PROTESTS IN EGYPT:
LEADING TO A GOVERNMENT BY THE PEOPLE?
An Interview with EMMANUELLE DIEHL
Special by THE NEW TIMES HOLLER!
From the Bureau of Tank-Lined Streets of Flying Bricks and Joyous Chants
© Amir Bey, 2011
Egypt's protests have been the center of world-wide attention for over 2 weeks now. But it's more than the mere "attention" à la the usual political fare fed by the media.
We're watching what could be part of an irreversable trend: the Middle East will never be the same. Israel will have to re-think its positions with the Palestinians, and the fundamentalists may have their center of gravity moved also.
THE NEW TIMES HOLLER! is presenting an exclusive interview with Emmanuelle Diehl, the managing director of SELA Advisory Group, which is a consulting firm in international development that is active in many countries throughout the Middle East and Africa. She has been living in Egypt for 7 years. She recently arrived from Egypt to France and offers the following observations:
HOLLER!: Discontent with the government has been festering in Egypt for quite sometime; there were food riots, dissatisfaction about jobs, the perception of corruption in the government, and about the economic situation as the disparity between the rich and the poor has been growing. What ignited these protests at this particular time?
DIEHL: Well as you rightly listed all of these reasons are at the roots of this movement. People got fed up and the youth managed to organize themselves through social media and the internet in general! Bloggers and youth movements have been organizing themselves and expressing their discontent for some time. The death of Khaled Said, a young blogger that was killed last year in an internet café by the police, raised people?s awareness about the regime?s misactions and attempts to silence activists and the opposition. Events like repeated arrests of bloggers and the rigged elections of last parliamentary elections fuelled the youth movements with more grievances and reasons to call for a change of regime. The jasmine revolution in Tunisia probably encouraged the youth leaders to take action and showed them that if it happened there, it could also happen in Egypt. The 25th of January 2011 was chosen as it was a national holiday in Egypt to commemorate ?Police Day?. As a holiday more people had a chance to attend the demonstration!
HOLLER!: Why should the protestors trust the military over police? Could this be a case of good cop and bad cop, in the end, might both institutions want to maintain the status quo with or without Mubarak?
DIEHL: The army has been looked at as a peacekeeping institution in Egypt especially since the last wars with Israel. Generally speaking, the army is seen as a rather ?clean? institution in comparison with the police. You have to take into consideration the landscape of Cairo and Egypt before the demonstrations started in order to understand the distrust and animosity that the people have towards the police! Any visitor is stunned by the amount of police officers posted everywhere, at every corner, every intersection and in front of any public buildings!!! The police?s slogan was ?the police and the people are at the service of the country?, which was interpreted as ?the police and the people are at the service of the regime? by most police officers who were trained to believe so. The Egyptian police have been accused of human rights violations, torture, bribery, nepotism and other misactions. Many police officers have received minimal education and as a result often suffer from an inferiority complex that some times is expressed through abuses of powers and tyranny without proper accountability.
But to come back to the current situation, two days after the demonstrations had begun the police received the order to disappear from the streets while leaving prisons? doors opened. Suddenly, three big prisons were opened releasing thousands of convicts in the deserted streets of Cairo!! Police stations got looted, stores destroyed and stolen from and buildings burned down. As a result, people had to organize themselves to protect their properties and their families. While people were left to fend off for themselves, protesters were being beaten up by police forces in Tahrir Square and other parts of the city. So when the army came in protesters and people felt relieved and believed in a first victory over the regime. The military is known for being the last line for defence for the regime; so if the military was sent in, it implied that the police had lost control over the situation in Tahrir and the regime had no other choice but to send its last defence. So people believed that the military?s arrival was a sign they had shaken the government enough to send in the army.
Moreover, people were cheering because they believe in the army as being there to protect the people and not being against them, as it was the case in Tunisia!
HOLLER!: It has been said that these protestors are made up of a cross section of Egyptian society, rich, poor, religious, secular, but are the very rich truly with this movement? Are fundamentalists seeing an opportunity to gain influence?
DIEHL: Indeed, a broad section of the Egyptian society was represented during these demonstrations. It is not a movement that was started by a political movement or a religious group but youth activists that are educated and internet savvy! Many people of different backgrounds identified with the cause and felt the wind of change that they had all been waiting for!!! Obviously, some businessmen and the people that benefited from the Mubarak clan were not amongst the protestors but rich people who believed that time had come for a change and who wanted to see free democratic elections take place in Egypt also joined the demonstrations. The variety of people reinforced the plea of the protestors; it is not a movement that was started by just hungry people! For the first time people believed in possible change and these demonstrations restored hope amongst Egyptians!
The Muslim Brothers joined the demonstrations at a later stage once they saw the impact of the first few days. Of course, they are trying to gain more grounds as a political force and as an opposition group. With bad or good intentions the Muslim Brothers have decided to back the youth movement. Their demands have been clear: freedom [from] oppression, fair representation at elections and recognition of their existence as part of the Egyptian society.
The MB are well organized as NGOs around the country and fill in services that the government should provide, such as medical services, electricity poles etc in remote governorates of Egypt. Because of their role but not always their beliefs, they have gained popular support over the years! Because they have been banned from the political realm for 30 years, they are trying to take advantage of the momentum to push for a regime change. During these past few days, they declared that they are not interested in running for the next elections. Should constitutional reforms take place, they will form a political party to have legitimate and open political representation. Within a democratic system, all tiers of society have a right to express themselves so they will push for this right to exist politically.
The world leaders and countries in the region fear the emergence of a strong majority of MB in Egypt?s future parliament. Because of the renewed political participation of the youth and of the whole country, it is believed that the MB will win seats in parliament but not a majority with a less significant influence!
HOLLER!: What might the Muslim Brotherhood gain from this situation? Are they being changed as well?
DIEHL: I hope I have answered that question well enough with regards to the MBs gain from that situation. However, I just would like to add that due to the highly mediatised events, MBs are getting more exposed. As they are part of the demonstrations and so far have not been associated with the violent perpetrators, they are using the media to change their image; they came out as being very civil, peaceful with a lot of self-control. As a result, they managed to put more people on their side with respect to obtaining the right to exist politically.
The fear is not in MB?s immediate takeover of political affairs and political institutions but in a leadership gap within the different youth movements! This leadership gap can create a weak position for the demands of the revolution and discredit the current negotiations. Currently, the different youth movements do not all agree on the position adopted by the council of wise men that is negotiating, on their behalf, with the current government. As a result, it can lead to more disruption and delays for a peaceful and effective transition.
HOLLER!: Some have been criticizing recent moves by the US government to support a peaceful transition as being naive. Do you see that as being the case?
DIEHL: I would not say naïve. But where did you see that?
HOLLER!: Certain members of the Israeli government and the press there.
DIEHL: Everyone and most Egyptians and certainly the youth movement and the protestors want to see a peaceful transition take place anyways. What the Egyptians do not want is for an international actor, whether the US or the EU or any other country, dictate who will be representing them!
With respect to leading a peaceful transition, I believe this statement was said to gain time as the US and other countries did not expect the turn of events! The US, as the number one ally of Egypt in the region, had to step in obviously. However, they have to be a bit more subtle as to what role they are playing in establishing this transitional government.
The issue here is not in the naïveté of the statement but what is meant by transition and more importantly who will lead this transition! Two scenarios are possible:
1.A government still headed by Mubarak but led by Soliman
2.A government headed by Soliman as VP with full legislative power and control over the army.
The demonstrations empowered the people and suddenly they were no longer afraid of the power in place. Some of the protestors are asking for Mubarak to step down, believing that this is the only solution for a governmental change to happen. Some others believe that Mubarak announcing he and his son will not run at the upcoming presidential elections was a great achievement that many people had never hoped for before! A New Role For Egyptians on the World Stage
The transition, whether with Mubarak still in power or with Soliman, has to take place peacefully and slowly, allowing parties to get organized, draft a program, elect a representative, and launch campaigns, so people properly understand who their choices will be when they go to vote!
Most Egyptians do not know what democracy means and have never experienced the feeling of voting freely for a candidate in which they believe!
For all of this to happen, for the country to get back on its feet economically and re-establish a sense of normalcy, a peaceful and slow transition is the only solution in my opinion. However, this transition will take place peacefully and swiftly if compromises are reached!
World history shows that democracy is a long process and that democratic countries around the world did not become democratic in a fortnight!
HOLLER!: What would be the most constructive role the US could maintain?
DIEHL: In my opinion, the US?s most constructive role is to act as a supporter of the Egyptian people but not as an ?imposer?! It is important to highlight that most Egyptians believe that the US has helped Mubarak?s regime stay in power during three decades. If the US wants to play a positive role and keep its strategic alliance with Egypt, the US government needs to play its diplomatic card very carefully as it doesn?t want to be perceived as being the puppet holder deciding on the faith of Egypt! The best the US can do is support the Egyptian people rather than requiring an immediate regime change!
What is important to highlight is that the US needs Egypt as a strategic ally in the region as Egypt needs the US! The US has a delicate role to play!
HOLLER!: How has this been affecting the Middle East overall? Israel/Palestine?
DIEHL: It is a difficult answer to give in such a short paragraph. Moreover, the current context, unless you can read in the cards or a crystal ball does not allow anyone to provide an accurate picture of what can happen in the rest of the region and with the peace process.
Nevertheless, there has been an evident ripple effect from Yemen, Algeria, to Jordan, where presidents and rulers have agreed not to re-run for president, cancel the emergency law and change the government. This is just the beginning. People in the region have been living under similar regimes for years and are ready for change. Although each country in North Africa and the Middle East region is different, the jasmine revolution in Tunisia and the Egyptian revolution showed the people that change was possible, that a people?s revolution was possible and that hope could prevail over oppression, torture and poverty!
Before going any further, I just would like to take a few lines to talk about the recent attack that damaged one of the natural gas pipelines going to Israel (although the attack damaged the one going to Jordan). Although it can be interpreted as a first sign of overt aggression towards Israel, the attack was a reaction of utter anger and disgust from the Egyptian people. I am not pointing fingers at any faction in particular or condoning the attack. I just would like to explain the context in order to avoid panic and fear of what it could represent. It has become common knowledge in Egypt that the deal with Israel regarding the provision of natural gas - for a value of 3 billion dollars a year (twice the annual US aid to Egypt) - was done through an off-shore company based in Europe, belonging to a close friend of Mubarak. That deal has been highly criticized due to the preferential low rates negotiated with Israel and the fact that this money was sent off-shore.
With respect to the Egyptian revolution, rather than looking at each country individually and speculating on what will become of current peace treaties and the peace process, I?d rather look at the region from a macro point of view. What is happening today will affect not only the area but the rest of the world (crude oil prices, sea routes? disruptions due to the Suez Canal, alienation and increased islamophobia, rise of prices for food products, stocks exchanges? devaluation etc?)
The region is very fragile and in order to avoid an explosion of the whole area, these different countries will need economic support to fight poverty, and avoid deep frustrations! These different countries will have to continue on developing and strengthening their economy (trade, FDI, job creations etc?), empowering the population through education for all, establishing democratic institutions and guaranteeing human security for the people. This is the biggest support the international community can provide to these countries in the region!
HOLLER!: It may be too early to tell, but do you see the protests leading to: merely replacing the faces of government but not policies; a general modification with the military in charge, and leaders being chosen from their ranks; or an eventual democracy with an inclusive form of government that is more transparent.
DIEHL: Based on the events of the last few days, especially the negotiations between groups of the opposition and the government, the protests are leading towards policy changes with new figures in different ministerial posts for the moment. I do not believe in a military putsch! I think that the current government is under a lot of pressure, local and international, to show some signs of policy reforms that will lead to constitutional changes allowing for more political freedom and freedom of expression. However, these are thorough reforms that require time and tedious work. The question is what type of transitional government will be able to conduct such reforms in so little time!
The country has to redefine itself politically, socially and economically! It is a challenge that Egypt will have to take! I hope it is based on a creative process rather than on destructive criticism!
Hannibal Hansohk/European Press Agency
| To read an earlier HOLLER! interview with Emmanuelle, click here.