Sunday, January 30, 2011

Egypt's Crisis: Tunisia, Tumult, or Tienanmen?

For much of the past three days, I've been glued to al-Jazeera's English-language live streaming video feed, watching Egypt unravel. Their Cairo bureau has been shut down by the government, but they continue to broadcast the most detailed reports from the streets that I've seen. As I note briefly in the book, al-Jazeera is a great example of globalization, allowing English speakers to get a sense of how the Arab world frames events. Right now, this TV network based in Qatar is far ahead of the rest of the world's media outlets on the Egypt story, helping us understand what's really going on. (For the record, I've found New York Times coverage to be a solid second best.)

Egyptians have taken instant inspiration from Tunisia's ouster of Ben Ali due to a quick-moving media cycle, which now includes cellphones, text messaging, Facebook, and Twitter. Although Mubarak's regime tried to clamp down by shutting off virtually all Internet servers and mobile phone service in Egypt on Friday, people were still watching al-Jazeera, which was much harder to shut down (unless they turned off all electricity, and even then people could power up generators). And you can imagine how angry people were without internet or cellphones.

What does this have to do with globalization, you might ask. Drawing on Jan Aart Scholte's definition, we can say that globalization is the process of increasing simultaneous and instantaneous interactions. We are more and more able to track events as they happen, right along with the people living through them. Knowing people who live and work in Egypt, and having been there three times, I am stunned to imagine what they are going through and I feel like I am almost there.

Being a political scientist, though, I have to speculate about what might happen next. Will this be another Tunisia? Or something else?

Everyone's comparing Egypt's protests to Tunisia's recent Jasmine Revolution. But Egypt's masses seem much less organized, reflecting Egypt's larger, more atomized, and more oppressed society. So far there is still no credible opposition leadership, whereas Tunisia had labor unions and student groups that pulled together cohesive demonstrations. Egypt's protests seem more chaotic and leaderless. That could change, but so far I don't see this looking like Tunisia's successful revolution.

Instead, tumult has erupted. The last two nights have seen looting, as the police evaporated from the streets. Either the government has started to collapse or the withdrawal of police was a deliberate strategy by the authorities, with the hope that they could sow enough chaos to justify a military crackdown. Although the military has appeared on the streets, to the welcome of the crowds, they have held back so far (apart from protecting key government ministry buildings). Whether intentional or unintentional, the breakdown of law and order is a deeply disturbing development. Cairo, a city of 18 million people, was chaotic and crazy even when the state kept a strong hand. Now there's a good chance that all hell will break loose. It's not clear that any government will have an easy time of restoring control there.

So could this be a Tienanmen Square situation? In response to widespread student protests there, the Chinese government on June 4, 1989 ordered tanks to open fire and kill civilians, brutally crushing the reform movement and stopping any steps toward democracy.

It's hard to imagine Egypt's military attacking its own people. Plus, it's hard to imagine that this would work. The anger at the regime is much more widespread than what China had in 1989. Apart from students, most Chinese citizens were willing to put up with their government, which delivered rising living standards. Unlike China's regime, however, Egypt's is weak and ineffective. Any attempt to use force would probably be inconsistently applied, thereby provoking more frustration. And attempts to limit media coverage also won't work. The news will get out, even if in a trickle.

If Mubarak's regime thinks it can pull off a Tienanmen-style crackdown, I think they will be disappointed. And if they try it, they will only provoke a greater popular backlash, as well as international isolation, thereby contributing to Mubarak's eventual demise. Repression might stretch the crisis out for a while, prolonging the regime, but it will only shed blood for naught.

It could be a messy few weeks or months, but Mubarak will be out of office relatively soon. I pray that all this will happen as quickly and peacefully as possible--and that peace will be restored to the streets of Cairo with ease.

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