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Friday, 4 February 2011

4 February 2011

Question: what links the Wizard of Oz, the 9/11 attacks, and events this week in Egypt?

Bear with me; I haven’t gone mad. But I have been trying to make sense of the unprecedented scenes on the streets of Cairo – and I think I may be seeing the beginnings of an intelligible picture.

First, the Wizard of Oz. If you’ve seen the film – of course, you’ve seen the film – you’ll remember the scene near the end when Dorothy and her companions finally get to see the fearsome Wizard. He’s just an ordinary little fella, with a much-amplified voice. Not so scary – or powerful – after all.

As for 9/11, to many millions of people around the world, especially those in countries whose governments were in thrall to, or beholden to, the mighty superpower that is (was?) the United States, what the attacks demonstrated was that Uncle Sam was unexpectedly vulnerable. What’s more, he was smitten by a group of Arabs.

Then came Afghanistan, and Iraq. Again, Uncle Sam – or, if you prefer, the Wizard of Oz – was revealed to be a great deal less mighty than he seemed.

Remember 1989, the year when the Soviet empire in Eastern and central Europe collapsed domino-like, in country after country? Once the power of Moscow was seen to be crumbling, suddenly fear gave way to courage, and the rest is history.

Which brings us to Egypt, via Tunisia. I’m not suggesting that the uprisings against long-established pro-Western governments were due solely to a perception that their Washington backers were no longer as powerful as they once were – but it is more than possible that this could be an important factor.

A government that owes its strength at least in part to the fact that it is backed by the Wizard of Oz is not as invulnerable as it may once have seemed – which may be why in Tunis and Cairo it’s been the people out on the streets who look as if they have the upper hand.

As I noted in this newsletter just three weeks ago, Arab leaders have a habit of sticking around. I cited Muammar Gaddafi in Libya (41 years in power); President Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen (33 years); and yes, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt (30 years). Now, under pressure from the streets, Saleh and Mubarak have both pledged to stand down at the next election, and of course President Ben Ali of Tunisia is now ex-President Ben Ali and is settling into exile in Saudi Arabia.

So is democracy on the march through the Arab world? After Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, east Asia, all of which have embraced various forms of democracy over the past 30 years, is it now, at last, the Arabs’ turn?

It’s still too soon to tell. I’m keeping a close eye on the Egyptian army and the newly-appointed vice-president Omar Suleiman, formerly the country’s hugely powerful head of intelligence, long regarded as the US’s point man in Cairo – and chillingly described by one US commentator this week as “a charitable man, friendly … he tortures only people that he doesn't know."

I’m also intrigued by the reaction from Turkey, a country that knows full well what it’s like having an army playing a major political role behind the scenes. This was the message from the Turkish prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to President Mubarak this week: “I say that you must listen, and we must listen, to the people’s outcry, to their extremely humanitarian demands. Meet the people’s desire for change with no hesitation. I am saying this clearly: You must be the first to take a step for Egypt’s peace, security, and stability … Take steps that will satisfy the people.”

So could a post-Mubarak Egypt become an Arab Turkey – mildly Islamist, but broadly pluralist? Or will strongman autocrat Mubarak make way for strongman autocrat Suleiman?

I think I know which of the alternatives the US and Israel would prefer – but how about those thousands of people out on the streets? After all, the 1989 revolutions in Europe didn’t lead overnight to a new generation of non-Communist leaders – so it may be a while before a clearer picture of Egypt’s future begins to emerge.

For now, the demands from the streets are clear enough: Mubarak must go, his regime must fall, the corrupt must be punished and jobs must be found for the unemployed. But there are still plenty of people whose physical and financial security depend on the regime’s survival: you don’t run an autocracy for 30 years without building up a pretty impressive client base. Besides, many people fear the uncertainty, confusion and potential dangers that could follow a precipitate presidential resignation.

So don’t assume that a massive change is on the way. Just because the Wizard of Oz says there must be change, doesn’t mean that change will follow. After all, when Dorothy’s dog Toto pulled back that curtain revealing the wizard’s powerlessness, we saw him pulling at all sorts of levers to no great effect.

Yes, the people of Cairo are still out on the streets, but it’s not over yet.

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