Sunday, February 13, 2011

Comments on Egypt and Algeria

No post yesterday - I needed to let it all sink in.

Three days ago I was asking the question “what now?” because Mubarak hadn’t left. today I’m asking that question again, but for the opposite reason.

What lies ahead for Egypt?

I think the important thing to recognize is that neither theocracy nor military dictatorship have much hope of succeeding at this point. This was the essential part of getting Mubarak out of the presidential palace. As long as he was able to defy the will of the Egyptian people the Egyptian people themselves were nothing. Now they’ve been successful - they are suddenly aware of their own power and acutely aware of the fact that what they accomplished was not even the full extent of their capacity. Certainly the crowds in the streets were dramatic, but they were hardly the whole of the population. Any entity that would presume to dictate to the Egyptian people must be prepared for not only their demonstrated capacity, but also their unseen potential.

The protesters faced down water cannons, tear gas, riot police, hired thugs, state propaganda, media lockdowns, and even crazy guys on camels with big sticks. It can certainly be said that they never faced down the Egyptian army itself, but it should also be pointed out that they never had the support of that same army. The Egyptian people became aware of their own capabilities by pushing beyond the what was thought to be possible, without ever reaching its boundaries.

Is it possible that the Army, confident in its capabilities and bolstered by its strengthened position of authority, will seek to establish its own status quo? Certainly.

Is it also possible that the Muslim brotherhood, sensing an opportunity, takes advantage of their own eighty year old infrastructure and mobilizes a political constituency united by the idea that faith without works is dead, transforming Egypt into a 21st-century theocratic institution? Probable, no, possible, yes.

Is it also possible that a neo-imperialist American New World order establishes a puppet state as the gatekeeper into the oil-rich Middle East? Umm… I may… for the sake of argument, let’s just say that’s another possible outcome.

What all of these scenarios have in common is this - the Egyptian people now know for a fact that they can rid themselves of a deeply entrenched 60+ year regime by going into the streets and demanding change. Although the Egyptian military, the Muslim brotherhood, and Western imperialism can certainly take advantage of the events that have taken place in the streets of cities and towns across Egypt, they certainly cannot take credit for them. And frankly, for any of them (or any other opportunist entities) to presume to seize the reins of a country that has suddenly awakened to its own potential is delusional at best.


So, big things are afoot.

(A foot? Why are big things afoot rather than at hand? I don’t know - don’t ask questions like that.)

Everybody says, “What’s next?”

Well. I’m glad you asked.

I am a pragmatic optimist at heart, . I think things are getting better, but I’m not stupid about it. Some time ago during a conversation over potential outcomes of the 2009 Iranian election protests, a skeptical mathematician friend of mine dismissed my perspective with a wave and a grunt. “You always think the glass is half full.”

“No, Elmar,” I replied, “it’s all a matter of whether the glass is being filled or being emptied.”

So is the glass being filled or emptied?

Think about that for a minute, in the meantime I will turn our attention to the highlight of the weekend: Algeria.


Algeria - February 12 was the scheduled “day of rage/protest” for Algeria.

So what’s been happening in Algeria?


In fact, the protests were bigger than expected by most. Hundreds, or even thousands of people were arrested. Thousands, and possibly tens of thousands were in the streets. Algeria is not Egypt, of course. Population-wise it is much smaller, despite its geographic size.

So. Protests In Algeria. What’s the outlook?

Well, as a self-proclaimed “pragmatic optimist” I have to say it doesn’t look good.

Algeria is a fascinating and beautiful country with a long and storied history. It’s very close to the top of the list of countries that I would absolutely love to go to Right. Now.

Anyway, the Algerians have had a hell of a time struggling for independence. In the early 90s they actually were able to hold democratic elections, but the establishment was uncomfortable with the projected gains that the Algerian Islamist parties were making, and so halfway through the electoral process the whole thing was suspended and the government declared a state of emergency. This kicked off a rather brutal civil war that saw several disenfranchised Islamic groups engaged in violent terrorists attacks against the established government and vicious retaliations by the military against the Islamists with the civilian population caught in the middle and paying a horrible price.

(Sidenote - I highly recommend Star of Algiers, a great piece of fiction about an aspiring Algerian pop star in the early 1990's.)

This unpleasant and protracted civil war finally found its resolution after 9/11 when the Bush administration started to give gazillions of dollars to any government that was willing to spend the money fighting Islamic terrorists.

In light of that useful cash windfall, the Algerian government (with the full and hearty support of America’s overseas counter-terrorist intelligence network) was able to pretty effectively destroy viable elements of a very unpleasant and ruthless domestic movement (largely by doing unpleasant and ruthless things).

The GSPC (a French acronym for the “Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) decided that the Algerian alliance with America’s antiterrorist program was a clear call to ratchet up their own game up as well, and so they declared themselves to be an affiliate of Al Qaeda and renamed themselves Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib* (AQIM).

*“Maghrib” is an Arabic word meaning “Where the sun sets” - it refers to North Africa west of Egypt.

Regardless, the Algerian government has been a potent weapon of stagnation when it comes to liberty and democracy in Algeria. Although AQIM is a rather weak organization at this point, conservative Islam is much more deeply entrenched in the common culture of Algeria
than it is in Egypt. I am skeptical (to the point of dismissiveness) when it comes to the potential for an Islamic revival in Egypt, I am much more concerned with the opportunity for a fundamentalist rise to power in Algeria.

Anyway. After all of that, all I’m trying to say is that the protests in Algeria are, in some ways, much more serious than those we saw in Egypt.

“Why?” You might ask.

Well, I’m glad you asked.

The Algerian army has been hard at work battling domestic terrorism for the past two decades. The Egyptian army hasn’t had to engage in combat activity since the early 70s. Here’s the crux - the Algerian army is the fist of the Algerian government. The Egyptian army never had that role.

What we see today in the streets of Cairo is people cleaning up trash. If such a thing were to happen in Algeria, they would be cleaning up bodies.

I know it’s grim, but I suspect that the Algerians are going to have to walk through a lot more ugliness than the Egyptians had to if they want to see Boutiflaka ousted.


  1. Great article, an interview with the Egyptian pastor who escaped religious imprisonment on a jetski in 1996. His comments on the current affairs in Egypt are worth considering.

  2. Yerubilee, thanks for checking out my blog, and for adding to the conversation.

    The article you linked is certainly an interesting one, and Rev el-Shafie certainly raises some important points that should not be taken lightly.

    There are certainly factions within the MB that are well beyond the realm of conservative Islam and clearly what any reasonable person would refer to as radical. Anti-Israel and anti-Zionist expressions of anti-Semitism run rampant through the organization’s rhetoric and membership. There are many within the brotherhood who are terrified of secularism and progressive social movement and in response orient their behavior in such a way as to counteract it. Most relevant for the conversation that I think we are engaged in, the Muslim brotherhood certainly does have an obvious edge when it comes to collective organization within the Egyptian society - 80+ years of it.

    That being said, there are also serious flaws to what el-Shafie says in the article. He commits several acts of misdirection and omission, particularly with regards to the organization’s purported inherent violence on both a macro and a micro scale.

    Specifically, he calls the MB “the ideological parent of terrorist movements”

    What does it mean to be the ideological parent of a terrorist movement? certainly there are Muslim terrorists who have been inspired and motivated by certain writings by MB founder Hassan al Banna. Indeed, there are many radical Islamists who came out of the MB at various times during its tumultuous history. What he fails to mention (and this is what I consider to be a sin of omission) is that over and over again these violent radical individuals left the organization because It was not extreme enough for their own inclinations or they were expelled from the organization because their methods were deemed excessive or even reprehensible. To say that the Muslim brotherhood is a violent organization because it is the ideological parent of Al Qaeda is like saying that Greenpeace is a violent organization because it is the ideological parent of the Earth Liberation Front.

    (I’m sorry to go on for so long, but this Is not a conversation that lends itself to short two or three sentence quips)

    Let me use another example - During America’s post-Civil War era and well into the segregationist era of the 20th century many lodges (Rotary, Masonic, Moose, etc.) in the south served as networking and recruiting centers for local chapters of the Ku Klux Klan. the organizations themselves were not inherently racist, it was the local culture that them so. Likewise, it is not the Muslim brotherhood itself that is inherently violent, but rather there are certain networked groups within specific chapters of the MB that tolerate or even encourage violence.

    Frankly, Rev el-Shafie makes the brotherhood sound far more tightly unified and ideologically aligned than is actually the case. The events of the past five years have clearly shown that they have little or no hope of maintaining their status as a respected social service organization unless they’re able to conduct themselves in a fashion that does not alienate the moderate and progressive segments of their membership (which are far more substantial than el-Shafie or the editorial staff of the Jerusalem Post would have you believe).