The end of the Arab exception?

by John Quiggin on January 29, 2011

Looking at the downfall of the dictatorship in Tunisia, and the exploding protests against the Mubarak regime in Egypt, it’s obviously hard for Western/Northern commentators, let alone Australians, to say much about what is happening now and will happen. In part that reflects the cultural and political distances involved, and in part the opaqueness of political and cultural life that is inevitably associated with dictatorship and censorship. But it seems clear that some basic premises of US policy towards the region have been rendered invalid.

Most obviously, the Mubarak regime is finished in its role as the key US ally in the Arab world. If the regime survives at all, it will be through brutal repression which makes it clear once and for all that the dictatorship is held in place solely by military force. That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable (the Republicans were already keen to cut aid to Egypt). But without continuing aid, there is little reason for any Egyptian government to support US foreign policy in the region.

The bigger casualty is the ‘Arab exception’: the idea that the concept of democracy is not really applicable in Arab countries and that foreign policy therefore amounts to a choice of which dictator to support. [1][2]

The autonomous emergence of democratic governments in Tunisia and Egypt would fatally undermine this exception, and leave the remaining dictatorships and monarchies in the region as anomalies, for which the question about the end of the regime would be “when?” rather than “if?”. A traditional foreign policy based on the presumed continuance of the status quo would become highly problematic, with high potential costs when the crash came[3]

More generally, the whole approach of US foreign policy towards the “Middle East” rests on assumptions that will be hard to sustain when the existing dictatorships are gone. Most fundamentally, how can the idea that the US has “strategic interests” in the region be justified? In some sense, this idea rests on the assumption that the existing governments are less than legitimate, and can be dealt with in terms of traditional Great Power politics, with spheres of influence, secret deals and so on. Even weak democratic states display much more effective resistance to external interference in their domestic affairs than do typical autocratic regimes.

The point applies most obviously in relation to oil. The idea that the US can legitimately use its military power to ensure continued access to oil resources rests, in large measure, on the (not entirely unfounded) assumption that those controlling the resources are a bunch of sheikhs and military adventurers who happened to be in the right place, with guns, at the right time. Without the Arab exception, the idea of oil as a special case, not subject to the ordinary assumption that resources are the property of the people in whose country they are found, will also be hard to sustain.

Finally, of course, there is the Israel-Palestine dispute. The current crisis may well have a direct impact here. But the indirect impact of the emergence of democratic governments in the Arab world (if this happens) will be even greater. Without the special status that comes from being the only real democracy in a region full of autocracies, the idea that Israel can continue indefinitely to rule over subject peoples and expropriate their land will be even harder to sustain, as will any attempt by the US to back that claim. On the other hand, you don’t have to believe strong versions of democratic peace to conclude that the long-term prospects for a just and sustainable peace would be enhanced by the emergence of democracy. Whether this is right or wrong, the end of the Arab exception would surely undermine the idea that the US has some special role to play in all this.

Finally, the EU is much nearer to the action than is the US, and I think it’s clear that all kinds of debates within the EU (over migration, the admission of Turkey, further integration with the Mediterranean and so on) have been colored by the Arab exception in one way or another.

Those are some strong claims, and not fully worked out, so feel free to set me straight.

fn1. There were a lot of other exceptions until recently, applying to South Americans, non-Arab Muslims, Asians in general (this one much promoted by advocates of ‘Asian values’ like Lee Kuan Yew). And before that, the exceptions were the rule, and democracy was seen as something specifically Anglo or Western European).

fn 2. There was a shadow debate on this topic under the Bush Administration, which issued a lot of pro-democracy rhetoric as part of its case for . In practice, however, the Bushies continued to rely on friendly dictatorships in the Arab world (and beyond, in Pakistan and the former Soviet Union) as leading allies in the Global War on Terror. For these allies, token gestures towards democracy were encouraged, provided there was no possibility that they would actually give rise to governments responsive to popular opinion. The reasoning behind the Iraq war embodied yet another version of the exception, namely the idea that democracy would never arise from the ‘Arab street’. Instead, democracy had to be exported by armed US missionaries, with the happy side-effect of ensuring that the grateful beneficiaries would elect a pro-US government.

fn3. Iran being the paradigm case. That said, Iran is something of an outlier. In many places where US-backed dictators have been overthrown, the subsequent level of anti-American sentiment has been surprisingly modest.

{ 101 comments }

1

IM 01.29.11 at 11:48 am

“downfall of the dictatorship in Tunisia” But is it a downfall or just a change of personnel?

2

bm 01.29.11 at 12:09 pm

It’s not till footnote 3 that this post starts to descend from wishful thinking to the humdrum reality that there is no correlation between democracy/dictatorship and pro/anti-Americanism. The transition from communism created a host of staunchly pro-American democracies like Poland. Transitions from rightwing dictatorship to democracy in Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia have left them more or less as closely allied to the US as before. Perhaps the biggest strengthening in the US strategic position in recent years is the consolidation of its alliance with democratic India.

3

John Passant 01.29.11 at 12:25 pm

This looks to me like the first stage in the bourgeois democratic revolution but the bourgeoisie is historically too afraid to push it for fear of real revolution. The demands for freedom and food, for jobs and justice, cannot be met within the context of current capitalist property relations. but whether the revolution moves to the next stage depends on a range of factors – the strength of the working class, its political clarity, the existence of a revolutionary socialist organisation arguing for a general strike to bring Mubarak down and for workers to take over their workplaces ad run them democratically. And of course to split the Army and bring the conscripts over to the side of the revolution. I write about this on my blog. Egypt: the revolution has begun. http://enpassant.com.au/?p=9207

4

Abstracto 01.29.11 at 12:36 pm

it’s obviously hard for Western/Northern commentators, let alone Australians, to say much about what is happening now and will happen

I don’t know about that—I expect to see, e.g., Tyler Cowen, Megan McArdle and Matt Yglesias reveal themselves as experts on Egypt in short order.

5

jeconnery 01.29.11 at 12:59 pm

You seem to be alluding to a parallel between U.S. activities in the Mideast and European activities in 19th-century Asia (and/or British imperialism in India)… yes?

It’s not a bad comparison…. I’m just curious to hear more.

6

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.29.11 at 1:05 pm

I thought the exception had something to do with nuclear weapons. If you don’t have them – you’re a fair game; if you do, you’re an exception.

7

Bruce Baugh 01.29.11 at 1:21 pm

Since US authorities decided to leave their own financial system in the hands of the people responsible for destroying trillions of dollars of assets, I don’t see how the existence of troubles among people dark and far away must lead to any kind of reappraisal, let alone change.

8

Akshay 01.29.11 at 1:43 pm

Gee, aren’t commenters feeling gloomy today! No, we don’t know what will happen. Perhaps the regime will use or even organize the riots as a pretext for a Tiananmen style bloodbath, as feared by Angry Arab.

But there is Hope, people! Look at this photo by Amr Abdallah Dash! Look closely at the police officer’s eyes. That is Satyagraha; it can’t be stopped. The regime is doomed; if not now, then later. And that means hope too, for those besieged and malnourished in Gaza. Whatever it does for the geo-strategico-class-warfare-balance-of-power.

9

ropty 01.29.11 at 2:08 pm

I think there is a lot of confusion (in my mind as well) between a few ideas: Arab, middle east, and Muslim countries. Tunisia is not really in the middle east, it is north Africa. It is (I beleive) a primarily Muslum country, and an Arab country. Egypt *is* in the middle east, a primarily Muslim country, and an Arab country. Iran is (barely?) in them middle east, and a Muslim country, but it is not an Arab country. It is Persian. And another example is Pakistan; Muslim, but not Arab or in the middle east. A lot of analysis I hear seems to be conflating all these things.

10

Hidari 01.29.11 at 2:29 pm

FWIW I think what we are watching here is a single moment in an extremely long term process. And since I’ve frequently been accused here of being ‘tediously politically correct’* or whatever, let’s upset that whole PC applecart by saying I actually agree with Francis Fukuyama when he pointed out that the age of autocracy, dictatorship, colonialism, totalitarianism etc. is over. For better or for worse the immediate future, politically speaking, (by which I mean, the next 30 or 40 years) belongs to the parliamentary democracies. **

This is an important point to grasp because it does mean that, to anyone who has eyes to see, the Arab dictatorships are doomed. It might not happen this year, it might not happen next year, but ultimately they are doomed, and nothing, repeat, nothing can stop it. (Ultimately the same process will happen to China too, unlikely as that currently seems), and, hence, therefore to North Korea).

Of course, as Fukuyama did NOT go onto point out, this means, inevitably, the end of US foreign policy as we have understood it since 1945, which mainly has involved propping up various fascist regimes in the ‘South’ (South America, Africa, the ‘Middle East’, Asia, etc.).

This also, of necessity means that a whole raft of more or less parliamentary states will arise which are a good deal richer and less friendly to the US/Europe than was previously the case (this was tried back in the ’50s and ’60s by the non-aligned states, but they lacked economic clout). We are starting to see the very beginnings of this process in South America (for example, the South American state’s willingless to recognise Palestine as a State), with Turkey’s increasingly ambivalent relationship with Israel, with Malaysia and Indonesia just beginning to flex their muscle, economically and politically,and so on.

And this, of necessity, therefore, means the decline of US political power, relative to that of other countries (although not, probably, in absolute terms). Which in turn means decline in the ‘clout’ of Israel.

These things are going to take thirty, forty, fifty years to work themselves through, but I think this is part of that process. The mistake I think would just be to see it as ‘one of these things’ or ‘something that just happens to be happening now’.

*I’ve been reading the latest Stewart Lee book ‘How I escaped my certain fate’ and he has much fun in that book with the way that phrase is often used against him, usually by humourless right wingers trying to make some incoherent point or other.

**The threat to democracy in our era will come not from totalitarian states but from corrupt states that appear to be democracies, like Putin’s Russia, Berlusconi’s Italy, or (in a few years time) Cameron’s Britain.

11

Alan Peakall 01.29.11 at 2:59 pm

Should the text the idea that Israel can continue indefinitely over subject peoples and expropriate their land will be even harder to sustain read the idea that Israel can continue to rule indefinitely over subject peoples and expropriate their land will be even harder to sustain? If so, I would recommend that it be fixed ASAP before it is subject to malicious misinterpretation.

12

Guido Nius 01.29.11 at 3:57 pm

Hidary is right and this means much more for Chinese internal affairs than it means for the US’s foreign policy, however despicable the latter may have been.

13

Duff Clarity 01.29.11 at 4:02 pm

Has there been a free and fair election held yet in Tunisia or Egypt? Has a constitution that guarantees civil liberties been adopted, and a government put in place that has upheld those guarantees? Has one fairly elected government peacefully transferred power to fairly elected successors?

No?

When those things happen, it will be appropriate to note the death of the Arab exception.

Violent revolution is not democratic. Fighting in the streets, burning down the headquarters of the ruling party, and looting museums are not democratic acts. You may approve of violent revolution, fighting in the streets, burning, and looting, but they are not the foreshadowing of a democratic society.

Once we meet the new bosses, we can compare them to the old bosses.

14

Tom T. 01.29.11 at 5:03 pm

As to Israel/Palestine, the fact is that the Palestinians have already held elections. I don’t see why elections in Tunisia (if they happen) would have a greater impact on that issue than elections in Palestine already would have had.

15

Patrick S. O'Donnell 01.29.11 at 5:14 pm

Excellent post: thank you.

16

Akshay 01.29.11 at 5:39 pm

Duff@13, I do not understand the negativity here. The protesters are demanding precisely the ideals you list: fair & free elections, liberties, a transfer of power, etc. This puts the lie to the assertion that somehow Arabs are incapable of understanding their oppression or incapable of understanding what they are missing. They will not be kept down forever, either.

Of course, even if there is more than a change of facade, these societies are not going to transform into model democracies overnight. The oligarchy will adapt. Corruption will remain, as will police brutality. But obviously, any government that knows it has to fear the people will be more responsive to their needs than a secure, greedy dictatorship. Improvement is gradual, but it is real.

As for the protesters “violence”, read Jonathan Wright, who admires their restraint and nonviolence. Read Issandr El Amrani talk about the kindness and solidarity of almost all protesters. Wright and El Amrani are actually there, unlike us. And violence? It is the regime which, in a few days, has shot dozens of people, imprisoned and possibly tortured at least hundreds, wounded at least thousands. It is the regime which hires goons to attack civilians and give them a bad name. There’s even a name for these government goons, the “Baltagiya”. On that note, I will confess I do approve of burning the “Ruling Party’s headquarters”, when that “Ruling Party” is a dictatorship which has killed, maimed, beaten, imprisoned and tortured it’s way into power for a generation.

Tom T@14: The Palestinians have been living under an increasingly brutal military occupation for 43 years. They don’t have a state, so what do elections mean in such a case? I am sure people in Cairo or Tehran prefer their own lot to having to live in Gaza or Hebron. Tunisia and especially Egypt OTOH, will set an example.

17

P O'Neill 01.29.11 at 5:42 pm

I agree with the spirit of the post but I think the post is too US-centric.

The US was not the colonial power in Arab countries. A critical event in modern Middle East history is when the US played its Great Power card in favour of Egypt and against Israel and the former colonial powers i.e. the Suez crisis. Tunisia and Egypt don’t fit the oil paradigm either, although Egypt is an important oil and gas producer. And the other countries that pop up on the “they might blow up” list– Lebanon and Jordan — are not oil players either.

There are other important dynamics such as prolonged effects of the 1920s carveups, internal migration and migration to the EU. But I think the prototypical calculating American oil company has long since figured out how to deal with the new sheriff in town, whoever he may be.

18

Timothy Scriven 01.29.11 at 5:52 pm

Duff Clarity. If your point is that events are too early to call, then I must agree with you, however I’ve gotta demurr from this paragraph:

“Violent revolution is not democratic. Fighting in the streets, burning down the headquarters of the ruling party, and looting museums are not democratic acts. You may approve of violent revolution, fighting in the streets, burning, and looting, but they are not the foreshadowing of a democratic society.”

I’m not sure whether to interpret this as a statement of values, or a literal claim. If you mean it to be literally true, then it is not. Yes, violent revolutions often/usually lead to new autocracies. They don’t always though- there is a lot of variability. It also seems to often be the case that a revolution will be followed by a new autocratic regime which then undergoes a transition to democracy, either slowly or through a subsquent revolution; the replacing autocrats often find it more difficult to supress their people then their predecessors.

If you intend it more as a statement of value, an indication of disapproval of violent tactics, then I’m afraid I just don’t see what is wrong with using violence to assert rights against brutal regimes, it’s a form of self defence which I think is a clear right.

It is too early to tell whether the Egyptian revolution will be succesful, and if it is whether what follows will be any better, but writing it off in advance doesn’t strike me as helpful.

As for looting museums which I certainly deplore 1) Some are claiming that this is the result of government plants 2) Any revolution, even peaceful ones, generate chaos, people exploiting the chaos need not be considered part of the revolution, which contains many elements, some more praiseworthy than others (I guess it is semantically indeterminate who counts as part of the revolution).

19

Henri Vieuxtemps 01.29.11 at 6:45 pm

Colonies gain independence, but soon, one way or another, they become client states of a superpower. It seems to me, at this point the next step is not from dictatorship to democracy, but from a client state to independence again; back to the 1950s-60s situation. Then they can start evolving from there. Which is probably not that different from what Akshay said in 16.

20

Doctor Memory 01.29.11 at 7:13 pm

“That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable…”

I am gobsmacked. Politically untenable to whom, precisely? When, exactly, over the last 50 years, has the United States ever shrunk from the task of providing arms, money and political cover to their favored murderous dictators? (With, of course, the occasional lugubrious least-of-all-evils handwringing.) Where, exactly, is the political consensus in the US that democratic movements in the middle east (or anywhere else) should receive unqualified support, even if they are likely to take a dim view of American interests after their victory? And most of all: if Mubarak’s murderous, authoritarian style of government was acceptable to the US as long as he was killing people in small batches only, what on earth makes you think that will not continue to be the case once the dust has settled and the news cycle has moved on?

21

Catherine A. Fitzpatrick 01.29.11 at 7:23 pm

Crooked,

Do you think at all, that along with these tired, old discredited regimes, the threadbare notions of the global left might change, too?

They’ll have to.

If these new governments are really democratic — a word that doesn’t just mean absolutist majoriatiarn rule in modern parlance, as much as you are setting the stage for it — then they’ll have to behave like a democracy. There will be certain expectations of domestic and international accountability to the rule of law. They won’t feel the need to threaten their neighbors or look aside while tunnels are opened up to smuggle arms to militants and terrorists, and take part in the constant agitation of the Arab world against Israel. Much of this is artificially induced by despotic regimes for their own domestic and foreign purposes — when they drop away, becare *you* don’t wind up on the wrong end of history by continuing their shill long past the sell-by date.

And it’s not as if their need to sell oil will somehow go away, and as if they will need to dump their country’s existing customers. In fact, if they are going to call themselves democracies, the pressure will be on for them to start investing oil revenue in education and welfare of their people. They might stop hectoring and harrying every human rights initiative at the UN, and instead become part of them. There’s lots of promising prospects that open up once Egypt is a real democracy, and yet all you can conceive of it is is an engine for the age-old anti-Israel and anti-Western Comintern sort of politics.

Re: “the idea that Israel can continue indefinitely over subject peoples and expropriate their land will be even harder to sustain”

Now there’s a tendentious idea if there ever was one. You might find that a rising free and democratic middle class of Egypt will be less obsessed with Israel than you are, and they may come to see reason, that this isn’t about “expropriation,” and that the hostile Arab countries surrounding the small country of Israel will have to come to some kind of compromise and stop fomenting war and inciting terrorism. You know, it’s a distinct possibility. Without these autocratic Middle Eastern regimes propped up by the U.S. with aid and trade (because ostensibly they will stop inciting hatred and war against Israel) why, we may see that in fact there is nothing else to prop them up!

Oh, you’re going to tell us that the peoples of the Middle East are even more radically hateful of Israel than their governments, you’re going to invoke that “Arab street”? You know, we might actually find it doesn’t work that way, if the stories we are told about this secularized, even Westernized educated protesting class are true. They might become preoccupied not with foreign wars to distract men’s minds, but development of their own country once the opportunities are opened up.

But if what we get out of all this is just situations as in the past in Algeria or Iran and years of massacres and despotism of even worse forms, then the U.S. policy will regretably be seen to be justified. And what hope will that give to the next generation?

Who says Iran is an outlier? Oh, and Algeria, too?

As the saying goes, “It’s not over ’til it’s over,” and the outcome isn’t anything that the left and the anti-Israel forces can be assured of, either. And frankly, whether you like it or not, the new governments will be judged as to how much they can become normal governments that don’t need to demonize Israel to keep in power.

ropty, we all get that these countries are different, with different cultures in different regions. The torture of their dissidents all feels pretty much the same, however.

22

geo 01.29.11 at 7:37 pm

JQ: token gestures towards democracy were encouraged, provided there was no possibility that they would actually give rise to governments responsive to popular opinion

This is an excellent definition of “democracy promotion” under all US administrations, back to Woodrow Wilson. And of course, it describes their domestic as well as foreign policy.

23

yoyo 01.29.11 at 7:49 pm

Not as relevant to Egypt, but for much of the Middle East, especially places we support our bastards, are places where the underlying economic structure isn’t going to support democracy, because of oil.

24

Roger Albin 01.29.11 at 8:10 pm

“That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable (the Republicans were already keen to cut aid to Egypt).”

Maybe – but this point overlooks the primary purpose of American aid to Egypt; we’re paying the Egyptians not to be actively hostile to Israel. Aid to Egypt is an adjunct to the military support we provide to Israel, and relatively cheap at that. You can bet this message is being delivered to Republican legislators.

25

Oliver 01.29.11 at 8:16 pm

Is there any evidence these revolts cannot be attributed to a youth bulge meeting a bad economy? So is the connection democracy anything but incidental?

26

shah8 01.29.11 at 8:19 pm

In agreement with Dr. Memory, I submit Cambodia.

I think Vietnam’s intervention was one of those extremely rare justified and beneficial invasions in history. Of course, then they had to beat up on some Chinese afterwards, who objected to pet murderous dictator being unseated…

27

Josh G. 01.29.11 at 8:26 pm

Most obviously, the Mubarak regime is finished in its role as the key US ally in the Arab world. If the regime survives at all, it will be through brutal repression which makes it clear once and for all that the dictatorship is held in place solely by military force. That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable (the Republicans were already keen to cut aid to Egypt). But without continuing aid, there is little reason for any Egyptian government to support US foreign policy in the region.

What you’re overlooking is that the US does not provide “aid to Egypt.” We provide aid to Israel and to US military contractors, and some of this takes the form of providing Egypt roughly $1.3 billion dollars a year to buy US-made weapons, in exchange for Egypt agreeing to cooperate in Israel’s oppression of the Gaza Strip Palestinians.

Some Republicans may have made noises about cutting aid, but I’m sure that their paymasters will quickly disabuse them of that notion. When was the last time that anyone in Congress stood up to the Jewish Lobby or the Military-Industrial Complex – let alone both at once?

The bigger casualty is the ‘Arab exception’: the idea that the concept of democracy is not really applicable in Arab countries and that foreign policy therefore amounts to a choice of which dictator to support.

The US establishment will easily deal with this by claiming that for some reason the new Arab democracies are not “really” democratic. The unspoken assumption will be that any “truly” democratic country would support the US, and therefore that if a country is anti-American it therefore follows that it must be undemocratic. Expect to hear a lot of bleating about “Sharia law,” too.

The point applies most obviously in relation to oil. The idea that the US can legitimately use its military power to ensure continued access to oil resources rests, in large measure, on the (not entirely unfounded) assumption that those controlling the resources are a bunch of sheikhs and military adventurers who happened to be in the right place, with guns, at the right time. Without the Arab exception, the idea of oil as a special case, not subject to the ordinary assumption that resources are the property of the people in whose country they are found, will also be hard to sustain.

You assume that the US political/economic establishment cares about morality or logical consistency. That assumption seems unfounded.

Finally, of course, there is the Israel-Palestine dispute. The current crisis may well have a direct impact here. But the indirect impact of the emergence of democratic governments in the Arab world (if this happens) will be even greater. Without the special status that comes from being the only real democracy in a region full of autocracies, the idea that Israel can continue indefinitely over subject peoples and expropriate their land will be even harder to sustain, as will any attempt by the US to back that claim.

The support for Israel on the part of the US is due largely to two factors: campaign contributions from the Jewish Lobby, and fanatical support from end-times Fundamentalist Christians. Democracy in the Arab world won’t change this; it will merely change the official US excuses for supporting Israeli injustice and colonialism.

28

RK 01.29.11 at 8:27 pm

Speculation about what’s going to happen in Egypt is less interesting than speculating about the response of Western commentators. I think the very fact that already Professor Quiggin is already unable to resist extended revenge fantasies about how liberal democracies in Tunisia and Egypt would prove his ideological adversaries wrong about everything shows that liberal internationalists see the Arab democracy gap as an uncomfortable truth, uncongenial to their way of looking at things.

If the protests in Egypt are a test case, then how should people who think like Professor Quiggin modify their views if the demonstrations are suppressed and the regime continues on with U.S. support in the medium-term? If one outcome renders the “Arab exception” untenable, does the opposite outcome mean, well, the opposite?

29

shah8 01.29.11 at 8:32 pm

I do want to underline something…

The kind of protest we’re seeing in the third world (I definitely think China’s intsec is concerned) is directly a result of competitive devaluation + seek for safe harbors in financial assets.

Absent a real acceptance by global elites that they have to let the little people’s overall purchasing power grow, this is just going to grow and involve first world countries as well. More Icelands, in other words, and more politically forced gov’t defaults roiling world markets.

This is a crisis of stagnation, that’s world-wide, because certain people think that the 1890s could exist again in the 2010s.

30

Robert Waldmann 01.29.11 at 9:08 pm

“The idea that the US can legitimately use its military power to ensure continued access to oil resources ” is a very powerful idea that dare not speak its name. No one admits that they think this. You note Bush administration hypocricy. Believe me the quality of hypocrisy is not easily strained.

Also note that it is perfectly possbible to define a democratically elected leader as a dictator. Hugo Chavez is regularly called a dictator in the USA (including “Venezuelan Dictator loses Referendum”). Some se an anti US Democracy as a contradiction in terms. Since it is easy for democracies to become fake democracies (note Ben Ali and Mubarak were routinely re-elected) it is easy to decide which countries are really democracies as one pleases.

In the 80s it was almost universally agreed in the USA that Daniel Ortega couldn’t possibly have been legitimately elected President of Nicaragua. I don’t know if my country people have changed their minds or haven’t noticed who is currently President of Nicaragua. I really don’t think it would safe to ask them.

31

hix 01.29.11 at 9:32 pm

“Asians in general (this one much promoted by advocates of ‘Asian values’ like Lee Kuan Yew)”

Does he promote the typical dictators shit more than every other dictators or is he taken more serious by English speaking world academics because he has a good degree from Cambridge?

32

maidhc 01.29.11 at 10:19 pm

The US went on about how there should be free elections in Palestine, but when the Palestinians voted for Hamas in 2006, they were immediately told they would be punished in various ways for voting incorrectly. Now that that event has faded into the past a little, US newspapers refer to it as when Hamas “seized power”.

I expect something similar would happen if there were free elections and the Egyptians voted for the Muslim Brotherhood. But free elections require some kind of authority to put them on. In the case where the opposition is led by someone like Nelson Mandela, it can happen, but things are different in Egypt.

About half of US aid to Egypt is military aid, which amounts to the US government paying vast sums to large US corporations, which then ship tanks, planes, etc. to Egypt. Surely Republicans are not opposed to that. I suppose the other half is what they object to.

33

Doctor Memory 01.29.11 at 10:23 pm

Roger@23: exactly. The point overlooked by nearly everyone when talking about US payouts to both Israel and Egypt is that they are an ongoing bribe to both sides for signing the Camp David accords. And since the money is largely then recycled back through US arms producers, the only way that the arrangement will cease is if some new government in Cairo decides to make a public show of turning down the money.

34

John Quiggin 01.29.11 at 11:11 pm

Lots of comments here, but I’ll respond to Doctor M @23 and several others. In writing the post, I assumed that the point that US aid to Egypt was a payoff for the peace with Israel did not require stating. Surely no one thinks Egypt would be getting any money otherwise.

But, contrary to some commentators above, there are limits beyond which a dictator, no matter how useful, can’t go without losing access to aid. Suharto, Marcos and others found this out, and Mubarak is making the same discovery now.

In this context, I will repeat the view, debated a while back, that Jimmy Carter really did change US foreign policy in this respect, not completely but very substantially.

35

Colin Reid 01.29.11 at 11:13 pm

It’s a bit early to say how this will all pan out, and there are all sorts of historical examples to compare with. It could be that any unrest is put down brutally and/or the protests run out of momentum (the usual outcome of unrest in a long-established absolute monarchy/dictatorship). It could be a rapid transition to democracy (as happened to most of the Warsaw pact outside of the USSR). It could be that after months or years of disorder, a new regime emerges that is no more pluralistic than the old one (as in Iran in the late 70s to early 80s, or as in what happened to much of the former USSR). It could be that some countries are about to embark on a long period of lurching between civilian and military rule with neither decisively taking command of the other (eg long stretches of Pakistani, Turkish and Latin American history, though of these only Pakistan seems to be stuck in this state as of 2011). The most dysfunctional countries (eg Yemen) could see central authority collapse entirely. Even if several uprisings happen at once, the outcomes could be wildly different from one country to the next.

One big worry for Israel is what regime collapse in Cairo would do to the situation in the Gaza Strip. At the moment Egypt is an essential part of the blockade, and I doubt any new regime would want to maintain this role. If Israel decides to maintain the blockade on its own there are options, but they all come at a high price.

36

bob mcmanus 01.30.11 at 12:09 am

passant way up at 3 and shah8 at 29 have it better than most

Cargill Sugar etc Minnetonka Minn

China Egypt Sign 2 billion dollar refinery deal

Any reduction of US/Egypt relations to explicit gov’t aid or arms or I/P grotesquely oversimplifies the material conditions.

37

Ken Lovell 01.30.11 at 12:12 am

Josh G @ 27 I believe you are ascribing too rational an explanation when you write that ‘The support for Israel on the part of the US is due largely to two factors: campaign contributions from the Jewish Lobby, and fanatical support from end-times Fundamentalist Christians.’

Blind support for Israel, and attempts to make it a test of loyalty to the USA, have intensified incrementally to mirror systematic vilification of Islam as an existential threat to ‘the West’. The idea that Islam threatens the American way of life now seems to be received wisdom amongst Americans (e.g. the amazing majority opposition amongst New Yorkers to the proposed ‘Ground Zero Mosque’). Islam has seamlessly replaced communism as the monster lurking in the shadows, determined to destroy the Exceptional Nation.

In this ideology, Israel is an American beachhead in enemy territory. That is the reason Sarah Palin can make TV appearances with the US and Israeli flags behind her, without exciting any significant criticism at all from anyone in Washington.

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bob mcmanus 01.30.11 at 12:17 am

Hidari at 10 is also very wrong.

The globalist’s need is to transition the autocracies to managed democracies or inverted totalitarianism. Parliaments with actual power will hurt profits.

The US and Japan are the leaders in creating placid quiescent populations that can be sucked dry by the vampire squids, and will be essential in moving int’l national elites into the more secure and stable pseudo-democracies. As we speak, Obama is trying to help Mubarek and the generals and elites into creating the pretense of reform.

39

David Bloom 01.30.11 at 12:20 am

@28:

“If the protests in Egypt are a test case, then how should people who think like Professor Quiggin modify their views if the demonstrations are suppressed and the regime continues on with U.S. support in the medium-term? If one outcome renders the “Arab exception” untenable, does the opposite outcome mean, well, the opposite?”

Well, no, it doesn’t, for reasons well explained by Karl Popper–it’s a hypothesis that can be falsified by a single example but can never be verified until history is really and truly over, like “all swans are white”. And it’s already been falsified sufficiently, if not prettily, for instance in Lebanon and Palestine.

@31:

Does [Lee Kwan Yew] promote the typical dictators shit more than every other dictators or is he taken more serious by English speaking world academics because he has a good degree from Cambridge?

It must be! I’ve been wondering why the academics take him seriously for years but never thought of that.

40

bob mcmanus 01.30.11 at 1:01 am

Mubarek’s big mistake was in the repression, in providing a wall to push on, and Obama and Clinton were emphatic in telling him to open the Internet back up.

The idea is to put the Army out to protect key sites, let the people burn some police cars, tweet and facebook and vent on blogs, and after a short while they will get tired and go back to work thinking they are free.

Whether the autocrats can trust inverted totalitarianism enough to relax like America, where the displaced worker will starve to death in the gutter with “God bless Barack Obama and the United States of America” on his dying lips is another question. Egypt & the ME may need new oligarchs. They will not get democracy.

41

Peter 01.30.11 at 1:15 am

In much of the blogosphere the conventional wisdom is that Mubarak’s overthrow will lead to a fundamentalist takeover. I attribute that belief to the fact that most Americans are deathly afraid of Islam.

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thor 01.30.11 at 1:50 am

I think it´s safe to assume that the new regime will be way more responsive to popular will.

This entails that the first, second and third priorities of the new government will be bread, which high cost is one of the causes of the current turmoil.

Another consequence is that it will be impossible for this government to be as pro-Israel as Mubarak; however democratic and however anti-american, the flagrant issue of Gaza will have to change dramaticaly. The siege is set to expire soon.

This alone is pretty serious. It will get harder to contain the border, it will be harder no to be pro-palestinian in international fora, in the refions geopolitics, in a great number of big issues (remember how the egiptian treated the flotillas?)

Quiggins take on Israel is fundamentaly true. Any Egiptian regime which is less detached will mean that Israel´s anomalies (disenfranchised people, second class citizens, undefined border, sieges) will just stand out more. The democracy argument also has some value, but the main element is the reversal of Mubharak´s path of greater resistance to one from where it will be very hard to come back from.

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Brett Bellmore 01.30.11 at 2:52 am

“Another consequence is that it will be impossible for this government to be as pro-Israel as Mubarak; however democratic and however anti-American, the flagrant issue of Gaza will have to change dramatically.”

OTOH, non-tyrannical regimes in the middle east might not find it necessary to encourage hatred of outside enemies to divert their populations from hating their own governments for oppressing them. So it’s possible that Arab hatred of Israel will decline substantially over the next generation, making real peace possible without bribes.

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Dean Little 01.30.11 at 2:58 am

Just because four out of the nine u.s supreme justices have no idea what twitter or facebook is does not mean the populations of other countries are just as ignorant.
Do you really believe an enconomy as large as Egypts can compete much less exsist with out access to information that is now the norm? If Chinese govt. fears the word Egypt is a threat when using twitter and believe young people are unable to use an alternative choice of words to communicate then the old drunken, leacherous, bigoted, murdering foolish geezers’ days are truly numbered.

45

LFC 01.30.11 at 3:08 am

Without the Arab exception, the idea of oil as a special case, not subject to the ordinary assumption that resources are the property of the people in whose country they are found, will also be hard to sustain.

This is not the ordinary assumption (unfortunately). The ordinary assumption is that resources are the property of the particular gov’t in power, not “the people in whose country they are found.” (See, e.g., T. Pogge on this.)

46

Dean Little 01.30.11 at 3:16 am

An analysis of the Suez Canal and how the oil flows through : http://www.theoildrum.com/

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weaver 01.30.11 at 3:19 am

there are limits beyond which a dictator, no matter how useful, can’t go without losing access to aid. Suharto, Marcos and others found this out, and Mubarak is making the same discovery now.

This has got nothing to do with how far a dictator can go, but with the awareness that the regime is about to fall. The regimes of Marcos, Suharto and the rest were abandoned because their control over the people had collapsed not because their repressive violence had taken a upswing. The US has proven more than willing to support dictatorships responsible for appalling repression and violence when it was clear the regime was secure (cf. Central America, early Suharto etc). If the US cuts off aid to Mubarak in the wake of a vicious crackdown it will because that repression has been interpreted – accurately – as a sign of weakness, of the desperate last efforts of a falling despot. And Carter was no exception to this rule as his support for Somoza demonstrated.

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PHB 01.30.11 at 3:27 am

@Brett 42

So it’s possible that Arab hatred of Israel will decline substantially over the next generation, making real peace possible without bribes.

Arab hatred of Israel is more probably driven by Israeli treatment of fellow muslims than a creation of their government. As long as Israel acts to render non-Jews second class citizens or non-citizens they will be a pariah in the middle east.

The only thing that is going to make real peace possible is if Israel dismantles the apartheid system it is still extending. I grow tired of hearing from a country that expropriates land from Palestinians at the point of a gun then bleats about how they are threatened by ‘terrorism’.

The only concern for the US here should be the interests of the people of Egypt. Everything else is a second order issue that the US has no real ability to control anyway.

Either the US believes in democracy and is prepared to back it regardless of the consequences or it is an empty gong, a clashing cymbal, prepared to preach the benefits of democracy anytime except when doing so might expand it.

If the US attempts to prop up a discredited dictatorship it is more likely than not to fail and the consequences of doing so are likely to be much worse in the long run even if intervention does win a temporary reprieve.

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LFC 01.30.11 at 3:30 am

John Passant @3:
The demands for freedom and food, for jobs and justice, cannot be met within the context of current capitalist property relations, but whether the revolution moves to the next stage depends on a range of factors – the strength of the working class, its political clarity, the existence of a revolutionary socialist organisation arguing for a general strike to bring Mubarak down and for workers to take over their workplaces and run them democratically.

In what country in the world do workers run their workplaces democratically? When was the last time a revolution occurred as a result of the “strength of the working class” and “its political clarity”? Isn’t it reductionist in the extreme to assert, as shah8 and others do above, that this is all the result of “competitive devaluation + seek for safe harbor for assets”? Esp. since there hasn’t been all that much competitive devaluation: in the case of the Chinese currency, for example, the US has been saying it’s undervalued for a long time; it’s nothing recent. Who is really guilty of “grotesque oversimplification” (mcmanus’s words) here?

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y81 01.30.11 at 4:03 am

Democratic transformation in the Mideast would certainly alter the Arab/Israeli dynamic. I am not smart enough to even guess how.

But I don’t understand the point about oil. Democratic regimes normally consider that the best course is to sell their oil to anyone who will buy at market prices, in quantities that advance the country’s long-term interests. I am not aware that the U.S. wants the Mideastern oil producers to do other than that. We don’t maintain a Northern Command to protect Canada and Norway because we assume they will be selling us oil, and that Swedish revanchists (or whatever) won’t be threatening them. If a substantial number of Mideastern countries became democratic, the same situation would obtain.

Of course, another possibility is that the large, sort of middle-class countries like Egypt and Jordan become democratic (and Iraq remains such), while the Gulf states which have the really large oil reserves remain traditional monarchies. I am not smart enough to guess about that either. I don’t even know Arabic, so how can I make intelligent predictions?

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shah8 01.30.11 at 4:03 am

These things sound reductionist because I, and presumably John Passant, lack the time (and for me, the will to be intellectually coherent long enough) to write a nuanced expansion of our ideas.

My thoughts are pretty wide ranging from meta to global to specific to ME. There’s plenty of Marxist inspired commentry that does touch on what I think. There is an investment crisis. The main reason for said investment crisis is that nobody close to the ground (invariably the proles themselves) has the ability to command investment or collect enough savings to expand on his or her unique knowledge. That’s another super-condensed way to say what I’ve said before.

But it’s silly to accuse someone of being reductionist when they summarize their ideas. Of course I understand that economies are dynamic, and that there are lots of nuances and some hand-waving.

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thor 01.30.11 at 4:22 am

Brett,

as we´ve pointed here, it is completely impossible for an Arabic country to have a normal relation to Israel. This would be akin to a regular relation between black Angola and apartheid South Africa- which didn´t go well at all.

Even if we put that aside, there is something even graver: boundary and strategicl issues. Israel still keeps a bit of the Sinai peninsula, Israel respects no borders, Israel respects no sovereignty (not even american sovereignty). Plainly, it´s just impossible to live besides a rouguish state. Lebannon is not muslim, and used to be quite secular but couldn´t get along with Israel also. It´s not generic anti-americanism, it´s not an “islamist” ideology, it´s the kind of stuff no country ou ethnicity would tolerate.

If you need further proof just look at Israel right now and it´s reaction to it all: they support Mubarak. They could support ElBaradei, or could have supported in the past distension and one of the secular, cosmopolitan politicians from Egypt. But they chose Mubarak. Because they know very well it´s not a question of having a nice democracy in order to quiten people down, that would make them only louder- democracies do not tolerate soveregnty losses. Only Colonies do.

Now, a question for the legal connoisseur: if it´s accepted that Ben Ali and Mubarak commited crimes against mankind or something similar, could the TPI chase them in France or whichever ridiculous place is giving them asylum?

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Omega Centauri 01.30.11 at 4:59 am

non-tyrannical regimes in the middle east might not find it necessary to encourage hatred of outside enemies to divert their populations from hating their own governments for oppressing them.
That presupposes that a post Mubarak regime can make things visibly better for the majority of citizens. I look at Eqypt, and I think 84 million people in a desert with a river flowing through it. That has got to be several times larger than the sustainable population. So the challenge of meeting the expectations of it’s people is likely to be untenable. And that should generate huge pressures to find foreign scapecoats.

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shah8 01.30.11 at 5:12 am

Egypt’s problems relating to food are related to globalism’s demand for export crops, not the inherent ability to feed itself.

I mean, that’s just as silly as being in 1840s Ireland and looking at all the rocky soil and exclaiming, well, of course Ireland can’t feed all those people they breed!

One of the worst ways middle class people suck, is just how quickly they presume to know Malthusian economics. Mostly because most people have only the faintest relationship with math, and of scale. It’s quite possible for the Earth to support 7 billion people and do a reasonable job of feeding, water stuff, electricity, and shelter. What the Earth has a problem with is the sheer waste of a minority of people. The right way of looking at today’s crisis is mostly about the social relationship to conspicuous consumption and waste.

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shah8 01.30.11 at 5:14 am

today’s ecological crisis, as in off-topic.

56

Omega Centauri 01.30.11 at 5:25 am

shah8:
Its not about the global ability to feed 7billion (although given climate change, aquifer depletion, depletion of fertilizer inputs, and expensive oil, we may not be singing the same tune in a few years). But, rather that with few resources to export, and food and oil to import, and both of those commodities likely to suffer price spikes as global supply falls below global demand, that Eqypt will be facing very strong economic headwinds.

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shah8 01.30.11 at 6:13 am

Was talking in generalities about actual resource sustainability. Yes, climate change, et al… That’s really off topic…

Egypt has been dominated by foreign powers since the Persians *because* they’ve been such excellent exporters. I just get irritated because, well, some of what you say is obviously wrong or obviously trivial. I mean, yeah, Egypt will be facing headwinds, but you have a fundamental misapprehension of the nature of Egypt’s importance. It is simply not Morocco or Syria or Tunisia, in terms of economics or society. Making arguments that ultimately asks whether a country can have an autarkic economy in the context of global economy, and then switching to a discussion about commodities imports in the next comment isn’t helpful.

Oddly enough, I suspect you fail to realize that it’s the first world countries that are in far deeper shit than Egypt, the UK being first among them.

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shah8 01.30.11 at 6:25 am

At least, let’s have a basic idea of what Egypt can do for all concerned…

http://www.theoildrum.com/node/7425#more

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Martin Bento 01.30.11 at 11:18 am

I wish I was as sanguine about this situation as most here. If Mubarak falls, the most likely to take his place will be the people who know what they want (not just what, or who, they oppose) and are organized to achieve it. That’s the Muslim Brotherhood or a coalition dominated by them. El Baradei has a voice, but no organization. Who else is even a contender? I’m not saying the majority of the Egyptian people or the current protesters want theocracy, but they will need order and the MB can provide it, and is already starting to do so (as are others, but they are nowhere near the same scale). As for what the protesters want, well, it is democracy, but also economic betterment. For democracy, they can copy models from elsewhere, but it is not obvious how to solve Egypt’s poverty problems or even keep them from worsening. It is not just a distribution issue.

I hope I’m wrong. The one basis I see for that hope is the Internet. It will enable alternative organizations to come into being much more quickly than previously possible. But the MB has been around a long time, has a sizable base of support, and friends all over the Middle East. An opposition that is going to prevent an MB takeover would have to become very quickly an opposition to MB as such. Maybe that is possible, but I wouldn’t bet on it with MB providing needed order and services.

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maidhc 01.30.11 at 11:24 am

How does Tunisia affect the strategic interests of the US and the EU? It seems to me not a whole lot. The exception would be if some very radical regime took power and invited Al Qaeda in to set up shop. But if they keep things within their own borders, I can’t see other countries intervening whatever happens there.

Egypt is a different story for two reasons. One is that they control the Suez Canal. The second is that they are next door to Israel, which is why they have been collecting big foreign aid from the US all these years to keep things quiet.

I believe that any Egyptian regime that was willing to maintain the status quo on these two considerations would eventually end up with support from the West, whatever their policies otherwise.

It seems to me that there is a huge amount of posturing going on with regard to Israel. The Arab countries are willing to contribute any amount of anti-Israel rhetoric in support of the Palestinians, but when it comes down to anything concrete, things slow down a bit. Is the average Egyptian on the street ready to sacrifice his own welfare for his Palestinian cousins, or is he more concerned about his own family?

I’m guessing there will be a few superficial changes but otherwise things will continue as before.

If you look back to Nasser, it seemed at the time that he was making a radical change to the world. Nowadays things are a lot different than they were in the 1950s. I wonder how we would reevaluate Nasser today.

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Francis Xavier Holden 01.30.11 at 2:54 pm

Martin Bento said:The one basis I see for that hope is the Internet. It will enable alternative organizations to come into being much more quickly than previously possible.

It looks like Eygypt has pulled the plug on its internet acess.
See here: http://www.renesys.com/blog/2011/01/egypt-leaves-the-internet.shtml

in an action unprecedented in Internet history, the Egyptian government appears to have ordered service providers to shut down all international connections to the Internet. Critical European-Asian fiber-optic routes through Egypt appear to be unaffected for now. But every Egyptian provider, every business, bank, Internet cafe, website, school, embassy, and government office that relied on the big four Egyptian ISPs for their Internet connectivity is now cut off from the rest of the world. Link Egypt, Vodafone/Raya, Telecom Egypt, Etisalat Misr, and all their customers and partners are, for the moment, off the air.

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Brett Bellmore 01.30.11 at 2:57 pm

Perhaps relevant. The revolution in Egypt might not be so bad for Israel as some are supposing.

I’ve been saying this for years: We don’t really know the state of public opinion in repressive regimes, which includes most of the Middle East. Despite occasional attempts, you can’t actually do reliable polling in such countries. You simply can’t.

This includes opinions about Israel.

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Roger Albin 01.30.11 at 3:10 pm

Prof. Quiggin – I don’t doubt your assessment assumed that US aid to Egypt is a bribe to protect Israel. But, the analogies to Marcos and Suharto are misleading. In the former case, there was an alternate client willing to support larger American policy objectives. In the latter case, the fall of the Suharto dictatorship didn’t conflict with any major American domestic political commitments. Similarly, a Tunisian government that is nominally hostile to Israel (there was a time when the PLO had a headquarters in Tunis) isn’t particularly threatening. In the case of Egypt, there is a fear that a new Egyptian government will be actively hostile to Israel. A hostile Egyptian government would have real strategic impact for Israel. Given a choice between supporting an emerging democracy and Israeli interests (narrowly defined), the US will probably choose the latter. The recent strains in our relations with Turkey are a good example. The Republicans, in particular, are dogmatically committed to support of the most reactionary Israeli governments and you can bet they’ll support generous aid to any Egyptian government that observes the peace treaty. In the longer run, this would be a big mistake. As you point out, Israel’s best hope of security over the long term is to be surrounded by democratic states.

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Barry 01.30.11 at 4:11 pm

” Given a choice between supporting an emerging democracy and Israeli interests (narrowly defined), the US will probably invariably choose the latter. “

Fixed.

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 01.30.11 at 4:12 pm

Roger Albin,

Re: “the fear that a new Egyptian government will be actively hostile to Israel,” which more bluntly could be stated as “an Islamist takeover is a serious threat.”

This reveals a remarkable degree of ignorance about recent Egyptian history and politics and the deserved irrational paranoia that afflicts Israel’s leadership. As a spokesman for the Muslim Brotherhood (a fairly moderate, by most standards, Islamist group) made clear in several interviews, they’re not interested in forming a government and the social revolt in process is being carried out by all sectors of society, albeit led by Egyptian youth, with the Brotherhood possessing no monopoly on their allegiance. As Bruce Riedel (of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy) recently noted,

“Technically illegal, [the Ikhwan] has an enormous social-welfare infrastructure that provides cheap education and health care. In Egypt’s unfair elections, it is always the only opposition that does well even against the heavily rigged odds. [….]

The Egyptian Brotherhood renounced violence years ago, but its relative moderation has made it the target of extreme vilification by more radical Islamists. Al Qaeda’s leaders, Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, started their political lives affiliated with the Brotherhood but both have denounced it for decades as too soft and a cat’s paw of Mubarak and America.

Egypt’s new opposition leader, former International Atomic Energy Agency head Mohamed ElBaradei, has formed a loose alliance with the Brotherhood because he knows it is the only opposition group that can mobilize masses of Egyptians, especially the poor. He says he can work with it to change Egypt. Many scholars of political Islam also judge the Brotherhood is the most reasonable face of Islamic politics in the Arab world today.”

He further argues that we need not fear the Brotherhood, “for its leaders leaders understand the peace treaty with Israel is the cornerstone of modern Egyptian foreign policy and underwrites America’s $2 billion annual aid as well as the lucrative tourist trade,” an understanding that does not preclude them, rightly in my opinion, “from being very critical of Israel, its leader, and policies.” It’s THAT which Israel fears, and rightly so.

Incidentally, both Democrats and Republicans have evidenced uncritical support of the most reactionary Israeli governments (the rule rather than the exception).

Israel should worry less about surrounding states and more about its undemocratic, illegal, and rights-disrespecting behavior with regard to non-Jewish Israeli citizens and its treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories (yes, Gaza is still, in a meaningful sense, ‘occupied’). Furthermore, an important step would be for Israel to come clean about its nuclear weapons arsenal (which is considerable) and sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and join the regional campaign for a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in the Middle East.

If the U.S. continues its reflexive support of Israel (i.e., avoiding any serious actions to pressure Israel to allow Palestinians to exercise a meaningful right of collective self-determination, especially insofar as it leads to a politically and economically viable state), it will only add to its quotient of ill-will in the Islamic world generally and the Arab world in particular, the consequences of which will undermine its fight against terrorism and only enhance Israeli insecurity in the long term (as you acknowledge in your reference to Quiggin’s point).

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Josh G. 01.30.11 at 4:39 pm

I don’t expect that a democratic government in Egypt, even one led by the Muslim Brotherhood, would wage open war on Israel. But the problem for Israel is that it has depended on Egypt to actively cooperate in the suppression of Palestinian interests by blocking the border with Gaza. If Mubarak falls, the siege of Gaza is over – there is no way that any government in Egypt even minimally responsive to public opinion is going to keep up the blockade.

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Henri Vieuxtemps 01.30.11 at 4:49 pm

Well, a different Egyptian government, not being as averse to Hamas as the current one, could simply bite the bullet, take over and annex Gaza, which probably would be a better solution for Israel than the status quo.

68

Kaveh 01.30.11 at 5:56 pm

Just wanted to say, excellent post, I haven’t had a chance to read all the comments yet but I look forward to it. Just a couple quick, possibly obvious (to most) points:

1- Anyone who thinks the Arab world’s sympathy for Palestinians is manufactured by despotic regimes (e.g. 21) shouldn’t even be part of the conversation–no more than somebody preaching phlogiston theory should.* There are facts, come to terms with them.

2- The support for dictatorships may not be all about access to oil anymore, and clearly some of it has to do with interests such as the Israel lobby, arms manufacturers, and so on, but probably a lot of it is harder to pin down than that. We send Egypt a lot of grain, so presumably the ag lobbies have a stake in this. Also, let’s not forget the Suez Canal. Mubarak himself employs the US lobbying firm, the Podesta Group, with close ties to the Obama admin. The rough model of support for dictatorships to gain access to resources may not be all that far off, just the resources might not be what you expect.

* Or, for that matter, people who think Muslim Brotherhood leader Akbar Zeb is waiting behind the scenes to take power in Egypt, a claim which I most emphatically deny.

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Kaveh 01.30.11 at 6:33 pm

…and to expand on that first comment a little more, lest it seem like gratuitous meanness, there are a lot of people on TV and in the media saying really stupid things, for example a former US ambassador to Morocco suggested the protests in Egypt were instigated by Hamas and Iran. These kinds of claims should get the same treatment as people saying Obama is secretly a Muslim. They simply don’t belong in a serious discussion.

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Martin Bento 01.30.11 at 6:52 pm

Francis, yes, I am aware of that, but assume it will not last. At a minimum, will not survive the departure from power of Mubarak.

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TGGP 01.30.11 at 6:54 pm

I would like to reiterate the point that it is too early to say anything about Tunisia or Egypt proving anything about the viability of democracy. I would additionally like to scoff at the point about “democratic peace theory”: new democracies are more belligerent.

Regarding oil, it’s not like they can drink it, so I expect democratic regimes to sell it to us all the same (I hope Canada’s bona fides aren’t in question). There is the possibility that like Iraq/Iran they will heavily subsidize oil for domestic consumption though.

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Kaveh 01.30.11 at 7:04 pm

okay, a few points

1- The Egyptian army has been cooperating with Israel all of this time, I don’t think they’re going to turn on a dime and suddenly start covert or overt military action against Israel. The “catastrophic” outcome for Israel would be that they are forced to talk to Hamas directly, which they could have and should have done a long time ago. The reason they think this is catastrophic is due to their own failure to come to terms with the realities around them. Despite the fact that Israel is so close to, and its well being potentially depends so much on relations with its Arab neighbors, I actually think most Israelis are extremely uninformed about what is going on in most of the Arab world–as bad as most Americans, even.

2- @28, you’re implying this so-called Arab democracy gap is a finding of repeated independent experiments, rather than the different cases being directly causally related to each other. That’s like claiming there was an East European democracy gap between 1950 and 1989. The sudden outbreak of protests in, by this point, most of the Arab world (including Sudan, now) clearly demonstrates direct causal relationships at work.

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Doctor Memory 01.30.11 at 7:51 pm

Kaveh: I think I largely agree on your point about the Egyptian army being unlikely to suddenly switch gears to a war footing vs Israel, but I think it’s worth remembering that these things tend to stay the same right up until they change. Iran stands as a clear example that it’s far from impossible for more reactionary elements of a popular revolution to quickly purge and control the armed forces, and pace your previous point about sympathy for the Palestinians being largely organic, I imagine it would be very possible to find some sizable subset of the army who would be enthusiastic about such a change. (I’d hope that this would be tempered by some sober consideration for the likely outcomes of such a war, but if consideration for war’s unwilling victims were baked into the social DNA of any army, anywhere, we’d probably fight far fewer wars.)

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Zamfir 01.30.11 at 8:02 pm

TGGP, I wouldn’t say “control of oil” is primarily about peacetime economics. Most of Middle-East oil doesn’t even go to the US, but to Europe and China at the same prices as it goes to the US.

I always assumed the main point is the ability to cut off potential enemies from oil, which turned out to be of supreme importance in WW2 and by the looks of it still is. The attraction to the US is that as long as it controls enough of the world’s oil sources, most of the world can’t even start to think about doing an Axis-style grab for power, because they would run out of fuel before they got started. It’s a form of security they can buy now, and that will still be effective against currently underestimated threats decades in the future.

In that respect, Canada is of less importance. Canada is clearly within US military reach, and will never be able to ship oil to someone against US wishes. Norway (and North Sea oil in general) might provide some war machine in Europe with oil, but not one large enough to threaten the US. Plus the American sort-of-friendly influence on Europe is already roughly as large as it can hope for, and probably more reliable in the long run than any pro-US Norwegian or British dictatorship. Still, the US presumably would prefer more oil in Canada and less in Norway.

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Brett Bellmore 01.30.11 at 9:51 pm

“1- Anyone who thinks the Arab world’s sympathy for Palestinians is manufactured by despotic regimes (e.g. 21) shouldn’t even be part of the conversation—no more than somebody preaching phlogiston theory should.* There are facts, come to terms with them.”

What sympathy would that be, the sympathy that prevents Palestinians from emigrating to other Middle eastern countries? It’s not, after all, as though the Gaza strip is entirely surrounded by Israel.

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Kaveh 01.30.11 at 10:31 pm

@75 Yes, obviously, Egypt’s refusal to open the Rafah crossing is due to their deep respect for popular sentiment. Beyond that, this talking point has been answered many places, many times before, and I’m not going to get side-tracked into that discussion here.

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Nick L 01.30.11 at 11:48 pm

#74 – Geopolitically, US presence in the Gulf is also a way of ensuring that Europe and Japan can’t be blackmailed into neutrality through use of the oil weapon. This was a big fear in the 1970s during the Oil Crisis.

Middle Eastern oil is of global, systemic importance. Thus there will always be a huge temptation for a would-be globe-straddling hegemon to maintain as much influence in the region as possible.

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Brett Bellmore 01.31.11 at 12:58 am

Nah, I’m pretty sure that temptation is going to be going the way of the buggy whip within a few decades; Middle east oil isn’t going to last forever, and once it’s gone, the area’s interest to would be hegemons will drop like a rock.

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ajay 01.31.11 at 12:10 pm

Egypt’s problems relating to food are related to globalism’s demand for export crops, not the inherent ability to feed itself.
I mean, that’s just as silly as being in 1840s Ireland and looking at all the rocky soil and exclaiming, well, of course Ireland can’t feed all those people they breed!

Well, that’s not obviously silly. On the eve of the Famine Ireland had a census population of eight million. Population now, after a hundred and fifty years of improvements in agricultural technology, and vast increases in wealth, trade and investment: six million in the ROI, and another million and a half in Northern Ireland.

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dsquared 01.31.11 at 12:20 pm

Population now, after a hundred and fifty years of improvements in agricultural technology, and vast increases in wealth, trade and investment: six million in the ROI, and another million and a half in Northern Ireland

aye, but it’s not for want of food; Ireland’s a massive exporter of agricultural products, particularly dairy.

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Richard J 01.31.11 at 1:01 pm

Something it was before the 18th/early 19th century population boom, incidentally.

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Norwegian Guy 01.31.11 at 1:22 pm

Slightly over six million is the population of the whole island. The Republic of Ireland has a population of about 4.5 million, Northern Ireland about 1.8.

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ajay 01.31.11 at 1:31 pm

82: I stand corrected.

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Jonathan 01.31.11 at 2:18 pm

1. Egypt is a failed democracy, not a monarchy nor a sheikdom nor an Islamic “Republic” in which the secular head is subject to religious control. Egypt is a fraud democracy; it claims to be democratic but is not.

2. The other Arab states believe the lesson of Egypt is that monarchy or some other outright authoritarian government works best. It is a huge leap to assume that unrest caused as much (or more) by economic failure leads to a Western style democracy. This isn’t a well off country complaining about freedom but a hideously poor place with a government-controlled economy that doesn’t come close to generating enough jobs even for own college graduates let alone the great masses.

3. Western ideas about the Muslim Brotherhood are naive. The MB are on the far side of Islamic fundamentalism. They renounced violence – officially – because the security forces had put so many of them in prison: torture and long prison terms can force a strategic change in policy. One should not believe they’ve “permanently” renounced any tactic. Note they organized prison raids when the unrest began to get their people out. My guess is the MB will support a secular government as a means to gain power. They know they can organize but they can’t fight the military, not yet.

4. What Egypt needs is liberalization of the economy, which is highly controlled and dominated by a bureaucracy that is the main employer, but they are likely to get increasing religious oppression. They don’t have the natural resources of Iran, so they have no ability to buy weapons or develop them with oil revenue. They would have no obvious patron because the Saudis won’t back the MB and Iran is Shia.

5. People refer to Egypt as an “ally” or “friend” of Israel but that’s not true. They aren’t at war and that’s about it. It’s a very cold peace. One reason Egypt has walled off Gaza – literally – is that Hamas is allied with the MB. While it’s bad for any country to have a more hostile neighbor, if Egypt opens its border with Gaza then there is no reason for Israel to have anything to do with it.

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fred lapides 01.31.11 at 3:53 pm

I note the following:
1. a number of comments focus upon Israel and some sort of cause for grief, a ready explanation of what is the central issue.
2. Egypt learned that being the main force in a battle with Israel they were the ones who suffered significant casualties rather than their neighboring Arab states.
3. The mob in the streets seemed nearly all young men, a few elderly, and hardly any women. Demographics: many hormonally driven young men with no jobs and no future.
4. While other states look on, worried–Syria, Saudi Arabia etc, Turkey and Iran wonder if they can become the dominant force in the region.
y5. While it is true that the Egyptian regime was supported by Israel, that was because Israel got 50% of its natural gas from Egypt and they had one of the few peace accords with an Arab state in the region…what nations, the US included, turned its back on Egypt because they did not approve of the way the country was run?
6. Of course Israel is worried. So too many other nations–uncertainty always begets
suspicion and concern.
7. When in doubt, the military will decide.

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Kaveh 01.31.11 at 4:46 pm

@84 Demographics: many hormonally driven young men with no jobs and no future.

Hopefully you don’t mean hormonally driven because too many of the women are caught in polygamous marriages? ;)

Most footage is of the front lines of the protests, where you will always see more young men, not random places in the middle of the crowd. Also, the population is young, and Middle Easterners age well, and the organized leftist/secularist opposition who do a lot of the organizing tend to be young. So it might look like these protests are overwhelmingly young men. To some extent, that is a reflection of Egyptian culture being fairly macho. There are many women operating behind the scenes, too, I wouldn’t discount their importance.

When I was in Egypt 10 years ago, many people I talked to (including old people) expressed unsolicited hatred of Mubarak, I don’t think I heard a single person admit to supporting him. And I wouldn’t describe my social circle at the time as especially disenfranchised, or leftist, nor were they especially religious.

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Roger Albin 01.31.11 at 5:54 pm

Patrick – I don’t disagree with any of your comment, and I’m familiar with some of this information. My comment is about American politics, not Egyptian politics. The sad truth is that the realities of what is going on Egypt is not going to have a lot of impact on American decision makers, particularly among Republican politicians. Defense of Israel, usually defined as unstinting support of even the most right wing Israeli governments, is a domestic American political commitment in a way that supporting Marcos or Suharto never became. Given a choice between an Egyptian military dictatorship committed to the peace treaty and a potential democracy that might involve Islamist parties, who do you think most American politicians will choose?
I’m not defending American policy, which I think is immoral and short-sighted, merely criticizing Prof. Quiggin’s comparisons with Marcos and Suharto.

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PHB 02.01.11 at 1:01 am

It really does not matter what Egypt does, it is what it might do.

And after last week no Israeli government can take that for granted. Which rather puts the boot on the other foot.

Only a year ago Avigor Lieberman deliberately insulted the Turkish ambassador for no other reason than that he could. And only a few months back he was delivering calculated insults to the Obama administration through Biden. Those are not exactly looking like good decisions now.

The reason Egypt matters is that with 84 million people it is the country that turns an Israeli war into a war for Israel’s survival. Israel could have never invaded Lebanon without being certain that it would not provoke an Egyptian attack.

If politics was rational, this would lead Israel to consider whether keeping the settlements is worth the slow slide into an apartheid semi-dictatorship is worth the cost. But politics is not rational and the events in Egypt will only accelerate that slide.

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LFC 02.01.11 at 4:56 am

@PHB — Does anyone think that a foreseeable successor government to Mubarak would repudiate the peace treaty with Israel (even if a majority of Egyptians want to)? ISTM unlikely.
Also, when was the last time the IDF fought against the official army of another state (as opposed to Hamas or Hezbollah, etc.)?

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Alex 02.01.11 at 10:07 am

it is completely impossible for an Arabic country to have a normal relation to Israel. This would be akin to a regular relation between black Angola and apartheid South Africa- which didn´t go well at all.

Felix Houphoet-Boigny to the phone! Several African countries, notably Cote d’Ivoire and Malawi, did just this. They didn’t have a common frontier, and therefore weren’t affected by the South Africans’ fits of militarism, which made it a lot easier. Arguably part of the point of US military aid to Egypt is that the relationship between them is something approaching a stable deterrent balance. (Whatever guff people talk about the “qualitative edge”, quantity has a quality all of its own, and 1,000 M1A1 tanks is quantity by anyone’s standards and pretty high quality too.)

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Patrick S. O'Donnell 02.01.11 at 5:10 pm

Thanks for the clarification Roger (@ 87).

Given a choice between an Egyptian military dictatorship committed to the peace treaty and a potential democracy that might involve Islamist parties, who do you think most American politicians will choose?

Well, it seems the Obama administration has just said that it is open to a political role for parties/groups/movements like the Muslim Brotherhood:

‘Gibbs said the United States has not ruled out the involvement of the Brotherhood, one of the largest organizations opposing the government. But Gibbs insisted that before it could be involved, the Brotherhood had to meet certain standards including “an adherence to the law, adherence to nonviolence and a willingness to part of that democratic process.”’ (From the LA Times)

Gibbs apparently doesn’t realize that the Brotherhood has met these “standards” (read: conditions) for some time now (the degree of ignorance about such matters among government officials and spokespersons in my country is appalling).

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Martin Bento 02.01.11 at 8:59 pm

I have to admit I’m feeling much more optimistic about all this than a few days ago. There seems to be a new Egyptian mainstream forming that wants to prove to the world they will not go the way of Iran. Elbaradei seems the man to unite behind, which is good. Mubarak seems to be looking for a graceful exit. His biggest problem is going to be avoiding a human rights trial. Perhaps he can hide in a country that won’t extradite him (wouldn’t it be ironic if it were Israel; no, I’m not saying that is in the cards). He can’t effectively negotiate immunity, as the Pinochet precedent makes clear that the international community will not respect such deals.

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Akshay 02.01.11 at 11:08 pm

Martin Bento@92: Just listened to his speech. Good feeling’s gone. There Will Be Blood.

(Even, I, as a non-Egyptian, was enraged. What an egotistical $*&##!!!)
Discussion at boingboing here

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Martin Bento 02.01.11 at 11:59 pm

I think the key issue for him personally has to be that if he steps down, he will probably spend the rest of his life in prison. Israel could give him a way out; it is just hard to picture. Other Arab countries would be afraid to, I think.

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Martin Bento 02.02.11 at 1:17 am

I also take it his stated intention to “die in Egypt” means that he thinks he can get away with rigged elections. Been talking to Evoting companies perhaps? If he stays in Egypt and a true opposition assumes power, he has a good chance of facing human rights charges. His only hope (assuming true loss of power, not handover to a crony) is to find a sanctuary.

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Akshay 02.02.11 at 8:10 pm

[watching Al Jazeera English Live Stream] Oh God. They’ve started practicing for the bloodbath. Oh God.

JQ:

Most obviously, the Mubarak regime is finished in its role as the key US ally in the Arab world. If the regime survives at all, it will be through brutal repression which makes it clear once and for all that the dictatorship is held in place solely by military force. That in turn will make the provision of substantial economic or military aid politically untenable (the Republicans were already keen to cut aid to Egypt). But without continuing aid, there is little reason for any Egyptian government to support US foreign policy in the region.

We’ve just seen the tactics to get around this: stage violent clashes between government hired goons and the protesters. The government thugs, who’ve conveniently made it to the rooftops, with a stack of Molotov cocktails, are referred to as “pro Mubarak demonstrators”. See? Mubarak does have support! Army moves in to restore “order”. Elections rigged. Mission Accomplished, Democratic Arab Facade Achieved.

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Martin Bento 02.02.11 at 10:49 pm

One thing that helped me set aside my initial pessimism is that the US started signaling that Mubarak should go. I take Mubarak’s “die in Egypt” remark to basically mean “go where?”, and I don’t know if there is anywhere he could safely go. So bloodbath it is. That doesn’t necessarily mean Mubarak can win the bloodbath. The army seems unwilling to back him, though also to oppose him directly at this stage. Food and water, I understand, are getting scarce. This could end in just the kind of bloody chaos I feared with the most effective authoritarians ending up on top, but it is also possible the army will turn on Mubarak to avoid this.

Meanwhile, does anyone know what is up with all the demonstrators’ misspelling Mubarak’s name in English? I get that they are not native English speakers, and there may be more than one variation anyway, but I think every sign I’ve seen has the name misspelled differently, and I wonder if this is a form of ridicule. Seems someone would be able to tell people the standard spelling. I’ve seen “Mobarak, Moubark, Moubarx, Mubork” etc.

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Akshay 02.02.11 at 11:08 pm

As Jonathan Wright points out, even if Mubarak leaves (by US orders), Egyptians would then be stuck with Suleiman. We still don’t know what will happen. This could be over in a week if the entire elite flees, it could be a long hard slog to pressure Mubarak/Suleiman into something like democracy, or Suleiman could just capture all protest leaders, torture them to death and slam down his iron fist.

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John Quiggin 02.02.11 at 11:21 pm

@Akshay Mubarak’s use of organised thuggery last night has given the EU and US the excuse they need to dump him altogether, and they appear to be taking it eg Cameron

http://www.politics.co.uk/news/foreign-policy/cameron-warns-mubarak-over-violence-in-egypt-$21386991.htm

I doubt that a simple replacement by Suleiman would be acceptable to any significant group inside or outside the country.

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Martin Bento 02.03.11 at 8:38 pm

FWIW, Scott Horton has an article in Foreign Policy arguing the same thing I am: that the ardor with which the international community pursues dictators who step down makes it very difficult for Mubarak to step down, and his current actions should be seen in that light. It may be that Mubarak would cling to power anyway, but the international situation provides sufficient motive for him to do this regardless of egoistic or other narrow motives. It may be that the age of brutal dictators surrendering power voluntarily is over.

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Akshay 02.03.11 at 11:26 pm

Here is an interesting article by Paul Amar about the behind-the-scenes clashes between different factions of the security state and their associated oligarchs. The Byzantine politics are impossible to summarize, but Amar claims specific factions (like Suleiman’s mukhabarat) have already won. They might or might not open up to the social movements. As of now, things look grim. They are attacking journalists. What is going to happen tomorrow which must not be televised?

So, still worried, but I hope John@99 is right and we will see some positive change after hundreds gave their lives. At least they have done their country proud, like the muslims who recently acted as human shields to protect Egyptian Christians from terrorist attact.

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