[FoRK] Why Egypt’s popular rebellion is the greatest historical event in a decade, and how Barack Obama missed the boat.

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Jan 28 05:26:55 PST 2011

----- Forwarded message from Kragen Javier Sitaker <kragen at canonical.org> -----

From: Kragen Javier Sitaker <kragen at canonical.org>
Date: Fri, 28 Jan 2011 05:46:35 -0500
To: kragen-tol at lists.canonical.org
Subject: Why Egypt’s popular rebellion is the greatest historical event in a decade,
	and how Barack Obama missed the boat.
User-Agent: Mutt/1.5.13 (2006-08-11)

(This is on the web, with the images, at

> [ليس هناك جيش أقوي من فكرة حان وقتها](http://twitter.com/zakwanhaj/status/30176266963386368)

(Above: *No army is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.*)

I’m writing this on January 28th, 2011, at 11:53 AM Cairo time,
although I’m an ocean away from Cairo.  But, as someone wrote the
other day on Twitter, yesterday, we were all Tunisian; today, we are
all Egyptian, and **tomorrow, we will all be free**.  So today I am
writing this on Cairo time.

Three days ago, I read Barack Obama’s [State of the Union][] address.
He delivered it on the same day that the [#Jan25 protests][] began in
Egypt.  I was dismayed that he **didn’t mention the protests at all**,
because they’re more important than almost everything he did mention.
This essay is an attempt to explain why they are so important, why
Obama ignored them, and what the possible results of that choice could

[State of the Union]: http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2011/01/25/remarks-president-state-union-address
[#Jan25 protests]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2011_Egyptian_protests

### What Egypt is like ###

<p class="floatright">
<a href="jan25/cairo.html"><img src="jan25/View_from_Cairo_Tower_31march2007_small.jpg"></a>

For readers who don’t know much about Egypt, like most Americans,
here’s my attempt to sum up a country of 80 million people in three

Egypt is not a republic, any more than the People’s Republic of China
is.  **Egypt is a brutal dictatorship**, governed by the same dictator
since 1981, 29 of those years under state-of-emergency regulations.
That dictator, Hosni Mubarak, was the vice-president of the previous
dictator, Anwar Sadat, who in turn was the vice-president of the
dictator before him, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who had held absolute power
since 1956.  Egypt has been under one-party rule since 1952, and
although the ruling party has changed its name several times, it has
never yielded its power.

Egypt has gradually declined in influence and quality of life
throughout Mubarak’s reign.

Some opposition parties are now formally allowed. They currently hold
3% of the Egyptian parliament.  **All influential opposition parties are
banned, and the press is heavily censored**. Mohamed ElBaradei, an
Egyptian who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work fighting nuclear
proliferation, moved to Vienna so that he can find reporters willing
to talk to him.

Egypt is desperately poor. The majority of the country depends on the
bread dole for survival.

Egypt is one of the countries where the US would ship prisoners to
have them beaten, electrocuted, and raped by the Egyptian police for
years, as a means of interrogation. ([Abu Omar][] and 
[Ahmed Osman Saleh][] are two of the best-known cases.)  Indeed, its
**reputation for torture** was so well established that it was the first
US ally selected for this “[extraordinary rendition][]” program.

[Abu Omar]: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1329/is_2_33/ai_n24376223/ "The body snatchers: inside the CIA’s extraordinary rendition program — and the bungled abduction that exposed its secrets, in Mother Jones, March-April 2008, by Peter Bergen"
[Ahmed Osman Saleh]: http://obsidianwings.blogs.com/obsidian_wings/2004/06/extraordinary_r.html "Extraordinary Rendition: Not Just for Republicans!, posted on Obsidian Wings on 2004-06-15, from 2001 WSJ story ‘CIA-Backed Team Used Brutal Means To Break Up Terrorist Cell in Albania’ by Andrew Higgins and Christopher Cooper"
[Extraordinary rendition]: http://www.commondreams.org/headlines05/0208-13.htm "Outsourcing Torture: The Secret History of America’s “Extraordinary Rendition” Program in The New Yorker, 2005-02-08, by Jane Mayer"

The Egyptian police are famous for their lack of controls. Last year,
[Khaled Said][] was sitting in an internet café; a couple of policemen
came in and demanded to see everyone’s ID, which is against Egyptian
law.  He refused, so they dragged him outside, **beat him to death**, and
dumped his body in the street.

[Khaled Said]: http://www.sandmonkey.org/2010/06/13/on-khaled-said/

It’s also one of the **top recipients of US aid** in the world, much
of which is earmarked for the security forces — the same security
forces who are currently beating journalists bloody and shooting
protestors with US-made tear gas, birdshot, and now bullets.

Much of Egypt’s military, the **tenth largest in the world** and the
largest in Africa, is actually [paid for by the US][]. Egypt produces
US-designed armaments such as the M1 Abrams tank under
license. Without the political and financial support of the US, it is
generally believed in Egypt that the current dictatorship would have
fallen decades ago.

[Paid for by the US]: http://www.janes.com/articles/Janes-Sentinel-Security-Assessment-North-Africa/Defence-budget-Egypt.html "Most major military equipment is purchased with US Foreign Military Financing, which amounts to USD1.3 billion annually. These funds can only be spent on US weapons systems..."

As [Shahi Hamid][] said, “If the army ever decides to shoot into a
crowd of unarmed protestors, it will be **shooting with hardware
provided by the United States.”

[Shahi Hamid]: http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2011/01/after-tunisia-obamas-impossible-dilemma-in-egypt/70123/

Worse, as Steven A. Cook of CFR says, all those soldiers “are not
there to project power, but to protect the regime.” He calls the
Egyptian military “the ultimate instrument of political control.” In
other words, all those weapons are **bought to be used against
Egyptians**, not to protect Egypt.

This is exactly the sort of situation that fosters non-state
terrorism: a disempowered citizenry, kept in check by only the
military might of an unaccountable and corrupt dictator backed by a
faraway country, watching their future being destroyed one year at a
time — all so that that faraway country can have a "reliable friend"
to support political goals the nation opposes. This country profile
fits both Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as it has for decades. And, indeed,
non-state terrorism has been on the rise in Egypt for decades, and in
2001 an Egyptian flew a plane into a US building with the help of 15
Saudis and a couple of guys from other countries.  We have not begun to
see the end of this.

[US elites believe][] that **crushing the Egyptian people’s dreams**
of opportunity and justice, year after year, is a worthwhile price to
pay for having Egypt as an ally in the region.  Understandably, US
elites are not very popular among Egyptians.

[US elites believe]: http://www.cfr.org/publication/19696/political_instability_in_egypt.html

### The revolution in Tunisia ###

<p class="floatright">
<a href="jan25/caravane.html"><img src="jan25/caravane_small.jpg"></a>

Last month, there was a [Tunisian revolution][].  It started when one
**Mohamed Bouazizi**, of Sidi Bouzid, committed suicide.  There’s 30%
unemployment in Sidi Bouzid. At 26 years old, he was eking out a
living as a fruit vendor, one of a series of marginal jobs he’d been
working since he was ten years old — until a police officer slapped
him in the face, spat at him, confiscated his fruit cart and
electronic scales, and beat him.

So he **burned himself to death** in protest.

This sparked mass protests by the Tunisian people, and after a month,
the 23-year rule of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali ended, and he fled the
country.  This was the **first successful popular Arab uprising** in

Even as I write this, the new government is still reshuffling;
yesterday, six ministers left over from Ben Ali resigned from the
cabinet.  It is possible that the new government will still not be
truly democratic, but it seems likely that protests will continue to
make the country ungovernable until there is at least a credible
promise of improvement.

[Tunisian revolution]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010%E2%80%932011_Tunisian_uprising

The Tunisian dictatorship had been considered stable and a steadfast
ally of the US government, to the point that it, like Egypt, accepted
“extraordinary renditions” from the US government for torturing.

There’s a lot of debate about **what made this revolution happen now**
and not at some time during the previous 23 years.  Perhaps the
economic situation finally got bad enough; perhaps it was the
Al-Jazeera coverage; perhaps a critical mass of Tunisians had access
to Twitter and Facebook to organize; perhaps US embassy cables leaked
via Wikileaks sparked new anger, or made Tunisians realize that their
dictator’s backing from the US government was weaker than it had

### The uprising in Egypt ###

<p class="floatright">
<a href="jan25/tear-gas.html"><img src="jan25/tear-gas-small.jpg"></a>

Whatever it was that happened in Tunisia, Egypt has been following
suit.  The story I mentioned earlier, of [Khaled Said][], has been a
rallying point.

([Liz Henry’s running summary of sources][Henry] is good.)

[Henry]: http://politics.dreamwidth.org/70486.html

On **January 25th**, Police Day, almost a hundred thousand people
protested in the streets — mostly peacefully.  This was the biggest
protest since 1977, when Sadat cut off the bread dole.  There were
mass arrests, but only of a few hundred people.  A policeman was
killed by a thrown rock, and several protesters were killed.  The
government illegally and erratically blocked the web sites of Twitter,
Facebook, Bambuser, the opposition newspaper Dostor, and other
services.  The Muslim Brotherhood, the strongest opposition party (one
of the illegal ones), didn’t participate in the protests.

One freelance Al Jazeera news cameraman survived being shot by the
police with 11 rubber-coated steel bullets, which were surgically
removed over the following days.

There was a rumor that Gamal Mubarak, the son of the dictator, had
fled to England with his family.

Nour Ayman Nour, the son of Ayman Nour, the leader of the El Ghad
party, was arrested at from a protest, but escaped.

Hillary Clinton said that Mubarak’s government as “stable and looking
for ways to respond” to the protestors’ demands.

On **January 26th**, protests continued, and activists made plans to have
big protests on January 28th after prayers.  Police began shooting
protestors with birdshot instead of rubber-coated bullets.  Hundreds
of detainees were being held incommunicado with no access to lawyers.
(The interior ministry said it had detained 860 people.)  Hillary
Clinton said that Mubarak should allow protestors to demonstrate, and
“[should implement reforms][].” Crowds burned down government
buildings in Suez and reported being “massacred”.  Minister Rachid
canceled his planned trip to the World Economic Forum.  

[should implement reforms]: http://english.aljazeera.net//news/middleeast/2011/01/201112617427113878.html "Clinton calls for reform in Egypt"

By **January 27th**, at least [three more people][] had died. Mohamed
ElBaradei returned to Egypt.  Crowds stormed morgues in Suez to
recover the bodies of the dead. The stock exchange halted trading for
45 minutes due to rapidly dropping stock prices.  140 protestors were
charged with sedition.  Ahmed Ezz, the country’s wealthiest
businessman, was rumored to have fled the country.  The Muslim
Brotherhood pledged to participate in Friday’s protests.  Crowds
burned a fire station in Suez.  Egypt canceled football games.
ElBaradei published an op-ed entitled “[A Manifesto for Change in Egypt][]”.

[Three more people]: http://www.juancole.com/2011/01/egyptians-defy-protest-ban-plan-big-rallies-for-friday-death-toll-rises-to-6.html
[A Manifesto for Change in Egypt]: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2011-01-26/mohamed-elbaradei-the-return-of-the-challenger/

On the morning of **January 28th**, [they turned off][] nationwide
internet access, BlackBerry messaging, and SMS, and there are rumors
that satellite phones are jammed.  The news media is supposedly
forbidden from reporting.  Ham radio and telephone systems are still
in operation, including internationally.

Mona Eltahawy, an Egyptian expatriate journalist, has warned that this
dark curtain being drawn around Egypt is intended to conceal a massacre.

[They turned off]: http://www.al-bab.com/blog/2011/blog1101b.htm#information_lockdown_in_egypt

The police began mass arrests of Muslim Brotherhood activists, and
police started setting fire to cars for no apparent reason. Joe Biden
says he wouldn’t call Mubarak a dictator.

One ISP remains connected internationally, permitting banks, the stock
market, and activists to reach the rest of the world.

### What is at stake in Egypt ###

First, **Mubarak could fall**. The new government could be democratic,
military, or Islamist. 80 million people could be liberated from

Tunisia is a tiny country with little influence. Egypt, however, is
**one of the most powerful countries** in the Middle East and in
Africa. It houses al-Azhar university; it’s the origin of many of
today’s Middle Eastern political movements; and it has immense
military strength.  Its current government is also a key ally of the
US in the region.

If Egypt democratizes, it is very likely that other Arab autocrats
will be overthrown by popular uprisings, too.  Hundreds of millions of
people could wrest back their futures from the hands of the greedy
autocrats who rule them today.

Because the people of the region have been living under US-supported
dictatorships for so long, it is likely that any new governments will
be less favorable toward the US (and Israel) than the current ones —
although Egypt is probably the most severe case of this.

It’s likely that such a transition would result in more violence in
the short term, but less in the long term.

And the influence of the US would be dramatically reduced.

On the other hand, the army could **massacre hundreds of thousands of
people**, finally putting to use all those US-made, US-funded guns and
bombs.  There is surely some level of violence at which the people
would be cowed, even if there wouldn’t be anything left fighting for

Obama’s choice to snub the Egyptian activists

<p class="floatright">
<a href="jan25/obama.html"><img src="jan25/obama_small.jpg"></a>

Barack Obama, in his speech, naturally spoke most about the United
States; but he also spoke about Korea, Russia, Chile, China, India,
Afghanistan, Iraq, Panama, Pakistan, Brazil, El Salvador, Sudan, and
Colombia.  He even said he supports the revolution in Tunisia:

> And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of
> the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator.  And
> tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with
> the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of
> all people.

But he didn’t say a word about Egypt.

Of course, actually “supporting the democratic aspirations of all
people” would mean that he supports the Egyptian protestors in their
efforts to liberate their nation from its ruthless dictator.  But
Obama’s vice-president, [Joe Biden][], says he doesn’t even think
Mubarak is a dictator, and that some of the protestors’ demands are
not “legitimate”.

[Joe Biden]: http://www.csmonitor.com/World/Backchannels/2011/0127/Joe-Biden-says-Egypt-s-Mubarak-no-dictator-he-shouldn-t-step-down "Joe Biden says Egypt’s Mubarak no dictator, he shouldn’t step down... by Dan Murphy, in the Christian Science Monitor blog ‘Backchannels’, 2011-01-27 "

Obama is a first-class politician, maybe the best in the world.  He
wouldn’t leave out Egypt by accident.

It seems that he’s simply continuing the policy described earlier,
supporting the Egyptian government no matter how oppressive it is,
because it might survive and he believes its support is essential.

Perhaps he has calculated that any new government would likely be
anti-US whatever he does, so he has nothing to lose by backing
Mubarak.  Or perhaps he thinks he can get away with taking no real
action, and later claiming that he always supported the democratic
aspirations of Egyptian people?

In any case, his support emboldens Mubarak for the massacre he is
planning a few hours from now.  Some of the innocent Egyptian blood
shed today will be on Barack Obama’s hands.

It is often difficult and risky to take the side of justice,
righteousness, freedom, and democracy. But those who side against them
will not be remembered kindly by those who risked their lives for
them.  **Obama has chosen cowardice and expediency** over principles
and honesty. And that choice undermines his stirring rhetoric much
more than any sloppy choice of words could have.

<em>By Kragen Javier Sitaker, [@kragen](http://twitter.com/kragen) on Twitter.</em>

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