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Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Port Said Massacre and the SCAF

Let’s get one thing straight. The events in Port Said were no accident. They cannot simply be attributed to soccer hooliganism or a miscalculation by security officials as to the amount of personnel required to secure a stadium. No, the Port Said massacre was deliberate.

I should pause right here. I’m beginning to sound like a conspiracy nut. Indeed if there is one thing my undergraduate and postgraduate studies have taught me it is not to speculate, and to back up any claims with sources. Given the nature of the situation however, any sources provided must be speculative in nature. As any researcher who has studied the country will tell you, Egypt isn’t exactly what you would call transparent. Nonetheless, one does not need sources to notice that there is something glaringly wrong with this picture:

The top picture is what most Egyptians are used to seeing at football matches. Though not the best photo, one can see a human shield, surrounding the stands, formed by security forces.

The bottom picture is from the Ahly-Masry game in Port Said. Even a 3 year old can see the difference. The only security forces present, about two dozen or so, are sitting on chairs that are relatively far away from the stands.

One can also see a difference in this photo. The first shows the Ahly-Masry game when the crowd ran onto the field. Here, a high ranking security official walks carefree through the mob as they viciously attack Ahly fans and players. The bottom image is that of an Ahly-Mahalla game which also witnessed crowds entering the pitch. Notice the difference.

Now, some people argue that regardless of the number, no security force would have been able to stop that crowd. This is somewhat correct, but not entirely. First, the size of the audience is always greater than the amount of security forces. This is obvious. Yet, never do we see the same behaviour we saw in Port Said. Numbers are largely irrelevant. What is more important, are the tactics and actions employed by personnel.

Anyone who saw the match in its entirety will tell you that officials did not exactly follow standard operating procedure. For instance, multiple times throughout the match, audience members ran onto the pitch. Yet, these audience members were not granted the standard beat down that would usually occur. Instead security officials simply sat and watched.

The ramifications of such a nonchalant attitude by the security forces are great. Let’s illustrate my point with an analogy. Let’s say that you and I and 100 others are trapped behind an electric fence. Wishing to escape, we look for a way to get through the obstruction. Being the manipulative SOB that I am, I would convince you to go test the waters, so to speak, and attempt to climb the fence. Now, if you successfully climb and get to the other side, we would expect the 101 others to follow suit. But if you got blown back, your hands charred and your hair smoking, we would all most likely just sit down, and thank our lucky stars that it wasn’t us who went first.

When the first audience member entered the pitch without repercussions, the metaphorical barrier was broken and the flood gates were opened.

The question that now arises is who? Who would benefit the most from an event that causes instability in Egypt. Some have argued Israel (not surprising since Israel is blamed for almost everything in this part of the world. Google Sharm el-Sheikh shark attack), others blame the US. Yet both these claims don’t hold up to serious scrutiny. For one, the US and Israel have very little to gain from an unstable or failing Egypt. Both states have large investments in the nation and both states would really not like to see Egypt become a hotbed of terrorist activity. Though it would accurate to suggest that the US and Israel would have preferred Mubarak to remain in power, I would be willing to bet that they have resigned themselves to the idea that the Mubarak era is over, and that whether they like it or not, the future of Egypt is democratic.

It is SCAF who is pulling the strings in this case. What’s in it for them you ask? Good question, I’ll tell you.

First, democracies, by their very nature, are constant power struggles. Usually, these struggles occur within pre-existing guidelines that were established years ago. Various institutions are in place to ensure that the power struggles remain fairly civil.

In Egypt, our institutions are weak and the guidelines that set the rules which shape the power struggles are relatively non-existent. Instead, the competing bodies each are attempting to play by their own rules as to how to attain power. Some, such as the various political parties, are attempting to attain power through the democratic process. Others however, such as the remnants of the previous regime, may wish instability on Egypt for their “I told you so” moment, but really have nothing to gain from chaos. This is of course, unless they are so na├»ve as to believe Egyptians would welcome them back.

The SCAF on the other hand, has the most to gain from what happened in Port Said. To understand why, one must know a little something about how most Egyptians view their military.

Egyptians see their armed forces as infallible. Try telling an Egyptian that the October 1973 war was actually a stalemate rather than a victory for Egypt. Most likely they will yell at you, insult you, and leave you. Egyptians also have a personal relationship with the military. Most Egyptian males are conscripted into the armed forces for 1-3 years after college. Every family in Egypt has a member who is, or has been in the military. For many in Egypt, criticizing the Egyptian military is like insulting a family member.

Moreover, the Egyptian military is a pretty solid institution. They are relatively well trained, efficient, and wealthy. This is in stark contrast to the crumbling institutions which make up the Egyptian governmental bureaucracy.

What does this have to do with Port Said? Well, given the idolization of the military forces, and the relative efficiency of the military institution, it would not be a stretch to suggest that many Egyptian people will take Port Said as a foreshadowing of future events. Notice, not a single military officer was present in the stadium and so SCAF cannot be accused of being unable to maintain order. The Ministry of Interior will become the scapegoat. In turn, many Egyptians will tell themselves that only the military is capable of keeping order in Egypt. Indeed, even if they fail to maintain peace (which they clearly have) in this transition period they could hide behind their hero status and argue that if even they, with their majestic Suez crossing water-cannon shooting brilliance, cannot maintain order, who can?

I used to believe that the SCAF would seize power out of the hands of the Egyptian people at the end of this transition period. I was wrong. By June, the Egyptian people will be begging the military to stay and protect them from the chaos that they believe will inevitably erupt. Well played SCAF, well played.

I am back

I have taken a hiatus from blogging for a while. Nonetheless I am back now and will be blogging frequently. I have also activated comments since I have started getting some followers. Thanks for reading. Post your thoughts.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Can Egypt Change?

Foreign Policy had an interesting collection of pieces today about Egypt's future that I think is worth reading. These articles ask the question of what lies ahead for Egypt after Mubarak kicks the bucket.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Finally, Some Good News

Been Traveling around Egypt for the last 10 days. Posts have been limited due to the lack of Internet in the areas I visited. Not to worry though, have returned to Cairo and will continue my posts.

Egyptians have not had much to smile about in recent years. Economic stagnation, rising unemployment, and high inflation have left Egyptians wondering just what exactly happened to their once great country. They see the development of nations such as India, Brazil, and Turkey and ask themselves "why are we lagging behind?" Certainly, these nations do not possess any resources that Egypt lack. They do not owe their growth to a sudden discovery of oil like the gulf nations. Nor do these states depend on over a billion dollars of US aid every year in order to sustain their livelihood. While these nations have grown into regional powers in recent years, Egypt's influence in the Middle East has dwindled and is almost non-existent today. So much so that the vacuum of power left by Egypt is being filled by 2 non-Arab neighbors, Turkey & Iran.

Yet who is to blame for Egypt's malaise in recent years? In a Democracy, the responsibility always falls with the people. Yet in an authoritarian state, which Egypt clearly is, the responsibility falls with the dictator. That's why Egyptians couldn't help but smile when news broke that Hosni Mubarak is terminally ill, battling a bout of pancreatic cancer which is, in 99% of cases, fatal. Though rumors had been circulating around Egypt for some time that the 82 year old dictator was ill, foreign intelligence agencies, most likely CIA and Mossad, have recently turned these rumors into reality.

I could almost see the relief in people's eyes when relaying the news of their president's condition to them. One man, after being informed of Mubarak's condition, held his hands up and looked to the heavens as if praying for it to be true. Another, uttered the Arabic phrase "fi siteen dahya", loosely translated into "good riddance". Not many Egyptians feel sympathy for the dying president, and why should they? What has Mubarak done for them in his 30 years of running Egypt into the ground?

The question then arises as to who will take over as Egypt's ruler. According to the Egyptian constitution, elections shall be held within 2 weeks if the president dies while in office. Given the draconian restrictions on who may run for president, specified in article 32 of the Egyptian constitution, there is really only one candidate who stands out as most likely to be Egypt's next ruler: The presidents son, Gamal Mubarak. As to whether or not Gamal will do a better job than his father in running Egypt, this is a hard question to answer. Hosni Mubarak has after all, set the bar very, very low.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Winning & Losing

With two defending players closing in fast, the veteran Asamoah Gyan released a fierce left-footed shot past Tim Howard into the top corner of the American goalkeepers net. "Allahu Akbar" erupted the crowd of Egyptian onlookers who had gathered to watch Ghana play the USA at a neighborhood cafe on a quiet Cairo street. One man, carrying a tabla, began rhythmically beating the traditional instrument as a small group of his friends began to sing and dance to the music. Celebrations were so fervent, that one could not be blamed for thinking that it was the Egyptian team who had scored the goal that secured their place in the quarter finals of the World Cup.

"Why are they celebrating?", I thought as I sipped my mint tea in a dimly-lit corner of the cafe. I couldn't figure out if it was because Egypt's west-African neighbors had won, or simply because the USA had lost. I decided to ask one of the dancing men who had returned to his seat after growing tired from all the enthusiasm. "Why are you so happy?" I asked him in my broken Arabic, "Its not as if Egypt won the game". The man looked at me with an annoyed expression on his face, obviously disgruntled by the subtle reminder that Egypt had not even qualified for the world cup. "Because America needs to learn that it's not infallible", he responded, "even they must know when to accept defeat and go home".

There is a tendency for people in the US to think of themselves as indestructible. Hollywood movies, which often show Americans overcoming impossible odds only to find themselves victorious perpetuate this misguided notion. Politicians and media pundits are no better as they constantly remind their audiences of the might and power of the "greatest country on earth". While this certainly has the benefit of creating a strong sense of nationalism within the US, it also has some serious drawbacks. Most other nations understand that sometimes the best course of action is retreat, this concept however, seems absent from the American psyche.

Perhaps most evident in the case of the longest war in American history, Afghanistan. Though anyone who has any knowledge of Afghanistan will recognize that America is attempting to defeat a nation which has not only reigned victorious over the Soviet Union but also the British Empire, the US continues its somewhat futile efforts in the Asian state. Certainly, it's as if Bin Laden set a trap that the US, with its wounded pride after 9/11, willingly and recklessly fell into, pursuing him into the only nation which can claim to have brought two of the greatest empires in history to their knees.

Things haven't been looking too good for the US in recent years. While many Americans are quick to blame the recent economic crises on the housing market and the unregulated derivatives market, they forget the trillions of dollars spent on the two wars fought by the US since 9/11. Economic recession or not, military spending in the US is never seriously questioned and remains disproportionately high compared to the rest of the world. So high in fact that the US still spends more on its military than the rest of the world combined. Its no wonder Americans think they're invincible; on paper, the US should have enough military might to win a war against the entire global community.

For the very few Americans who actually follow soccer, the defeat to Ghana was just another loss in just another world cup. No one, not even the most avid US soccer fan truly expected the US to win the cup. Perhaps that's why the sport has such a small following in the US. Because when Americans are not winning, when they are not told that they are the best, they lose interest. They choose to turn a blind eye to defeat and instead focus on their strengths. And what Americans know they are the best at, what they have been told by their politicians and taught in their schools, is that they know how to win wars.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Stuck in Traffic

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about Cairo is the traffic. It's mayhem, as cars obey no rules, police enforce no laws, and donkey-driven carriages attempt to share the road with the cities 17 million inhabitants. Car horns continuously ring the Cairo streets at all hours and every once in a while, a trendy Egyptian's customized musical horn can be heard over the sea of monotonous beeping. Those of you living in LA or New York who think you can relate, you can't. Having experienced rush hour traffic in both these cities, I can state confidently that the clusterf*ck that is Cairo is far worse on a daily basis than any of these cities on their worst day. Cairo makes LA look sane.

To Hosni Mubarak and his close aides, Egypt is calm, quiet, and peaceful. Curfews are imposed and enforced when the Egyptian leader decides to travel, and so Mubarak never experiences Egypt's Achilles Heel. This of course, has the adverse effect of delaying millions of Cairenes from their daily lives, forcing them to sit even longer hours in traffic.

The issue here is not simply about congested streets, or curfews. It is part of a much broader issue that seems to be on everyone's tongue in this country: the disconnect between the ruling regime and the reality on the ground. If all Hosni Mubarak sees in Egypt are empty streets, free of not only cars but beggars, street vendors, uncollected garbage, and donkey carts; how can he be expected to address these issues? Yet out of fear and selfishness, the authoritarian leader has placed himself in a bubble that he refuses to leave. Even his son Gamal, when he most likely ascends to the Egyptian throne, should not be expected to acknowledge these problems. The young politician, as we all know, was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, and comes from the most privileged family in Egypt. He too, has no idea of the daily grievances of the average Egyptian.

Of course some may argue that sheltering the ruling regime is necessary for their safety, this begs the question: just how safe are these draconian policies making Hosni Mubarak? Certainly, isolating Egypt's ruler from the Egyptian public may lower the chances of a disgruntled Egyptian attacking the president, but doesn't it also increase the chance of further radicalizing young Egyptians? Feeling more and more ignored by their rulers, young Egyptians are forced to sit back and wait, having only known life under Hosni Mubarak's thirty year iron-fist rule. Stuck in traffic, growing more frustrated by the day, as the desert sun further beats them down.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Nation of Paradoxes

"God rewards those that are generous", stated the old man immediately after Friday prayers had concluded, his dark eyes scanning the small crowd of worshippers that had congregated in a small mosque in a Cairo suburb. "Please", the man said, "My children are starving and I have nothing to give them". "Please," his voice growing more desperate by the second, "I want my darling children to live". With that, the old man moved slowly to a corner by the exit, his head down, hoping that those present would take heed of his message.

The largest shopping mall in Egypt, City Stars, is located on a congested street in Nasr City, Cairo. Inside, Egypt's elite walk the marble floors browsing European and American designer stores, purchasing items that would make even the most spend free westerner cringe at the prices. Yet, many fortunate Egyptians remain undeterred by the high prices, seemingly spending at will on foreign made items. These Egyptians remain unfazed by the global economic recession and the rising prices of Egypt's staple foods. They live in Egypt's most luxurious neighborhoods, enjoying the relative comfort and peace of gated housing projects such as al Rehab, and Tagama al Khamis. To the remaining Egyptians however, and this is the vast majority, life is a daily struggle.

Right outside the bubble that is City Stars, beggars rush the outgoing shoppers pleading for spare change. Some, too proud to beg, attempt to sell everything from toilet paper to flip-flops, to parsley. Occasionally, a generous shopper would stop and reach into their pocket, pulling out enough money to feed the beggar for a week; or enough money for a cup of coffee at the many new Starbucks' that have been popping up all over Cairo. Most however, are not that lucky, either ignored by the crowd of shoppers or yelled at by frustrated men and women who would rather not be reminded of the severe poverty that plague their countrymen.

Now I'm no communist, I understand that in life there are those that have and those that do not. But the enormous gap between the rich and the poor in this country has left me questioning whether or not Egypt's reported GDP growth over the last few years has benefited anyone other than a handful of Egyptians. What's worse is that the Egyptian leadership seems unwilling to directly address this issue, choosing instead to continue opening up Egypt's markets to foreign investment, a path followed, and abandoned, by so many other nations in the past. Poverty is not alleviated by opening up Armani stores, or by lowering property taxes in Egypt's most exclusive areas, but can only be eliminated when those in power make the welfare of the poor their priority. Unfortunately, for the 35 million Egyptians who live on less than $2 a day, the Egyptian government has chosen to focus its energy on the rich; catering to their every whim, as Egypts poor sit patiently, waiting for assistance.