Monday, February 28, 2011

Oman: Another Carrot After the Stick, Another Danger Sign for Saudi

Protests have erupted in city of Suhar in the Gulf state of Oman, tucked on the southeast corner of the Arabian Peninsula. The ruler there, Sultan Qaboos, (now in his 41st year of power) cracked down hard with riot police, killing at least three young protestors.

On Sunday, though, Sultan Qaboos pulled out the carrot and offered a $390 monthly stipend for job seekers and opened up 50,000 new government positions. He recognizes that unemployed, frustrated, and idealistic young people want change. They also want a representative government, something that Sultan Qaboos has resisted.

But few experts would have predicted that peaceful Oman would have erupted into violence. It's one of the last places that I, like most observers of the Gulf region, would have expected to see unrest. Everything seemed so placid there, and there is no history of political mobilization (unlike Bahrain's highly politicized society).

Which is why we should all be watching Saudi Arabia in the next two weeks. I am hearing from Saudi sources that we could surprised by what happens next. The young people there also want a representative government and an economic future. And they are already planning a "day of rage" for Friday, March 11 (after midday prayers). The BBC reported that, yes, a Facebook group dedicated to the event mushroomed from having 400 followers to 12,000 in the past few days.

This may be bigger than the wave of revolutions across Europe in 1848. And, because of globalization, we are all connected to it. Just ask anyone who drives a vehicle that runs on petroleum products. We are paying for the uncertainty at the gas pump.

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Carrot After the Stick?

Lester Pearson, a former Canadian prime minister, once described politics as the "skilled use of blunt instruments." And two of those instruments, for all politicians, are the carrot of positive incentives and the stick of coercion.

Even the madman of Libya, Muammar Qaddafi, understands this (in his own twisted way). Today's Washington Post reports  that he announced that his government will pay $400 to each family, basically bribing them to stay loyal. He also promised state employees up to 150 percent raises. Will it work? Umm . . . that's doubtful (to put it mildly).

Interestingly, though, Qaddafi continues a pattern that we've seen across the Arab world:

Based on the reaction of Bahrainis, I think the carrot approach will actually backfire. Young people might well feel insulted by such blatant attempts to buy their loyalty. They are sick of this kind of politics of purchased loyalty. It obviously failed in Egypt.

And it's too late in Libya. There is already an armed revolt that is taking control of much of the rest of the country, isolating Qaddafi's control to the capital city of Tripoli. He's already slaughtered his own people; why would they be motivated by cash?

All eyes are on Saudi now. Even members of the royal family admit that political change is necessary. Can that happen peacefully or will there be conflict? Will the tried-and-tested politics of the rentier-oil-welfare state work? Will young people allow their loyalty to be purchased?

Or will they assert their dignity?

After the last few weeks of surprises, I'm betting on the latter. Watch Saudi Arabia in the next few weeks.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Bahrain Situation

Today, Rutgers historian (and family friend) Toby Jones and a colleague posted a helpful overview of the Bahrain situation up to the present on Middle East Report Online, just a day after a massive crowd of protestors marched along the most prominent section of highway in the country, from Bahrain Mall to the Pearl Roundabout. The day before, on February 21, the government rallied a large crowd of supporters, showing that it wasn't going to give up easily. Who's going to blink first?

The standoff is in stark contrast to the bloody crackdown in the Libyan capital, Tripoli. Qadafi is not going to give up power, and he's not afraid to do whatever it takes to stay in power. It's ugly. 

Let's hope the Bahrain situation stays non-violent and that all sides can work out a deal. Who knows how this will end?

Monday, February 21, 2011

Libya in Chaos, Bahrain in Stasis

Although no reporters are in Libya, Al Jazeera English is covering the chaos unfolding there right now, mostly by interviewing foreigners and exiled Libyans who have some knowledge of the country. The leader of Libya, Muammar Qadafi, has apparently ordered his military to fire on his own people with live ammunition. He is rumored to have ordered tanks and air force jets to bomb protestors. Several Libyan diplomats have resigned their posts in protest, and many observers expect Qadafi's government to fall: another casualty in the Arab Revolutions of 2011 (along with the several hundred protesters killed there).

Meanwhile, the protesters in Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout are settling in for a long wait, making themselves comfortable, as this AJE story shows:

On the other side of the Bahrain issue is the royal family, the Al Khalifa. Providing a nice primer on them and the other royal families of the Gulf states, UAE expert Christopher Davidson published this piece today at Foreign

Sunday, February 20, 2011

A Wave of Revolution in the Arab World: Bin Laden's Nightmare

The Arab world is in an uproar. Now that Tunisia and Egypt have settled down a bit, today there were pro-democracy protests in Morocco, Algeria, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain--as this AP video shows. (In Libya, as many as 200 people have been killed in a crackdown that makes Bahrain's look mild.)

Americans are programmed to freak out about unrest in the Middle East, but this is actually good news for us and bad news for Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda group.

As Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland argued recently, the news from Egypt was bin Laden's nightmare. He's correct to say that bin Laden and his right-hand Egyptian man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, see democracy as a threat to their cause. Zawahiri worked for years for the violent overthrow of the Egyptian regime, the "near enemy," as he called it, before he worked to attack the "far enemy" that supported Mubarak: the United States. The peaceful toppling of Mubarak is a direct challenge to their violent, revolutionary strategy.

A story in today's Washington Post even suggests that the protests in Yemen, a current center of Al Qaeda activity and a failing state, could be good news for the U.S. As the author puts it,
Yemen's protesters are demanding democratic freedoms, not the Islamic caliphate al-Qaeda seeks to create in this Middle Eastern nation and elsewhere. Such calls for democracy would make it harder for al-Qaeda to claim it has popular sentiments on its side, and would also give the disaffected a peaceful way to air their grievances without fear of persecution.
Zawahiri and other al Qaeda leaders have condemned the pro-democracy movements for being secular and godless, deviating from Islam.

But it's not clear that the young people in all these Arab countries really care. They're too busy trying to construct a more hopeful future within their borders to try and institute a pan-Islamic caliphate by violence.

While democracy could be messy at times--and could certainly yield governments that oppose U.S. interests--we should be celebrating with the Arab young people in the streets.

Don't freak out: peaceful pro-democracy protests are better than al Qaeda's alternative. Indeed, they are a repudiation of that dark, violent scenario. Democratization in the region is a hopeful and encouraging sign.

Most Encouraging Protest Sign I've Seen in Weeks

Taken by Nick Kristof of the New York Times and posted on his Twitter account yesterday at the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain:

The ball is firmly in the court of the royal family of Bahrain, the Al Khalifa. What happens next? I see a few possibilities:

1. The protestors follow the moderate, peaceful course of this sign and there's a longer stalemate, as the family resists making any concessions to share more political power. Most likely, but also most likely to create a resurgence of turmoil.

2. The protestors stay moderate and real concessions are made to share power with the Shia majority population. The best possibility.

3. The protestors stay moderate and there is another violent crackdown on them. Worst possibility of all.

4. The protestors split, with the young people demanding the overthrow of the monarchy and the older generation negotiating with the regime, which makes a few superficial concessions to keep the peace for the short-term. This is closer to what happened from 2001 to the present, when King Hamad was able to get the Shia al-Wefaq political movement* to run for elections to the lower house of parliament, despite the fact that the parliament is quite toothless and the districts are gerrymandered so that the Shia can only snag about 18 seats (the current strength of al-Wefaq after recent elections). Call this "the return to the status quo" option: young people getting shot and detained in the streets, the older generation negotiating with the power structure. Obviously, this status quo led to the current crisis, so it's not preferable.

Scenarios 1 and 4 seem most likely, but you can pray for all sides to embrace 2 and for the regime to avoid 3.
* For a quick background on the main political movements in Bahrain, see this Reuters story.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Eyewitness Report from Friends in Bahrain

This report just came in by email from our Australian friends, who've lived in Bahrain for nearly a dozen years, and who are not politically partial to one side or the other (I'm underlining some key points):

A great day in Bahrain!
Thank you everyone for praying, it has been a wonderful afternoon here in Bahrain. The Army, and then the Police, withdrew from the Pearl Roundabout. Thousands of Bahrainis poured into the area and have now set up camp.
I went down there with Aisha and Peter to see democracy in action. It is a joyful, orderly, peaceful group. The crowd is organised into men's and women's sections, people are setting up tents to stay the night, and the rubbish is even being cleaned up.
It was a moving and profound privilege to be part of a group that has stood resolute in the face of overwhelming aggression. I hope the kids will remember it forever.
You might remember I asked you to pray for something we could do, something the kids could do. One thing we can do is tell the truth. Here is what Aisha has written based on her observations:
"Bahrainis are peaceful
Hi, I live in Bahrain but come from Australia. Tonight I went to see the ‘protests’ at the Pearl Roundabout, which was more like a celebration.
The police had gone and the tanks have given up. Probably because yesterday one police man threw down his gun and joined the protests.  The people here are very friendly and are trying to win peacefully.The news may have told you some things but do not trust the news.
One man shared his story saying that he was put in jail, for 1 year and a half, for no reason and didn’t even get to go to court.  They don’t want this to happen to their children. Some have had no proper education and can’t get a job then get kicked out the country.  Another lady made a poster in English saying: "First they ignore us, then they laugh at us, then they fight us and finally we win."
There are THOUSANDS of people there split into two groups, women and men. They plan to camp there until they get what they want. Peace.
Please don’t change what I have said we want people to Know the truth. Fwd this to everyone you know."

Better News in Bahrain

Some expatriate friends of ours in Bahrain say that the country is in lockdown and they are going stir-crazy at home.

According to reports today, a crowd of protestors has reclaimed the Pearl Roundabout area where a crowd of peaceful protestors was violently attacked by security forces in the middle of the night a few days ago. Crown 

Prince Salman, the son of the King, has also pulled the army off the streets and is talking about dialogue with the Shiite opposition.

It looks like the regime is pulling back from the brink, by addressing the opposition's condition that the army be withdrawn before dialogue begins. Salman is part of the younger generation and definitely understands that the only way his family will maintain a political role in Bahrain is by working with the Shiite majority. 

Can the two sides work out a solution? Let's hope.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Why My Friend in Bahrain Is Unhappy with the U.S.

                                               AP photo

Janine Zacharia of the Washington Post reports tonight:
The United States last year provided Bahrain with about $21 million in military assistance, a substantial amount given the country's relatively small size [that's $42 per Bahraini citizen]. Of that total, about $1 million was designated for counterterrorism aid, much of it to the police and military forces that are suppressing the protests in the country's capital.
Simply put, the teargas cannisters used to disperse demonstrators yesterday--and presumably the live ammunition used today--was not just made in the USA but paid for by USA taxpayers.

And then Americans wonder why Arabs on the street get angry at the US government. Our government needs to encourage the Al Khalifa regime to stop killing its own citizens and to engage in rapid reform. Or else we will have a much larger problem on our hands.

Bahrain: When Global and Local Collide

Globalization and the regime in tiny Bahrain are colliding today, keeping this tiny country at the top of international news. The crisis reflects both global trends and very localized political grievances.

The reason Americans should care about Bahrain is that it's located just off the coast of Saudi Arabia and across the gulf from Iran, a volatile neighborhood full of oil. In fact, most Saudi oil exports are loaded onto tankers near Bahrain. If things go pear-shaped in Bahrain, it could easily spill over to Saudi. Gas prices have already gone up in the U.S. because of oil traders' unease over protests.

But what are the global trends driving the Bahrain protests? Information technology, satellite television, and higher education, among other things, are contributing to the growth of an educated, Arab middle class. Some of this growing middle class were my students in Bahrain in 2004-05, and I was impressed by their tech-savvy, their idealism, and their global awareness. The region is full of such bright, earnest, educated young people who are often underemployed and living at home. 

One young man, who had just graduated, became a very good friend. His struggles in finding a meaningful job seem typical of his generation. He's bounced around a bit but feels stifled in Bahrain. Like many young Middle Easterners, he's trying to find a meaningful job that matches his skills (he has a Bachelor's in banking and finance and did some graduate work abroad). And, yes, he spends time on Facebook. 

His experience speaks to this table from a report based on International Labor Organization data and created for a World Economic Forum meeting in Jordan in 2007:

Employment of 15-24 year olds as a percentage of that group is the lowest in the Middle East and North Africa (the lowest of any region in the world). Which is one reason why young Bahrainis like my friend are frustrated.

But that's not the whole story. There are also very localized political issues driving the unrest in Bahrain, as I noted in an earlier post. (For a vivid photo essay on Bahrain, check out this Foreign Policy post.) It's only the Shiite community in Bahrain that is out in the streets, because they feel disempowered and discriminated against by the minority Sunni community. Unless their grievances are addressed and they gain some political power in Bahrain, this crisis will not end. One Bahraini Shia friend tells me that the young people are not afraid of the regime and will protest peacefully.

To get a sense of why the Shia are angry about the crackdown on the peaceful, sleeping Pearl Roundabout protestors, check out this disturbing clip from al Jazeera English or this disturbing clip from Nick Kristof of the New York Times. Reports today indicate that five people were killed in the crackdown. The Pearl Roundabout is now abandoned and surrounded by barbed wire. 

Compared to the 365 killed in crackdowns on the Egypt protests, five deaths might seem small in comparison. But consider the populations of each country. There are only 500,000 Bahraini citizens, so the five killed reflect a ratio of 1 death per 100,000 residents. Egypt's population is 80 million, so their ration is 1 death per 219,178 residents. In other words, the Bahrain crackdown had a more lethal impact relative to the total citizenry. 

Thousands of people are marching in funeral processions for slain protestors in Bahrain today. For the peace of our world, for our friends on all sides, let us pray that the death toll goes no higher.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tiananmen on the Gulf

It's not very often that Bahrain, a country our family lived in for a year, makes the top headlines. But, sadly, it did today.

In the middle of last night (late night on the East Coast of the US), Bahrain's security forces cracked down on a peaceful encampment of protestors at the Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, shooting tear gas, shotguns, and rubber bullets into the crowd. At least three people were killed and hundreds injured, some of them seriously.

Yet again, al Jazeera's coverage is a bit behind the story, while CNN offers better reporting--including images that remind one very much of the Tiananmen Square massacre in China. Armored personnel carriers were seen rumbling down one of the main highways toward the site of the now-disbanded demonstrations.

The question now is whether the opposition forces will respond with more protests. They have already announced a day of protests on Monday, but I also think that people will pour out into the streets tomorrow after midday Friday prayers.

Toby Jones, a historian at Rutgers University and a family friend of ours, offered an insightful analysis on last night's PBS NewsHour program. Even as he was being interviewed, the security forces were mobilizing to crack down on the peaceful demonstrators. Toby noted, as I did in my previous post, that this is now very serious. The seriousness has multiplied after last night's crackdown.

I continue to be very concerned about the dangers of the situation in Bahrain--and across the region. If things get uglier in Bahrain, as seems likely, this will have implications for the Shia population across the straits in eastern Saudi Arabia, which is the primary oil-producing region in the country. Kuwait, too, has a Shia minority (roughly 25% of the population) with ties to those in Bahrain. Meanwhile, across the Gulf, the Iranians are watching closely, as they feel a kinship with their fellow Shia. Libya, Algeria, Yemen, and Jordan are also facing unhappy young people who demand an end to corruption and a start to political power-sharing.

We are seeing a wave of revolutionary pressures that rivals 1848 or 1989. And it's not clear when that wave will crest or whether peaceful protesters can win out. As China showed, sometimes violent repression can keep a regime in power. The Al Khalifa family of Bahrain is banking on that, but they may overdraw on their account. I pray that they will see the wisdom of power-sharing and a peaceful end.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

What's Happening in Egypt and Bahrain?

The crowds have hardly dispersed in Cairo, and now this morning Bahrain is on the front page of the New York Times, at the top of National Public Radio's news broadcasts, and near the top of the leading stories on the Daily Beast blog. Two protestors were killed, and peaceful demonstrators now occupy the Pearl Roundabout (left).

What just happened in Egypt? The popular uprising of the younger generation in Egypt was less a "revolution" than a peaceful coup d'etat. A revolution overthrows an entire regime and results in a radically different one. Typically that means a popular uprising ousting a royal family and the rapid replacement of that family with a non-dynastic form (see France 1789, Russia 1917, Iran 1979).

By contrast, a coup (in French, literally a smashing blow) is a rapid change of government at the top, usually by the military. What happened in Egypt was that the military told Mubarak to go, and then they took over. This was more a coup than a revolution.

But could this change at the top lead to serious changes for the people at the bottom (the 40% of the population of Egypt that lives on $2 a day or less)? Will the military really share power with the people?

Their first move is moderately encouraging. According to a story in today's Times, the regime has appointed an eight-member panel of lawyers and judges to revise the Constitution. The chairman of the group, Tarek el-Bishri, was a leading critic of the Mubarak regime and the author of a book that's highly critical of Egypt's direction. Another member is a leading Coptic Christian, and a third, Sobhi Saleh, is a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Constitutional changes, even by a representative group like this, won't put bread on the table for Egyptians, but they can provide the political framework for more representative government, which could help.

What's happening in Bahrain? Sadly, al Jazeera English isn't on top of this story as much as NPR's Peter Kenyon was this morning. That's because the Emir of Qatar pays the bills for AJE, and he's a bit worried about his fellow Sunni royal family friends in the Al Khalifa family--the family that rules Bahrain.

Roughly 70% of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens are Shia, while the royal family and its ruling cronies are Sunni. I say "ruling cronies," because the Al Khalifa have given citizenship to Sunni immigrants from South Asia, Yemen, Jordan, Syria, and elsewhere. They recruit these outsiders for the police and military, and they never hire Shia, because they don't trust them. The regime's fear is that these Shia are more loyal to Iran than to Bahrain.

My sense is that the younger Shia opposition forces are seizing on the momentum from Egypt to gain media attention for the their cause. It's not like they were sitting around until the Egypt protests. They've been protesting (the Al Khalifa would say complaining) for years. To try and head off protests, the King of Bahrain announced the other day that he would give every citizen 1,000 Bahraini dinars ($2650) in cash.

The Beatles could have told him that money can't buy you love. It may not even buy you peace. I think the Shia young people are insulted, and they're frustrated with Internet slowdowns. My prediction is that this will escalate by Friday (after midday prayers). Pray for peace on all sides.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Programming: Global Finance

Just before the Egyptian Revolution broke out, I was preparing to review more books on the global financial crisis.

Today's book is Bethany McLean's and Joe Nocera's All the Devils Are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis--an important contribution to the conversation about what happened to the US and global financial systems in 2007 and 2008 (click here for more posts on this topic). This book makes a great companion to the film Inside Job.

"Hell is empty, and all the devils are here," wrote Shakespeare in The Tempest. Borrowing his phrase for the title is an apt move, since the authors (former colleagues at Forbes magazine) attempt to interview all of the culprits who contributed to this caper. Unlike the cooler historical and analytical overview provided by Nouriel Roubini in Crisis Economics, this is a vivid, human drama, filled with characters who have stories.

Although I occasionally got bogged down in blizzards of names and esoteric financial terms, I found All the Devils to be the clearest and most comprehensive overview of the crisis out there. By interviewing most of the key players, McLean and Nocera help us to see the complexity of the crisis through their eyes. In the process, they clarify several points that have been disputed in analyzing the crisis. Among them are the following:

1. The government-supported mortgage guarantors (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) were not responsible for the crisis, although they tried to profit from it and were dragged down by it.
This criticism has been a standard conservative criticism, blaming the Clinton administration and Democratic politicians for leaning on Fannie and Freddie to push mortgages on unqualified borrowers (in order to increase homeownership). McLean and Nocera address this directly, arguing that both Fannie and Freddie got into the subprime business because Countrywide and other banks were making immense profits from it (p. 50). But they got into it late in the game, between 2005 and 2007 (p. 185), seeking to make big bucks like the Wall Street banks.

2. Quantitative analysis, which many didn't properly understand, lulled many into thinking that risks were under control when they really weren't.
McLean and Nocera describe how a J.P. Morgan analyst named Till Guldimann invented a measure called Value at Risk (or VaR), which all the other big Wall Street banks came to use. The problem was that VaR assumed normal market conditions similar to the past. "The fact that VaR told you how much your firm might lose 95 percent of the time didn't say a thing about what might happen the other five percent of the time" (p. 57). You could lose billions, but the statistic gave the misleading impression that Wall Street banks were controlling and predicting the risk to their investments. In the book, I call this arrogance. Humility means knowing that you cannot predict or control the future.

On this score, Goldman Sachs was rare among Wall Street firms: "When it came to managing risk," write McLean and Nocera, "Goldman had what can only be called a kind of humility, a belief that the model was only as good as the inputs and that faith in the model had to balanced with the informed judgment of human beings" (p. 158).

3. The private bond rating companies and government regulators were corrupted.
Moody's, Standard & Poors, and Fitch Ratings were supposed to analyze the portfolios of mortgage-backed bonds to see how risky they were as investments. Unfortunately, the Wall Street banks would go "ratings shopping" between the three companies (p. 118). If they didn't get the high ratings they wanted, they would threaten to take their business to one of the other ones. This was a classic example of a "race to the bottom" (p. 119). Furthermore, all three companies were profiting from rubber-stamping these deals. The president of Moody's took home $3.2 million in compensation in 2007 (p. 124).

Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve, trusted that private, self-regulation would work to keep companies in line. "Market discipline," rather than government regulation, would be effective. But that didn't work out so well in practice.

4. The supply side on Wall Street was pushing predatory, punishing subprime loans
Subprime loan originators told the authors that it was Wall Street banks that drove the trade. These banks were lending the money to mortgage firms "and then buying up their mortgages and securitizing them" (p. 134). Riskier subprime loans "were roughly seven times more profitable than prime mortgages" (p. 134). Thus, the Wall Street firms demanded that subprime brokers pushed "payment option adjustable rate mortgages" which "gave consumers the right to choose whatever rate they wanted at the start, from a very low teaser rate to a higher rate that more resembled a thirty-year fixed mortgage" (p. 135). Eventually, these loans would reset to a higher rate and borrowers would go into "payment shock." It wasn't greedy borrowers so much as greedy Wall Streeters that drove this trade. This supply-side view aligns with the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission Report, rather than the demand-side view that blames those who pushed or sought subprime loans for the crisis.

5. Subprime lenders often encouraged borrowers to lie.
McLean and Nocera share several stories of people who pursued home loans from Countrywide and were encouraged to sign on to fraudulent documents. Although there were certainly cases of people trying to borrow more than they ought, the subprime lenders were hardly innocent victims. Score another one for the supply side argument.

6. Everyone was making so much money from the global trade in bonds derived from subprime mortgages that they didn't care.
McLean and Nocera make a statement very similar to one made by Adam Davidson on NPR right after the crisis (and quoted in chapter 3 of the book):
Here was the ultimate consequence of the delinking of borrower and lender, which securitization had made possible: no one in the chain, from broker to subprime originator to Wall Street, cared that the loans they were making and selling were likely to go bad. In truth, they were all taking huge risks in granting these terrible loans. But they were all making too much money to see it. Everyone assumed that someone else would be left holding the bag (p. 218).
7. Despite all the damage done, very few people have been or will be held legally responsible.
The authors write,
Much of what took place during the crisis was immoral, unjust, craven, delusional behavior--but it wasn't criminal. The most clear-cut cases of corruption--the brokers who tricked people into bad mortages, the Wall Street bankers who knowingly packaged bad mortgages--are in the shadows, cogs inside the wheels of firms Ameriquest, New Century, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs. We'll probably never even learn most of these people's names (362).
And on that not-so-happy note, we return to special bulletins on the aftermath of the peaceful regime change in Egypt. Speaking of which, maybe a peaceful revolt against the new oligarchy on Wall Street would be in order. If Egyptians can demand change, then why can't we?

Friday, February 11, 2011

People Power in Egypt

So Mubarak resigned today, and the military has taken over the reins of power. Which means that Egypt's uprising will not go down in the history books alongside Hungary in 1956, the Czech Republic in 1968, or Tienanmen Square in 1989. Instead, we can look to the Philippines in 1986, when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted by a People Power movement that took the U.S. government, a close ally of Marcos, by surprise. And the leader of this "yellow revolution," Corazon Aquino, led the transition. (Will there be an Egyptian Corey Aquino? Stay tuned.)

Watching al Jazeera English right now, it's impossible not to be moved. People in Egypt are ecstatic, stunned, exhilarated, screaming, and crying in the streets. They can't believe that a popular movement forced an entire regime out of power. This has never happened before in the Arab world. And just a few weeks ago no one could have imagined it--especially in Egypt. It's unbelievable.

Nick Kristof on D.I.Y. Aid: A Quick Break Away from Egypt

Thanks to a former student, this week I saw Nick Kristof's article "D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution" in the New York Times Magazine, which describes a trend of voluntary, grassroots globalization.

I think he's onto something important about younger generations of Westerners. They're more apt to live in country and work on micro-level projects themselves. A number of them have even written books that tell their firsthand stories. Greg Mortenson's Three Cups of Tea is one of the best-known in the genre, but there are many more. Students in one of my classes get to read these, and I'm reading another book in this genre right now: Conor Grennan's Little Princes: One Man's Promise to Bring Home the Lost Children of Nepal.

Do it yourself: don't count on governments. That seems to be an enduring lesson of this younger (under 40) generation. It's a lesson that fits well with the theme of chapter 8 of the book.

More on this (and on Egypt) later.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Phase 6? The Egyptian Revolution Will Escalate Tomorrow

Hosni Mubarak made a speech in Egypt tonight, but he refused to step down. While he made some concessions to the opposition forces (amending the constitution), and even gestured toward the young people of Egypt, he did not got far enough to quell the protests.

While Mubarak played good cop, his vice president, Omar Suleiman, played bad cop. Suleiman gave a speech on Egyptian television not long after Mubarak, calling on the demonstrators to go home.

They will not go home. Tomorrow they will hold large-scale protests for the third Friday in a row. Eyewitness accounts from Tahrir Square this week--including this Thomas Friedman column and this Baltimore Sun story--describe a euphoric, peaceful, freedom-loving crowd. These protestors will be happy with nothing less than the ouster of Mubarak,his cronies, and his regime.

Before Mubarak had even finished speaking, the protesters camped out in Tahrir Square were jeering him. Totally unsatisfied, they and their friends will turn out in force tomorrow afternoon, following midday prayers.

It's clear that Mubarak and his regime just don't get what is happening in the Square. They think they can dribble out small concessions to meet tangible demands, which of course they are only granting under duress in the first place. They will only embolden the opposition, which has discovered that it can bring serious political change that was unthinkable just a few weeks ago.

Egypt: Phases 4 and 5

Developments in Egypt are heating up. Some of the loudest and largest crowds have gathered in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak is about to go on television, and he is expected to announce that he is stepping down. (Al Jazeera English remains essential viewing to be on top of the story, and I'm watching/listening to it right now.) This may all be rumor, but the tension is growing in Cairo.

I've been busy over the last week (although I still have a lot of papers to grade), and I've been unable to track the Egypt story as closely as I'd like. But it's clear that the struggle there has gone through two more phases.

First, early this week, the regime started a dialogue with some of the opposition forces, hoping that they could appease most of the the protesters. The young (20-30 year old) people who organized and drove the protests refused the dialogue and kept up their protests.

Second, in the past few days, it became clearer how organized and persistent these demonstrators were. They forced the regime's hand and didn't give up. They were also helped by some general strikes across Egypt yesterday. After more than two weeks of occupying Tahrir Square, it looks like they may have succeeded in their immediate demands for Mubarak to leave before they left. The release of Wael Ghonim, a Google executive who had helped organize the protests, seemed to catalyze the movement. Ghonim gave an emotional TV interview that showed the peaceful side of the younger protestors and the thuggishness of a corrupt regime. This may have been the final blow for the regime's credibility.

If and when Mubarak leaves, it will interesting to see what happens next.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Two Eyewitness Accounts from Tahrir Square

An anonymous Al Jazeera producer posted a brief and fascinating account of "The Battle of Tahrir Square" and what it was like to be in that area of Cairo yesterday (Wednesday, Feb. 2). Linked to the story are a batch of powerful still images.

And Foreign Policy posted an intriguing story by Blake Hounshell, who just arrived in Cairo and went straight to the Square today. He asks six important questions that, when answered, will help us know what's going on. His last question is especially pertinent:
Are we witnessing a revolution, a soft military coup, or a failed uprising? This is the million-dollar question, and one that I suspect can't be answered until events have run their course. Much depends on tomorrow's demonstrations: Has the regime succeeded in its usual game of divide and conquer, or will Egyptians' revulsion at this week's brutality send them to the streets in the millions?
Stay tuned . . . by tomorrow morning (East Coast US time) we should start to witness early answers to some of these questions.

A Strategic Game in Egypt?

Yesterday I said that Egypt was entering a third phase of political turmoil. A couple of observers are already framing this phase as a contest between the military-dominated Mubarak regime and its opponents in the streets. One commentator even thinks that the military has already won the game, but I hope that's wrong.

In a report issued today, the International Crisis Group, a worldwide NGO focused on diplomatic solutions, points out that many people are worried about a breakdown of law and order in Egypt, and are content to leave Mubarak in office until his term expires in September. As the report puts it,
The authorities, so far, have not suggested any willingness to concede on this point and have conditioned negotiations on an end to the protests. At the same time, the opposition refuses to enter any talks until the president goes and the violence against them stops; in this light, it is becoming increasingly difficult to imagine Egypt’s peaceful transition while he remains in office. Overcoming this obstacle will be difficult and could well require flexibility on both sides.
In other words, we are currently in the midst of a standoff in a two-actor game (akin to a game of Chicken) or a simple negotiating dilemma: the first one to blink or veer away from the collision loses the game.

Both sides have dug in: the regime insists that everyone go home and then they will talk to the opposition. The opposition (assuming it's united) insists that Mubarak leave office and his gangs stop attacking them, and then they will engage in talks (possibly with the current vice president, possibly not). They've reached a stalemate. Will anything break it?

In a post for Foreign Policy today, Robert Springborg, a longtime Egypt expert, pessimistically contends that Mubarak's military allies have already gotten the upper hand on the pro-democracy forces. Fomenting chaos first by unleashing the secret police to loot neighborhoods and attack protestors, the regime could contend that only the military could preserve law and order. With a new vice president and prime minister tied to the military, Springborg envisions a military-dominated regime for some time to come.

I agree that the opposition has been divided thus far, and that Mubarak's supporters have played a tricky strategy, but I disagree that they will necessarily succeed. With a more open media environment, the regime's cynical strategy has been clear to many Egyptians. They may have grown tired of such games.

I'm not sure this crisis is over yet. Enough popular energy has been unleashed that we can imagine more protests tomorrow after Friday's midday Islamic prayers. Tune in to al-Jazeera tomorrow morning to see who's right.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Watching a Revolution Unfold--Live

With increased globalization of media, we can now watch a revolution unfold live in real time. And a revolution is what Egypt is getting (unless something changes soon). Like Iran in 1979 or Eastern Europe in 1989, popular mobilization is driving events.

Al Jazeera's live stream continues to broadcast stunning live footage from the streets of the capital city, Cairo. In just the last few minutes, pro-government gangs on horseback and camelback charged into the crowds of anti-government demonstrators. (Some of them were carrying police IDs, which suggests that the regime fomented this counter-protest.) Groups are prying up pavement and throwing rocks at each other. It appears that anti-government forces are trying to keep the pro-Mubarak groups from getting to Tahrir Square, the center of the protests. With popular violence escalating, we are now in Phase 3 of the ongoing power struggle between the regime and its critics in the streets, with no glimpse of resolution.

Phase 1 of the protests ran from Tuesday to Friday of last week. The anti-government forces seized the initiative and surprised the regime with their bold and open contempt of the Mubarak regime. The police were ordered to crack down but failed. On Friday, January 28, the government shut down all Internet and mobile phone service, which only inflamed popular anger. After Friday midday prayers, thousands of people streamed to Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo, although the police prevented many from coming by blocking passages on the two main bridges over the Nile (6 October Bridge and Qasr al-Nil Bridge). The military was ordered into the streets on Friday night, but they took no action. On Friday night, in a speech on Egyptian state television, Mubarak made his first concessions, dismissing his cabinet and appointing a new prime minister. He also claimed to be standing "on the side of the poor," a statement so far detached from reality as to be laughable.

Phase 2 began on Saturday. Defying a military curfew that was supposed to begin at 4:00 pm local time, hundreds of thousands of people poured out to Tahrir Square, at the center of Cairo. That night, looters, many of them carrying police IDs, rampaged through Cairo neighborhoods. The police disappeared from the streets and the military remained neutral, a position that they publicly announced as their official stance on Monday afternoon. Protestors also welcomed the military with hugs and smiles, doing nothing to provoke them. By Tuesday, with military protection, up to a million demonstrators responded to opposition leaders' calls to march, making these the largest demonstrations so far.

However, the opposition forces were not organized enough to march on any government sites. Had they surrounded the presidential compound in Heliopolis, they might have been able to convince Mubarak that he was truly in danger. (Of course, such a move would have put them in danger, too.) Instead, Mubarak continued to believe that he could survive this crisis--despite the protestors' demands that he go immediately. Unlike Tunisia's, Egypt's anti-government resistance is divided. That may be their undoing.

Today Egypt is in Phase 3, the escalation toward revolutionary violence. Last night (Tuesday night, February 1), in a speech on Egyptian TV, Mubarak offered a mix of responsiveness and stubbornness. He responded by announcing a few concessions, saying that his new vice president  would open a dialogue with opposition forces, that he would not run for re-election in the September presidential elections and that he would allow amendments to the constitutional articles that currently allow limits on candidates for presidential elections. But he did not explicitly rule out the possibility that his son Gamal could be one of those candidates. He also hinted darkly at the possibility of chaos, calling for people to return to normalcy. And he said that he planned to be buried in Egypt. In other words, he would not be leaving like Tunisia's Ben Ali.

Whether they are following orders or responding spontaneously to this speech, Mubarak's allies in the police are today fomenting counter-revolutionary chaos. To evoke the poet Dylan Thomas, instead of going gently into the good night, Mubarak is raging against the dying of the light. He and his regime cannot imagine giving up power. They will try to cling to power as long as possible, even if that brings violent clashes on the streets and widespread destruction of property. Mubarak will allow Egypt to burn before he will lose face.

Neither pro- nor anti-government forces have any leadership on the streets to restrain them. Unless the military topples Mubarak soon, this could easily escalate out of control into social breakdown and revolutionary chaos. Across the world, we are witnessing the utter collapse of a regime and a social revolution--live.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Why Are Egyptians Upset?

As protests swell in Cairo and schools are cancelled here in Ohio (due to snow and ice), CNN published a story based on interviews with people in the crowd  that helps explain why up to a million people have come out into the streets.

As one man shouted, "Mubarak has been here since Ronald Reagan."

A 23 year old man, who had struggled to arrive because the government shut down train services, said this:
I'd like to see a president in Egypt every eight years like in other countries. . . . This is just the country of rich people. I graduated from university and I speak four languages but I can't find a job because of nepotism and corruption. To do anything you have to pay money.
Sadly, his story is all-too-familiar for young Egyptians. Millions of them work hard, study hard, and strive to get ahead, but they are blocked by forces beyond their control. Their frustration was palpable to any visitor to Egypt who took the time to listen to them. These are bright, funny, thoughtful people who took jobs far below them just to buy food--or lost their dignity by paying bribes. Now they have finally had enough.

While much American commentary centers on fear for our strategic interests (and Israel's), not enough has focused on this straightforward demand for regular political change, economic opportunity, and less corruption. Although no government of any country can ever deliver all this, the people of Egypt (especially the young adults) will settle for Mubarak to go.

Call it term limits, Egyptian-style.