Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Zillion Brilliant Blooms of Tahrir: Egypt’s Tryst with Destiny

This write up has been published in News Central Asia as well:

Egypt is magic, the land of stories, memories, and the exotic. She never failed to mesmerize the world, and as the present shows, she continues to. Observing and admiring, like the world is, I was reminded of Shakespeare’s moving dramatization of a similar node in Egypt’s remarkable past. In Antony and Cleopatra, a romantic and sybaritic Antony, ever forgetful of his magisterial duties cries out: ‘Let Rome in Tiber melt, and the wide arch/ Of the ranged empire fall! Here is my space./ Kingdoms are clay’.

A similar and perhaps more romantic node now haunt Egypt. After three decades of unrelenting despotism and undemocratic governance, a people are rising up against it and finding themselves strong, while the President Hosni Mubarak finally stages a late exit.

The geopolitics of post World War II is the consequence and the culmination of a systemic and systematic trend and an accident. The accident being the war itself, the trend is the addiction and selective adherence of the West to the idea of self determination and democracy. The geopolitics of the Middle East have been formulated this selective adherence: innumerable wars have been fought, Eisenhower onwards doctrines have been formulated, arms given and denied, until the single most important constituents have been forgotten; the people. It is interesting to observe how Egyptian democracy (or even the semblance of it) took to the plunge pool even as she slowly but ever more surely undertook her journey into the ranged arch of US’s strategic interest. The Mubarak government is one of the closest allies of US, regularly replenished by USAID, In early 1950’s Middle East was transformed by the war in Korea and the Cold War, British reluctance to evacuate the Canal base, and subsequently by the American, British, French and Turkish plans for a Middle East Defense Organisation (MEDO) based on Egypt and the canal base. In 2009 Egypt was only the second largest arms buyer from US.

Today is the moment of Egypt’s tryst with destiny, but as is the case with history, a few such moments revisited earlier; that of the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. The titular leader of the 1952 revolution was General Muhammad Neguib, but the prime mover of the denouement was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser; Prime Minister in 1954, he was one of the few Egyptian head of states since the days of Alexander the Great in Egypt’s intriguing history, an interblend of sublime and subordination. Nasser’s rule itself was the culmination of a different brand of Arab self fashioning that Egypt stood for long before the revolution, something that perceived the country as a socialist republic in a region dominated by traditional monarchies, some lasting even to this day. She became wedded to non-alignment in 1955, in a region dominated by clashing strategic interests of two restless power blocks. Nasser’s rule was by no means elixir vitae in a newly liberated third world nation trying to map its baby foot in routes of progress, but it was a healthy compromise. Egypt fought two wars, lost them, but came out just in time to save her face. Fidgeting spasmodically between ideas, ideologies, she changed sides in want of both guns and butter until settling for neutrality. And neutrality gifted her too; Egypt completed the Aswan High dam with Russian financial help without having to either join the Soviet camp, or to beg before Eisenhower Doctrine or PL480. Egypt was just about to shape for herself and for the Arab League a worldview and politics untasted till then by the directional pulls of Islamic identity. The dream’s torrid end in the Six Day’s war is now a story beyond compare. Nasser prodded on, his prestige and promise greatly declined, and Egypt came to be sucked deeper into the vortex of the defined parameters of Arab identity and feudal society.

Anwar Sadat, succeeding Nasser in 1970, had the daunting task of melding the directional pulls of Islamic identity, socialist republicanism, external debt, as well as securing his domestic political base. Failing to affect a harmonious solution Sadat took to force in May 1971, purging the government and the Arab Socialist Union of his rivals in what was the first physical ramifications of dictatorship. Meantime Egypt remained in a state of active hostility with Israel and the prospects of a much relieving revenue generation from tourism, foreign investment, Suez Canal tolls remained an abstraction. His proclamation of political and economic liberation, Al Intifah and the slogan of ‘the revolution of rectification’ remained elusive and ineffectual, but it laid the seeds of a new geopolitical orientation of Egypt’s international alliances. Egypt wanted an end to hostilities with Israel, at least for the time being, and assumed that only the United States had the power to force Israel to the negotiating table. In July 1972, Sadat abruptly expelled most of the 20000 members of Soviet military mission to Egypt but with little resolve. Sadat had neither Nasser’s power of international engagement, nor a will for independent policy. His continued vacillation, both in domestic and international polity resulted internally in student demonstrations in 1972 and in early 1973 against failed policies, and externally in an ill prepared war effort against Israeli positions on the Golan Heights on October 6, 1973. As the initial stunning success melted down Egypt was once again forced to diplomatic table, but this time with even lesser confidence and conviction and Egypt’s journey under the ranged arch of US strategic interests began. The unmodified Marxist socialist polity of Nasser was foreign to Egypt’s agrarian economy, as was the uncomplimentary economic liberalism and capitalism of Sadat, but together they made the perfect concoction for disaster. As Sadat shelved the program of subsidization of essential commodities in January 1977 Egypt witnessed another mass upheaval; police stations, ASU headquarters and other symbols of the state’s control. At least 150 Egyptians were killed to contain the surge, and Sadat restored the subsidies. The structural economic and political problematic could find the only out in a reinvigorated assertion of Islamic identity and ideology. In an Egypt gripped by social malaise and yearning for guidance and hope, Islamic values provided social and political dynamism. Muslim Brotherhood became highly active. But such dynamism always contained the possibility of being redirected and hijacked into Islamic fundamentalism and militancy, as has been the case with so many African nations, and as was indeed proved by the assassination of Sadat on October 6, 1981.

Hosni Mubarak, succeeding Sadat, at least initially started playing with the idea of a more democratic system; permitting the Wafd Party to field candidates in the 1984 elections, but the initial promise was once again systematically dampened by the regime’s calculated retreat from political liberalisation. Egypt continued to be frozen in time and space and public vitality and dynamism was sucked out of public polity through a repressive policing that intended to maintain a perennial status quo. Egypt’s foreign policy and internationalism was reoriented by Mubarak’s peace treaty with Israel, and ever more friendly relations with US. As US continued with careful practice her selective adherence to the idea of liberation and democracy, the dictatorial regime of Mubarak found ever growing acceptability in Western world. Egypt’s foreign policy through the 50’s to the present could therefore only be defined as continued vacillation between power blocks with only a brief period of internationalism, regional leadership and non-alignment. Aid came in the way of Egypt, but peace and progress could not have been developed around either foreign money or ideology. A nation must find the solid bedrocks of peace and progress within and not without, and post Camp David even a yearly $2.2 billion economic assistance from US (second only to the amount US provided to Israel) through the 1980’s could not work a structural solution to Egypt’s politico-economical gangrene. Egypt continued to be fashioned in America’s image, but that could only have been a distortion and an imperfection. Reintegrating the diverging strands of Islam, democracy, and economy has always been one of the greatest problematic of Middle East and the Arab world, and Egypt proved to be no exception. The disparate and multidirectional pulls engendered nothing but a quagmire that immobilised national life. The regime maintained power through a systematic practise of oppression, espionage, arbitrary arrests and detention, censorship etc., but the underbelly of Egypt’s public life continued to boil, always in quest of a crack to erupt.

The unstable equilibrium of the Arab world was disturbed and disrupted first in Tunisia in the ides of January. Mohammed Bouazizi’s self immolation in desperation conjured the spirit of dynamism, the people rose up in a thousand brilliant blooms; the top heavy dominoes of dictatorial governments found little time or the means to react, and for once, the US vacillated between its choice of democracy and strategic interest. Events in Tunisia were an act of restoration of confidence in the power of people. It is as if a people rising up to a common call and saying, ‘yes, we can!’.

After 18 days of concerted protest by the Muslim Brotherhood, Wafd Party, and most importantly by the people at large Hosni Mubarak quit power and fled to Sharm-el-Saikh. Mobilisation was done through means that the Arab world had never witnessed before; through internet, social networking sites, instant messages, mails and the upsurge turned out to be a curious comingling or rare devices.

The future holds promises, prospects, but there is need for a judicious sense of direction. The unbridled emotions and sensations need to be harvested and if need be, contained, if Egypt has to find her mêlée of Islamic identity, democracy, and buoyant economy in the right proportions. The power, for the moment resides with the Supreme Military Council, but the people need to remind themselves that it is indeed the masses that have willed Egypt to this moment of reckoning. And the solution for the future has to be indigenous, for too long has Egypt vacillated between foreign ideas, and ideologies. There have been suggestions that Egypt could look at Turkey for a solution for the future, and draw lessons how the disparate pulls and demands of Egypt’s polity could be unified for a harmonious future. But Egypt’s tahrir cannot be translated into either a neoliberal or a communist sense of freedom, it needs to be invented, and only then could the thousand blooms in the middle of the night at Tahrir square find their destinies.

Rajarshi Mitra is keenly following the developments in Egypt. He is optimistic that the events will usher in a new era of democracy in the land of antiquities. Share your views with him at

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