Tuesday, February 1, 2011


A young friend is currently pursuing an advanced degree in Middle Eastern studies. His take on the events in Egypt:
There are definitely a few interesting observations on consensus opinion among the professors and students in my department with strong ties to Egypt, whether through academic expertise, long-term residency, or nationality. First, most everybody has assumed, or at least hoped, this would not end well for Mubarak since the president of Tunisia abdicated. The vast levels of hatred of Mubarak and his cronies throughout the Arab world cannot be overstated enough. The level of corruption in Egypt is truly astronomical and pervades really all levels of government and business. Likely any remotely decent job in the country is filled on the basis of patronage or corruption (and even if this weren't true, everybody assumes it is true). Egypt also suffers from a huge lack of opportunities for my generation. There are millions of Egyptian recent college graduates with no jobs and no real prospects for future employment. Therefore they delay getting married and continue living in crowded slum apartments well into their thirties. This is a common problem in the region, for example, the Tunisian who set himself on fire and set off their protests was a well educated college graduate who had been selling fruits and vegetables from a cart for years because he could find no other job, and he was protesting a highly uneducated policewoman, appointed to her position because of some patronage connection, confiscating his cart. However, Egypt suffers these problems most acutely. 
Another crucial observation is the widespread trust in the military by the Egyptian people. The military is not seen as merely a tool of the regimes' power, like the police (especially the mukhabarat, or secret police) and has a fairy widespread membership in their enlisted and officer ranks. This is in stark contrast to countries like Syria and Saudi Arabia. For example, most key positions in the Syrian military and state security apparatuses are held by Alawites, a tiny minority religion from a specific geographic area of Syria that the president's family belongs to. Furthermore, the military absolutely did not like Mubarak's attempts to designate his son as heir apparent. In an incredibly corrupt society, the Egyptian military is seen as a (relatively) fair arbiter of power and everybody I've talked to seems to trust the military to get rid of Mubarak. Whether or not this will lead to a civilian government or yet another military coup (it is worth mentioning that Mubarak, Sadat, and Nasser were all army officers) is the only question. Many also say the army will never allow the Muslim Brotherhood to lead Egypt. 
Finally, the most debate concerns the regional implications. If the Muslim Brotherhood were to take power in Egypt (something that I think is highly unlikely for numerous reasons, its more a threat being wielded by Israeli hawks rather than a serious claim), the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty could be threatened. However, I can't imagine the Egyptian military turning away their multi-billion dollar yearly bribes by the U.S., much of which is diverted by the top military and civilian leadership into their Swiss bank accounts, to keep the peace. The bigger question is will this movement continue in other Arab countries. Lebanon and Yemen barely have governments to be angry at, and any protests you see there are likely from other long-standing country specific problems. People are always obsessed with the possibility of the al-Assad family falling and democracy spreading to Syria. However, Syria has been in the process of progressive reforms for the last seven years and many Syrians see their social and employment prospects improving rather than getting worse. There is also less corruption, or at least obvious corruption, and the president is much better liked among Syrians than Mubarak. Most importantly, the Syrian security service has a much tighter stranglehold on the country than in Egypt, which, while an authoritarian dictatorship, can't really be described as a police state in the same way Syria can. 
Where I see the strongest likelihood of this movement spreading is in Jordan, which has a serious demographic problem of tons of angry citizens of Palestinian descent who significantly outnumber the ruling Heshemites. It is also worth mentioning that for all the talk of the importance of Mubarak to the U.S., I think Jordan is significantly more important. We only really support Mubarak because of Isreal, however, our State department, CIA, and DoD have incredibly strong relationships with their Jordanian counterparts and Jordan is of crucial importance to Iraq. 
Finally, I'm sure this goes without saying, but do try and watch al-Jazeera English for coverage, and if not, the BBC. AJE easily has the most comprehensive English language news coverage in the whole region. As the major US news agencies have been pulling people out of the Middle East to cut costs, AJE has been investing huge amounts of resources on their bureaus in the region. Reuters also has a good liveblog. 


paula said...

According to the Washington Post, Abdullah appointed a new Jordanian government last night, in response to weeks of protests (which I don't remember hearing about, do you?). Abdullah has many ties to the US, including his education. He went to secondary school in this region and returns occasionally for alumni events. I believe he went to Princeton or another ivy for college.
As for Al Jazeerah, I read recently that AJ is the Faux News of the Arab world, at least in terms of the amount cheerleading they do for the side they favor.

Darlene said...

I confess I have no opinion on this. I am not knowledgeable enough to form one at this point. I just feel like the middle east is on fire and I am afraid it does not bode well for the U. S.

Classof65 said...

I'm worried for Israel...

K. said...

Paula, I recommend the documentary Control Room. It shows pretty convincingly that Al Jazeera provided much better coverage of the Iraq war than any of the American networks. Well worth watching. Click here for a review.

sEAN bENTLEY said...

Thanks for sharing, Paul, this has more information than the news stories I've seen so far!