Monday 31 January 2011

Location = Egypt, Egypt, Egypt

Location = Egypt, Egypt, Egypt

You leave the world for a few months and what happens? Apart from approaching the brink of total-meltdown across the Middle East, stranger things abound - like Berlusconi “no-I’m-not-having-a-power-trip-crisis” throwing notoriously rowdy and surprisingly well photographed soirees - without inviting us - or the sudden emergence of China at Obama’s doorstep with full global-super-power-welcome-parade ( one in the US had realised they were sort-of powerful before?), royal weddings shaping future travel plans for thousands of tourists via Heathrow (if it’s not snowed over) and of course, the most important significant event of the last 6-mths or so, Dubai’s opening of the incredibly originally named “At.Mosphere” (honestly – how do these PR guys sleep at night?…maybe only a little more soundly than bankers) in the majestic Burj Khalifa. Nope, not been there yet, but then again there have been some more important issues to deal with apart from sipping on what is surely the highest-priced (yep, big pun) vodka-martini in the world.

I wish there were a happier note on which to return to commentary on what appears to be a world in continual turmoil, but if this is what path we have ahead of us then we must travel accordingly – no? If we do not seize the opportunity now and here to do what is only right, the very benefit of having raised our heads above the African Savannah (bear with me here) thousands of years ago to separate ourselves from beast, what good is the development and sacrifice that so many have made before us?

Those are admittedly lofty words, but meant as a projection of the tone encompassing the last few weeks. Events have brought much of such effusive and supposedly inspiring tales of progress and development from all corners. In fact, it has been nigh impossible to read through a well-respected journal or switch on a proper news network (no Fox News, alas not you) without being met with a deluge of lofty rhetoric and singing praise for the ever-changing winds of progress – from South East Asia’s continued economic progress, along China’s ascent to proper global-stage-protagonist, across the incredibly flammable Middle East (more below), transcending Europe’s lofty single-currency aspirations and the US’s “Sputnik” movement of urgency and hope – the world is as breathlessly filled with seemingly insurmountable obstacles as memory serves. Then again, every generation always believes it is facing the most fraught period of development for humanity. So far so good. No reason to believe this is about to change now. That would be incredibly arrogant of us wouldn’t it? Try telling that to the fear-loving journalists out there.

Egypt - A People’s Fear?
Two words. Suez and Canal. In fact three; Suez, Canal and Israel. Notice the blaring omission of normally automatically word-associated “oil” pinned to the Middle East.
The constant stream of journalists lavishing unbounded praise and seemingly heartfelt admiration on Tunisians and Egyptians (as well as the broader “restless Arab street”) may end in regretfully cringing backtracking.

There is no doubt that the uprising of those oppressed for so many years at the hands of corrupt and crony-loving Western-placed leadership dynasties is a good thing. There is also no denying that the poverty that exists across the greater populous, at the sake of the incredibly wealthy few across the Levant and North African countries, is a direct result of excessive years of preferential treatment to those willing to acquiesce to the perceived greater good (for “good” read: smooth transportation of affordable oil).

Without pretending to be a deeply-knowledgeable expert on all things Egyptian (as so many news reporters suddenly appear to be), it doesn’t take a genius to sit back and wonder where exactly all this popular uprising will go. The problem is that this may all end in tears again. A la Iran. Back in 1979, the world first greeted the Iranian revolution with a sense of content and admiration that a people were taking it upon themselves to move aside a force they considered detrimental to the country’s great future. The Shah was loved in the West more than he was at home. Many thought the Shah Royalty were moving Iran in the right direction, but the surprising backlash erupted and concluded in what is, ominously still today, a bewildering move towards Islamic fundamentalism.

What happened there you ask? A simply answer really – human nature. In extreme cases of uncertainty and subconscious fear, masses will be moved by the few that display poise and a clear-calming strategy. Fear leads to impulsive decisions and a large dose of “crowd theory”. Fear is the rational politician’s best friend. That excitement and adrenalin of revolution is not always pure joy but more a total sense of fear-shock-adrenaline of the unknown - like sitting at a Vegas roulette table with a 1 million Dollars on black and those ten (nine…eight…seven), unbearably frightening (exciting?) seconds of wheel-spinning-ball-bouncing-watching. If someone came to you half-way through the spin and suggested you run away with half your winnings, would you listen? That is the issue here. Will the people of Egypt really get what they want at the end of this saga. Or will an exceedingly tactful and well-timed extremist leadership take advantage of a power vacuum and appeal to the short-term sensibilities of the masses? Iran in 1978 didn’t think Khomeini would be their leader in 1979. Whom are the Egyptians hoping for as their leader in 2012?

Mass media and the internet have changed everything, I hear you scream in disapproval of the above scenario. The world we live in is vastly different in every conceivable way from 1979. The people of Egypt are more savvy and aware. Technology and social awareness has seen to that, they say. They will not give in to charismatic and affably attractive short-term promises of greater reform as a result. That may well be, but the power of the individual to rally an entire group of bewildered (and once again – frightened) poverty-stricken protesters is arguably more potent than any amount of Twittering. The average shop-keeper on the streets of Cairo doesn’t update his Tweet via his IPhone. No, he’s more interested in finding out where tomorrow’s trade is coming from to feed his family. As loud the voice of the crowd is today via mass communication, the power and effective eloquence of the individual’s rallying-cry, echoes as vividly as ever above a cacophony.

Don’t be fooled by the na├»ve and hysterical “we-sense-a-24-hour-coverage-bonanza” media coverage. Read the history books and analyse the Arab street for yourself. That is to say, speak to people who have lived through such revolutions. Even Lebanon’s revolt against Syrian intervention in 2006 has resulted in some then unforeseen ramifications. A move towards extremism is dangerous for all involved. Only open dialogue and calm, controlled discussions in a suitable state of discourse will bring about the lasting sense of justice that so many around the Middle East seek. Sudden change and revolt will only temporarily solve the solution. The cracks in the proverbial Arab wall cannot be plastered over forever.

Sure it is admirable to sit and watch the people take matters into their own hands. Do the people look towards the bigger picture though? Whoever ends up as the (hopefully) democratically elected leader of a disjointed people inherits control of one of the world’s most important shipping conduits. The world has gone to war before over the Suez Canal. No one can be sure it will not again. Decisions over foreign policy, not least the now-precariously-placed peace treaty with Israel, will surely be high on the agenda of the international community, but crucially, not that of the Egyptians who are revolting for themselves, not the international community. This is a misalignment in interests that may well prove disastrous to the longer-term picture for the global community.

There are several scenarios where this plays out to, none of which will solve the issue fully for at least another few years.
1. Probable: Mohammed El-Baradei is elected leader in a properly democratic election and attempts to maintain most of what the West perceive as a desirable status quo with Israel and its allies. Egyptians are temporarily placated by winning their right-to-vote and have it counted, but the issue of poverty does not disappear overnight.
2. Hopefully Not: An international peace-keeping force is sent in under the auspices of maintaining an open and free trading route via the Suez Canal. Low-level protests and a general discontent continues for several inconclusive years (possibly ending in the same conclusion as below).
3. Far-fetched but mistakes can be made: Mubarak clings on and brings bloodshed and chaos to a country otherwise interested in moving onwards commercially and economically. The Muslim Brotherhood sense their opportunity and call for a total revolution, which succeeds. Israel then must consider an invasion.

The troubles in Egypt might reflect a growing and dangerous dissatisfaction with the ineffectual “leadership” within the always volatile Middle East (history has a nasty way of repeating itself over thousands and thousands of years, just ask the Mesopotamians and Byzantines) but what we are seeing today is more a cause of what some inwardly critical geopolitical commentators have correctly cited as “immature Western policy”. One only hopes that this generation’s governing powers read their history books and tread along a path with longer-term vision than many of those in recent memory.

Let’s hope they grow up fast.

Hani Kobrossi