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.


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