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Egypt: Uprising And Analysis

Interview by Ja A. Jahannes
Cairo, Egypt and Savannah, Georgia

In the last several days, the world has witnessed a media-genic, dramatic, historical, social network-influenced, uprising unfold in Egypt. In Motion Magazine had an opportunity to conduct an interview with a renowned international scholar who has been living and working in Cairo, and has lived there for nearly fifteen years. For security reasons, we shall identify our interviewee only as the Middle East Scholar (MES).

Jahannes: Were there signs that this uprising in Egypt would occur?

MES: Discontent was mounting visibly -- brutality by security forces, clampdowns on political activists and columnists, and rigging of the parliamentary elections in November angered many people, coupled with the serious unemployment and an escalating cost of living. However, it took the Tunisians's overthrow of Ben Ali to break the barrier of fear and catalyze the massive street protests.

Jahannes: Who are likely to be the winners and losers in a post-Mubarak Egypt?

MES: We don’t yet know the nature of a post-Mubarak Egypt. The security forces, military, and regime stalwarts could retain their power -- or new, democratic forces could emerge. If there is fundamental change, then the business and security elites who benefited from the current system will be the losers -- although the business elites are flexible and able to adapt to a new reality.

Jahannes: Is the uprising driven primarily by middle class intellectuals who desire political reform in the form of democracy, or the urban poor who desire effective programs to reduce, or at least alleviate, poverty and improve their living conditions?

MES: The demonstrations link together many peoples with diverse but complementary interests: ending the security-state is seen as needed for human rights, democracy, and poverty-alleviation -- people recognize that they can’t be separated. Many of the young people on the street are educated but unable to find appropriate jobs and fulfill their aspirations. There are also older people, professionals, and families on the square -- and also young people with good jobs and plenty of opportunities who are strongly opposed to the status quo.

Jahannes: Are there behind-the-scenes players who are fomenting the uprising for other reasons?

MES: The Egyptian media recently claimed that foreigners were behind this; one security person even claimed that they had caught Israelis, Pakistanis, Palestinians, Iranians, and Americans in the Liberation (Tahrir) square -- all cooperating to incite! When the Iranian government expressed support for the protests, the demonstrators responded angrily today -- criticizing the “religious dictatorship” in Iran and emphasizing that the Egyptian uprising has no connection to Iran.

Jahannes: If the primary demand is for "democracy," what does that mean in practice for most Egyptians and/or for middle class intellectuals and/or identifiable socio-economic groups within Egypt?

MES: Egyptians have not had an opportunity to practice democracy since 1952; before then, under the monarchy, the system benefited the rich more than the poor but at least there was a competitive party system. Egyptians want to end the security control over all aspects of their lives -- be able to have demonstrations (emergency law prohibits more than 5 people meeting in public without a permit), form their political parties (which now requires approval of a government-controlled committee), operate a free press, and all the other basics of an open political system.

Jahannes: What do you see as the short term outcome of the uprising in Egypt?

MES: Giving voice to individual Egyptians is a crucial outcome. But one can fear that such a powerful security regime could try to crush those voices, once again.

Jahannes: Will it be possible to pursue multiple demands and still keep the various sides working together?

MES: This will be difficult as some are tired and want to get back to normal jobs, schools, etc. and will therefore accept less than others.

Jahannes: What role if any do you see the U.S. playing with regard to the Egyptian uprising?

MES: The uprising took the U.S. by surprise, as did the Tunisian uprising, although the WikiLeaks indicate that U.S. diplomats were aware of the corruption and failures of both governments. The U.S. can seek a peaceful transformation; after all, the U.S. has huge financial leverage over the government.

Jahannes: What are the dangers and possibilities of the fact that the movement has no obvious leader?

MES: The lack of an obvious leader is a strength in that it makes clear that the demands are the expression of large numbers of diverse people, but it is a weakness in that negotiations to resolve the crisis won’t be in the hands of the people in the square but rather in the hands of self-appointed mediators, who have their own interests.

Jahannes: Are the strikes that have been going on since 2006, particularly in Mahala in the Nile Delta, including factory occupations by the workers particularly significant? In regards to Mahala, is it true that many of these strikes were by women textile workers, lead by women? Do the strikes fit in with what is now going on in Egypt?

MES: The strikes were an outcome of the privatization policies which led to the firing of thousands of factory workers, including in Mahalla Kubra, a huge textile factory complex. Many textile workers are women and so they played an unusually large role in those protests. The government tolerated some worker strikes (and even let small groups of workers camp in front of the Peoples' Assembly) because it recognized that it has failed in its moral and material obligations to the workers. However, workers gained very little from those strikes. And the escalating unemployment has been a factor in the current protests.

Jahannes: Do you see an ongoing break down of U.S. power in the Mid East and in the world? Even the decline of the influence of the "West"?

MES: The U.S. had influence in the region before World War II as a democratic country that opposed European imperialism. With U.S. support for Israel, involvement in the Cold War, preoccupation with the Middle East’s oil resources, and support for Arab dictators (plus the Shah of Iran), the U.S. lost support from the people of the region. That criticism increased markedly with the U.S. occupation of Iraq and war in Afghanistan. It is clearly U.S. policy itself that has made the U.S. lose its positive aura. But there isn’t a "break down" of U.S. power, as that power remains entrenched throughout the region.

Jahannes: The First Arab Rebellion is said to have brought about the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Do you see any similarities? Is this the Second Arab Rebellion?

MES: The collapse of the Ottoman Empire was the result of World War I and the seizure of the most significant areas by Britain and France -- which had already taken over North Africa. One can say that the leaders of that first Arab revolt were tricked or duped, as they didn’t gain the genuine freedom that they had sought. Those leaders were mostly sheikhs who were not particularly interested in democracy, unlike the current participants in the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt -- which seem to be spreading to Jordan and Yemen. These people seek to overthrow long-entrenched and stagnant dictatorships.

Dr. Ja A. Jahannes is a writer with a broad interest in international affairs and issues of peace. He has visited Egypt twice on intensive study tours, was a Joseph J. Malone Fellow in Arab and Islamic Studies under the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations in Jordan and Syria; and was a research fellow with the Ministry of Education in Israel. Dr. Jahannes extends his thanks for assistance with the formulation of questions to Nic Paget-Clarke, publisher of In Motion Magazine and Dr. Jerry Silverman, political scientist, and retired staff member of the World Bank.

Published in In Motion Magazine February 6, 2011