A thirty year regime dictator, strong ally of the US in the Middle East has been toppled by a vast crowd of protestors complaining of years of State control and oppression, enraged to the point of waving their shoes in the air in the ultimate Arab signal of disgust. Who saw it coming? Well one observer certainly did. Aladdin Elaasar, writer, political commentator, Middle East expert and author of the book “The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age” might have had his book banned in Egypt by the very government he was criticising, but since his central thesis was that the regime would inevitably have to be toppled, no-one can accuse him of being caught unaware.
Yet for a good part of the West, being caught unaware is precisely what happened.
Encyclopaedia articles and standard commentaries on Egypt while admitting some degree of dictatorship talked more commonly about steady programmes of reform, great cooperation with the US government, a truckload of aid from the US and an Egyptian steadying influence on the trouble spots of the Middle East. We are now being informed that Egyptian politics had all the time been designed along the lines of an Orwellian State. Once the demonstration was properly underway the pundits were agreeing that the Egyptian population had been under repressive rule for decades, that there was no freedom of the press, that the control was enforced by a very nasty secret police operating from behind the shadows and that apart from a relatively small elite group of rich and powerful people there was virtually no trickle down of wealth to a very poor and very large underclass. And now of course the Egyptian people are free at last, free to allow the will of the people to be listened to. Ah, the wisdom of hindsight.
You cannot altogether blame Egyptian leaders for autocratic and ruthless rule. Prior to 1952, when there was a British backed constitutional monarchy, although there was a myriad of political groupings separately backed by different groups of Christians, Muslims, Military, Communist and oil business interests – none felt they were adequately provided for. I have been told by those who can remember back that far that when, in order to protect those interests, the constitutional monarchy was overthrown, it was the junior army officers who led the coup, not the generals who wanted to safeguard their interests under British patronage. The successful coup leaders under Colonel Gamal Abd el-Nasser (Nasser to the Western press), subsequently confronted by so many potential power blocs, each wanting the control to move in a different direction, set up what in effect was a military dictatorship, and by Western standards had to impose extraordinary governmental control. This control continued through until the present deposing of Mubarak. For example Nasser’s successor Sadat was at one time a Newspaper Editor and both the Ministry of Culture and Development and the Ministry of Information were controlled by military officers and in turn had total oversight over all media in Egypt. The West can hardly pretend they were not aware of the ruthless nature of the military and police control. When undesirable terrorists were captured Egypt was considered a suitable place where they might be questioned away from the gaze of human rights organisations who might have qualms about direct methods of persuasion.
When the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled to the total delight of a good part of the Iraqi population it may be well to remember the voices of the day were saying many of the same things as are being said at present in Egypt, and as were said previously in Iran and Indonesia. This should give us pause for thought. Like the Shah of Iran before him, Saddam believed that the only way to hold control of a volatile and diverse people was ruthless and total control. So did Mubarak. When in Iraq, a majority of the Muslim population were not of the Middle Eastern Sunn’i majority persuasion it would probably dangerous to allow them as a controlling force in government. So said Saddam Hussein. Now the Shi’ite majority have their democratic way in Iraq we may now see how the Sunn’i and Kurds are cooperating and exactly how close to Utopia Iraq now is! Now Egypt is having its own version of the “Mission accomplished” celebrations I wonder how many are remembering the former professor and Middle East expert Thomas Barnett from the Naval War College who wrote a magazine article for Esquire which among many other points suggested that the scariest expression in Arabic he knew could be translated : “Egypt after Mubarak”.
Thus far the Western media are paying little attention to one rather tricky question. All the media in Egypt remain under military/and ruling party control. Even if a new constitution recognises the myriad of opposition parties, unless the control of the media is genuinely surrendered, the only parties with a change of support are those in effect sponsored by the current controllers of the media. The question is simply this. How can the media become free enough to allow genuinely free elections if the Army’s supposed 6 month timetable is to have any meaning? Quite apart from anything else the US$1.3 Billion paid by the US by way of stipend, hardly leaves the Army free to make up its own mind who to support.The other worrisome question particularly for the US is whether China will be able to take advantage of the situation to get more investment and potential control. History showed that both Nasser and Sadat were able to arrange new deals with Russia in the aftermath of their accessions to power and it would be unexpected if a now unpopular US would not lose some traction to the advantage of other main competitors in the Middle East. Thus far the Muslim brotherhood has been restrained in publicising their intentions. Again there is interesting potential for a deep seated problem. That Muslim factions do not always get on well together either with one another or with those of other faiths is now abundantly clear in Iraq and with some of the strongest celebratory cheers coming from the Shi’ite faction with a Sunn’i counter faction (the large majority of the population)not too far away it will be interesting to see what transpires. Certainly the Coptic Christians have reason to pause for thought.
Assuming the coup does address the underlying unease and the corrective action is taken it is hard to see any good news for the West. At present the high unemployment in Egypt has to be seen in the context of a huge expatriate population of specialist workers in oil, shipping, military support etc. Not only does that provide the West with a significant wealth stream, it also helps guarantee a degree of Western control over the critical oil production and distribultion – and of course provides an influence over the shipping through the strategic Suez canal. If the indigenous population does succeed in wresting back some of this employment and control, the West stands to lose a great deal. Since the US is currently blamed for their past support of Mubarak and since it is the US via the Mubarak dictatorship who have been the main restraining force against the widespread anti-Israeli sentiment in Egypt, it is far from clear that the current changes are going to be the US advantage. Which brings us back to Aladdin Elaasar. If he was right in his predictions and if he was able to interpret the confusing swirling forces behind the scenes in Egypt in such a way to make sense of a clearly difficult and volatile situation, it is hoped that his is now one of the voices being listened to as policy is rearranged and reconstructed. Perhaps a few politicians should now be required to read his book.