The Middle East Channel

Unmasking Mubarak’s “chaos”

President Hosni Mubarak's speech to the nation on Saturday was a patent attempt to create a negative and fearful image of the uprising in Cairo. In his terse speech, he repeatedly used such words such as chaos, anarchy, looting, destruction, and violence. While Egyptians throughout the nation were in the streets ignoring the curfew and confronting police and security forces, the President continued his 30-year pattern of infantilizing Egyptians, tone-deaf to their modest, basic, common aspirations for citizenship. While President Mubarak began his speech by appealing to Egyptian ‘citizens,' his actions before and after his speech confirm that like many other patrimonial and authoritarian leaders before him, Egyptians are only seen as objects of rule who should behave like good, obedient children.

Chaos is the flip side of order and stability, yet this dichotomy exposes how those who believe in the need for stability without acknowledging the costs of that stability quickly invoke images of chaos, when challenged, to defend their ‘right' to stability. In Egypt, stability has been shown to be vulnerable due to the patronage and centralization of power in Egypt that has systematically and intentionally hollowed out and constrained any counter-veiling political force. Those who lionize stability forget the importance of legitimacy and accountability to governance.

This regime has not delivered on equitable economic growth, it has not delivered on the peace process, and it has impoverished and marginalized the young and frustrated their dreams and hopes. Young people, whether part of the blogosphere, leftist, Nasserist, feminist, or Islamist movements, have been seared by their experience and exposure to state repression, intimidation, and humiliation. They are caught in the limbo of ‘wait hood' between childhood and adulthood since they cannot find jobs and cannot afford to marry. They are triply excluded: politically, socially, and economically. Young people are now simply claiming their rights in the polity and their fair share of the public patrimony. They never have been the obedient and docile children that President Mubarak has imagined. In these last few days, the brutality and arrogance of the power of the regime was on display globally as over 100 Egyptians were killed by their own police and government.

Today, the regime paints a narrative about the chaotic, destructive, mob-like Egyptian people who cannot be trusted. This insidious narrative of chaos and anarchy must not only be rejected but it must be unmasked as a narrative that legitimizes repression that will supposedly save Egypt from its disobedient children. We should expect further attempts by the current regime to fabricate or paint the protests as irresponsible and anarchic. The disappearance of any police force from the country will also stoke fears and images of ‘chaos.' Although burning buildings and gunfire produce great images for the media, what is striking about the last few days is the fact that Egyptians have shown great discipline and courage as they express their demands for a real transition to democracy and only defend themselves from tear gas canisters fired into mosques, from water cannons and thugs beating peaceful demonstrators.

When the regime blocked the Internet and telephone networks, it demonstrated that it did not care about public safety or the security of its people. It is extremely important that international actors pressure the Egyptian government to restore communication networks in the country so that people can negotiate these trying times.

It is imperative that the new Egyptian leaders and the U.S. reject this narrative of chaos which will only serve to support the repressive Mubarak regime. We must expect the ambiguity of a political transition and not misread the normal unfolding of a transition process that needs patience and political space to deliberate and organize the next chapter of Egyptian history. The citizens of Egypt across the country are demanding real political change for democracy and the basic rights of citizenship that they have been denied so long. Struggles for citizenship, justice, and political rights, are far from over throughout the Middle East. These basic struggles continue as Egyptians, Tunisians, Yemenis, and Jordanians reject their paternalistic fathers who think that they should only be obedient children and leave the affairs of the country to the all-knowing ‘head' of state or father figure and their sons.

Diane Singerman is an associate professor in the Department of Government at American University's School of Public Affairs.

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The Middle East Channel

President Obama: here is your "game changer"

For all the president's talk of "game changers," he and his foreign policy team seem unable to recognize a real one, even when it stares them in the face. As tens (perhaps hundreds) of thousands of Egyptians take to the streets to call for the end of Husni Mubarak's 30 years of misrule, the president and his team seem intent on upholding the old order instead of helping usher in a new one. When the history of the Middle East's winter revolutions is written, and scholars try to explain why those remarkable events ushered in an era of region-wide hostility toward and non-cooperation with the United States, they will point to Vice President Biden's refusal to call Mubarak a dictator, or Hilary Clinton's urging Egypt's brave pro-democracy activists to calm down, or President Obama's blithe announcement that the protests indicated that "now would be a good time to start some reform." 

Of course, the administration's position stems not from a lack of vision, but rather from a surfeit of fear. For almost 50 years, we have performed a delicate balancing act in the Middle East, declaring our commitment to liberty while at the same time endorsing autocrats like Mr. Mubarak who, we were led to believe, stood guard against a rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism and anti-Americanism. The bitter irony of this strategy is that it helped produce and nurture precisely those things that we dreaded. Islamists thrived on pointing out to their people America's alleged double standards, arguing that we want democracy only for ourselves and not for the oppressed of the world.

This policy might have been justifiable if it actually produced the "stability" we sought, but the grim events of September 11, which sent to our shores violent sons of "moderate allies" Egypt and Saudi Arabia, should have exposed that stability as nothing more than a fiction. On the contrary, this policy has bred chaos and hatred and instability. And in the midst of chaos, hatred, and instability, democracy and economic development -- processes that come hand in hand -- have been placed on the back burner, fueling the resentments of ordinary citizens across the region.  

It is far too early, of course, to tell whether what is happening in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere will result in regime change, leadership change, true democracy, or something else. But what is clear is that certain old truths about the Middle East, truths that were the basis of our old policies toward that world, no longer stand.

First, that the region is stagnant, people apathetic and autocratic regimes too entrenched to be challenged. Rather, small social changes -- such as new technologies, an increasingly savvy and outspoken youth -- are able to rock the foundations of even the most seemingly durable regime.

Second, that Islamists represent the only genuine social force in Arab lands, that it would be those who hold aloft the banner of Islam that would lead any popular uprising and hijack any democratic opening. Instead, what we are seeing is that Islamists are but a part of the protests, participating as one part of a movement that spans class and ideology, unified only by a desire for democracy and freedom.

Third, supporting reform in Egypt will jeopardize Israeli security. Israel's security depends on security and peace agreements with states that represent the interests of their people (not with states that repress their people in the name of upholding peace agreements with Israel). Decades of support for Arab leaders most friendly to Israel have failed to bring peace. A durable peace process is no longer about bi-lateral agreements with illegitimate Arab dictators (supported by the U.S.), rather real peace needs to reflect the interests of citizens in Tel Aviv, Ramallah and Cairo.

Finally, that the West -- and especially the US -- can keep its friends in power.  Ben Ali, after all, boarded a plane not because he had violated unwritten terms of alliance, but because his people had finally said enough.

Some may argue that the events unfolding in the Middle East now are too unpredictable to warrant a wholesale shift in U.S. foreign policy, that transferring support from loyal satraps to an untested popular opposition may backfire if that opposition fails or is put down, that the U.S. needs reassurances of friendly allies (often at the expense of democracy). But America is not simply a bystander in all of this -- its actions and words will affect the outcome. They will signal to opposition and regimes alike how far each can expect to go in challenging -- or repressing -- the other. Opposition movements (and would-be opposition movements) secular or Islamist are not only waging a battle against authoritarian oppression -- but a battle against the ways in which the U.S. manifests its quest to secure its geo-strategic interest. 

Autocratic leaders lose power very much the same way Hemingway noted that people go bankrupt: gradually, and then all at once. The U.S. can now take policy steps in our best interest that are consistent with the values we hold so deeply, supporting those calling for democracy and knowing it is in our best interest.  When change comes to the Middle East, as it surely will, let us make sure that we are on the right side.

Amaney Jamal, Ellen Lust, and Tarek Masoud teach Middle Eastern politics at Princeton, Yale, and Harvard.

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