Day: January 27, 2011

If Friday prayers are answered, what happens next in Egypt?

Rashad Mahmood, my American friend living in Cairo, has kindly answered a few additional questions I posed: what would satisfy the demonstrators? If Mubarak were to agree to a seriously free and fair presidential poll, would that do it? Or do they want him gone right away? Then who takes over? What in other words is the next step? Rashad’s replies below:

While we won’t know for certain the direction things will take until the country-wide protests planned for Friday, it is clear that there are things that the government could do to get ahead of the demonstrators and try to defuse the situation. As Issandr at the Arabist blog notes however, Mubarak is known for his stubbornness and is unlikely to believe that the situation merits serious action until it is too late. On the other hand, he may have the right strategy, and by ignoring problems and letting the demonstrators tire, he will ride out the situation. The NDP steering committee recently met. Here is a report on their willingness to have a dialogue, but without specifics.

The optimal outcome would be something along these lines:

1. Announce repeal of the emergency law, effective immediately, or as soon as parliament can assemble to do it. This is one thing that literally every single Egyptian and member of the opposition can get behind. Then things get trickier.

2. A new national unity government. This was number one on the list of demands of the Wafd party issued on Wednesday. However, figuring who would be represented, and by how many, makes it seem problematic. Especially since the protests have mostly been driven by spontaneous networks of young Egyptians, who don’t have anyone to speak for them. Hence, it seems the least realistic.

3. The dissolution of parliament and a call for new elections. The Brotherhood called for this last week, and it seems there would be broad agreement among the opposition with the sentiment. This seems more doable. However, most of the protesters would be highly skeptical that this alone would solve anything, given the NDP stranglehold on politics.

4. Call a constitutional reform convention. Although this hasn’t gotten as much attention, it is essential if any real changes are to happen. If you looked up “strong presidency” in the dictionary of political science, you would see the Egyptian constitution sitting there staring back. Without a devolution of power to parliament, and reforms that allow parties to really compete for seats, nothing can be accomplished.

In some ways, Egypt is fortunate to have Tunisia as a model, because if a real revolution does come, they will be just a few weeks behind Tunisia dealing with almost all the same sticky political issues.

If Mubarak doesn’t pursue any of the above policies, and then is eventually forced out, that leaves a massive power vacuum with potentially dire implications. There are a few different ways it could go. The easy, and probably America-favored way would be for Baradei to act as an interim president and help oversee the reforms mentioned above. He has said he is willing to do this. Although it cuts against what many others believe, I can’t really envision a scenario where the Brotherhood takes full control of the apparatus of government, and frankly, I don’t think they want to. Especially since they were very much followers rather than leaders of these protests, I see them seeking representation on any post-Mubarak unity government, but not insisting on one of their own being number one. At least not right away. If they feel things are heading in too secular a direction, that could of course change.

The big unknown is the army. When I asked a friend how electricity, water, security, and transportation would be kept going if Mubarak left, he responded, “Army, army, army, army.” They have been politically quiescent for most of Mubarak’s reign, and it is assumed that all senior generals are firmly behind him. But if the situation degenerates, it seems likely that someone from the military will try to step into the breach, and at least try to keep the country running and stable, while the politics is worked out. Ex-generals permeate the government and the private sector here, as detailed in this article this article by Sarah Topol, so a well-connected general would be well-placed to run things. What they do from there is another question entirely.

P.S. For those curious to learn more about what is going on in Suez, and what is driving the more violent nature of the protests there, this article NPR piece may shed some light.

P.P.S. I somehow got dragged into this whole twitter thing. You can follow me at @El_Rashad

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Live from Cairo: tomorrow is Egypt’s big day

Rashad Mahmood, an American currently living in Cairo, sent me this dispatch today (mostly drafted yesterday):

Looking at the big picture, I think one can trace the current protests to two events. There is obviously the example of Tunisia which showed that protests and demonstrations were a viable means of changing the status quo. Less appreciated is the impact of the last round of parliamentary elections in November. In the 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections, the government had provided an opening, convincing many of the more apathetic members of society that Egypt was on track for slow but steady reform, which suited them fine. However, after the 2010 round of elections, which resulted in the complete domination of the NDP, it became clear that the government was once again clamping down, and that any hope of a gradual transition to some form of democracy was dead.

I hate to invoke the cliched talk with a taxi driver, but here I go. On my way in to work Wednesday I asked the driver what he thought of the protests on the 25th. He said they were like a flower. They had blossomed, but would now go away. “What did they accomplish?” he asked. I was in almost total agreement. Although they had been the largest protests probably since the 1970s, it seemed likely that until a new flash-point came, they would have no lasting impact. Now, I’m not so sure.

At my work, people who had earlier told me they would never consider voting because of how useless it is were avidly following news of the protests. One colleague from a fairly wealthy family was out in the thick of things, and had a friend of his shot in the leg with some kind of bullet. Meanwhile, another colleague said that she had better things to do than waste her time with demonstrations. Perhaps the most enthusiastic was one of the security guards, whose Facebook page had been filled with news of Tunisia in the last couple weeks. When asked if he was out on the streets he said, “Of COURSE I didn’t protest,” with a not-so-subtle wink and a look towards the security camera recording the lobby.

The government response to the second day of protest seemed almost schizophrenic. The Foreign Ministry put out a statement affirming the right of the protesters to express themselves, while early Wednesday the Ministry of Interior declared that no further protests would be allowed. Despite this statement, the 26th saw smaller protests continue throughout Cairo, and especially in surrounding cities. While hard factual reporting out of Suez is hard to come by, the fact that at least four protesters have been killed highlights the more confrontational attitude that security forces have pursued there. There was even one report on Facebook that the police station was burned down by demonstrators. On Tuesday, they banned Twitter (and continue to do so) while today they took down Facebook for a few hours.

In the political arena, the most interesting development is the Wafd party’s calls for a national unity government. As Issandr Al-Amrani at the Arabist blog and the Middle East Institute’s Michael Dunn observe, it is possible that this is in some way on behalf of the government, noting that the presidency remains untouched in their demands. However, like everything else, it is too soon to tell what is really going on. A few conclusions can be drawn.

1. The regime today is significantly less stable and confident than it was two days ago. Even though the protests today were smaller, the government reaction showed how worried they were. For much of the day the Sadat metro station, which is the Tahrir square stop, was being bypassed by trains, even though it is one of the two transfer points for Cairo’s two metro lines. This had a big impact, and when I took the metro home from work, I heard many people talking about the protests that might not have if they hadn’t had to change their route home.

2. The number of people willing to go into the streets is much higher than previously thought, and there is broad support. Perhaps most surprisingly, there was significant coordination of protests outside of Cairo and Alexandria, which is extremely rare.

3. What role for the Muslim Brotherhood? They have been very coy, initially calling for its members to refrain from participating in the protests on the 25th, but then saying individuals could participate without the organizations endorsement. It seems that they were caught by surprise as well, and are not sure how to react. A popular revolution to sweep Mubarak from power was definitely not in their plans for a gradual, growing role in the politics of the country.

4. Class divisions don’t matter as much as they used to. Egypt is a very atomized society in many ways, with huge gulfs between the elite, the upper middle class, the middle class, and the roughly 60% of the country that lives on less than $2 per day (mostly in the rural areas). Most of the protesters seen on Youtube or on the news were not protesting out of any personal economic need for increased food subsidies, but for a more democratic society, and removal of the emergency law which gives the government almost unlimited powers.

5. The period of relatively robust economic liberalization is over for now, which may slow down economic growth (and eventually come back to bite the regime). There had been much talk about reducing the extremely expensive energy subsidies in the next year, but clearly that will not happen now. The stock market ended down over 6% on the 27th, and the Egyptian pound reached a 6-year low versus the dollar on Monday. If the protests continue, the many investors that just a few days ago were enthusiastically touting Egypt may begin to look elsewhere.

So when will we know more? Friday. There are calls for massive protests after Friday prayers, which is traditionally when it is easier to mobilize people, since it is the first day of the weekend. If there is an even larger turnout than we saw on Tuesday, which is certainly possible, anything is in play: a Tunisia-style month of protests leading to an eventual unseating of Mubarak, or brutal suppression of dissent and a period of quiet.

If things do calm down again, there are several potential flash points that it will be important to watch. The NDP has still not officially named their presidential candidate for the September 2011 presidential elections. When they do, and if it is either Hosni Mubarak or his son Gamal, as is widely expected, look to see a revival of the protests. One friend whose father works for the government said that he thinks the scale of the protests means that the NDP will have to put forward a new candidate to at least pretend to reform. Other demands of the protesters could be met. Egypt currently spends around LE 13 billion on food subsidies, which it could easily increase without completely blowing a hole in its budget, although it would pay for it with an increased deficit, which it has been trying desperately to curb.

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