Egypt Explained – no, really.

I just had to post this video by Hank Green laying out the basics of the situation in Egypt (Hank is one-half of the fabulous Vlogbrothers and host of Crash Course Science; the other half of the Vlogbrothers is now-mega-author John Green, author of The Fault in Our Stars, among other lovely books). I will confess: I had no idea of the extent of the Egyptian military’s economic apparatus, and that said apparatus is broad enough to include such things as refrigerators and chickens — so thank you Hank Green, all you Egyptian Nerdfighters who helped him, and especially, apparently, a Nerdfighter by the name of Mokhtar Awad!

“And when Mubarak [was] like – ‘hey, military, we’ve got a problem. Right?’, they’re like ‘Noooaaah, not really.'”


Mind you, I was first introduced to the Vlogbrothers and inducted into Nerdfighter culture by my then-12 year old son via a video that John Green [then a respected author, but not yet a MEGA-author] made about the 2008/9 war in Gaza. So the fact that Hank produced this video and hit it so far out of the park should come as no surprise (and didn’t, really. I was not surprised. Perhaps you were surprised? I, however, was not).

Update: It occurs to me to note that Hank Green is also the dude behind an astonishingly good explainer on human sexuality (click here) and an entirely impassioned plea to exercise your right to vote, the latter of which was ultimately posted to the President’s own Tumblr account (click here and scroll down). So. Yeah. Dude’s ok, is what I’m saying.

Whither humanity? I have no idea.

I find myself struck by the enormity of the times we’re living in.

I don’t know what will happen next, but when my grandchildren learn about the early twenty-teens, it’s clear they’ll be taught that this was a time in which humanity — turned.

Of course, there’s the ongoing upheaval in Middle East and North Africa (MENA), while here in the United States, we have the right’s astonishing over-reach on unions. In both cases, I don’t think anyone on the ground has a clear sense of the direction we’re all going, but given the sheer quantity of dynamics and cross-dynamics, both here and abroad, I believe we’re likely to wind up in some pretty unexpected places.

In terms of workers’ rights and the American electorate, I genuinely believe that this is one of those moments in which people are woken from their slumber, and the GOP’s business-led right-wing will face tremendous push-back in the coming years. You don’t try to tell Americans that teachers, cops and firefighters are our enemies — are what stand between this country and fiscal security — and expect it to fly for long.

In MENA, well, who knows? Forty-one percent of Egypt’s eligible voters (the highest turnout in history) just voted to accept constitutional changes that some credible opposition voices wanted to see rejected. Good for Egypt? Bad for Egypt? I don’t know, and I would suggest that anyone who says they know for sure has delusions of grandeur. Issandr El Amrani (who blogs at the always interesting The Arabist) wrote a really helpful piece for Time : Egypt’s Referendum: What the Nation’s Historic Vote Means, concluding “This time, even if it was far from perfect, it meant something.”

And Libya? Truly: No one knows. It bears repeating: No one knows, no one knows, no one knows. The sheer cacophony of controversy surrounding the decision to declare a No Fly Zone should serve as our most powerful indicator that no one knows what the future holds in that part of MENA (though I will grant you that there are some, such as POTUS, who should surely have a better grasp on it than the vast majority of us).

I hold out real hope that the NFZ is preventing another Rwanda, but even if that proves correct — then what? Preventing slaughter doesn’t necessarily translate to the establishment of liberty and justice. Not to mention: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, Bahrain, and Iran. So, yeah: In ten years, we’ll all be able to see what happened in that part of the world, but right now? No one knows. (If you, like me, find yourself constantly trying to catch up on the MENA goings on, here’s a terrific interactive feature at the New York Times, “Arab World Uprisings: A Country-by-Country Look” ).

And finally: Japan.

It’s easy, and perhaps tempting, to think that the multiple disasters that have struck Japan affect only Japan — it’s population, economy, future.

But we forget: Japan is a global power-house, the third largest economy in the world. Whither Japan goes, we will all follow, to one degree or another.

If Toyota’s recovery isn’t quick, that means something for the many workers at Toyota’s American plants, and the American businesses that supply them. If Sony suffers a serious set-back, that means something for Sony’s competition, and the potential for some other firm to stake a bigger international claim. If Japan, a highly industrialized nation, proves incapable of controlling a potential nuclear disaster, that means something for the future of the world’s energy supply.

Far beyond the normal ripple effect (every action having a positive and equal reaction, every change bringing change to something else), the level of catastrophe that unfolded and continues to unfold in Japan has the potential to create enormous change across the globe.

Of course, it bears remembering that whatever happens, it actually started a while ago, on all these fronts.

If the GOP has over-reached, it’s only because it’s been reaching so far for so long that all those governors — and the Koch brothers, and Koch brother-analogues, behind them — thought they could keep going. No matter the results of the revolutions across MENA, they clearly didn’t spring up out of nowhere in January. And Japan only recently slipped behind China economically, falling from second to third place, meaning that there’s been some serious geo-economic shifting going on for awhile (one outcome I expect is that the fear-China noise will start getting much louder before the summer dawns).

But be that as it may, humanity tends to look back at certain moments, certain events, and say: “There! That’s when it all changed.” We just don’t always recognize those moments at the time.

This time? I think we can be pretty sure.

You might want to take notes — because in 30 years, some enterprising youth is going to want to ask you all about 2011.

And, as folks keep reminding us, it’s only March.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

The perils of kindness.

Last night, sitting at my desk, trying to write a book review, I finally just burst into tears.

The book deals with Israel/Palestine, and the many brave and noble people attempting to find a path to true peace and genuine justice, and it comes on the heels of two other books that dealt with what amounts to the same subject matter — and last night’s book and the earlier two came at either end of days and days in which I was dealing quite intensely, in my writing and in my heart, with the topic of rape (a couple of times on this blog, on and on at Twitter, and elsewhere across the wilds and in the corners of the blogosphere), while all the while, people living across a swath of the world that holds a place very deep in my soul are being shot at from their own fighter jets and by their own police forces. And the public employees in some quarters of this country — teachers, for God’s sake! — find themselves faced with the possibility of losing their freedom to ever collectively organize again. And at some point I discovered that a (male) blogger had accused me (specifically) and other women bloggers of “raping” Lara Logan by choosing to use the story of her assault as a reason to write about rape. And then an earthquake in New Zealand….

What finally reduced me to tears was a good friend being kind.

In this case, the good friend happens to be a truly, genuinely lovely person who has spent his life telling the truth about Israel/Palestine, and the one clear thought I could get to (as I read his completely unrelated email and cried) was: How can the world still suck so hard, when there are such beautiful people in it?

I’m tired. I’m tired of the world sucking and of beautiful people dedicating themselves and their lives and all too often their deaths to trying to heal a world that still sucks. I’m tired of the ever-peeling layers of suckage — after all, just under “pro-democracy protests turn violent in the Middle East,” you’ll find “well-founded fears of chaos,” “well-founded fears of military takeover,” and “well-founded fears of economic collapse and further human suffering.” Under which, of course, you will also find “Lara Logan was brutally assaulted and more than 80% of Egyptian woman complain of constant harassment and women are raped everywhere, anyway.” Under which you will find… many other things that I cannot bear to think about right now.

It matters not that I’m tired. Not really. Despair and exhaustion are luxuries, and I already live in the lap of luxury.

But I confess that I have found it easier to not know over much about about Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, and Iran, or Wisconsin and Indiana over the past 24-48 hours (oh, and Ohio. Where apparently someone decided it would be a good idea to lock the people out of their own statehouse) — or even of New Zealand, where, after all, it’s not the sucky people, it’s the sucky tectonic plates we have to thank for the wave of grief and sorrow now washing over a nation. It feels wrong to admit this. I confess that, too.

I’m going to the J Street Conference this weekend, and I think that will have to count as my good deed for the next week. Me being tired doesn’t matter — but me crying doesn’t help.  I think it’ll be helpful to go hang out in a room full of compulsive do-gooders for a couple of days.

The assault on Lara Logan & the reality of rape.

I’ve never been raped.

Why? Because I’m lucky.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

I’ve been groped on more than one occasion. I’ve been followed by men in a car late at night. I’ve been harassed on the street, and more than once not been certain it was going to end at “harassment.” A friend and I once found ourselves in a shared taxi with two men who tried to convince the driver (in a language they shared and we barely understood) to take us somewhere they could attack us (the driver physically pulled them from his car). I once discovered that my gynecologist was no longer in business – because he had raped several patients.

I am a woman, and I live in the world. This is what living in the world looks like, if you happen to be a woman. If none of that becomes rape? You’re lucky. Nothing more. Nothing less.

And while I might not have been raped, I know many women who were. Some more than once. Some when they were children. Some by people they believed loved them. Rarely, but occasionally, by strangers. And this is just the people I know.

I also spent five years as a rape counselor at the Tel Aviv Rape Crisis Center, where I learned just how tenuous my status as someone who had never been assaulted is. One of the most famous cases we handled involved a young woman and her date — a well-known musician. They got to his place, and after saying yes, she said No. She said no so vehemently, with such certainty, that he had to tie her up to complete his rape. And yet some people still wanted to blame her.

The other day, as all of Egypt poured into the streets to celebrate their victory over tyranny, CBS correspondent Lara Logan was separated from her camera crew, surrounded by a large group of men, and then brutally and repeatedly assaulted. She was saved by Egyptian women and Egyptian soldiers, and CBS reports that she is still in an American hospital.

When Twitter got wind of this, folks went nuts. Some want to blame Middle Eastern culture, or Egyptians generally. Some say the rapists were hired goons, unrepresentative of anything remotely related to those who participated in the Egyptian uprising. Some have actually managed to blame Logan, and one man who should have known better made light of her fate and suggested it would have been “funny” if Anderson Cooper had been raped, too (he’s since apologized, so I won’t link).

But the simple truth is that the only culture that is responsible for this is human culture.

In far too many minds, all over the world, a female human is little more than an outlet or repository for male wishes or power. Rape is regularly and consistently used as a weapon of war. Rape is regularly and consistently used as a method of control.

But rape is also just regular and consistent. Men rape for no reason other than that they think they can get away with it — all the time, every day. Doctors rape, clergymen rape, husbands rape, boyfriends rape, employers rape, “dates” rape. Sometimes they employ tricks and ploys and intoxicants in order to convince themselves that what they’re doing is not (as Whoopi Goldberg so memorably put it) “RAPE rape” — but if she said no, or couldn’t say no, or was too afraid to say no? It’s RAPE rape. It’s all rape.

And lots of times, rapists don’t even bother to convince themselves. They wanted a vagina, and there was one in the room. They wanted to bond with their boys, and a vagina walked by. They wanted to show that bitch, or prove their worth, or relieve themselves, or take what any man in his right mind would take. RAPE rape.

Like most crimes, rape is a crime of opportunity. You don’t drive across state lines to pick-pocket — you go down to the corner. You don’t get on a bus to find women to attack — you attack the ones who are there and handy. Most of the time, those who commit sexual assaults do so within their own communities. Often within their own families.

Men and boys are also raped — every day — and that is at least one reason why that one tweet was so beyond-the-Pale wrong. No rape is ever funny, and the particular suffering of male victims is one with which we as a society have yet to grapple.

But men and boys, as a class, do not grow up and live with this fear, this threat, across the world and across cultures. This is women’s lot, and it falls on all of us.

I feel such pain and sorrow for Ms. Logan — not only did she survive this horrific attack, but her story is now public property, to be analyzed and picked over by all and sundry, people who have never met her and never will.

But her story is not as rare, or as easily dismissed as random violence, as so many would like it to be. Would wish it to be. And until we — humanity — admit that, millions upon millions of women and girls will be raped and assaulted year in, year out.

I’ve been lucky so far. I pray to God my daughter will be, too.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.


UPDATE: Melissa Bell, a blogger at the Washington Post, wrote a very good, brief response to the reactions to the attack on Ms. Logan, including some important statistics. Please click through and read the whole thing.

A 2008 study by the Egyptian Center for Women’s Rights found that 83 percent of Egyptian women and 98 percent of foreign women experience public sexual harassment, from groping to assault.

Here’s why this story is not just about Egypt, either:

In 2000, in New York’s Central Park, an assault similar to Logan’s occurred during a parade. Seven women were attacked. In the United States. Attacks occur everywhere, every day. Again and again.

The assault did not happen because Logan was a reporter in a dangerous country. It did not happen because that country happens to be Muslim. It happened because sexual assault occurs every single day to women everywhere in the world.

Mabruk ya Masr! !مبروك يا مصر

Congratulations, Egypt!!!

I’m overcome with emotion right now, and it feels a little odd and unearned — the Egyptians are not my people, and their uprising unfolded without a grain of help from me. And yet the joy, the sense of possibility, the renewed faith in humanity and our gifts — it’s just overwhelming!

Tears roll down my face as I type, just as they did when I heard the news on Al Jazeera (how funny that I’m grateful that I was in front of the computer when the news came that Mubarak had resigned. I’ve known about this new reality precisely as long as the Egyptian people, and for some reason, that feels wonderful).

I have many concerns and fears. I’ve discussed some of them here, and others — such as an amorphous dread that this doesn’t bode well for Israel/Palestine (which may amount to little more than a vicious awareness that if Israel can screw things up, it almost always does) — are floating around, in my head and the blogosphere and halls of academia and centers of power, right now. Mubarak had hardly gone, the crowds still wildly cheering in Egypt’s streets, before People Who Know Things were online and on the air, talking about how uncertain the days ahead are, and how we mustn’t be too thrilled with this thrilling turn of events.

And all I can say, on this day, the day on which the people of Egypt threw off their chains is: Stop talking. Please – just stop talking.

Instead, listen. Listen to the people in Tahrir Square*, listen to the joy in the voice of Egyptian journalist Mona Elthahawy**, listen to the tears of activist and political scientist Rabab al-Mahdi***. Listen and watch and allow the sheer, unmitigated euphoria of the Egyptian people wash over you and through you. Allow them their moment – honor their moment – and be humble and gracious enough to realize: We might not have any idea what their lives are like.

We might not know what it means to live under a brutal, dehumanizing regime for our entire lives, never free to tell the truth, never allowed to play a role in bettering our lives or our nation, held in a position of penury and often hunger by the rapacious appetites of men who have always found us to be beneath contempt.

We might not know what it’s like to lose loved ones — children, wives, husbands — to the grinding, bloody gears of an inhuman security apparatus. We might not know what it’s like to be tortured to within an inch of sanity ourselves. We might not know what it’s like to be arrested for having long hair, or talking to the wrong foreigner, or taking action to better our community.

We might not know. But the Egyptians do.

They know what they’ve left behind far better than we can ever imagine, and, likewise, they know far better than we the challenges they face. They are neither blind, nor stupid. Their joy is a thing of immense, almost palpable beauty, a thing which comes from the very core of the human heart, and it deserves its space and its place.

There’s nothing easier on God’s green earth than being dismissive, cynical, or unimpressed. It requires no effort, no investment of the self, and often, very little thought. On the other hand, there’s nothing more punk than faith. On this day, I’m choosing faith over fears, and elation over cynicism.

I know the Egyptians have a long road ahead — frankly, all of us have a long road ahead. Their road may yet get ugly, it may get much more bloody, and it may very well be fraught with disappointments and petty failures. Such is our human lot. If we were angels, we wouldn’t need revolution in the first place.

But today is not a day to tell Egypt and the rest of humanity to reign in our joy, to temper our hopes. Today is a day to allow our hearts to fill to overflowing, and to bask in the beauty that we humans can sometimes achieve.

Today is a day for joy.


(Just listen to what Joe Strummer says at the start of his version of Redemption Song – it’s like he was still here with us. [I discovered that the official video of this song is embedding disabled, so I’ve substituted a non-official, audio-only version. [I’ve since discovered that Sony are a bunch of skinflint jerks who don’t want anyone, anywhere to listen to their music in anything but the pre-approved fashion! Or so it would seem. So, as I am reduced to this, I highly recommend that you watch the official video of Joe Strummer’s version of “Redemption Song” – to do so, click here. It’s achingly lovely, & expresses much of what I feel about the uprising]. I wished he’d lived to see this day).




Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (or: Egypt ’11 is also not Iran ’79).

One word for Mubarak: "Leave."

Please see update, below.

It’s been, as they say, a day. I didn’t have time to think about Egypt or matters much beyond the end of my nose, and though I wanted to write about how Egypt ’11 is even further from being Iran ’79 (the Islamic Revolution) than it is Iran ’09 (the fallout of the stolen election), I’m only just now getting to it.

But the good news is that blogger and Israeli-Palestinian peace activist Mitchell Plitnick has kicked it off for me:

The Egyptian MB [Muslim Brotherhood] is not a reactionary, violent group. In fact, although there was a period in their history decades ago where a strain that embraced violence held sway in the group, they have since repeatedly and explicitly renounced violence as a means to their ends and have stuck to that despite the violence they faced from the Egyptian government. Their association with the birth of Hamas is going to be a commonly heard refrain, but it says a lot more about what Hamas was when it was first created (a social and religious network which Israel actually wanted to see grow because they thought that they would be like the MB, a religious counterweight to the secular PLO but less inclined toward armed struggle than the PLO and its Fatah leadership at the time. Little did they know…) than it does about where either Hamas or MB are now.

Indeed, due to the repression of decades, it’s hard to know where the MB stands now. They certainly represent conservative religious values, and, like any opposition group whether religious or secular, their openness to true inclusive democracy may or may not withstand the actual acquisition of power. It’s certain that MB will not favor the sort of cooperation with Israel and the US that has characterized Egyptian policy for 35 years, but how far they would break from the past is unknown.

click through for the whole thing – there are good links, too

Aside from anything else, when Ayatollah Khomeini returned to Tehran, he’d spent years building a following, and had become the symbol — no: the embodiment — of the people’s hopes and dreams. He was joyfully welcomed home by any and all, including people who were entirely secular and had no desire to live in an Islamic Republic (people who’ve gone on to become dissidents) because his charisma and their desperation were such that they believed he could lead them to freedom, and form a government that reflected a national consensus.

At the same time, after some 14 years of exile, Khomeini was known only through the statements and cassette tapes his followers smuggled into Iran. Iranians hadn’t seen him up close and personal for a long time, and so while he was their symbol, he was also something of unknown quantity.

On the other hand: The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is well-known, and fairly ineffective. The movement is officially banned in Egypt, but unofficially tolerated, its “independent” members sometimes allowed to “win” seats in elections, while other times, coming up goose-egg (literally: in 2005, Brotherhood candidates took 88 seats; in 2010, not a one).

It’s a fair assessment to say that Mubarak, et al, have used the Brotherhood as both prop and foil — a tool with which to convince the West that Egypt allows a certain freedom of expression, and a weapon with which to frighten the West into believing that any more freedom of expression would be bad (“look, I’d love to open up elections, but you know who would win? The Brotherhood!”). Members of the Brotherhood are sometimes allowed into parliament, sometimes arrested, sometimes tortured.

Knowing that whatever influence they do have comes at the whim of a hostile regime hasn’t encouraged the Brotherhood to bold action. Until the 2005 elections, they focused largely on social behavior (observance, faith) — and even the act of taking part in elections and attempting (and mostly failing) to affect legislation indicates a willingness to work within the system, not overthrow it. While it’s clear that their 2010 whupping was government orchestrated, there were also indications they would’ve lost some support anyway — their constituents had watched them closely, and seen them fail.

Furthermore, if we’ve seen nothing else in watching the Egyptian uprising, we’ve seen that it doesn’t have a Khomeini. The closest the movement has to a single leader is Mohammad ElBaradei, a man I hesitate to call “secular” because I have no idea what his personal faith is, but he is certainly no Islamist. As I understand it, the Brotherhood was actually playing catch-up for a few days last week, joining the protests a little late.

And finally, and not for nothing, but: Iran is a Shi’ite nation. Egypt is Sunni. Treating the different branches of the Muslim family as two peas in a pod is not unlike doing so with the 700 Club and the Catholic Church. Nuance — indeed, stark cultural difference — actually matters.

Though of course, having said all that: No one knows what will happen next.

If free and fair elections are held (a thing which, as I suggested yesterday, I’m not all that certain is in the offing), it’s possible the Brotherhood would come up the big winner — but even if it does, we still don’t know what that would mean. Everything I’ve read about the Brotherhood in Egypt suggests to me that while I might not want them to make laws for me, they’re neither al Qaeda, nor Khomeini. They’re a highly conservative religious movement that has largely failed to have an impact on Egyptian politics, such as they are.

And if the Egyptian people do vote the Brotherhood into office?

Well — isn’t their right to do just that precisely what I’m hoping to see realized?


Note: Yesterday’s book list is applicable here, as well.

Update: It turns out that I’m not the only one trying to make this point! CNN’s Fareed Zakaria interviewed Mohammad ElBaredei yesterday, asking him about the Brotherhood, and ElBaredei said

You know, the Muslim Brotherhood has nothing to do with the Iranian model, has nothing to do with extremism, as we have seen it in Afghanistan and other places. The Muslim Brotherhood is a religiously conservative group.  They are a minority in Egypt.  They are not a majority of the Egyptian people, but they have a lot of credibility because all the other liberal parties have been smothered for 30 years…. As you know, Fareed, I’ve worked with Iranians, I’ve worked here.  There is 100 percent difference between the two societies.

And Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and author of God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, wrote a piece on CNN’s Belief Blog yesterday that’s strikingly similar my own (great minds! etc), concluding

[The] Muslim Brotherhood could become something like Khomeini’s Revolutionary Council, and Egypt’s army could become a Revolutionary Guard. But each of these prospects seems unlikely, fueled more by fear (and analogy) than logic.

More reasons that Egypt 2011 is not Iran 2009: Pessimists’ edition.

Like many Egypt-watchers, I’ve been fearing a crack-down, or mass violence, since the protests started last Tuesday, and finally, here we are.

I want first to point out that it’s remarkable that what we’re seeing today didn’t happen earlier. It’s true that in the first few days, dozens of protesters were killed and probably hundreds injured, and that protesters fought back, as well as setting fire to police stations, but these events were sporadic, and there were also moments in which the police backed down or soldiers came to the defense of protesters — there was no sense of general, organized crackdown, no sense that all hell had broken loose.

Today, it seems, hell has broken loose. Or, rather, in all likelihood: Hell has been loosed, by those who hope to be served by it.

In my reading of the situation, the regime has been trying to wait the people out, because at a certain point, people will be literally hungry (a large percentage of Egyptians lives hand-to-mouth — if they don’t work on Monday, they don’t eat on Monday night) and exhausted from the effort of protest. I have a feeling that Mubarak had been hoping either that chaos would ensue when he pulled police off the streets on Friday, or that protesters would get violent, so that he would have an excuse to crack down and swoop in as the stabilizing factor — and when that didn’t happen yesterday, of all days, with upwards of two million people in Tahrir Square, I think he and those trying to save the regime decided to foment it.

So: You send in your police, out of uniform. You draw on those sectors who are supported by your patronage, along with petty criminals to whom you can give pardons, and — I presume — the folks who still genuinely prefer you. At a certain point, you’re also going to have people who don’t care about Mubarak but they’re damn hungry and unhappy, and they just want to get back to work, so they’ll be happy to go bust heads in anger, in the hope that life can get back to “normal.” You bus all these in, you give them leaflets, and you tell them to bring sticks and rocks — no live ammunition! — to make sure it looks organic.

No less important: You make sure that the army (which is still holding back, still hedging its bets) will at the very least not overtly intervene, even as it quietly lets trouble-makers into the square. You make sure that there are enough soldiers in place to give a patina, a whiff, of protection (making sure that they’re centralized around important buildings, like the Ministry of Information and the Museum), but not enough that they could have any real effect. And you hope to hell (in fact — you’re likely entirely confident, because for 30 years, you’ve been very good at brutalizing your people) that the violence goes your way, and you and those you would hope to see follow you in power can claw back what the people have taken.

And yet, even though the army has been present throughout all of this, it’s shown no indication that it’s particularly anxious to help Mubarak.

I suspect that the military’s plan is to allow things to continue to fall apart to the point that Mubarak is ousted (as of this writing, on Wednesday afternoon CST, I still think this could happen before another day dawns in Egypt, but I certainly believe it will be in the next few days) and then swoop in as saviors, forming a “temporary government.”

I imagine the “temporary” military-led government will then improve the people’s’ financial circumstances enough to dampen the desperation, and it may even reign in the police corruption and barbarity a bit, but democracy will not be first on that government’s list of priorities. Neither will human rights. It’ll be a new authoritarian government against which people will find themselves having to organize again.

All of this is already different from Iran 2009, in that there’s no cleavage between the regime and the military in Iran, and furthermore, in 2009, there was not much more than a minute of hesitation before heads were being cracked.

However the biggest difference, to my mind, is this: I think Iran will move onto the path of genuine democracy in the next ten years or so, but Egypt likely won’t.

There’s the fact that far more Egyptians are poor, and Egypt’s education rates much lower, than in Iran. These are huge issues.

But more to the point (though, of course, there is correlation): The Iranians have experience with actual, functioning democracy, even if truncated (there’s a reason they were so furious when their votes were stolen in 2009 — they expected their votes to count), and they’ve been slowly building a civil society since the years of the Reform Movement/the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

Iranians have a civil society infrastructure, and decades of working within a (limited) version of representative democracy — and in 2009, a regime that still had a certain degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the people thoroughly discredited itself. No regime is a monolith, no ruling party speaks with one voice, and Iran’s is cracking, to some degree, under many strains, not least the aftermath of the stolen election and the resultant violence. I believe that sometime in the next decade, disaffected members of the regime and those members of the clergy who have gotten off the Islamic Republic bus will create the circumstances that allow real change to occur — and however the change is triggered, it will be followed by the establishment of mechanisms that will lead to a genuine Islamic democracy.

I just don’t see that happening in Egypt. There is too much hunger, too little literacy, and essentially nothing in the way of democratic traditions — whoever takes over next will either have to be more magnanimous than most people who grasp power generally are, or more open to the drivers behind the uprising than I expect them to be.

So, to sum up yesterday’s and today’s posts: From the stand-point of the heat of the revolutionary moment, Egypt’s prospects are better than Iran’s were — I am confident that the Mubarak regime is falling (has essentially fallen) and cannot be saved.

On the other hand, from the stand-point of what next?, I’m very worried that Egypt faces many more years of repression, but am fairly confident that Iran is just a few years from a much better future.


Please note: I do not consider myself an expert on either Egypt or Iran by any stretch. I’m just a MidEast geek who’s read a lot. Here’s a short list (in no particular order) of some of the books I’ve read that inform the opinions expressed above – if you click through to the links, you’ll find short descriptions:

  1. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (2008) – Robin Wright.
  2. Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (2008) – Mark LeVine.
  3. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday (2009) – Neil MacFarquhar.
  4. Muhajababes: Meet the Middle East’s Next Generation (2008) – Allegra Stratton.
  5. Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines (2010) – Scott Peterson.
  6. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011) – Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds).

Among the reasons that Egypt 2011 is not Iran 2009.

I posted the following as a comment in Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Open Thread today, and decided to post it here, too (with light edits). I understand the impulse to compare Cairo to Tehran, but I think the comparison ultimately fails. I will say this: I believe that what happened following the 2009 Iranian elections has likely helped inspire events in Tunisia and Egypt, but beyond that — oppressed Muslims rising up and inspiring other oppressed Muslims to do the same — there are genuinely very few similarities.

My academic background is the contemporary Middle East, and by chance I happen to have reviewed a sizeable handful of books about Iran since the 2009 elections, and I think I see a number of important differences between the two situations.

  • First of all, in Iran, things got bloody very quickly. In Egypt, on the other hand, the response of security forces has been mostly restrained, not to say entirely muted, and last night the army even went so far as to say that “freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody,” and say, up-front, that they wouldn’t be firing on the crowd today. The crowd of somewhere between one and two million (!) has been in Tahrir Square for about 11 hours as of this writing and as far as I know, not a single shot has been fired.
  • And that’s likely a result of the more important fact that in Iran, the Revolutionary Guards are firmly in control of nearly any and all levers of state power, be they internal security, the military, the economy, the bureaucracy, what have you, and they remain entirely behind the hardline conservatives who stole the election and are currently in power. Indeed, the leadership of the Guards has said very clearly in recent years that their biggest concern is no longer “external threats” to the Islamic Republic, but “internal threats.”
  • On the other hand, in Egypt, the army has, at the very least, not taken a side — or, one could argue that they have taken a side, and it’s not the government’s. The police, on the other hand, are one of the most loathed institutions in the country, for their brutality in carrying out the demands of the regime, but they appear to be of two minds, or, at the very least, are clearly not willing to go all out against the people and the army.
  • Finally, in Iran, the American government really had no pull whatsoever — on the contrary, any attempt to affect the outcome would have been a terrible, terrible mistake, playing into the hands of every single conspiracy-monger that Iran can muster. Regarding Egypt, on the other hand, just by saying (last Wednesday or Thursday) that the Administration would be “reviewing” US aid to Egypt, DC sent a powerful message that the Obama Administration was supporting reform. Then by saying, flat-out, that the US “calls on the government not to resort to violence,” the Administration was using code for “because if you do, you won’t get any help from us.” And in the meantime, saying — over and over and over again — that the future of Egypt is in the hands of the Egyptian people is really important code for “we will support the people over efforts to repress them.” And then there are the oft-repeated call for “an orderly transition.”

I have no idea what might happen next. Absolutely none. There are too many unknowns, and with literally no history of genuine democratic processes, and the constant, brutal repression of civil society, the simple truth is that there is very little in place in Egypt that could reasonably replace the current system. Moreover, human history shows just how often and how easily “people power” can be usurped by people with power.

But having said that, I am absolutely confident that the Mubarak regime is over, and what happened in Iran in 2009 won’t happen in Egypt.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

Why this Israeli is so invested in Egypt.

I have a picture of myself and my sister sitting outside of the Cairo museum, its red walls and reed-filled gardens a rather stunning backdrop to our full-on late-’80s Duran-Duran hair and our travel companion, my then-beloved Palestinian-Israeli boyfriend Ali.

We had gone to Cairo for a few days, in spite of the fact that none of us had any money to spare, because my sister had come to visit me in Israel — and dude: Egypt’s right there! — and also because only by leaving the country could Ali and I be together 24/7 without fear of being caught by someone he knew. I was a secret (a poorly kept one, as it turned out), and we wanted desperately to feel some kind of normal.

The entire trip was wonderful, even bearing in mind that our 3-star hotel had serious plumbing issues (remind me: When one flushes a toilet, it’s not supposed to come back up the shower drain – right?) and that with Ali at my side, I could confirm what I had suspected on my earlier trips to the city: Many Egyptian men do not think much of American women. Moreover, they feel free to express these opinions loudly, because: Arabic. (The irony here was that poor Ali — thrilled to be finally visiting an Arab country — was constantly thought to be American [even when not by our side] likely because of his height and pale skin [indeed, the further irony was that he could have passed for a Jew]. Men would say nasty things about us, and he would surprise them by cursing them out in Arabic. In its way, that was actually kind of awesome).

It was wonderful because — even with the dirt, the nasty remarks, and the nastier plumbing — there was that same thing in Cairo that I had always found there, a kind of warmth and vivacity that I’ve rarely seen in other cities.  The Cairo I visited was full of surprises, smiling faces, offers of tea, crazy (by which I mean: almost insurmountably insane) traffic, snatches of intense beauty, and antiquities so antique as to make the heart lodge in the throat. You try to visit the Pyramids — the actual-factual Pyramids — while your sister teaches your Palestinian boyfriend to whistle the theme song to The Andy Griffith Show and tell me it won’t be awesome. Just try! Also: Buying lunch in a down-at-heel Egyptian grocery store, turning the corner, and bam! The Sphinx.

Even more than the Pyramids or the Sphinx, though, walking the halls of the Cairo Museum was for me nearly a pilgrimage, a chance to get to within inches of the touch of human hands so far in the past that I genuinely cannot comprehend what their humanity entailed. I remember standing before a glass case holding a statue of a scribe (who I came to think of as “my scribe”) and willing myself to take in the knowledge that the paint around his eyes, the nails on his fingers, the black of his hair — all of it had been touched by someone who had lived and died some 4,500 years before me. I bought a poster of my scribe and he long hung over my desk, the closest I’ve ever come to a patron saint of writing (how that house-sitter managed to ruin it remains a mystery to me, to this day).

So as I obsess about the uprising in Egypt, I’m seeing in my mind’s eye a jumble of memories from three different trips: the halls of the museum (and thank you, brave Egyptians, for protecting it from those who would plunder your history), the tiny shop just outside the Pyramid-Sphinx complex, the pharmacist who helped me out when I had to explain that I needed “tampons,” the hole-in-the-wall restaurant where I brought Ali and my sister for “Egyptian pancakes” (not at all like pancakes, if only because they are a meat dish), the Nile — by boat, from the shore, from another shore, from a bridge, from another bridge — the lovely American University campus, and the people of the City of the Dead, coming out of the homes they’d been forced to build for themselves in and between a sprawling cemetery’s mausoleums, to offer, from the nothing they had, tea.

But the truth is that my obsession with, my hunger for, the news out of Egypt — for good news, for news of freedom and justice and hope — goes beyond the understandable voyeurism of a woman who was there for a minute, a few times.

Aside from anything else, I’m also an Israeli, an Israeli who has struggled for peace and justice for a quarter of a century. I know that the Egyptians don’t love the peace that Sadat signed with us. I know that they hate the occupation, distrust Israel and the US because of it, are prone to believing mildly (and not-so-mildly) anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. I know that the Magen David, the Star of David, the symbol of my faith, is often used by them as a symbol of evil. I know these things.

But in my heart, they are my people, too. I understand their anger, and I think the hatred can be fixed. And I am so hungry for justice to be served in the part of the world to which I gave my heart so many years ago, that all I can do is watch, and hope, and pray that the Egyptians succeed where so many have failed — that they will be able to wrest justice from the hands of tyranny, and find the way through to true freedom.

I wish I could be on the streets with them.

Crossposted at Angry Black Lady Chronicles.

Egypt update – good links.

A few of really good links to catch up on the events in Egypt:

1) Al-Jazeera’s timeline of events: An excellent, brief summary of the protests to date — the bare facts to get your started or fill in blanks.

2) Marc Lynch in Foreign Policy: “Obama’s handling Egypt pretty well” – money quote:

I completely understand why activists and those who desperately want the protestors to succeed would be frustrated — anything short of Obama gripping the podium and shouting “Down With Mubarak!” probably would have disappointed them. But that wasn’t going to happen, and shouldn’t have. If Obama had abandoned a major ally of the United States such as Hosni Mubarak without even making a phone call, it would have been irresponsible and would have sent a very dangerous message to every other U.S. ally. That doesn’t mean, as some would have it, that Obama has to stick with Mubarak over the long term — or even the weekend — but he simply had to make a show of trying to give a long-term ally one last chance to change.

The key to the administration’s emerging strategy is the public and private signal that this is Mubarak’s last chance, that the administration does not expect him to seize it, and that the U.S. has clear expectations of those who might succeed him.

3) Brief background in The New Yorker on Omar Suleiman, the man Hosni Mubarak picked to be his new (and first ever) Vice-President when he dissolved his government but refused to step down himself.

Suleiman is a well-known quantity in Washington. Suave, sophisticated, and fluent in English, he has served for years as the main conduit between the United States and Mubarak. While he has a reputation for loyalty and effectiveness, he also carries some controversial baggage…. Since 1993 Suleiman has headed the feared Egyptian general intelligence service. In that capacity, he was the C.I.A.’s point man in Egypt for renditions—the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt and elsewhere for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances.

4) A powerful series of photographs – this shot of a crowd in Cairo’s Tahrir Square is particularly stunning, as is this one (from a different source), of a woman kissing a member of the riot police as if he were her own son.

5) Of course, my own post from yesterday is also a decent place to start, and it, too, has useful links throughout the text, plus a handful more at the end.

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