasser had flirted with but rejected in his youth. But then the independent Arab unity he craved was anathema to Washington, as was Nasser’s determination to minimise disparities of wealth.

Following American rejection he was compelled to look to the Soviet Union as a source of weaponry and, crucially, aid for the Aswan Dam. But his relations with Nikita Khrushchev were also occasionally fraught, and he found his closest international allies among the other leading lights of the Non-Aligned Movement: Josip Broz Tito and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Crucially, following the debacle of the 1967 war with Israel Nasser announced his resignation, but a spontaneous upsurge in support of his leadership — a striking contrast with the popular mood today — persuaded him to change his mind.

Nasser was mourned both deeply and widely when he died shortly after hosting an Arab summit designed, semi-successfully, to reconcile Yasser Arafat and Jordan’s King Hussein in 1970. On the 40th anniversary of his death last year, one of his closest confidants, journalist Mohammed Heikal, revived suspicions about the circumstances of Nasser’s death. His vice president and successor, Sadat, was certainly a very different kettle of fish who ingratiated himself with Uncle Sam by suddenly expelling all Soviet advisers and technicians and then, even more dramatically, striking a deal with Israel at Camp David in 1979 under the auspices of US president Jimmy Carter.

He was hailed as a courageous hero by the West, but there is a fine line between bravery and foolhardiness, and Sadat had crossed it by failing to convince the rest of the Arab world — and even many of his fellow Egyptians — that he was moving in the right direction. Intriguingly, in recent years Carter has shown himself to be considerably more clearheaded about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the Egyptian leadership, which openly colluded with Israel during the latter’s brutal invasion of Gaza in 2008-09.

There’s no obvious relation between the anti-Mubarak intifada and his intimacy with Israel, but the deep concern about his fate among the Israeli and US administrations is undoubtedly focused on that particular aspect of his regime. The protesting Egyptians appear to be concerned primarily about job prospects, the polarising consequences of economic liberalisation and the right to speak their minds.

The Egyptian army, an institution that’s evidently still respected, has indicated it will not turn its firepower on protesters (it is police action that accounts for the scores of lives lost so far). However, it also may not be willing to countenance a transformation that jeopardises the $1.5bn annual US aid to Egypt, of which the army is the chief beneficiary. Nor does Mohamed ElBaradei, the former IAEA chief and Nobel laureate, come across as an obvious panacea.

The future, essentially, is unwritten. The winds of change are shifting the sands, but precisely how the shape of the Middle East will change remains unclear. But change it will, thanks in part to the Qatar-based (and much maligned) Al Jazeera network, which is propelling change by keeping Arabs informed of what’s going on. Information, as they say, is power, and it appears to decisively have been turned against those who have striven for so long to control and ration it.

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