Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic?

That's the metaphor on everyone's mind after witnessing Hosni Mubarak stand in front of the television camera trying to convince the Egyptian people that dismissing his cabinet will solve the problem. I know that Mubarak has moved his permanent residence to Sharm el-Sheikh, but is he really that out of touch? Either he is, or he purposefully issued a minimal concession in order to buy time and let the army - much more respected amongst the people than the police - quell these unprecedented demonstrations during the days to come.

One thing that comes to my mind while reflecting on the past twelve hours is how poor the US cable news coverage has been in comparison to other outlets. I remember watching some coverage and hearing about how the demonstrations were taking on a more Islamist hue. The evidence? The protesters paused to pray at sunset, and some were shouting "Allahu Akbar". I'm no expert on Egyptian society, but I do know that praying and shouting "Allahu Akbar" does not necessarily make you a card carrying member of the Muslim Brotherhood. By contrast, I found the news and analysis on al Jazeera and al Jazeera English to be much more mature and insightful.

Another thing that struck me while watching some of the cable news coverage was how the threat posed by the Muslim Brotherhood was repeatedly brought up and often exaggerated. I'm not sure whether it is due to poor analysis or simply the fact that bringing up the Islamist threat makes for good television ratings - probably both. Yet all too often, some one with little background knowledge of the specific context would be led to believe that if Mubarak's regime were to fall, Egypt would suddenly be run like Afghanistan under the Taliban, or like Gaza under Hamas. Apparently Mubarak's decades-old policy of using the Brotherhood as a scarecrow is effective. The reality is that the Muslim Brotherhood is a relatively moderate Islamist movement that renounced violence over 50 years ago. And although it would probably win a substantial number of seats in parliament in a free and fair election, it is not capable of "taking over" the government.

The events from today were truly astonishing, and I suspect that this drama is far, far from over. The Egyptian army, deployed on Friday evening, will surely play a key role. So far, the relationship between the army and the protesters is not clear. The army certainly didn't enforce the curfew, and it didn't do much to stop the protesters from setting fire to NDP headquarters and other buildings. Moreover, the protesters showed a marked respect for the military as they rolled in to Tahrir and Ramses squares; they seeked no confrontation whatsoever with those forces. On the other hand, I am not sure that the army will passively watch by in the days ahead if the protests continue to escalate and threaten the survival of the regime. Will the army engage the protesters with violence, or will it side with them and force Mubarak to make major concessions? Will the defense and interior ministers - two longstanding pillars of Mubarak's regime - be forced to resign as well? Will Mubarak refill his cabinet with NDP lackeys, or will he choose a diverse and comprehensive selection of ministers? Clearly, a lot more questions than answers at this point.

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