Tuesday, February 1, 2011

“Lesson Over…”

From an Egyptian banner, “Lesson over, stupid.” (Intaha al darss ya ghabi).

In the last post, sent out barely a few days before Egypt raged, I offered a closing insight that perhaps many felt—especially those always on the look out at for their favorite scarecrow, the Islamists--was a little too hopeful:

“So far, the 21st century has proved anything but dull. Perhaps one of the more interesting recent developments of the past five years is the way energized civil societies have been surprising the powers that be, fundamentalists included. In these testy times, neither pseudo-secular states nor Islamism need feel entirely too comfortable should the time for change finally come.”

Well, Egypt’s civil society has risen to the occasion, and I suspect that its Islamic fundamentalists were no less surprised than Mubarak himself. For in turning out in the streets, Egyptians finally needed neither the prodding nor the guidance of the former, and feared neither the ire nor the retribution of the latter.

In figuring out the next phase in Egypt’s tumult, this fact should be reverberating in every observer’s reasoning. 

Now we have to see how the army plays along. I am betting that it will soon decide that it has very little choice but to uproot Mubarak and the top brass of his regime, if only to preserve its discretionary powers as ultimate arbiter in Egypt. To forfeit its extraordinary standing and aura within Egyptian society for the sake of a totally discredited, exposed, openly reviled and doddering ruling elite would be unfathomable even if its interests do not really clash with theirs.  

In any case, we won’t have to wait too long—days or hours--for the answer.


But as entrancing as it is to watch Tunisians and Egyptians drawing, in the midst of the fog and storms, the face of their future, I would like to obsess about those features of years past that made these two peoples convulse with such unanticipated relentlessness.

I will not waste time on an anatomy of chronic frustration and disappointment, because as telling as it would be, it won’t explain what made quiet anguish turn into loud fury.  

Suffice it to say that everywhere your gaze turned as of late, it looked like a pile up of pain colliding head on from every direction. Endemic poverty, appallingly bad governance, crony capitalism that embarrassed even IMF’s most ardent diehards, unvarnished repression… And since Arab youth are the stars of the moment, dire predictions about their loitering anger has long been at the heart of practically every worthy read on this region’s predicament.  

And yet, in glaring view of this mess, only the most sensitive of eyes detected restless lives. It’s as if Arab authoritarianism had unlocked the secret to permanent rule, however atrocious it gets. The joke that ran around like a fact, until Bouazizi burned himself alive and brought Tunisia to its feet, was that the more the world changes, the more Arabs want to stay the same.

So, what made a presumed deaf mute scream?  

Of all the reasons racing to the finish line, one might just make it ahead of the rest once havoc settles down: in the end, Ben Ali and Mubarak had simply gone too far. Hold the “no shit, Sherlock!”  because this rationale is not as plain and straightforward at it sounds.

Having neutered (murdered, exiled, jailed, tortured, spied on, infiltrated, scared the wits out of…) all organized political opposition, rendering it either too feeble (the left) or demonizing it out of contention (political Islam), Ben Ali and Mubarak assumed the system had become impregnable against rupture. 

Once in that frame of mind, a certain kind of cannibalism became the way of once clever, ears-to-the-ground men. They started mindlessly eating into every sector and strata of society—middle classes, intelligentsia, labor, professional associations, etc—whose tacit support or acquiescence, at a minimum, is vital for continuity.  

Contempt took over with deafening effect. Whatever stirrings the regimes registered, they deemed as the usual blather of spineless disaffection. And in fact, Egypt, for one, has been rumbling for quite some time, but the system, thinking its powers limitless, judged the movements little more than trouble whining from the far edges of the garden.


It is hardly surprising, then, that revolt, when it came to Tunisia and Egypt, different as they are, was anything but organized. I mean, is it not extraordinary that in both countries pervasive intelligence services failed in predicting, let alone preempting the uproar?

The truth is that while Ben Ali, Mubarak and their men kept thinking in the box, the people upped and decided to walk wholesale out of it.

As an Egyptian friend of mine just told me, “So many things came into place and the timing, unbeknownst to all of us, was right.”

Khaled Said, the blogger who was beaten to death in 2010 by the police, the years of labor action to no avail, the church bombing that warned of a community cajoled into falling apart, the rigged parliamentary elections that reaped 97% of the vote for the official party with such impunity…

And then Twitter and facebook that could not be silenced no matter how hard the bad boys tried.

These were clear signs that this rule had just gone too far.

Once Ben Ali fell, Egyptians could only ask themselves, Why not Mubarak as well?

A pollster told me recently, “fear works.”

It does, but only for a while.

There are lessons for us as we forecast who’s next.

The question is: Are the rulers still standing actually listening?