Commentary: Egypt in Crisis

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By Edmond Y. Azadian

The social unrest sweeping across the Middle East has caught up with Egypt, long considered one of the most stable nations in the region and a cornerstone of US strategic policy in the Muslim world.

As of this writing, the situation is too fluid for observers to make accurate predictions about the outcome of the popular movement, which was unleashed on January 24.

For almost three decades, President Hosni Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron fist, most of the time under marshal law. Dissent was suppressed and parties enjoying any political support were banned. Mubarak was elected and re-elected term after term and his ossified regime distanced itself more and more away from the sentiments of the masses. Had he groomed his successor before his last term — his regime or a modified version of that regime — could stand a chance of survival. His son, Gamal Mubarak, waited too long in the wings to lead the country. He could have become a more sophisticated leader that could bring a more positive image to Egypt. But recent reports indicate that he is already in London after reading the writing on the wall.

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Throughout his rule, Mubarak was able to suppress any dissent through his police force or the army. At the present time, it looks like both have slipped away from his grip. The police have disappeared from the streets, giving away those streets to vigilante groups; the army has refused to go against the people and has vowed to defend the right of peaceful demonstrations.

Traditionally, every time there has been a regime change in Egypt, it has been with relatively limited bloodshed, unlike other Middle East countries.

When King Farouk’s rule had alienated itself from the masses, it took a spark to overthrow him. It was the Arab fiasco in the Palestine war that brought about the revolution of 1952. Yet the deposed king left the country with all honors.

Gamal Nasser had done his homework carefully, infiltrating the leftist groups and the Muslim Brotherhood and having studied their inner workings, he moved to overthrow the king. He operated behind the scenes, pushing forward a likeable father figure, Gen. Muhammad Naguib. Once the revolution was well established, he took over the helm of the country and incited Arab nationalism throughout the region. He also rose to international stature when he joined Yugoslavia’s Tito, India’s Nehru and Indonesia’s Sukarno to launch the non-aligned movement between the two antagonistic blocks of East and West. For a time he was able to manipulate the two blocks against each other until the nonaligned movement lost steam and he lost a war against Israel.

When the doctors warned him of his imminent demise, he had two choices to turn over to his successor: he could hand-pick Zakariya Muheddine, his left-leaning vice president or to more nationalistic Anwar Sadat, who did not command any political clout at that time. He opted for Sadat, who held the bull by the horn and revolutionized Egyptian politics and the dynamics in the entire Middle East.

Sadat’s assassination transferred the power on a silver platter to the air force colonel and vice president, Husni Mubarak, who ruled the country with yester-year’s methods and lost touch with the political realities of his country. He believed that the US subsidies and political support would carry his regime a long way, as long as he pleased the US administrations by maintaining the Sadat-brokered peace deal with Israel.

The US administration kept harping that Egypt was the biggest recipient of the American aid, some $1.3 a year. Very few people questioned the quality of that aid, which in reality was US vintage military hardware to force the Egyptian army to prop up corrupt regimes like Zaire’s Mobutu or similar client nations on the African continent, while, over the years, the economic aid was dwindling to lead the Mubarak administration into the current catastrophe.

Even today, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton continues to award the badge of honor to Mubarak for being at peace with Israel, for US domestic policy in mind, the Egyptian demonstrators are sharpening their criticism of US government.

Demonstrators in larger Egyptian cities are growing in numbers and today they have only one demand: the end of Mubarak rule. Mubarak has responded with last-minute cosmetic changes by dismissing his cabinet and appointing a new prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, and a vice president, Omar Suleyman, both of them from the military. This bandaid operation seems too little and too late to rescue Mubarak’s regime.

It is the natural instinct of all totalitarian rulers not to allow any competing political figure to emerge. Thus Mohammed ElBaradei has stepped in the vacuum. He has developed his political profile internationally, having served as the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency of the United Nations.

Joining the crowds at Tahrir Square, ElBaradei announced: “What we have begun cannot be reversed. We have a key demand from the regime. We demand the president to step down and Egypt will start a new era.”

Many observers are surprised by the low-key approach of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, most vocal and powerful opposition group. Although it has endorsed ElBaradei, the Muslim Brotherhood avoids the center stage so as not to scare more liberal groups in the country and the international community as a whole.

So much so that conservative groups like the Brookings Institute and other think tanks have begun to underline a few distinctions in defining the Muslim Brotherhood as a more moderate movement, unlike Shi’a movements like Hezbollah or the Iranian rulers.

After repeatedly praising President Mubarak for his steadfast support of the Peace Treaty with Israel and the stability which he has provided in the region for so long, the US administration spokespersons, especially Secretary of State Clinton, have begun to calibrate their tone and assessment voicing an “orderly transition.”

By all estimates, the regime change in Egypt, which seems to be inevitable, is derived from domestic discontent. Whoever succeeds Mubarak will be very reluctant to make dramatic changes in the country’s foreign policy. Any new ruler will be mindful of feeding the 40-percent poverty stricken population, and 10-percent unemployed. That priority can only be fulfilled through American largesse.

Although leaders in Israel seem outwardly nervous, they are reassured that Washington will not give away any economic assistance to Egypt without any guarantees for Israel. Additionally, there can be no enviable political atmosphere in the region for Israel than the one extant currently; since the Arab world is in turmoil and gripped by its domestic instabilities — from Algeria and Tunisia to Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, which does not allow any move against Istanbul.

Many will wonder what will happen to the Armenian community in Egypt, which in its heyday counted 55,000. At one time, the Egyptian-Armenian community was a shining jewel with its material and intellectual wealth. Today, it has been reduced to a force of less than 5,000. It is materially rich and — intellectually poor.

After Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized businesses and properties, Armenians, like all other groups lost their economic base. When Sadat de-nationalized the economy, the Armenian community had dwindled greatly.

Now a reduced community is in control of a huge wealth that it doesn’t know what to do with. The church, the AGBU, the schools are sitting on substantial pieces of real estate whose proceeds overshadow their needs.

Armenians in Egypt have always been on the upper stratum of society and have been treated fairly. Contrary to all the propaganda, even in the Nasser era the Armenian Church, the schools, the state radio and the newspapers were treated with kid gloves.

The Armenian presence in Egypt goes back to the Middle Ages, but the community thrived after the Hamidian Massacres of 1895-96 in the Ottoman Empire. At one time, Nubar Pasha was the prime minister, Hovannes Youssoufian was the minister of agriculture, and Boghos Nubar and Janik Chaker were the head of the railroad system. Nubar Pasha revolutionized Egypt’s legal system by establishing the Mixed Tribunals. He also tried to maintain the majority of the Suez Canal stocks for Egypt. That attempt cost him his career, as the British colonial powers overthrew him.

Except for the Nubar era, Armenians have not played any significant role politically. Instead they have contributed to the country in arts, music and culture for which they have been appreciated.

Recent bombings of Coptic churches may scare some Armenians. But overall, they have always been treated with respect.

Every change will bring some instability and the current one is no exception.

The Egyptian people in general are mild mannered and that is reflected in their politics. Let us hope that the past repeats itself and that no surprises are in store.

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