Understanding the Middle East Crisis: Egypt
by THE EDITOR
January 31, 2011
The Middle East is in crisis. Already Lebanon’s stable government has been overthrown by Hezbollah, who are funded by Iran and Syria. Currently, there have been some protests in Lebanon, but so far the nation has failed to fully bring back the “Cedars Revolution” that united the populace in revulsion after Hezbollah (allegedly) assassinated prime minister Rafiq Hariri on February 14, 2005. The map above can be viewed at a higher resolution here.
Two weeks ago, the Tunisian revolution was sparked by a street vendor setting fire to himself. In Algeria four people set fire to themselves, and Egypt other individuals set themselves on fire, hoping to achieve similar results. One such self-immolation in Cairo, Egypt, was caught on camera. A similar action took place in Saudi Arabia and another took place in Morocco, where a Mauritanian was apparently protesting against the situation in his own country in West Africa.
Yemen, whose government has been an ally of America since the3 George W. Bush administration launched its War on Terror, is currently having increased protests, which will be explored in the next article in this series. What is disturbing for the West is that the countries where such potential revolutions are happening are its allies in the Middle East. Egypt receives $2 billion every year from the United States, with $1.3 billion going to military aid.
The worst case scenario is that these countries in flux fall to Islamist regimes. Egypt is one of the few nations in the Middle East to be a real ally. The prospect for Israel – surrounded by predominantly hostile nations – would be untenable if Egypt fell into the clutches of Islamists.
Part One: Egypt in Perspective
Sunday marks the sixth day of the uprising in Egypt. Since Tuesday, when protests started, 74 people have been killed and 2,000 injured, states the UK Sunday Times. Hosni Mubarak, now aged 83, has ruled Egypt for three decades, since the assassination of Anwar Sadat on October 6, 1981. The end of Sadat’s rule came at the hands of Islamists, a murder authorized by Omar Abdel-Rahman of the Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyah group. There is now a serious concern that Mubarak may be supplanted by Islamists, or at least by a coalition of Islamists.
Mohammed ElBaredei was bizarrely awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 for his work as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), even though the agency under his leadership had completely failed to prevent Iran from illicitly developing weapons-grade enriched uranium. ElBaradei headed the IAEA from 1997 until November 2009. During this time he turned a blind eye to the efforts of A. Q. Khan to not only develop the Pakistani nuclear weapons program, whose first bomb tests took place on May 28, 1998, but also Khan’s selling of centrifuges and nuclear information to North Korea (which detonated its first nuclear bomb on October 9, 2006) as well as Iran. As discussed earlier, ElBaradei was denying Iran’s intentions to build a nuclear bomb as late as October 2007. He continually downplayed the threat that could be posed by a nuclear-armed rogue state like Iran.
ElBaradei wants to be the leader of the nation, and he came back to Egypt from Vienna, where he now lives, arriving on Thursday January 27. He was placed under house arrest, but continues to condemn Mubarak’s rule. With ElBaradei regarded as the main opposition to Mubarak, his presence in Cairo coincided with a steep rise in the violence. By Thursday, only seven people were reported killed in the unrest which has been taking place in Sinai, and in the cities of Cairo, Suez and Ismailiya. The majority of people killed lost their lives on Friday.
In July during in an interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine, ElBaradei admitted that he had spoken with senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood:
ElBaradei: It is true that I have spoken with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood and that we discussed the struggle against Mubarak.
SPIEGEL: There is talk of a "strategic partnership."
ElBaradei: I speak with all representatives of the opposition. The Muslim Brotherhood is not allowed to form a party, but their individual candidates take up 20 percent of the seats in parliament. They enjoy respect because they are socially active. They have been portrayed as allies of bin Laden, which is complete nonsense. One doesn't have to agree with their conservative-religious ideas, but they are a part of our society. They have every right to participate in the development of this society if they pursue their path in a democratic manner, free of violence.
SPIEGEL: But that is exactly what observers have their doubts about. And they believe that the Islamists are using you to get into power.
ElBaradei: That won't happen. I take the Muslim Brotherhood at their word. Egypt is a country shaped by Islam. I will only avail myself as an agent for democratic change.
Elbaradei is portrayed in the Western media as reasonable and pro-democratic, even though what he is asking for – the forcible removal of a democratically elected leader – is not democratic. However, it is being reported that an Islamist leader has “said that Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition groups have charged leading dissident Mohamed ElBaradei with negotiating with Mubarak's regime.”
There are few individuals who are named as possible successors to Mubarak. The 82-year old president’s son Gamal , a businessman, was being groomed by his father to succeed him, but it is unlikely that the Egyptian people would be happy to see a new hereditary monarchy being established, extending Mubarak’s grip into another generation.
The intelligence chief, 72-year old General Omar Suleiman, was being tipped as a potential successor to Mubarak. He is a close ally of Mubarak. Another potential successor is Ayman Abd el-AzizNour, who is comparatively young, born in 1964. He founded a political party called Al Ghad, or “The Tomorrow Party.”
On Friday, instead of standing down, Mubarak dismissed his cabinet, leaving him in a position of autocratic control and ignoring the feelings of protesters who wish for his removal.
The Sunday Times reports in its print edition that two senior figures in Mubarak’s army have called for him to step down. On Saturday, General Omar Suleiman was sworn in as the country’s vice-president. On Sunday, Bloomberg reported that Ayman Nour has announced that an opposition coalition has been formed, to negotiate with Mubarak. This opposition committee contains Nour himself, Mohamed ElBaradei and, worryingly, a senior member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
Media reporting of the unrest in Egypt seems to be deliberately downplaying the Islamist element among the demonstrators. The BBC’s reporter Jeremy Bowen calmly spoke about how the demonstrators were merely wanting democracy, while cries of “Allahu Ackbar” could be heard from protesters. Many protesters had been attending mosques on Friday before going into the streets to launch protests.
Early in the morning of Saturday, a group of nine robbers broke into the world-renowned National Museum in Cairo, home of numerous priceless antiquities and treasures. Two mummies were destroyed in the raid. Later on Saturday morning, the army had posted soldiers around the building. The museum is situated next door to the headquarters of the National Democratic Party, of which Mubarak is the vice-president. This building was attacked and set on fire on Friday (pictured).
Zahi Hawass, who is Secretary General of the Supreme Council of Antiquities, expressed his fears about the NDP building potentially collapsing and toppling onto the museum. The heads of the two damaged mummies had been removed, but it is possible that they could be restored.
Broadcasts into the country from Al Jazeera TV were closed down, and internet and cell phone communications were disrupted. Al Jazeera had been broadcasting round-the-clock reports of Egypt’s unrest from its base in Qatar, and its reports were seen by some as contributing to the climate of revolution.
On Saturday, some foreign tour operators were saying that there was no need for concern for holidaymakers in the country. On Sunday, that situation had changed, and the US Embassy began evacuating families of its staff. Taiwan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs advised its nationals not to visit Egypt, as did Australia. El Al has been attempting to airlift an estimated 200 Israeli nationals trapped in the country. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Jordan have arranged flights to take their nationals out of Egypt. The UK government is advising its nationals not to travel to Egypt unless necessary but has not advised those already in Egypt to leave.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs was stating that the government of Egypt was stable. On the same day, Hillary Clinton was urging the Mubarak government to use less harsh methods to deal with protesters and called for reforms:
“These protests underscore that there are deep grievances within Egyptian society, and the Egyptian government must understand that violence will not make these grievances go away. As President Obama said yesterday, reform is absolutely critical to the well-being of Egypt.”
Mubarak said on Thursday that he had asked his government to resign and by Friday there was no official government. Protesters voiced their anger that Mubarak – the target of their frustration – appeared to have done the opposite of what they wanted. On Saturday, General Omar Suleiman was sworn in as the country’s vice-president, with former aviation minister Ahmed Shafiq named as prime minister. The Sunday Times reports in its print edition that two senior figures in Mubarak’s army have called for him to step down. One of these was Omar Suleiman, the newly-appointed vice-president, and the other was former defense minister Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi. According to an unnamed source, both men had raised with Mubarak the suggestion that he should leave.
On Sunday, the demonstrations appeared to have calmed down. A crowd of people had remained in Tahrir Square in Cairo, to defy the curfew and demand the end of Mubarak’s 29-year rule. Two fighter planes repeatedly swooped low over the crowd, who did not disperse.
On the night of Saturday/Sunday, thousands of prisoners escaped from four jails across the country. One of these jails, situated northwest of Cairo, the capital, housed Islamist inmates.
On the night of Friday, small bands of vigilantes have mounted checkpoints in their regions of the main cities. Mostly shopkeepers, local residents and businessmen armed with primitive weapons, these vigilantes have served to ward off looting. Their presence is tolerated by the army, as the police have abandoned their roles as protectors of neighborhoods.
On Monday morning, crowds are already present in Tahrir Square, defying the curfew. There are plans for a march of a million people tomorrow (Tuesday). There seems to be the formation of a united political will. However, a united political will that brought together secularists, leftists and Islamists managed to overthrow the Shah of Iran at the close of 1978, but brought in the horrors of Khomeinism. It is to be hoped that such a fate will not befall Egypt.