Many around the globe are wondering what is going on in the Middle East. There is a plethora of information, coming in from all sides, and there’s little way to make heads or tails of it. Who is Mubarak? Is Yemen involved? What’s the Jasmine Revolution? Well, fear not gentle reader, as I will guide you through this maze and answer the top 5 questions I’ve received on this topic during the week. Shall we?
So the basic bare-bones facts start in Tunisia. A small country in North Africa, Tunisia has always been considered relatively stable. However, just below that veneer was a country pushed to the brink by unemployment rates, harsh censorship laws, and a dictator who had been perpetually “˜elected’ since 1987. Enough to cause discontent anywhere, right? Well in December a tragic self-immolation set off a number of angry protests within the country. These culminated on January 14th with the “˜President’ of Tunisia fleeing to Saudi Arabia. This was referred to as the Jasmine Revolution. Currently there is an interim government presiding over Tunisia with residents now enjoying many newfound freedoms. Still the struggle in Tunisia is far from over.
Enter Egypt. Egypt, suffered much of the same problems as Tunisia (corrupt government, dictator- president, censorship up the kazoo). Spurred by the success of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia the residents of Egypt took to the streets. At first the government acted as though it was no big deal. They assumed that the public would hem and haw for a couple hours, get it out of their system, and go back home. Somewhere along the 4th or 5th day of consecutive protesting the government realized just how wrong they were.
As hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, took to the street chanting, “Down with Mubarak!” the “˜President’ took the airwaves and announced he’d fire the entire government (except for himself of course) and everything would be coming up roses again. The public unanimously called bullshit as Mubarak began to pointlessly shuffle his cabinet around and appoint a few new positions.
Enter Mohamed ElBaradei! ElBaradei is a Nobel laureate and democracy advocate who was previously living Europe. Once he saw things had reached a point of no return in his homeland, he flew back into the country ready to lead the opposition. He has the support from many of Egypt’s other opposition parties and has become the logical choice to succeed Mubarak All that stands in the way is one shockingly out of touch President clinging to his office.
Now some questions from near and far!
Who are the Muslim Brotherhood and why do I keep hearing all about their extremism?
Excellent question. The Muslim Brotherhood is a banned Islamic opposition group within Egypt. It has existed in some form since 1928 and is active in a number of Arab countries.
There is some talk on the conservative views the Brotherhood has regarding Islam and women and how it will play out in the current Egyptian transition. While the Brotherhood has advocated for women to dress conservatively, and pushed other archaic notions like banning dancing and segregating schools, in recent years it’s turned its attention away from such things. In 2005 they won a large number of Parliamentary seats by running as Independents. Despite some incredulity on behalf of the Egyptian public they neither focused on women’s dress or social mores. Rather they pushed for Democratic reform reached out in with number of charitable programs.
Most Egyptians are not comfortable living under the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood (for good reason) and it should be noted that the Muslim Brotherhood has shown no interest in taking over. Rather they are endorsing ElBaradei for his work as an advocate of democracy.
But this ElBaradei character”¦is he friendly to women?
By all accounts it would seem so. ElBaradei seems to have very few caveats (if any) about working around women. Nor does he seem to mind that his own daughter is a successful lawyer. While there are very few statements of his position on women in society (as he has spent most of his time discussing nuclear proliferation) there is nothing about his life that would point to him perpetrating the disenfranchising of women.
If the protestors really want freedom, why is there so much looting?
Looting is a sad reality of any state of emergency. There is no doubt that some of the protestors are walking off with bits and pieces from government headquarters. That said, the real thugs looting the streets have shown no sign of being connected to demonstrations. They have, in fact, been shown to be connected to the State Security.
It is a disappointing reality, but oftentimes in dictatorships, to turn public opinion away from those demanding freedom, the government will send out plain clothes security forces. They have been caught torching cars, beating civilians, breaking into stores and generally causing havoc while toting government-sanctioned munitions and carrying government granted ID’s.
Most protestors in Egypt and the Arab world are used to such tactics and will therefore look past such things as desperate government propaganda. It is important to remember, however, that since Western culture rarely deals with such instances, Western media may not always be aware of its prevalence and mistake the demonstrators for being violent. So it is imperative we keep this in mind while watching reports on the unrest.
So did the government really just throw the switch on the internet and media?
Yes they did. With the help of internet and cellular carriers of course. It may not be easy to understand unless you’ve come up against heavy censorship. But when government controls every single media outlet, it is not that difficult to shut communications down.
Similarly, Egypt has revoked the journalistic licenses for some non-state sanctioned news outlets, seized their equipment and briefly detained their corespondents. Al Jazeera English had a number of on-air moments that showed just how quickly a broadcast can grind to a halt. While shooting video of The 6th of October Bridge that runs through Cairo, state security forces stormed AJE offices and demanded they take their cameras off the balconies. Later, they were forced into operating anonymously (not showing corespondents names, face or locations) and now they’ve taken to giving audio updates.
So far there has been continuing live feeds available but there is no guarantee that this will last. This, my friends, is what happens in a true dictatorship. The government has absolute power over what comes in and goes out. To defy that is to put oneself at risk for torture and imprisonment. Something we saw happen in the 2009 Iranian election demonstrations.
How will this affect stability in the region?
There is no way to know for sure. However, there are some predictions that seem more likely than others. If ElBaradei succeeds Mubarak in Egypt then it is likely that the Egyptian government will open up quite a bit. Will they still maintain treaties with Israel and the US? It is incredibly doubtful that such things would be thrown out overnight. Might there be some new negotiations? Sure. But that isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Rather it could have a positive impact on all aspects of the region.
So let’s say Egypt drives out Mubarak. Could that push things over the edge in Yemen, Jordan or Syria? This is quite likely. Right now protestors in Sana’a, Amman and Damascus seem to be waiting and watching in anticipation. If Egyptians can oust Mubarak, there is no dictator off limits.
In what would be the least violent scenario, we will see governments’ offering to open up and expand before any active revolt begins. This would be the smoothest course to take and perhaps, if they see Egypt falling, governments will be less likely to fight it out to the death with their own angry public. But as one example the government preemptive appeasement of Kuwait recently announced it would be giving an extra 3,500 to each family every month for the next year and a half. How’s that for a stimulus plan?
Seeds of change have now been sown throughout the region and if we’re lucky, we’re witnessing a new birth in Democracy, accountability and human rights. This could benefit not only the Middle East, but in the long run, it would help the world at large. Such things will take time and we must have patience and let these countries evolve. But if Tunisia and Egypt has shown us anything, it’s that the hopes, dreams and demands of the people can no longer be ignored.