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Watching Egypt

Watching Egypt

By David Warren - January 31, 2011

The surprising success of demonstrations in Tunisia -- a despised president fled the country, but leaving his despised government largely intact -- has inspired "us, too!" demonstrations around the Arab world. Clamouring continues in Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Lebanon. No one can predict what will come of it, though my guess is that little will, until fresh factors come into play.

In Egypt, for instance, the "dog that does not bark" is the Muslim Brotherhood. The Mubarak regime fears them much more than it fears the children of the middle classes, whom it is patiently tear-gassing in places like Cairo's media-visible Tahrir Square. In a sense, those demonstrators are "yesterday's people" -- descended from the secular nationalists of another generation, before the siren of "Islamism" began wailing.

They are the sort of people with whom we can identify in the West. They dreamed, they dream, of what we would recognize as an "open society," with peaceful multi-party elections, and all the trappings of constitutional democracy: freedom of speech, religion, and so forth; security of person and property, under uncorrupted secular laws. Whether or not the individual demonstrator can articulate his full list of demands, he knows they pertain to a "normal country," where the standard for "normal" is essentially European.

It is almost impossible to assign good numbers to factions in the Middle East, even in a country outwardly as "advanced" as Egypt. Estimates, for instance, of the number of Christians range from less than five to more than 16 million. And while the Egyptian census gives more reliable information on the distribution of income and formal schooling, it would be harder to guess at the size of the "middle class." For a hint: illiterates outnumber university graduates about three-to-one, according to the last official census.

From what I can make out, in Egypt and elsewhere, the people on the streets are the "accredited" -- the bourgeoisie. They are the ones who could most benefit from western-style constitutional government and would suffer most if the government falls into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood. They are, in terms of "class," the same people who have revolted in Iran -- haplessly against the Islamist regime of the ayatollahs.

We'd like to think they are simply "the people," and I should admit that on a couple of occasions I have fallen into this conceit myself. The rhetoric of the Bush administration took them in this way, fondly hoping that with the passage of time, "modern" attitudes would keep spreading, as they once did in Europe, and have done more recently in countries of the Pacific Rim. The "neo-conservatives" sincerely believed that once constitutional democracy is implanted, it will grow, until it can be sustained by habit. India, "the world's largest democracy," is the standard example of this sort of miracle.

By contrast, the Obama administration has no idea what is happening or what it is doing, and Hillary Clinton is actually overrated as a secretary of state.

This means that American influence -- potentially decisive until quite recently -- can now be fully discounted. Washington does not know whether it should support Mubarak or abandon him; it will therefore mutter meaningless platitudes. The vast sums of U.S. aid that sustain the Egyptian state will continue flowing. Mubarak thus knows that it is entirely between him and his people.

I tend to look at the world more darkly than the "neo-conservatives" did.

While I recognize that support for "democracy and freedom" is substantial, within each Arab national society -- that the middle class is not a nothing; that each economy depends on it -- I doubt this "faction" can prevail. Worse, I think we are watching its final, hopeless bid for power.

The key fact, in Egypt (paralleled in Yemen and elsewhere), is that the Muslim Brotherhood has not declared itself. The Islamists could put vastly more people on the street. They could subvert the loyalties of policemen and soldiers, who already resent the moneyed middle class. They could generate just enough heat to make large districts of Cairo and Alexandria, now simmering, boil over.

But instead, they are playing neutral, watching those policemen and soldiers put the demonstrators down, while most of Egypt remains quiescent.

For this is not their revolution, and for the moment they are content to watch the autocratic regime, and its frustrated middle class, weaken each other. Their moment will come when Mubarak totters.

In Lebanon, Hezbollah has effectively taken over, and the same middle classes who briefly prevailed in the Cedar Revolution of 2005 are on the streets to express their displeasure. But Hezbollah has the guns, and the will to power. Lebanon is finished as an "open society."

And those who feel hopeful about the outcome in Egypt should explain just what they are hoping for.

otiosus@sympatico.ca

© Ottawa Citizen

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