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Saturday, February 05, 2011

Support democracy in Egypt

The Anderson Cooper Effect on Journalism

By the night of February 2-3, the American TV media was projecting the line that Mubarak was to blame and that the violence was a one-sided “dirty trick” of bald proportions. They also forced their producers and US-based reporters to address the fact that Americans—including President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who had believed that “peaceful transition” was what the Egyptian regime had committed to the day before had been had. MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell was scathing in her criticism of Mubarak’s incitement of violence and the US government’s gullibility.

The on-the-ground reporters are unwilling to give voice to the deception that the violence is two-sided or too chaotic to comprehend. They have experienced it, and they know what they saw. They are reporting the truth, a refreshing change in a moment of real suffering and in the context of a raging conflict of global importance. The last lines of Anderson’s reporting in the dawn hours of February 3: “The people have survived the night. That’s something! Everyone stay safe. We’ll be back later today.”

The phenomenon of pro-Mubarak supporters attacking foreign journalists has changed the way that Egypt has been reported in the US, as Lisa Hajjir reports in a blog for Jadaliyya. While the protests were initially supported as unrest and anarchy, these attacks are spreading the word on Mubarak's double-speak in calls for calm. The reality is that Mubarak is staging the scene for more repression, and the pro-Mubarak supporters are organized and often paid in techniques that are similar to those used around election time in Egypt. This man was paid 50 Egyptian pounds and provided with weapons for his role in supporting Mubarak in the square.

As Hajjir highlights, the impact of such reports is placing pressure on the US government to address the human rights abuses that are occurring in Egypt. Obama and Clinton have urged for restraint, and Mubarak has for the first time in 30 years appointed a Vice President in the form of torture proponent and former intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, who looks to be the candidate the US are attempting to slide in. Yet despite these manouvres and the internet blackout in Egypt under Mubarak, vital information is beginning to circulate on the role that the international community has played in creating the seeds of this uprising.

Egypt is the second largest recipient of US Aid, receiving $28.6 billion since 1975 or over US$1.3 billion annually. This money has largely gone to the military and the purchasing of weapons that have been used to uphold Mubarak's dictatorship for the last 30 years. Ironically, pro-democracy protesters have been bombarded with tear gas canisters that read 'Made in America'. US companies benefiting in this arrangement include General Electric, Boeing, and Lockheed Martin. The protests in Egypt have blown the lid on how US foreign policy has tended to favour dealing with autocrats, and has helped to uphold this due to a fear of whether Arab democracies would support trade with the US in the same way (a fear that is not unfounded due to movements in Tunisia that look to cutting trade ties with the US for this very reason). While Obama and Clinton have spoken of a peaceful and 'manageable' transition to democracy for Egypt, the appointment and support of Vice President Suleiman who has played a central role in the CIA's rendition to torture programme somewhat undermines these claims.

This aid is based on a Peace Agreement between Egypt and Israel, who receive roughly double the amount of US Aid that Egypt does. Understandably, the threat of this money being removed has led to a panic in Israel, with Prime Minister Netanyahu calling for the Peace Agreement being preserved under a democratic Egypt and an overemphasis being placed on the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in the protests. It is quite possible to argue that Israel here panics too much, as the notion of their economic alliance with the US being overturned would be a vast abberation from the history of these two states. (Although there are calls in the US to cut this aid agreement under recession conditions in the US from people like Republican Rand Paul). Moreover, Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer has just come out with an announcement that he believes that the Israeli economy is strong enough to weather the Egyptian turmoil.

Oil companies once again are implicated, with 2-4% of the world's total oil flowing through Egypt and disruptions to this supply threatening to raise the price per barrel to over US$120 per barrel.

The specter that has been overshadowing the western reaction to these developments is that of Orientalism, that the Middle East is populated by primitive people who could not possibly generate a democracy even if they were handed it due to their innate tendency to support theocracies. Many have argued that we are looking at the return of a theocracy, citing the example of the Iranian Revolution. The truth is that Egypt is a very different environment, and the protests threaten many autocratic regimes.

As Juan Cole argues, the political environment in Egypt is not one that favours the development of a theocracy, and the demonstrations are largely being led by white collar and secular workers. The result of these changes is not likely to be a fundamentalist Islam state:

A recent Pew poll found that 59% of Egyptians favor democracy in almost all situations. And fully 60 percent are very or somewhat worried about the specter of religious extremism in their society. About 61% do not even think there is a struggle between modernizers and religion in Egypt.

Among the 31% who did see such a struggle, 59% favored religious forces and 21% favored the modernizers. Barry Rubin and Michael Totten misread this latter statistic to be true of all Egyptians. They are wrong. The statistic is not about Egyptians in general, but about the third of them who see a conflict between modernizers and religion. 59% of 31% is 18% of the whole Egyptian population who favor fundamentalists over modernizers. The rest either favor the modernizers or think it is a phony conflict. Not thinking that modernism and religiosity conflict is generally a liberal point of view.

As Paul Amar highlights again in this excellent analysis, any attempt to characterize this as the beginnings of an Islamist revolution is a vast misunderstanding of the political environment and factions of Egypt.

To place all protests across the Middle East as an imminent threat in the form of radical Islam is to stereotype the region into one unified voice, when this is simply not the case. In Lebanon, the protests have been anti-Hezbollah from those who in 2009 saw the might and results of a military group cracking down on their city. In Yemen, the protests are largely being driven by unemployment rates and the rising cost of bread due to the Arab food crisis.

In Iran, Ayatollah Khameni is attempting to take credit for the protests and promoting the role of the Muslim Brotherhood in fueling the demonstrations. The fact that the demonstrations appear to be predominantly secular is not lost on Khameni, who should be rightly terrified that a similar situation may happen in Iran as reaction against his incredibly repressive regime where a person is executed every 8 hours and political freedom is a mirage. By attempting to channel the Egyptian demonstrations as a religious movement, Khameni is attempting to preserve his power. Ironically, as Simon Tisdall highlights, this narrative is being supported by Israel, who are also attempting to utilize the Clash of Civilizations myth to preserve their power base. Perhaps even more ironically, Mubarak is also finding support from the Palestinian Authority, who have staged pro-Mubarak demonstrations over the last few days. Such support demonstrates the PA's fear of changes in the region tipping popular support towards Hamas. However, it is also worth noting that this fear is in the face of the release of the Palestine Papers by Al Jazeera and The Guardian which show the PA weak in negotiations with the US and Israel. That they delayed the release of the UN War Crimes report on Palestine under US pressure and knew in advance about the war in Gaza is threatening their leadership. Anyone looking at this unusual consensus in opinion between Iran, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and (shockingly) New Zealand should be beginning to question its premise.

Unlike John Key's pro-Mubarak stance, the ability of the internet to widely circulate information on Egypt and the Anderson Cooper effect on journalism is forcing a situation where the US must tread lightly. While regime change threatens their current economic interests, the truth is that so does an attempt to ignore the cries of those supporters of democracy by creating the conditions for the preservation of the status quo fuels a polarizing movement across the Middle East that further entrenches the rift created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. This is our opportunity as citizens to show that the right to a political voice and democracy transcends the brutal chattels and back-room deals of economic interests, and to create a much more peaceful existence for all where the world is not continually torn into two poles. The advent of the internet means that it is in our geopolitical interest to work towards ways of generating stable economies that do not oppress peoples in this manner.

If you are in Auckland today, there is a march beginning at 2pm in Aotea Square to demonstrate support for freedom of speech and the right to vote in an elected member of parliament in Egypt.


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