‘Rescue the Revolution’

Notes from Cairo

By Michael C. Hudson

For those of us that thought the Egyptian revolution had run out of steam, the experience of last Friday’s marathon “happening” in Tahrir Square was firm evidence that any death knell remains premature. Equal parts political rally, religious celebration, Woodstock (Egyptian style), carnival, and family outing, this was Egyptian society–suddenly free–and exuberantly expressing itself. I watched toddlers happily having their cheeks painted the colors of the Egyptian flag, a group of veiled women camped out under a bush taking refuge from the hot sun, a teenager beating a drum while held up by his buddies, an old man with his granddaughter on his shoulders proudly displaying a handmade poster proclaiming “rescue the revolution,” a couple of guys sitting and chatting with a poster reading “Facebook… Reload” propped up beside them, and the eminently entrepreneurial souvenir sellers. The enthusiasm and optimism evoked the spirit of an American political rally — with the buttons and banners showcasing the “January 25 Revolution” to boot.

On the whole, this was a youngish crowd of middle class Egyptians — almost everyone was plugging at mobile phones and cameras — alongside laborers and others. I saw a few bearded men but not many: the two main Islamist tendencies, the Muslim Brothers and the much more radical salaffiyin, were not discernibly present. More significantly and conspicuously absent were the military and the security forces. Hard as I looked I could not find any uniformed men or tanks. In fact, even the armored personnel carriers lined up in front of the old Nile Hilton just the day before were nowhere to be seen. I heard that this demonstration would be bigger than any other since Mubarak’s downfall, and it was. At any one point there must have been tens of thousands in the square.

The collective expression of Egyptianness — “raise your head, you are Egyptian” was the slogan of the day — was unforgettable. But the other remarkable thing about it was its length. People just couldn’t get enough. I got to Tahrir around noon while a large crowd was observing Friday prayers led by an imam delivering a sermon that fused religion and protest. I mingled for a couple of hours and then decided that was about it. But when I came back three hours later the crowds were even larger, and they remained there well after dark. By that point there were a half dozen grouplets of demonstrators eddying here and there through the square: a handful of teenage girls led by a fiery young woman in full niqab; a very elderly Coptic priest assisted by young followers; young men on a makeshift stage, replete with powerful loudspeakers, exhorting the crowd to “rescue the revolution.”

And the revolution does need rescuing.

Despite the carnival-esque atmosphere, these people were in Tahrir on serious business: they sense that their revolution is in danger, and they are right. The Higher Military Council who sent Mubarak packing to a comfortable retirement in Sharm al-Shaykh has so far been opaque in its decision-making, and answers to nobody.

The military, led by Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, rushed through a package of constitutional amendments with minimal consultation but via referendum, which set a speedy timetable for elections next September. (The rapid pace certainly favors the best-organized political tendencies, the Muslim Brothers and the apparatchiks of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, which have been playing at Egyptian politics for decades — longer than most of the revolutionaries have been alive.) They proposed rules that would severely discourage strikes or demonstrations that might adversely affect the economy. Further, the Council has been suspiciously slow in bringing to trial Mubarak’s closest cronies–men like Safwat Sharif and Fathi Suroor–on corruption charges (not to mention the President himself). The protesters, students, think tank experts, and professors I spoke with fear that Egypt may be trading in one dictator only to have him replaced with another form of authoritarian rule. Will the old structure minus its longtime boss actually recreate itself?  Some think it hasn’t disappeared at all. One newspaper commentary was headlined “Egypt is still Mubarakstan.”

Granted, the Egyptians have achieved something unprecedented in the modern Arab world: the ousting of a dictator through popular will. But it remains unnervingly uncertain whether genuine civilian government will emerge to complete the revolution. It’s difficult to avoid observing that the revolution has to come to terms with some enduring political realities.  One is the army. The other is the Islamists.

The military has been the backbone of republican Egypt since the Free Officers’ coup of 1952 that brought Gamal Abdel Nasser to power. The three men who have ruled Egypt since then, Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Hosni Mubarak, were all military officers. Over the years the armed forces have garnered popular respect, especially for the October 1973 War in which Egypt, partnered with Syria, scored a moral victory against Israel. Thanks further to generous American aid contracted into the peace treaty with Israel, they have become a substantial and wealthy institution, carving out for themselves something of a parallel economy and holding major shares in Egypt’s biggest companies. It is hard to imagine a civilian president stripping them of their perks.  And let us not forget that the military enjoys intimate contact with and support from the Pentagon.

The Muslim Brotherhood, long suppressed, outlawed, and feared, now present themselves as moderates along the lines of Turkey’s democratically elected Justice and Development (AK) Party. Neither Egypt’s old opposition parties like the Wafd and the Tagammu nor, so far, the youthful protesters in Tahrir have the organizational capabilities of the Brothers. Mustapha Kamel Al-Sayyid, an eminent Egyptian political scientist estimated that the Muslim Brothers might get 30 percent of the vote in a free election but that its actual influence in the People’s Assembly would be even better due to its discipline, while the other 70 percent would be distributed among small fractionated groupings. Yet if we have learned anything from this new generation of Egyptians, it is that their collective will cannot be underestimated; one of Egypt’s tycoons, Naguib Sawiris, put his name and fortune behind the creation of a new liberal Free Egyptians Party earlier this week and is fast gaining support.

There is still another grouping whose influence cannot be so easily estimated. The Islamists of the Salafi movement are the new boys on the block — or Square, as it were — and are far more radical than the Brothers. As apparent ideological successors to the al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, mercilessly repressed by Mubarak in the 1990s, the extent to which their radical Islamist orientation will find an echo remains to be seen.

Maybe the most realistic outcome the protesters of Tahrir can hope for would resemble the Turkish model of the post-Ataturk period in which the military allowed long stretches of significant party politics and competition. Unlike Turkey today, in those years there was no doubt as to who was in charge when push came to shove: every decade or so the Turkish army would push aside the civilian politicians and reset the system to their liking. One veteran insider told me that the Egyptian officers are quite uncomfortable being in the spotlight at this moment of transition; they much prefer the shadows. Whether down the road Egypt might continue to emulate Turkey, where the military no longer plays that decisive role, and moves toward a genuinely civilian political system is certainly a possibility. In any event, the Egyptians of Tahrir, heady with freedom and empowerment, and mobilized as never before by the new satellite and social media, are not going to let their revolution, incomplete as it may now be, slip away.

Michael C. Hudson is Director of the Middle East Insitute at the National University of Singapore. The views expressed herein are his own.

This piece first appeared on Foreign Policy’s Middle East Channel and can be downloaded here: Insight 20 Hudson.

Street, Stage, Shrine & Square: Protest Sites as Contested Terrain

Insight 18 Rosario

By Terisita Cruz-del Rosario

February 1986 at EDSA: the Epifanio de los Santos Avenue — an urban highway of six lanes worming its way through six municipalities of Metro Manila, unconvincingly organises the flow of traffic in both directions. A most curious venue to stage an uprising. Yet, twenty five years ago, EDSA set the stage for a people power uprising that toppled the two-decade Marcos dictatorship. No longer neutral, empty territory, EDSA became a charged space, what William Sewell terms “a matrix of power.”

In Argentina, the 70s and 80s was a period of ‘murderous dictatorship’ of the military regime. Public spaces were invisible, the citizenry cowed into privacy and silence. Until fourteen mothers donned white scarves and invaded the Plaza de Mayo with their demands to know about the disappearances (desparecidos) of their loved ones. Soon thereafter, the square resurrected as Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, reconfigured as a protest space, openly demonstrating against a repressive regime.

More recently, in the center of Cairo stands Tahrir Square, a rotunda that witnessed the gathering of Egypt’s disaffected.  Wired youths brandished cell-phones in one hand and stones in the other and they spoke to the teeth of power using Facebook. Eighteen days later, curtains came down on Mubarak’s regime.

Protesters world over, wherever they may be found, transform physical spaces and convert them into a kind of political pilgrimage site. There, they undertake a quest for personal and social redemption to find their courage and recover their lives from the grip of fear and prolonged repression.

They trek in large numbers to protect one another, to share a moment when new social meanings are being fashioned out of collective action. They convert these spaces into repositories of collective sentiments, drawing on one other to weave a grand narrative of history-making and nation-building.  They are, of a sudden, human agents of history and society.

Public spaces provide opportunities for re-fashioning what political scientist Dag Angkar terms as ‘political architecture.’ Rather than inherently constraining, these places present a crucial resource to apply spatial agency.  In these sequestered sites, physical and metaphorical notions of space coalesce, so that what was once a mix of street, floor, and cemented highway meld into symbol, sentiment, and statement. Here is where the silence is broken.

However,  protest space is also highly contested terrain. They are sites of social conflict and clashes over symbolic codes. They represent competing claims to legitimacy and control over power, battles over alternative visions of the future, struggles to redraw the boundaries of community and society. Blood spills, taints the pavements and carries the dead.

Remember Bangkok a year ago? In its fashionable Rajdamri district, where street vendors intersect with smart shoppers, the Red Shirts camped out as an affront to the urbanised enclaves of the upper- and middle-class Yellow Shirts. Right there, Major General Khattiya who went rogue for the Red Shirts was shot in the head while speaking to several journalists.

Watch Libya unravel. Benghazi as contested territory has emerged not only as the most visible arena of Libyan resistance, but also as the most potent symbol of the irreversible course of change in Middle East politics. Watch Bahrain, Yemen, and Syria too.

Parallelisms among all these countries are inevitable. Street action among everyday people interacts with formal institutions — the courts, the political parties, the media, the military, the Mosque, the Church.  Where formal and informal processes intersect, political dynamics change. Within days, political careers will ebb and wane, new ones will be forged, and the world will yet again bear witness to another upheaval in human experience.

Above all, what these geographies of struggle provide is the very best application of human agency, of fearless improvisation and a resurgence of creativity, often times without structure and direction, somewhat like collective street-jazz.  Yet hope abides in this massive energy that refuses to be silenced.  An illiud tempus according to theatrical critic David Cole, a time to re-imagine an alternative universe of relationships and thus a place where there is no thought of surrender or defeat.

Teresita Cruz-del Rosario is Visiting Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. Her recently published book Scripted Clashes: A Dramaturgical Approach to Philippine Uprisings provides an explanatory framework for people power events in the Philippines over two decades. She can be contacted at tdelrosario@nus.edu.sg. The views expressed herein are her own.

Change in the Middle East Puts Turkey in the Eye of the Storm

By James M. Dorsey

A wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that has already toppled two longstanding, authoritarian Arab rulers, shines a spotlight on Turkey in both favorable and challenging ways.

Turkey’s success as the region’s most democratic state and largest, most diversified economy looms large as Egyptians and Tunisians seek to forge a new future and Algerians, Libyans, Sudanese, Yemenis and Jordanians struggle to ensure that they too will have an opportunity to determine their own course. This unprecedented Arab display of street power puts Turkish aspirations of being a model of development for the Muslim world to the test.

Debate over whether Turkey can serve as a model is no longer restricted to intellectual circles in Western as well as Middle Eastern capitals and policy and opinion makers in Washington, EU capitals and Ankara. It now takes place on the streets and in the parlors of Cairo, Tunis, Algiers, Sana’a, Amman, Manama and Tripoli where change is tangibly being affected. A recent TESEV (Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation) survey showed that 75 percent of Arab respondents considered Turkey a successful example of coexistence between Islam and democracy and favored a greater Turkish role in the region.

Turkish achievements in terms of democratization, putting its foot in the door of EU membership, electing in more than one poll a political party with roots in Islamist politics in a dogmatically secular political structure, building infrastructure, and liberalizing the economy are not lost on those who draw inspiration from the descendants of the Ottomans who once ruled them. But so is the pro-longed struggle that brought Turkey to where it is today as well as the warts –including efforts to restrain freedom of the Internet and the press as well as adoption of socially more conservative mores in government-owned establishments and yet unfulfilled recognition of minority rights– that have cast a shadow over Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s tenure and the state of Turkish democracy.

While Erdoğan’s support for regime change will stick in the minds of Egyptians and Tunisians, so will Iranians remember his failure to support the Green Movement when activists protested in 2009 against allegedly fraudulent elections that returned President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad to office. Similarly, many Sudanese, and particularly those in newly independent, oil-rich South Sudan are unlikely to forget Erdoğan’s embrace of wanted Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir.

Nonetheless, in a world where popular revolt is more likely to produce more populist rather than truly democratic rule, the very things about Turkish foreign policy that have  conservative Western foreign policy analysts worried are the ones that resonate on Arab streets and that have substantially raised Turkey’s profile in Middle Eastern public opinion, Israel excepted. Turkey’s increasingly strained relations with Israel, emotional support for the Palestinians, expansion of diplomatic and economic focus to include the Middle East and its ability to balance NATO membership with a more independent foreign policy –as expressed for example in its failed Iran initiative in cooperation with Brazil– strokes with the foreign policy aspirations of mainstream Arab public opinion.

The absence of burning U.S. flags and Islamist slogans in Arab streets has come as a relief to Western policy makers and analysts. Overlooked is the fact that at prayer time, approximately one third of Cairo’s Tahrir Square bowed in the direction of Mecca, not as a political statement but in individual religious observance. In a traditionally conservative, authoritarian ruled part of the world where for much of its modern history the mosque and the soccer pitch served as release valves for pent-up and anger and frustration, Turkey’s marriage of a secular state with a vibrant economy governed by a moderate Islamist party is what cements its appeal. That appeal is bolstered by popular consumer goods sold across the region and television sitcoms that push moral boundaries.

It is also boosted by a perception that Turkey under the AKP and a Middle East emerging from the assertion of popular will on the streets of Arab capitals are giving the death knell to competing ideologies –Kemalism and Islamism– that have proven incapable of catering to 21st century needs. The AKP’s rise to power has deprived Kemalism of its monopoly as a roadmap toward modernity even if the party has yet to convince many that it can embrace those that were excluded by Kemalism such as the Kurds, Alawites and the staunch secularists. By the same token, Islamism has been forced to cede its monopoly on religion even if the West mistakes demands such as a woman’s right to wear headscarf in universities as an assertion of political Islam. Those demands for the right of religious expression in public are couched in terms of human rights rather than religious hegemony. The discarding of ideological straightjackets gives Turkey a significant common denominator with emerging Arab forces. It has also allowed Turkey to establish itself as a point of reference for Islamist and non-Islamist centrist forces in the region. Tunisian Islamist leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who recently returned from 22 years in exile, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, have said they would like to see their countries emulate Turkey. Yet, the limitations of Turkey as a model are likely to emerge as more open political systems develop in Egypt and Tunisia. Those limitations are evident in differences between Turkey’s strictly secular vocabulary and religious terms that shape moderate Islamist discourse as well as its ban on the wearing of headscarves in universities and parliament, and criticism that the AKP has replaced military authoritarianism with civilian authoritarianism.

Contributing to Turkey’s rise is a fundamental change in Turkish perceptions of the Middle East. As Turkey strived for much of its post-World War II history to be identified as European, Turks looked down on those they once ruled as the dominant colonial power. Perceptions of sustained European rejection of Turkey coupled with the country’s assertion of its diplomatic and economic weight across the region and an increased interest in its Ottoman past have changed those attitudes towards Arabs who now are important markets and customers receptive to what Turkey has to offer politically, diplomatically, economically, and culturally. The sense of European rejection of Turkey because it is a predominantly Muslim nation has also garnered it Middle Eastern and North African empathy. Comparisons in economic performance leave no doubt why many Arabs look to Turkey for inspiration: under Erdoğan, average annual incomes in Turkey rose from 3,500 dollars to above 10,000 dollars. Egypt’s per capita GDP of 2,160 dollars increased five dollars over the past two decades, according to IMF data.

Turkey’s newly-found recognition as a modern day regional power capable of flexing its muscles and asserting its influence is in no small measure the result of a level of engagement with the Middle East and North Africa not seen in Turkey since the days of the Ottoman Empire. In doing so, it has benefited from being the one-eyed king in the land of the blind. Where Arab leaders have been reactive, be it to the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the Iranian nuclear crisis or the assertion of popular will, Turkey has garnered popularity by being proactive.

As a result, Turkey has created the building blocks needed to position itself as the bridge between East and West that it unsuccessfully asserted to be in the past. Accordingly, U.S. President Barack Obama appeared to acknowledge as much by phoning Erdoğan twice in the six days prior to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak being pushed out of office. Yet, Turkey’s successful projection of itself as a bridge is likely to increase the pressure on it to iron out its warts as well as to make a clear cut choice rather than picking and choosing between support of some assertions of popular will while effectively endorsing authoritarian rule elsewhere.

Post-Mubarak Egypt poses a particular challenge to Turkey, testing its commitment to change in the region. Erdoğan was one of the first leaders to openly call on Mubarak to resign in unambiguous terms in a speech that was broadcast on Arab TV and aired in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. His speech represented a break with his foreign policy based on what his foreign minister describes as “zero problems with neighbors” that until then steered clear of democracy and human rights issues in favor of pragmatism and trade deals. To Erdoğan and the Egyptian military, the Turkish model means different things. The Egyptian military, which has effectively ruled Egypt for 60 years, most likely sees Turkey as a model of modernization and economic liberalization controlled by military tutelage that safeguards its political and economic privileges and ensures that Egypt continues to steer a pro-Western course. With other words, the Egyptian military endorses the very model that the AKP has been seeking to modify since its rise to power. If analysis of the Turkish model shows anything, it portrays it as a model of progress in democratization achieved in opposition to rather than driven by the military. Egyptians for now appear to put their faith in the military leading their country within six months to democracy. The lurking schism between the military’s objectives and popular aspirations is likely to emerge sooner rather than later as it increasingly becomes clear that the military will seek to retain as much of the old structure as possible repackaged with elections and greater freedoms to ensure that it is domestically and internationally palatable.

The Egyptian military’s interpretation of the Turkish model is that which pro-Israeli forces as well as AKP critics are advocating, in a bid to curb the influence of the country’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood. “Should Egypt’s transition to democracy follow Turkey’s model, the military would take over the presidency and a civilian national unity government that shares power with the military would form. Mirroring Turkey’s constitutional reform process, Egypt would draft a new constitution and prepare the groundwork for free and fair elections,” says Soner Çağaptay, a Turkey expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. It is an approach that ultimately prolonged and complicated rather than accelerated Turkey’s moves towards greater democracy and would likely be perceived by many in the Middle East as an effort to stymie Arab efforts to shape their own future and formulate a foreign policy of their own. The Turkish government has so far remained silent on which stage of development of its model it hopes Egypt will look to for inspiration.

Overall, a comparison of what shaped Turkey’s development of its model with circumstances elsewhere in the region does not bode well for Egypt and others in the Middle East. For much of their post-World War II history, Turks have insisted that they needed the straightjacket of association with the EU to achieve political and economic reform. Neither Egypt nor others in the Middle East have a straightjacket to keep them on the right path. Ironically, Turkey’s increasingly chilly relations with the EU fueled by Turkish frustration at perceived European attempts to keep it at arm’s length may well have allowed Erdoğan to get away with his more authoritarian tendencies.

Turkey’s straddling of the democracy fence could also be put to the test if popular protests spread to the oil-rich Gulf, geopolitically a strategic region ruled by authoritarian families that see their countries as fiefdoms, but constitute important Turkish markets and sources of investment. While mass demonstrations in most of the Gulf states are unlikely, discontent in the region is bubbling under the surface. As a country in which a Sunni minority rules a disaffected Shiite majority, Bahrain has already experienced the democracy contagion. Opposition forces in Kuwait are gearing up to take to the streets despite government efforts to buy off protesters with cash handouts. In recent weeks, Saudi Arabia’s dismal soccer performance in the Asian Cup, unemployment, floods in Jeddah that killed at least four people and the granting of asylum to the ousted Tunisian leader have sparked protests and criticism on newspaper op-ed pages as well as on blogs and in Internet chat rooms.

Turkish policy decisions will have much to offer the United States, Europe and Israel as the West and Israel seek to come to grips with a Middle East that irrespective of its form of government will be far more responsive to public opinion than close allies were in the past. As a result, they will adopt policies that are more in line with Turkish foreign policy, including withdrawal of Arab, and particularly Egyptian, support of the blockade of Gaza and closer relations with countries viewed as hostile by the West and Israel such as Syria and Iran. To a degree, the West has had a first taste of that in its dealings with the Erdoğan government. A changing Middle East, however, turns a Turkey whose foreign policy initially sparked discussion about how Turkey was lost to the West, into an asset with favorable access in the region that understands how to maneuver and can help the United States and Europe safeguard and further their interests.

The wave of anti-government protests sweeping the Arab world offers Turkey opportunities to enhance its position as a regional model of development but also poses spotlights contradictions in its foreign policy and shortcomings of its democracy. For the first time in its history, Turkey is emerging as a true bridge between East and West. Change in Egypt and Tunisia and unrest elsewhere in the region however puts Turkish aspirations and its ability to live up to expectations to the test.

James M Dorsey is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East Institute, a freelance journalist, and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. The views expressed herein are his own.

This article was published for Turkish Policy Quarterly.