The Middle East Channel

'Mazal Tov, Egypt'!

Over the last few weeks, we Egyptians were in a collective roller-coaster: falling mercilessly from the heights of exhilarating hope into the abyss of deep fear, often many times during the same day. We asked ourselves: are we going to pull it off and rid ourselves from the suffocating authoritarianism? Is it possible, just by marching over Liberation Square, to overthrow a system of repression that caged our minds and souls for decades? Would we finally be able to climb out of the dark hole in which we were kept and walk the earth, free men and women? And if we can do this by standing up for our rights, can't we improve our collective lot in other areas as well?

While we were asking ourselves these questions, Israel's prime minister came out in support of President Mubarak, and I wondered whether Benjamin Netanyahu was trying to accelerate Mubarak's downfall by embracing him publicly. But then I realized that a good deal of American constituencies, worried about Israel, started to swing in favor of keeping the regime in place. I wrote to a number of Israelis and Americans whose opinions I trust, asking them what they thought of Netanyahu's position. Although many of them agreed that his statement was inappropriate, they concurred that the opinion he expressed was shared by the majority of those concerned about the future of Israel, especially in the United States. This sentiment is what really worried me.

I accept self-centeredness, but within reasonable limits. I do not expect Israel and its American supporters to think of the welfare of Egyptians first, and I long ago reconciled myself to expect an ‘Israeli angle' on every regional foreign policy issue. To a certain extent, this is how all peoples operate: thinking how the plight or fortune of others impacts on their own fate. When it comes to the concern for Israel, a concern rooted in a deep sense of threat, I'm willing to show more understanding. But there is a fundamental difference between thinking of those we love first, thinking of those we love only, and not thinking at all. Suggesting that the American position over Egypt's revolution should be conditioned by its impact on Israel's freedom of action belongs to the latter two categories.

First, Egypt's revolution has been about Egyptian affairs only, with almost no reference to foreign policy. No one was chanting death to the US or to Israel. The dominant themes were related to freedom, social justice and dignity. Egyptians who took to the streets in millions were expressing their rejection of an ossified regime which ignored their concerns for decades. It is somehow miraculous that no one tried to capitalize on the ‘Palestinian cause' or ‘anti-American' sentiments. People ignored these issues; why Israeli leaders injected themselves into the story and brought undue attention upon themselves is a mystery to me.

Second, even if the Egyptian revolution posed serious questions to Israel, is it conceivable to quell the voices of eighty-five million people and practically enslave them in order to avoid facing these questions? Shall we then support those who ordered security forces to shoot at protesters at will, killing three hundred Egyptians in two days? And how many are we prepared to kill in order to keep an unpopular ruler in place -- and for what aim? If the only answers to these questions entail supporting the moves of a right-wing government in Israel to keep a couple of isolated settlements or annex a couple of square kilometers in the West Bank, then  we're talking about something morally reprehensible indeed.

Third, preemptively antagonizing a whole population is nonsensical. Policy towards Egypt is too important to be based on prejudice and stereotypes. What is happening in Egypt is not a replica of 1979 Iran or Hamas in 2006 (if its comparable to anything at all, Iran in 2009 would be the closest case). The Egyptian revolution is in large part the making of a generation that for too long suffocated under the garb of old men running Egypt according to archaic rules. Those who took to the streets do not want violence or vendetta; they want to be part of the modern world. They express a deep desire for renewal, and are doing so in peace and in diversity.

Egypt is witnessing a complete re-birth. The millions who marched to overthrow Mubarak want to revamp a hitherto sclerotic and dysfunctional public arena. This is good news for both the Arab World its neighbors and partners. Obviously there are risks involved for the US and for Israel, including a possible populist turn that would aim to fill the ‘dignity deficit' caused by Mubarak's perceived complicity with the American-Israeli agenda in the region. But these risks must be addressed with or without a revolution. In fact, this dignity deficit weighed heavily on Egyptian foreign policy during Mubarak's reign and often reduced its margin of maneuver. Modernizing Egyptian politics will necessarily address the duplicity underwriting much of its foreign policy, especially in regards to Egypt's choice of a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict  and its cooperation with the US, thereby allowing for far greater flexibility in its foreign policy. Egyptians want a pluralistic political system, a modern economy, an inclusive social system and a thriving cultural life. Achieving this requires integration in the world, not a fight with it; making Egyptian foreign policy more representative will make it more dignified and more reliable, not more aggressive.

Ultimately, the rebirth of Egypt is about making Egypt a normal country with normal politics and comprehensible policies. It is a reason for celebration, and if I were in the shoes of those who care most for Israel, I would whole heartedly wish Egypt Mazal Tov.

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere is a novelist and Political Science professor at the American University in Cairo. He is a former diplomat and UN political advisor.

The Middle East Channel

The siege of Bahrain

Bahrain is burning. Confronted earlier this week by a wave of peaceful public protests and calls for democratic reform, Bahrain's rulers and their mercenaries have laid siege to their own country. Police and security forces have brutalized crowds of demonstrators in recent days. In a pre-dawn assault on sleeping activists on February 17th in Manama, police went on a murderous rampage and killed at least five people.

Those who survived the assault reported that at least one of those killed was executed at close range with a bullet to the head. Police went out of their way to mete out cruelty. One doctor who attempted to treat the wounded immediately after the attack was singled out and savagely beaten. Activists on the scene observed authorities loading unidentified dead bodies into refrigerated trucks and whisking them away. Photographs and video from the scene are horrifying. With regard to Bahrain's police, the only thing that remains unclear is the real depth of their depravity.  Reports are pouring out of Manama this morning that Bahraini forces are intensifying their savagery, opening with live fire on those mourning the dead from Thursday. Bahrain is turning into a war-zone. And the number of dead is quickly rising.

Bahrain's activists are consumed with grief and anger. But they remain defiant and hopeful. Many continue to believe that their deliverance is still possible through peaceful means. There is an earnest sense that by emulating the example of their fellow democracy activists elsewhere in the Middle East, they may achieve long-held dreams of true political reform. So far, and remarkably considering the regime's actions, the vast majority of Bahrainis remain committed to a project of peaceful political transformation.

Their demands and the terms of that transformation are less certain today than earlier in the week, however. On Monday, they hoped for political reform, the creation of a genuine constitutional monarchy. By the end of the week the mood had understandably soured with many demanding nothing short of the fall of the regime. Minor reforms are now viewed as too little, too late. It is entirely possible that their anger may lead to confrontation, but it is a farce to suggest that it is the country's opposition that needs to show restraint. That burden is entirely on the regime.

Bahrain's protesters were not the only ones watching events in Egypt and Tunisia closely. So too were Bahrain's rulers. They learned their own lessons from the fall of their fellow tyrants. The resort to police brutality on February 17th was just one of those lessons. Their view seems to be that Egypt's police and pro-Mubarak thugs did not go far enough. Bahraini authorities have moved quickly to crush the demonstrations before the crowds swelled beyond the regime's control, to prevent a possible replay of what happened in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Since the attack the country's small mercenary army has joined the police in the streets, establishing a sprawling security cordon throughout Manama and surrounding areas that aims to keep crowds from gathering in meaningful numbers in the capitol. The violence also sent a clear message: public dissent will not be tolerated, and those who turn out in the streets will be destroyed.

Amidst the furor, bloodshed, and anguish of Thursday, it also became evident that what happens in Bahrain is of considerable concern for its neighbors. There are fears in Riyadh and elsewhere that what happens in Bahrain may not stay in Bahrain. The clearest indication that anxieties are sweeping through the Arab capitals of the Gulf came Thursday afternoon when the Foreign Ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council convened an emergency meeting in Manama. Bahrain's Foreign Minister Khaled bin Ahmad al-Khalifa remarked afterward that the meaning was meant to serve as a demonstration of solidarity, remarking that "the GCC ministerial council declared its total support to Bahrain because GCC's security and stability is indivisible."

It is true that the meeting was meant to make demonstrate that Bahrain's crackdown enjoys the seal of approval from its closest neighbors and allies. But there very well may be more at play.

Unconfirmed rumors swirled throughout the day on the 17th that Saudi riot police had taken part in the early morning attack. It is hard to determine the veracity of these reports, but at the very least it is likely that Riyadh has been instrumental in encouraging Bahrain's rulers to take quick and violent actions to preempt an escalation. Saudi Arabia is perhaps the most concerned of the other Gulf countries with any potential demonstration effect. With its massive oil reserves located just a few miles from the drama gripping Manama, the Saudis no doubt want to see it put down immediately. But the Saudis are not alone in their fears. Worry about potentially restive populations is becoming increasingly acute throughout the Gulf. For Bahrain's neighbors, the small island country is serving as a test-case for authoritarian resiliency. And the autocrats appear willing to coordinate to ensure a favorable outcome.

The demonstration effect is not their only concern. So too is what many of them claim to be the protests' sectarian character and agenda. The Sunni Arab leaders of the Gulf have long insisted that the Shia who constitute the majority of Bahrain's native population, and the majority of the country's pro-democracy protesters, take their marching orders from Iran. The specter of sectarianism troubles Riyadh in particular. In addition to concerns about the proximity of the unrest to the kingdom's oil reserves, they also fear that Bahrain's example and Iranian influence might ignite their own sizeable Shia community.

The Gulf states' turn to a sectarian explanation is predictable, but it does not make their claims true. The connections between Shia in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and Iran are based not on politics, but on spiritual matters. The rulers in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Bahrain know this, of course. The truth is that their pseudo-concerns about Iranian influence and Shia revolutionary politics are thinly disguised excuses to continue to justify their autocratic ways and frame the blood-vetting that is taking place in the streets of Manama.

For Bahrainis and for other citizens in the Gulf, this moment is not about sectarian politics, score settling against Sunnis, or advancing Iran's interests. It is about justice, democracy and political rights. It is precisely about overturning the authoritarian systems that the region's rulers are desperately and violently struggling to keep in place.

Toby C. Jones is assistant professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. He is the author of "Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia" (Harvard University Press, 2010) and an editor of Middle East Report.

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