Thursday, April 21, 2011

Stealing revolutions with phantom solutions

Revolution is in the air across the world. Despite extensive media coverage, a confusing picture is presented as to what ‘transition’ might meet the demands of these revolutions. The domino effect promises more revolutions in the Middle East in particular, with similar causes and effects. It is thus pertinent to assess the real causes of these revolutions and whether they achieve their ‘real’ demands.The Egyptian revolution, which claims to have passed a critical milestone of ousting the ruler, serves as a good case in point.

Opinions on the revolution were primarily driven by broadcasts that showed little more than events in Tahrir Square. The popular uprising was so truly grassroots’ driven that it lacked clear identity and leadership, which allowed astroturfers to attach more articulate words tothe emotional protestor. Invariably the revolution is portrayed as demanding freedom, democracy and economic opportunities. This was designed to give the implicit notion that given it taken for granted in the western world; the demands would be largely fulfilled by a similar system taking root in Egypt.Whilst unusually frank critique of Mubarak and the US is seen as an essential source of credibility while discussing the situation, the rest of the analysis seemingly suffices with scratching the surface of the crisis.The reality underpinning the revolution could be explored in brief space by considering two key issues in tandem: firstly, the origins of imperial support for the Nasser/Sadat/Mubarak regime and secondly, nature of the demands of the revolution.

By the beginning of the 20th century Egypt and the Middle East had significantly departed from their Islamic roots, its prominent position in the world affairs and their prosperous past. This came as a result of centuries of internal decline in ideological consistency and the colonial machination. The post colonial era across the newly fragmented middle east differed in their respective alliances and regimes but were united in one single goal – that of combating political islam.

Why – what would Islamic politics threaten?

The colonial powers had established a foothold in a region by destroying not only physical armies but also a system that applied a coherent ideology and assumed a naturally influential role in the world. Defeating the armies and leaving the same system in place would only resurrect its power manifold.In fact the strength of the muslim world was solely driven by their ideology and nothing else – the proof of which is, in its absence, they possess no strength despite its weapons and standing armies. This obvious binary issue was the basis on which the independence of Turkey was negotiated via the Lausanne Treaty by demanding the abolishing Ottoman Caliphate in 1924. The independence was secured despite big opposition in Europe and Britain in particular, and Caliphate issue risked inflaming muslim unrest in India, Britain’s largest colony. It is the same condition on which support for political parties and regimes is provided today.

Islamic politics meant unity of the muslims on basis of a coherent vision, continual improvement of their affairs and projecting a powerful and contrasting position in the world in relation to colonial powers. This cannot be achieved by a clannish or cliquish regime, rather by a proven system maintained by a sophisticated political medium. Not surprisingly, dictatorial regimes were invariably foist edover all of the muslim world, each lasting decades on end. Every protest and every crisis was easily quelled with the unabashed support of the imperial powers. One such protest managed to get out of control into a mass movement this year under the spotlight of global media.

The problems in Egypt derive from this context, as development is thwarted by a policy that is meant to undermine its strength vis-à-vis the interests of the powers. These problems include poverty, food riots, failing infrastructure, corruption, unemployment, poor human development (ranked around 100 in lowest tertile), debt (public debt – 80% of GDP, external debt $29bn less than half of Mubarak’s assets), extra-judicial activities, torture, indefinite emergency law, ignoring the plight of Palestinians and peace with Israel. While Egypt was promoted as a prime tourist destination with rising GDP, Gallup's global wellbeing metrics make clear that lives of Egyptians did not improve (shown the plot below) . This is not due to lack of interest or ingenuity among the population - young people in the Arab League were found to be nearly four times as likely as those in North America or Europe to plan to start businesses in the next year.

The demands of the revolution in February 2011 included the resignation of Mubarak, cancelling emergency law and curfew, dismantling state secret service and university police, Omar Suleiman not to run next presidential election, dissolving parliament and shura council, releasing prisoners since January 25, investigating officials and thugs responsible violence against the peaceful protesters since January 25, sacking Anas el Fiqi and halt media attack on protesters in government owned media, reimbursing shop owners for their losses during the curfew and announcing these demands on government television and radio. For the transitional period they demanded drafting a new constitution,the right to set up media without a prior permission and real autonomy for national media,raising minimum wage to 1,200 Egyptian Pounds, the right to set up political parties, associations and unions by notification, cancelling the national service in the police force and ending the security clampdown on telecommunications and the internet. Protests continue demanding putting Mubarak and allies to trial, confiscating their assets and transfer of power from military to civilians.

These demands appear seemingly pragmatic and devoid of ideological or fundamental shifts. To appreciate the multi-dimensional character of these demands, one has to overlay this on top of public opinions, which may have received less coverage during the few unprecedented months in the region. From various surveys the overwhelming message suggests far more important undercurrents in Egyptian society.

US is the most important ally of the Egyptian government, which provides the second largest foreign aid ($1.5-2bn a year) and constitutes about 10% of imports.
Views on the US include:
85%have unfavourable attitude towards the US,
87% had no confidence in the US,
92% named the U.S. as one of two nations that are the greatest threat to them,
only 4% said if they had to live in another country they would choose the U.S.and
52% have an unfavorable opinion of the American people .

Demand for islam is taken for granted in Egypt:nearly unanimous (95%) support for a large role for Islam in politics , 82 percent want stoning for those who commit adultery; 77 percent would like to see whippings and hands cut off for robbery; and 84 percent favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion. Majorities of those who favor sharia as a source of law associate it with many positive attributes. 97% of Egyptians, 76% of Iranians, and 69% of Turks in this group associate it with justice for women. Strong majorities in Iran (80%), Egypt (96%), and Turkey (63%) also think of sharia as promoting a fair justice system .

Therefore considering historical context, demands and opinions, it is safe to conclude that the revolution seeks a fundamental break from a century of unislamic, dependent and indifferent politics. Any change other than implementing an Islamic system would be insufficient to address the demands.

Mere democratic freedom and access to economic opportunities would make developing Egypt untenable. Within such a democratic framework, the proponents have already given assurances of honouring past international security and economic agreements. The revolution has been hijacked in a manner that the existing constraints would be largely untouched. Promoting democracy in the region has been in the interest of the US for the past decade, so that any new developments could still be manipulatable preserving its interests. According to leaked Wikileaks cable dated December 2007, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) planned to dedicate 66.5 million dollars in 2008 and 75 million in 2009 to Egyptian programmes promoting democracy and good governance. A 2008 cable also outlines how the State Department helped an Egyptian pro-democracy activist to attend a youth movement summit in New York and how the unnamed activist presented an "unwritten plan for democratic transition in 2011."He claimed that opposition groups, "including the Wafd, Nasserite, Karama and Tagammu parties, and the Muslim Brotherhood, Kifaya, and Revolutionary Socialist movements" all supported the unwritten plan.

The term “civil society” has featured prominently in the discussions of democracy in the Middle East, including the comments of the resigned Al-Azhar spokesperson. Civil society refers to uncoerced collective action around shared interests and values and are often populated by organizations such as charities, NGOs, community/faith/professional/social groups, trade unions, and advocacy groups.As in the case of Egypt and other developing countries, ambiguous and ad hoc liberalisation measures can allow such spheres of activity operate on the margins of law. Such pursuits for civil society have resulted mainly in individuals and enterprises often at the mercy of informal and corrupt administrative application.

Speaking of economic opportunities within the current framework, we saw that the past Egyptian government had threatened to reduce food subsidies, and the prospect of improving this is questionable noting existing trends. A graph of Egyptian oil imports, exports, and consumption (plot from Energy Export Databrowser) shows Egypt’s oil use rising rapidly, while amount extracted is declining.

Egypt was already significantly overspending in 2009 (revenues of $46.82bn and expenditures of $64.19bn). With oil production down, associated industries like refining and chemical products would likely take a hit, which would make raising revenues related to these sources difficult.With lower world oil production, revenues from Suez Canal may also stall, exacerbating unemployment problems already about 9.7% in 2010. This year might also change Egypt from an oil exporting to oil importing nation,adding to the imbalance - Egypt imported 40% of its food, and 60% of its wheat (adverse competition from meat industry and biofuels).Estimated the inflation rate for 2010 stands at 12.8%, and since wages are not expected to match inflation rates, inflationary pressures will pressure government to increase subsidies; at a time it cannot really afford to do so.

The solution lies in a fundamental overhaul of the system in order to put Egypt on a path of development without the constraints currently placed on it. Realigning priorities would have to include land reform, education, reclaim misappropriated assets, nationalizing public resources, rightly devoting the talent of the ummah in addressing her problems, influence muslim world to cooperate and cross-subsidise respective shortcomings, use its unique geopolitical and resource endowments to maximum advantage. This should not done in an indiscriminate manner to become an obsessively self-centered and materialistic product of capitalism. The policies of the state are driven purely by technical optimizations, rather by an overarching perspective of man, life of universe. It is because islam provides the correct solutions to big questions of mankind that it deserves to be the source of future policy making.

Allah(swt) sent islam as a guidance and a path of elevation on this life and the hereafter. Evidently in the establishment of islam is the method prescription for societal change. Rasoolullah’s (saw) steps towards forming the islamic system involved culturing and organizing the agents of change, generating public opinion and emotion and seeking the support particularly of the powerful and influential. The lotus revolution showed clear signs of the efficacy of this method, albeit at the hand of unislamic actors. Protests succeeded this time, due to the organizers addressing a large section of the population – mobilizing and snowballing the masses from outside the city en route to the city centre. The role of the influential people and instruments of public opinion in steering the society was used to best effect by the US and co- colonialists. While masses agitated without leadership, the influential were easily able to steal the revolution promote a narrow agenda for change, which amounted little more than face change. It is clear whose interests are being protected – which section of the revolution wanted the torturer and right hand of Mubarak Omar Suleiman to be replacement?

Did the 1500 killed and the 10,000 injured in this revolution risk their lives to maintain the system by merely giving some powers of the chairman to its chief executive officer? Did they want to overlook the crimes of the past, ignore the plight of their brothers in Palestine and colonial domination? Certainly not and the grassroots revolution continues unabated with further sacrifices. The role of army has been critical in the nature of change that ensued - whoever has the army on their side, gets to implements their system. The army was obviously not on the side of the people evident from the April crackdown – whose side is it on?

Learning valuable lessons, the opposition groups need to anchor themselves to the broader Islamic underpinnings of the revolution and the Islamic method of change elaborated by the seerah.

The progress of the initial phases of the revolution showed entire energy is short-sightedly channelled into the ostensive goal of removing Mubarak. As the prospect of his resignation was delayed, the protest compromised more to achieve what is now a narrow goal, stripped off its initial multi-dimensional character. A transition similar to the Indonesian protests leading to ousting of Suharto in 1997 is being sought. This has been the case of most revolutions in recent history - Albert Camus’ observes that “All modern revolutions have ended in the reinforcement of the state.” As the protest continues amidst increased awareness, we hope that Allah(swt) guides the ummah to demand the ‘real’ solution – the Islamic system.

"O you who believe! Obey Allah and the Messenger when he calls you to that which gives you life" [Anfal, 8:24]

Jon Clifton and Lymari Morales, (February 2011), Egyptians', Tunisians' Wellbeing Plummets Despite GDP Gains: Traditional economic indicators paint an incomplete picture of life in these countries. Gallup. Gallup classifies respondents worldwide as "thriving," "suffering," or "struggling" based on how they rate their current and future lives.

The Silatech Index, (2010), Voices of Young Arabs. Also in Mohamed Younis, (November 2010), More Than One in Seven Young Arabs Plan to Start a Business, Gallup.

Zogby International, (July 2010), Poll conducted for the University of Maryland.

Pew Global Attitudes Project, (December 2010), Muslim Publics Divided on Hamas and Hezbollah: Most Embrace a Role for Islam in Politics.

Gallup, (2007), Egypt, Iran and Turkey poll on shariah as the source and role of legislation.

Abu Nazeeha

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