“An earthquake has shaken the region.”
The above headline from an Israeli newspaper describes with unfailing accuracy the pivotal events now taking place in the Middle East. In Egypt, the Arab world’s largest and most populous country of more than 80 million, massive demonstrations involving tens of thousands of people began on Tuesday in what was billed as a “Day of Anger” and are continuing despite a ban by a very rattled government. Smaller protests are likewise occurring in Jordan, Libya, Morocco and Algeria. The domino effect so feared by Middle Eastern strongmen after Tunisian protesters chased their president from power earlier this month after a 24-year rule may soon become reality in Egypt.
Inspired by events in Tunisia, demonstrators took to the streets in Cairo on Tuesday to protest against President Hosni Mubarak’s corrupt, authoritarian regime, demanding political freedoms and higher wages. During those demonstrations, which saw water cannon and tear gas employed, three people died in encounters with security forces. A policeman was also killed.
“With us, there has been a cautious reawakening of belief in our own strength,” an Egyptian journalist told the German newspaper, Die Welt.
According to the Egyptian newspaper, The Daily News, the demonstrations were organized by the National Association for Change, which contains various opposition groups, and the Popular Parliament. January 25 was chosen as the day to launch mass movement because it coincided with a national holiday that commemorates another famous protest in Egyptian history. On this date in 1952, Egyptian police rose up against the British occupation.
Mubarak has ruled Egypt for the past 30 years under a state of emergency, imposed in 1981, that has allowed him to deal harshly with dissent. Under this law, large anti-government demonstrations, like the ones currently underway in Egypt, were quickly ended. Like most other Arab countries, Egypt has also been badly ruled during Mubarak’s time.
Corruption, unemployment, a stagnant economy and a dishonest, inefficient bureaucracy were the time bombs that caused the current explosion in Egypt, as they did in Tunisia. But unlike Tunisia, which has a 78 percent literacy rate and a developed, although frustrated, middle class, the majority of Egyptians are illiterate and live in grinding poverty. Egyptian cities are crowded with the poor. Exploitation of workers and child labor are also common. What is worse, the small, well-off ruling class appears not to care and has done little to remedy this appalling situation.
“We undoubtedly have enough problems in order to justify a revolution,” the journalist said.
Arab governments like Egypt’s are not unaware of the grievances that caused the Arab street to explode. Nepotism and control of the economy by the rulers’ friends and families have led to economic stagnation and high unemployment. But Arab leaders have refused to introduce liberal reforms to address the problems, fearing an Arab “perestroika” would see them swept away like the communist regimes in Eastern Europe.
Traditional methods of maintaining civil control also do not appear to be working. Large security forces and handouts to the population, the traditional methods of quelling popular unrest in Arab countries, were ineffective in Tunisia and are proving similarly ineffective in Egypt. The police appear to have have lost their power to intimidate the Egyptian population and prevent the demonstrations from growing into a destabilizing threat. In the past, anti-government demonstrators feared to appear on Egypt’s streets. Now, in contrast, protesters are tearing up posters with Mubarak’s image, yelling: “Mubarak, you’re plane awaits you.” One Arab publication reported that Mubarak’s son and heir, Gamal Mubarak, took the protesters’ advice and left on Wednesday with his family for England.
Adding to the government’s current woes are modern communications. Although security forces have shut down Twitter in Egypt, the tool cited for its value in organizing the Tunisian revolt, the demonstrations are continuing, probably with the help of cell phones.
The official American response to the events in Egypt, one of its only allies in the Arab world, has been low-key. According to the New York Times, Hillary Clinton said the Egyptian government is “stable,” while American ambassador to Egypt, Margaret Scobey called on Egyptian officials in a statement to “allow peaceful demonstrations.”
“The U.S. wants to see reform occur in Egypt and elsewhere to create political, social and economic opportunity, consistent with people’s aspirations,” the statement read.
Observers question, though, whether Arab states, after effecting changes in regime, can create the political, social and economic opportunities the United States government desires. It is hard to conceive of these countries reversing their appalling records regarding treatment of minorities and women and reorient themselves towards building the democratic institutions necessary for economic prosperity and cultural advancement. It is questionable whether the innovation and creativity needed to launch the Arab world in a positive new direction even exists.
Ali A. Alawi, an Iraqi Muslim, goes even further, stating in his book The Crisis Of Islamic Civilization, that Islamic civilization is a dying civilization, which has not created much of importance in centuries. And Alawi states there is no returning to its greatness since Muslims have distanced themselves so much from their Islamic roots. Overall, Alawi maintains, “[T]he Muslim innovative capacity has degraded in a fundamental sense.”
“In science and technology the statistics are truly daunting,” Alawi writes.
And things are not much better for Arab countries on the economic front. Except for a few oil and gas companies, the Arab world has no large corporations that could provide jobs for its 25 million unemployed young men (Unemployment runs at 20 to 30 percent in most Arab states). In total, when oil and gas are subtracted, the exports of the whole Arab world with its 350 million people equal in value those of Finland with five million.
The disappearance of Arab strongmen like Tunisia’s ruler, and now possibly Mubarak, opens up the ominous and dangerous potential for a Khomeini-style 1979 Islamist victory befalling Egypt – which would be a catastrophic development not only for American and Israeli security interests, but for the Egyptian people themselves. One need only recall Khomeini’s killing fields and his Islamic Republic’s vicious history, continued to this day, to understand the horrifying consequences of Islamists succeeding in exploiting the current strife in Egypt to their benefit.
However corrupt Egypt’s regime may have been or continues to be, Mubarak succeeded in keeping the Islamists and the religious radicals in check. The Muslim Brotherhood, a major fundamentalist Egyptian opposition group that Mubarak had banned, will definitely try to take advantage of any further economic frustration or breakdown to set up the longed-for Islamic state, probably by promising those who have nothing that they will create a Muslim utopia of social justice, patterned after the Prophet Mohammad’s rule. That is the bait to hijack the revolution, like the Bolsheviks promised “peace, land and bread” to the uneducated, downtrodden Russian masses to get their support, only to bring in the Red Terror in return.
As history warns, the Islamists, if successful in seizing power, will internally perpetrate a Khmer Rouge/Khomeini-type bloodbath the likes of which Egypt has never seen before. The first victims will most likely be the country’s religious minorities. Externally, they will involve Egypt in a jihad/war against Israel, Europe or the Shiites and, like Iran, strive to build nuclear weapons.
Thus, Western countries and Israel are, naturally, viewing the events in Egypt with grave concern. The West must be prepared to confront the fact that it may be faced in Egypt with an approaching hostile, failed state, similar to Pakistan and Somalia, where terrorists will be welcome. If Obama fails to play this precarious situation right, and drops the ball like Carter disastrously did in 1979 by pulling the rug from under the Shah’s feet in Iran, then this dire situation could coalesce into Islamists capturing Egypt. Sometimes, as with Mubarak, the devil you know is better than the one you don’t.
Does Obama grasp the gravity of the situation and does he have the geopolitical know-how to deal with it?
The ensuing days of crisis will tell.