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Gordon Campbell on Mubarak’s divide and rule tactics

Gordon Campbell on Mubarak’s divide and rule tactics, and David Farrar


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If regime change does eventually occur in Egypt, a truly representative government in Cairo would be less pro-American, and less likely to collude with Israel’s plans for the region. To take the most obvious example, a truly democratic Egypt would be highly unlikely to share the Mubarak regime’s willingness to collude with Israel in orchestrating the fate of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

Turkey is already the regional role model* in this respect. As Turkey has become more democratic, it has become less servile to Western interests, less willing to co-operate with the Israelis in policies that subjugate the Palestinians, and more willing to engage independently with the region’s other emerging power, Iran.

When cornered, the Mubarak regime has reverted to type. It has (a) employed divide and rule tactics against its opponents and (b) tried to impose any reforms from the top downwards, onto the masses. Mubarak’s divide and rule process has included depicting himself as the only alternative to chaos. To that end, as even the conservative security website Stratfor has reported, much of the looting of middle class and wealthy neighbourhoods has been carried out by plainclothes police, in order to terrorise residents as to what the alternative to Mubarak may bring in its wake. It’s the usual dichotomy. Stratfor puts it this way:

Security forces in plainclothes are engaged in destroying public property in order to give the impression that many protesters represent a public menace. The Muslim Brotherhood is meanwhile forming people’s committees to protect public property and also to coordinate demonstrators’ activities, including supplying them with food, beverages and first aid.

Obviously, the Muslim Brotherhood is not the only opposition that Hosni Mubarak faces in his battle for survival. Currently, the ranks of the demonstrators include Coptic Christians, secular Egyptians of every class and income level, educated middle and upper middle class Muslims, and non-ideological youth as well. If Mubarak is to survive, he has to somehow pit those elements against each other.and crush them later, one by one. US scholar Juan Cole describes the Mubarak tactics of divide and rule in these terms:

By suggesting that the Muslim Brotherhood is taking advantage of the protests to conduct a campaign of sabotage behind the scenes, with the goal of establishing a theocratic dictatorship, Mubarak hopes to terrify the other groups into breaking with the Muslim fundamentalists. Since middle class movements such as Kefaya (Enough!) are small and not very well organized, Mubarak may believe that he can easily later crush them if he can detach them from the more formidable Brotherhood.

So far, the role being played by the Obama administration seems to have been crucial in pulling the purse strings on the Egyptian military – and reminding the generals what they will lose if they order their troops to fire upon the crowds in Tahrir Square with US-supplied arms and ammunition.

At this point, Mubarak will still be hoping to impose his own men – such as vice president Omar Suleiman – on the reform process, and thus dictate the eventual outcome once the massive crowds and Western media attention, have receded somewhat. Mubarak will take solace from the fact that the final outcome in Tunisia – where all this started – is still up in the air.

Suleiman is unlikely to be acceptable to the demonstrators merely by virtue of him being Mubarak’s choice. Things have gone too far now for Mubarak to pick and choose how much democracy he will allow. The fact that Suleiman managed the rendition process in Egypt and oversaw the brutal interrogation of terrorism suspects should also disqualify him from acceptance by the international community.

Besides Mubarak, the big loser in the past month has been Israel. First the sham nature of the ‘peace process’ was exposed in the extensive Palestine Papers documents, that revealed in depressing detail the collusion between Israel and the Fatah leadership in the selling out of Palestinian interests. (The reputation of Fatah’s chief negotiator Saeb Erakat will never recover from this very public humiliation.) Israel now seems about to lose its equally compliant friend in Cairo – and will force it to re-engage with Syria, the prickly regional player that it had effectively been able to ignore, ever since Israel signed a peace deal with Anwar Sadat (Mubarak’s predecessor) back in 1979.

The effects from the events in Tunisia and Egypt are rippling through the region, from Yemen to Syria. In a pre-emptive move, King Abdullah II of Jordan yesterday sacked his entire government, and installed a new Prime Minister with a reputation of being free from corruption.

As Syria expert Joshua Landis has indicated, even tyrants face the same basic problem in the Middle East as democrats – that of feeding their restive and growing populations:

The economic situation for the bottom 50% of most Middle Easterners is going to get worse in the future due to rising commodity prices, inflation, and scarce resources. To stay in power, governments presiding over a large percentage of poor will have to become more repressive or find a way to increase economic growth.

If, as expected, Mubarak announces he will not stand in September’s elections, this will certainly buy his regime time to orchestrate the outcome, and divide his opponents. In this process, the end game has not yet even begun.

* Hat-tip to Joshua Landis for this comparison.

***

David Farrar’s Art Hang-up

I don’t read Kiwiblog, so it has taken a day or so for friends to refer me to the latest reason for not doing so.

According to David Farrar, my criticism of Arts Minister Chris Finlayson for not defending the persecuted Iranian film director Jafar Panahi is somehow akin to defending Roman Polanski.

Huh? Roman Polanski admitted to drugging and sodomising a 13 year old girl. Jafar Panahi has been sent to jail for six years and forbidden to make movies for 20 years for merely planning to make a film about the stolen 2009 Iranian elections. How does Farrar think these things are remotely comparable? And how can he liken my defence of Panahi to the defence (by others) of Polanski – especially when I attacked Polanski’s apologists on Scoop less than a fortnight ago.

I know, I know…it’s a wind-up, and my real sin was to criticise Chris Finlayson. To Farrar, I’m some kind of arch Wellington cultural elitist for thinking that Finlayson should defend Panahi. Well, let me spell this out… Chris Finlayson is the Minister of the Arts. He gets paid a lot of money to promote and defend the arts. Panahi is an artist, internationally acclaimed as such. That’s why I thought Finlayson might rise to his defence, given that the French Minister of the Arts has already done so in forthright terms.

Yet to Farrar, it is somehow cultural elitism for me to argue that Finlayson should defend an artist of Panahi’s stature. Spare me. I see it as part of the job we pay Chris Finlayson so handsomely to do. Being Arts Minister is not all wine and cheese and hanging out with Sir Peter Jackson. That’s the real cultural elitism.

Lying just beneath Farrar’s comments is the usual New Zealand cultural cringe about ‘artists’ – as if the whole notion is somehow poncey or pretentious. For the record, I don’t downplay the fate of journalists and bloggers in Iran – some of whom have paid with their lives for covering the same election demonstrations that Panahi was planning to address in the film that landed him in jail.

The difference is, I don’t expect the Minister of Arts to defend bloggers and journalists, though that would be welcome. I do expect him to defend artists. That’s why Finlayson’s failure to denounce Panahi’s treatment seems inexplicably timid, and shameful.

********

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