Understanding the Egyptian uprising

Local political experts discuss the crisis

By Shane Cohn 02/10/2011

On Dec. 17, 2010, Mohamed Bouazizi, 26-year-old Tunisian, set himself on fire in front of the administrative building in the city of Sidi Bouzid. He had been unemployed and selling produce without a license. Authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce. Bouazizi couldn’t take it anymore. He lit a match, and his demonstration ignited the country of Tunisia into a complete uprising of riots and protests against government oppression.

The revolution rolled into Egypt and, orchestrated greatly by way of social media, hundreds of thousands of protesters stormed Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding that President Hosni Mubarak, 82, be removed from office. The Egyptians, too, had pent up anger over the decades of autocratic rule and now approach three weeks of incessant rebellion. The opposition vows to continue until Mubarak steps down.

Pundits are saying the fall of Mubarak will be as historically significant to the world as the fall of the Berlin Wall.

California Lutheran University professors Jamshid Damooei, an expert in international economics and international consultant for the United Nations Development Programme, and Herb Gooch, a political science professor and an expert in international relations, recently had a conversation with the VC Reporter about the unrest in the Middle East.

VC Reporter: How did this begin? Did the uprising in Tunisia spark this?
Jamshid Damooei: This has been brewing for a very long time. What happened in Tunisia was the spark that sent the whole thing in the air. What really happened in Egypt was going on for a long time. The forces were forming, frustration was building, the economy was tanking, 40 percent make under two dollars a day. That is really awful in a country like Egypt and in a city like Cairo, with the cost of living becoming so high. Seventy percent of people are under the age of 30. These are demographically, economically, politically explosive situations to be in. When the Tunisia thing happened, they (anti-Mubarak protesters) came out and showed no fear, and these people found that they can do just the same and so they do it and this explosion happens. . . .

Herb Gooch: I agree. Some sort of crisis was going to happen within the next year or two anyways because of Mubarak’s age and because last year he made a move to set his son Gamal up to be his successor. Gamal was not from the military and was not received well. It sort of set more kindling on the fire. . . But Jamshid is right in that Tunisia created the spark. In absence of that, it’s hard to see this occurring.

In the process of all this, major players in their government have been sacked and Mubarak’s son has even stepped down as a potential successor. Now, how does the transfer of power happen at this point? Currently, it’s like a tent city in Tahrir Square. People are not going to leave until they see a transition. How does this effectively happen?
Damooei: What is happening right now, they put [Vice President] Omar Suleiman at power, who is really a military general. If you look at the number of people who were forced to resign from cabinet, these people were worth more than $2 billion or $3 billion. The amount of money Mubarak’s family is worth is about $7 billion, and this is in a country where 40 percent make below two dollars a day. So there is an incredible amount of distrust. . . . What we have is all the military generals that are, again, very loyal to him, are really taking charge.

Politically, I think the military has an opportunity to get really engaged with political oppositions, all of them. The Muslim Brotherhood has in the last few days set forth conditions with Suleiman and the provisional government . . . and when all conditions are met, it means that the environment of negotiations and discussions for a transitional system would be one accepted by an opposition if the opposition did buy into it. But they’re (the opposition) not going to accept an anecdotal and superficial movement on the part of Suleiman and friends of Mubarak. They have a chance of bringing some changes about in a country that has been in a state of emergency for 30-plus years . . . which means that, basically, [leadership] really doesn’t go by the constitution, or law of the land.

. . . I personally feel, having been raised there and following the politics of the area, I think that it’s almost a miracle to expect from a military interim government. But there are foreign politics to consider with United States and other European countries. We really just have to see what comes out of this. All bets are off until something meaningful comes out of it. The people in Tahrir Square, their presence is very symbolic and important.

Gooch: Their military is very close with the United States and is politically rather sophisticated. The immediate problem is what to do with Mubarak. That is a personal decision by a man who is very clear that he wants to stay. Yet how does he get eased out? You see this reflected today in the American evolution of our own policy with President Obama and the secretary of state changing their tones. What we’re hoping is that the military can contain this, and as long as, for instance in Tahrir Square, there is pressure kept up on them to do something, I think they can work with that. At this point, the military is probably the most popular institution, but it’s going to have to find a way to manage this change. The real point is that the opposition is not unified, a far different situation than in 1979 in Iran. The military fractured, but also there was unity in the opposition and there was a central person. Some people would suggest we may have another Iran on our hands, and that’s possible, anything is possible, but that is highly unlikely.

There isn’t a unified opposition group. So that creates a really complex situation in how the U.S. and European allies approach this because you don’t want to be on the wrong side of history. So on one side, you don’t want to be denying Arab aspirations for human rights; but on the other side, if the opposition comes out as being the Muslim Brotherhood, which from what I understand is a radical Islamist group, what are the ramifications of supporting this?
Damooei: The Muslim Brotherhood, they are a conservative Islamic group. There are stark differences between them and the group in Iran. I lived through that and I know how that came about. They are not advocating a theocracy. The Iranian groups were met by clergies . . . a network of thousands of thousands of mosques that were organizing the efforts. You don’t have that type of infrastructure and system in place in Egypt, and Brotherhood is not that. So what will the United States and other European countries do about that? Right now, we have a positive uprising . . ..

Technology is an issue that you can’t really hide. Thirty to 35 years ago, it was easy to deal and wheel with politicians but now everything is in the click (of a mouse) and media. The game has really changed. . .. If the U.S. and other European countries took sides with Mubarak, which they won’t, they would really shoot themselves in the foot because there is no chance of sustaining this government. Suleiman is just a different version of Mubarak, but he’s the same guy. . ..

Gooch: The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has been banned for a number of years, and also the Muslim Brotherhood has been active in other countries as a radical force. It is often a social and economic force. There is no real indication that the brotherhood is another name for the Taliban in Egypt. The popularity is more middle class, and the fact that it’s not in power could be why people like it, but it really doesn’t have the well-developed infrastructure in the country, and that is just one factor of many. I think a lot of American commentators are obsessed with it, and the leaders emerging appeared to be rather moderate.

Considering the effects technology has had in being able to orchestrate other uprisings in the Mid-East like Tunisia and recently Jordan, Yemen and other surrounding countries, is this going to be one of those events we look back on that really changed, not just the Middle East, but the world?

Damooei: Absolutely yes . . .. Technology is empowering youth and others and brings a picture that is probably closer to reality than what anything else could project

Gooch: 2008 and 2011, people are going to look back on these years as the turning point of social media. I’m referring to Obama’s election where he really mastered social media and used it in new ways. And now Tunisia, definitely. Almost impossible to consider what happened without social media. It has been a critical factor in Egypt.

The size of the crowd is almost unimaginable, that you can find a way to mobilize that many people, keep them involved. . .. Social media has played a critical part. Now everybody is wondering about the impact of spreading this throughout the Middle East. In a sense, you’re seeing cyber wars, a new form of political change being enabled by new forms of technology. . . . Social media is like oxygen.

What do you see happening in this region a few years down the road?
Damooei: I think what is happening is positive. . . . It could be that very volatile and radical movements really feed on this situation of poverty, disappointment and brutality. The positive will be an orderly transition, a government coming in Egypt that brings different groups together like Islamic, liberals, etc. The change of the game is positive . .

.. Also, the Gaza situation will be under debate. None of the upcoming governments in Egypt will accept that situation. … Let’s be frank. Israel has a great chance to make peace.

Gooch: Imagination becomes possible; to think, “My God! Something could happen.” Tunisia amplified the possibilities of the imagination . . . bound to have shattering effect throughout the rest of the Middle East. We already have the president in Yemen saying he is not going to finish his term. It’s bound to be a fairly unstable region for the next few years. No matter how Egypt comes out of this, the fact it could go this far is going to have a transformative effect.   

shane@vcreporter

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