Middle East

Democratic leftists lead uprising in Egypt

Perhaps the most encouraging thing I’ve read about the uprising against the autocratic and sclerotic Mubarak government in Egypt is that, as Avi Issacharoff reports in Haaretz, “[t]he demonstrations are currently being led by leftist democratic groups like Al Wafd, Al ‘Ad and supporters of [former International Atomic Energy Agency director Muhammad] ElBaradei.”

There is no sign of the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamists playing a major role so far. Clearly this revolt is, as in Tunisia, about government repression and lack of economic opportunity.

However, Issacharoff adds:

The Muslim Brotherhood is keeping a relatively low profile because the regime is more concerned about its impact than about that of other groups. But it is unlikely that either the Brotherhood or other Islamic groups will remain quiet, especially if demonstrations continue over the next few days.

I was pleased that President Obama mentioned Tunisia in his State of the Union address Tuesday:

Recent events have shown us that what sets us apart must not just be our power — it must also be the purpose behind it. In south Sudan — with our assistance — the people were finally able to vote for independence after years of war. Thousands lined up before dawn. People danced in the streets. One man who lost four of his brothers at war summed up the scene around him: “This was a battlefield for most of my life,” he said. “Now we want to be free.”

And we saw that same desire to be free in Tunisia, where the will of the people proved more powerful than the writ of a dictator. And tonight, let us be clear: The United States of America stands with the people of Tunisia, and supports the democratic aspirations of all people.

After first proclaiming (perhaps wishfully) that the Egyptian government was “stable,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke more bluntly Wednesday:

Clinton minced no words, suggesting Egypt’s government had to act now if it wanted to avert a similar outcome and urging it not to crack down on peaceful protests or disrupt the social networking sites that help organize and accelerate them.

“We believe strongly that the Egyptian government has an important opportunity at this moment in time to implement political, economic and social reforms to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people,” Clinton said…

“We urge the Egyptian authorities not to prevent peaceful protests or block communications including on social media sites,” Clinton told reporters in the most blunt comments to date by the United States urging Mubarak to undertake reforms.

Finally, while there is cause for concern among those of us who care about Israel about the consequences of a change of government in Egypt, perhaps this event from 2003 is worth recalling:

A few hundred people gathered in Cairo’s Tahrir Square two weeks ago to mark the third anniversary of the second Palestinian uprising with the usual government-approved “demonstration” against Israel and the United States. Then something interesting happened: The lackluster chants in support of Yasser Arafat suddenly gave way to real protest slogans, denouncing the Egyptian regime for recent price increases and shortages of staple foods.

“We want a new government; life has become unbearable,” shouted the protesters, according to an account in the weekly edition of Al-Ahram, a leading Egyptian newspaper. Their numbers quickly swelled by office workers from surrounding buildings, the demonstrators denounced Egypt’s autocratic emergency laws and its ruling party as “the source of our ruin,” while police informants posing as reporters frantically took notes.

As I wrote at the time:

For decades corrupt and repressive leaders of Middle-Eastern regimes have used enmity toward Israel and sympathy for the Palestinians to divert the attention of their people from the regimes’ own failures. Maybe that old trick isn’t working so well any more.