Sunday, June 18, 2006

Rambling thoughts from Egypt

On Politics and Reform in the Middle East

Egyptians are speaking out plainly about the trouble with their government. This is a big change from a few years ago when a talk about politics usually meant a litany of perhaps well-deserved wrongs of America in the Middle East, particularly Palestine.

The amount that people spoke of domestic corruption, dictatorship and repression was striking. It seems many people, from taxi drivers to white collar employees to development NGO representatives are completely fed up at the democratic farce that took place in Egypt this past winter. The past year has seen unprecedented public criticism of the government, and now that the government sees it has a green light to crack down, people don't want to stop criticizing. It seems it's a habit they have gotten used to.

It was surprising how little anyone, even professional political thinkers, wanted to talk about regional issues. The focus was squarely on Egypt and the changes that have occurred, or should occur in the country.

The current mobilizing factor is the effort of judges to retain and even build on their slim independence. But the coming battle over Mubarak's succession will be the real political show-down. Despite both President Mubarak's and his son Gamal's insistence there will not be a coronation, few people doubt that both have designs to have the son in someway inherit rule from his father. It may not come in the form of a formal coronation, but will instead likely come through seemingly legal and institutionally procedural processes.

While all Egyptian opposition parties, secular and religious, vociferously oppose Gamal's succession, the voice of the two most important sectors is not well known. The first is the big-business community. There is no clear way to tell what the business consensus is, you can assume they will approve of Gamal from the standpoint of an expected continuity and stability in rule, as well as the fact that he himself is a member of the big-business club.

Less clear is the consensus of the military. But similarly, the military has every reason to continue the profitable and rewarding arrangement that President Hosny has set up. Expect them to through their weight behind Mubarak the Younger. Politics in Egypt look set to heat up even more in the coming year.

Regarding the state of politics in Egypt

In the last elections, only roughly 20% of eligible voters turned out. That means that no mater who won, they are all losers. This includes the Muslim Brotherhood.

Why is political Islam so strong in places like Egypt. There is no doubt that the basic appeal to Islam draws many people to its ranks. It has provided much needed, quality services to people in great need. Since its founding in the 1920's the MB has shown both great skill in mobilizing public opinion and people for action. An observer to the recent parliamentary elections said the MB was "the most user-friendly entity" in Egypt today. They had legions of volunteers, excellent communications and outreach, and steller coordination, not just at a local level, but also nationally.

But the government's approach to the opposition also has played it's part. Since the rise of political Islam in the 1970's and 80's, the government has done little to defend the secular ideal. Instead it sought to co-opt religion, using the power of the state and especially state media to engage in a battle of who is "holier than thou." The Egyptian government has also been careful to crush any secular, especially leftist, opposition to its rule, preferring to be the only secular force in the country.

This has been convenient when the United States or others develop a fleeting interest in reform. The government is able to point to the Muslim Brotherhood as the only alternative, and, not surprisingly, outside pressure quickly begins to fade. It's worked for the past 25 years, no reason to expect it won't work now. And it is. Following the strong showing by the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and the Hamas victory in Palestine, Bush, et al, are beating a hasty retreat from their program for democratic transformation in the Middle East. America doesn't want democracy in the Middle East, it wants reliable allies.

But part of why the secular movement has failed is that it has not connected with people, either intellectually or practically. What does any secular organization or party in the Middle East offer to people except perhaps dry lectures and tired old rhetoric. What do secular organizations offer to the average people, another training in human rights? The same human rights that America and its friends in the Middle East regularly exploit and abuse. That feeds neither the belly, the mind or the soul. Provide something valuable and people will value you.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Zarqawi and Jordan

I've been too busy to post recently, coming back to a trip from Egypt and a week of catching up on work and preparing a presenation for a conference. So much has been happening that I actually have too much to say. But in the next couple of days I'll start to dump some thoughts here and see what they look like.

I'll start with the death of Zarqawi.

For some reason I have a hard time celebrating the violent killing of anyone, even someone as wretched as Zarqawi. I'm not a pacifist, and understand that police, armies and violence are sometimes necessary for good people to survive, but I can't help but see killing, even of the worst criminal, as a fundamental failure of humanity.

That being said, it seems the killing of Zarqawi is going to set back his organization for the next few weeks, but they will doubtless rebound and continue their ruthless and brutal murders of innocent people and their stoking of sectarian conflict.

But like Lina, I'm somewhat pensive about the killing of Zarqawi. In the days after his death, I felt a bit of extra tension in the streets here in Amman. I can't point to any particular act or event, but I just felt some people were looking at me differently, behaving towards me with a deeply repressed anger.

I don't usually feel this in Jordan, and didn't expect it. It started off "what the hell is wrong with people today" kind of feeling. And I didn't feel it was directed against me particularly, but just a kind of pent up political resentment. But I felt a difference. I think a lot of people, even those who didn't support Zarqawi, still saw him as a symbol of resistence to American misbehavior in the Arab world, and don't see his death as something positive.

I wonder if the government here isn't becoming somewhat tone-deaf to it's own people as it continues to tailor its image for the sake of Western audiences.

I've been suprised at how much the Jordanian government is boasting of it's role in Zarqawi's death. I don't think most Jordanians really want to see Jordan cooperating to this degree with the United States in Iraq. The Jordanian military may want to. I was suprised once by some of the Jordanian Special Operations troops gave me two thumbs up for Blackwater, a company known in Iraq, even among other special ops people and regular American forces, as the scum at the bottom of the barrel. They are alleged to be involved in some of the worst abuses of Iraqis. Here's a little taster of what they got away with in New Orleans. Imagine what they are doing abroad.

But Zarqawi's death and the recent crackdown on vocal critics of the government is coming on top of some pretty tough neo-liberal economic reforms that are really hurting a lot of poor people. The influx of foriegn capital, especially in real estate, has also added to rapidly rising cost of living, reported at over 8% for the first half of the year. Despite Oprah showed, Jordan is a poor country, and not everybody's refrigerator is stocked to the gills. People here do eat manseef more than they eat McDonalds.

The Jordanian goverment has also reportedly started giving greater support to Fateh, to counterbalance the influence of Hamas among segments of Jordan's Palestinian population. If true, this kind of divide-and-rule strategy cannot be good for Jordan in the long-term. At the end of the day, the government is dividing its own people, leaving the country a little less stable and a little less secure. Jordan's stability is based on a finely tuned balancing act which is getting harder to maintain. Pitting it's own people against each other in this way cannot be good for the country. It also just sent a shipment of weapons to Abu Mazen's Force 17 in the Palestinian Territories. If Jordan doesn't want Palestinians interfering in its internal affairs, maybe it's best they didn't interfer too much in Palestinian internal affairs.

Which leads me to start feeling pensive about where things are going in Jordan right now. The government's response to the public reaction to Zarqawi's death has been a bit heavy handed, including detentions and intimidation of journalists and opposition figures. Granted some censure of the Islamic Action Front and others is perhaps warrented, but the government appears to be using the killing of Zarqawi as an opportunity to crack down on extremist and moderate Islamists alike.

With the combination of heavy-handedness, the close cooperation with the US in policies people here oppose, the huge gap between the few rich and the many poor, and the continuinig economic reforms that are squeezing the average person, I have to wonder where things are going, and what people are going to be thinking and feeling a year from now.

Call it intuition or a gut feeling, but I'm feeling a shift in the Jordanian private mood. Publically things may still seem fine, but privately, among the people who don't write in the newspaper columns or meet for cold drinks in Amman's tony salons, things are getting really tough.

Maybe all this will be a flash in the pan, a spike in resentment and then a return to the same old coping mechanisms that every body employs here to try to cope with what's happening in the Palestinian Territories and Iraq, and the inability to do anything about it. But I feel the heat has risen a couple of extra ticks since Zarqawi's death.

Friday, June 09, 2006

Waiting for change

Walking along Talat Harb street last Thursday, I saw four large trucks filled with black-clad Egyptian security forces, stuffed maybe 25-30 to a truck, and a fifth filled with plain-clothes security agents. As I walked further along, towards the American University, and later across Tahrir Square, I saw more trucks filled with security forces, all of them parked in the sun, the guys suffering from the sweltering heat.

These security forces were deployed along the outside of Tahrir Square since last month's demonstrations shook the regime. The demonstrations were in support for calls by the Judges Syndicate to restore the independence of the judiciary, after the government began prosecuting two judges for reporting various forms of election rigging in this year’s legislative elections.

Many guys in the security forces have no idea what they are doing when they are sent to break up demonstrations. Many are half-literate peasants plucked from the country-side and dropped in the middle of Cairo. They likely don’t know what the demonstrators are doing or why they are there. But the ones who are ordering them to break up the demonstrations know what is being protested.

“People are angry and disappointed” at the past years failed reform initiatives emanating from Egypt’s ruling party, said one former government official, referring to the country’s educated and intellectual classes. They are tired of rulers who have consistently lead Egypt to underperform, both at home and abroad. Perhaps most of all, they are tired of corruption.

A lot of people took hope that Egypt’s proposed constitutional amendment to begin direct elections of the president, instead of a simple yes or no referendum on the current president, might actually initiate some change. But the amendment was “put in chains” to ensure that the only possible candidate was either the president or his hand-picked successor, says one political analyst here. The unexpectedly vigorous opposition to the president and the growth of the internet has scared guardians of the regime, says another, adding, “Egypt is a security regime, and they feel they are loosing control of the situation.” Their response, he says, “is to crack down harder and more brutally on dissent.”

Despite the very thin veneer of democracy that exists in Egypt, “the country is ruled by a dictator,” said another Egyptian, “a dictator has to rule through corruption to ensure his survival, as those who benefit will always rally around him to save their own position.” “Have you ever seen a cat leave a fish,” is how he summed up the results of the past few decades of political life in Egypt.

There was also disappointment in the United States, again. Many people felt that the constitutional amendment was in large part the result of American pressure on Egypt to show the way towards democratic reform in the region. That, in fact, it did. Weak American criticism of the presidential elections, the later parliamentary elections and the crackdown on demonstrators has shown that, “the US has decided to keep a dictator who can use a heavy hand to keep things stable.” The American democracy debate appears more and more to be just another tool to pressure governments in the region to toe the American line, rather than a real effort to let people chose who is going to rule them and how.

As I walked past the security forces on Thursday some of them smiled and waved to me from inside the metal boxes they had been cooking in for hours. What does democracy and human rights mean to these guys? Do they care about American pressure or criticism of the regime? Do they wake up the day after they’ve beaten the young men and women demonstrating for change and start to think, “enough.” Probably not yet, which is a shame, because it looks like real reform in Egypt won’t happen until they do.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

It's the little things

Cairo! Mother of the World, the Big Mango! I began studying Arabic in Cairo, and later spent a year living here. I end up here every couple of years or so and I know the streets and the people and the dialect.

But spending three years in Jordan has really messed up my Egyptian Arabic. Despite the fact that I basically started studying Arabic here, and spent a year more studying only Arabic here, the Jordanian dialect has basically taken over my tongue.

If people in Jordan were confused when I speak, Egyptians are even more confounded. It’s not that my Arabic is bad; I’m pretty decent in Arabic these days, but look so obviously non-Arab that most people are pretty dumbfounded when I talk. I don’t fit well into the boxes people naturally make for themselves.

The funny thing is for all the Arabic I’ve managed to learn, I have the hardest time with the simplest things. I can talk about politics, economics, human rights and just about any thing else. My decent Arabic once brought me the pleasure of a 9 hour stay in the basement of Egypt’s Ministry of Interior (don’t ask), where I sat in a dark hall with a Sudanese illegal immigrant and watched a small kitten hunt and eat cockroaches. It’s an experience I don’t suggest anyone try.

So armed with my extensive knowledge of the region and Arabic, I set out today to find an internet café. Here’s how it went:

Me: a3tek el3afiya. wen fe internet café? (Excuse me, do you know where an internet café is?)
Guy: I’m sorry, I don’t speak English
Me: Ana be7ky 3araby! (I’m speaking Arabic)
Guy: Blank stare
Me: fe internet café gareeb men hoon? (Is there an internet café near here?)
Guy: (Blank stare)
Me: (now pretending to type on a keyboard) Internet café, internet café?
Guy2: Ahhh, cyber, cyber!
Me: Ah, ah, bedy cyber café, bedy ista3mal elinternet

Pretty simple stuff, except when a white guy says this to an Egyptian he might as well be speaking Martian. It’s amazing what appearance and a couple of word changes in life’s simple daily verbal exchanges can do to years of trying to master a foreign language and culture. It’s the little stuff that always flusters me and keeps me humble. Time for a little review of Egyptian.