Panning back to Egypt…

A couple of weeks ago, the big question had ceased to be “Will there be a revolution in Egypt?” and had become “Will it matter?” The revolutionaries had demonstrated that they could endure, could divide the Army from the government and the security state, and had eventually succeeded in chasing the president out of power. But would this mean lasting change? Wouldn’t it just imply the creation of a new ruling elite, or a permanently-temporary military junta? The grey lineup detailed here were in charge, issuing statements about going back to work. This piece from David Wessel of the Wall Street Journal sketches it out, and reveals far more than it means to.

It’s easy to sketch the scenario in which Egypt blows it. The army could maintain control behind a façade of democracy and protect elites who benefited from the growth produced by significant economic reforms that Mr. Mubarak blessed. Four things have to go right for Egypt to seize the moment.

First, the young protesters of Tahrir Square have to keep the pressure on the military. A lot depends on which way they go. If they’ve been soured by privatization that engorged the cronies, will they demand the security and subsidies of the state over the risks, competition and dynamism that comes with a vibrant private sector? In short, do they want government jobs? Or a shot at being hired—and maybe fired—by an entrepreneurial company?

Of course, the policies those elites benefited from are precisely the ones he goes on to advocate, and the ones that the IMF recommended and Mubarak implemented. Wessel alludes to this further down the piece but never quite manages to say that the Egyptians hated them so much they overthrew the state. Also, although he compares Egypt with Poland after communism, he doesn’t seem to be aware that a major factor in Poland’s revolutions (1981 and 1989) was that the state got huge international loans it couldn’t pay back.

Anyway, so that was one scenario – the military guarantees some constitutional change but keeps the political economy and the power-structure Mubarak left.

It doesn’t seem to be working. Mohammed Fadel has a good rundown of the Army’s (and the Muslim Brothers’, and the 2005-era middle class dissidents’) efforts to put pressure on strikers, their eventual failure, and some of the economic ideas circulating among the revolutionaries. Apparently, the military has eventually been induced to open talks with the real trade union movement as opposed to the yellow unions that were part of Mubarak’s system. You can read their negotiating position at guess who’s.

But perhaps the best news of all isn’t economic. Here’s some incredible reportage of an incredible and very significant event – the crowds take over the headquarters of Central Security in Alexandria, and start salvaging the secret files the spooks were trying to destroy.

I wouldn’t bet on the holy-of-holies in Cairo lasting much longer – Hossam el-Hamalawy has already been down to his local station with his Canon EOS 5D and his angry mob. Guess what, that’s full of files as well.

In 1989, something similar happened – when it looked like the post-Wall East German government might be stabilising, and that it felt confident enough to tell the public that it was going to retain the Stasi although under a new name, people invaded the organisation’s offices to secure the key assets of any secret police force, the files. It was the end, really; there could be no more hoping for some sort of patched-up afterlife for the basic structure of the DDR. This time there was much more violence, and the spook toys included a sinisterly large stash of Viagra – the Stasi did a fair amount of drug dealing as part of its efforts to raise hard currency, but nothing with those implications.

There probably weren’t many documents like this one in the files at the Normannenstraße either.

The upshot includes the resignation of Mubarak’s last prime minister. In an almost uncanny echo of East Germany, he went on TV not long before the crowds moved into the secret police stations, to defend the institution of Central Security. Just like Hans Modrow did, and with exactly the same effect. His exit was announced via the Egyptian Army’s facebook profile.

His replacement is profiled here – Essam Sharaf, significantly, is both a candidate endorsed by the revolutionaries and a participant in the revolution himself, as well as apparently enjoying a good reputation with the workers’ movement as far back as 2006.

épuration, crowdsourced

I’m not sure what either Ethan Zuckerman or Evgeny Morozov would make of this, but this is quite the revolutionary web crowdsourcing project. Piggipedia is an effort by Egyptian Flickr users to pool their photos from the revolution and identify the plain-clothes cops and private thugs responsible for the worst of the violence, with a view to prosecuting them or failing that, just ostracising the hell out of them. I presume this is also going to be a rare deployment outside China of the human flesh search engine. If sex infects new media like a virus, yadda yadda William Gibson feh, just wait ’til you see how revenge does.

The most useful article you’ll read on Egypt this week

Is here. How did we get to the position where the red flag and the desert eagle were suddenly back ahead of the star and crescent? How do the Muslim Brothers and other Islamists interact with the Left? Where did those people come from?

As a Revolutionary Socialist member who was active in the 1990s recalls: “We were a kind of leftist the Muslim Brothers hadn’t met before. They couldn’t quite figure us out at the beginning. Anyway, we were still too marginal for them to bother with. We were only a few individuals.” This began to change in 1999. On a few occasions in that year, as one socialist remembers, the Muslim Brotherhood students at Cairo University allowed the Revolutionary Socialist students to speak at rallies held on campus against the US airstrikes on Iraq. The socialist students took this unprecedented opportunity as a sign of the Muslim Brothers’ recognition that they were a force that had to be given a place on the political stage. It was a step in a long, slow process of building trust.

“…Only one heli left on the ground and it’s running”

It’s officially wheels up for Hosni Mubarak. Rather, that particular landmark was reached an hour ago:

I can also see mubarak residence airport. 5 helicopters used to be there, only 1 left on the ground & it’s running

Anyway, the promised statement, as fashionably late as usual, arrived and it confirmed his resignation. This after an incredible afternoon during which Nile TV’s newsreader argued on air at length with the crowds outside the TV headquarters, before apparently apologising for their past coverage after an Army spokesman read out the resignation letter. From Sultan al-Qassemi of The National‘s twitter feed:

Fascinating: Egypt State TV is speaking live with anti-Mubarak protesters surrounding the State TV building

The news anchor is pleading with the angry protesters “You know there was a period of chaos, we all want there to be more freedom of speech”

Protesters surrounding State TV building: We demand an apology for your coverage of Bloody Wednesday! On air Anchor : Calm them down please

[Sultan Al Qassemi]:The State TV anchors are terrified. There are tens of thousands of protesters surrounding the building who are unhappy with the coverage.

Egypt State TV anchor is speaking to a go between “Please assure the protesters. Please”

And then, from Port_Saeedy:

Egyptian TV News reader : We apologize , we read lies against our own..

The next message recorded the arrival of the Army spokesman. The on-air apology happened in Tunisia, but I’m at a loss for a historical example of a TV station actually arguing with the general public in real time and losing without any actual violence being used.

Egypt: update

There appears to be a critical moment approaching in Alexandria, where the revolutionaries have been camping around the Northern Military District HQ since Mubarak’s speech last night. A huge crowd has formed at the president’s residence in the city and at the naval base, where naval personnel have been reported to be passing out food and drink to the protestors. (This has also now been reported in Cairo.) However, the palace gates and the approach along the beach are guarded by a group of tanks. There have been some parleys between the crowd and senior naval officers using a loudspeaker truck. The tank guns are trained towards the crowd, but elevated as if to engage a distant target, rather than depressed to fire at point blank. (Now that’s what I call a mixed message.) In the last few minutes a file of what appear to be either sailors, marines, or perhaps police marched out of the gates.

Across Egypt, the mobilisation has been bigger than ever today. Large crowds have moved onto the TV centre, where they have blockaded all access. However, a skeleton staff was apparently left on site last night, and they continue broadcasting. Elsewhere in Egypt, some local affiliate TV stations have been forced off the air. In another move in the TV wars, a new TV channel has appeared calling itself Tahrir – the Revolutionary Youth Channel, operating ironically over a transponder on Nilesat channel 10949.

Another huge demonstration has set up camp outside the presidential palace in Heliopolis. Senior army officers were reported to be parleying with groups of demonstrators there. And, apparently, the protestors are very chic. Al-Jazeera just reported the arrival of a large group of bikers, so this may depend on your tastes. Meanwhile, it’s been repeatedly rumoured that Mubarak is already off, at least as far as Sharm el-Sheikh.

In an index of how the revolution is progressing, an imam in Tahrir Square this morning preached that the “state of Ahmed Ezz” would be lifted as well as the state of emergency. Ahmed Ezz is the man who held a monopoly of steel distribution in Mubarak’s regime and became a fabulously rich symbol of, as they say, power, corruption, and lies. He was a minister until very recently when the government suddenly discovered his corruption, and was threatened with criminal charges during last night’s surreal telethon.

At the same time, part of the demonstration outside the TV centre now consists of strikers from an arms factory in Helwan, according to Hossam el-Haramawy.

However, this is surely one of the only times in history that a revolutionary mob has welcomed the presence of paratroopers.

An “important statement” is expected from “the presidency” at any moment, but after past experiences, you wouldn’t hold your breath. It may be significant that the message is going to come from the presidency rather than the president, or it may not.

Update: Al-Jazeera is reporting that the presidential plane has been sighted in Sharm el-Sheikh, and that state TV has announced that he has left Cairo, bizarrely quoting “foreign news agencies” (which of course they are not meant to be allowed to use, according to last night’s statement!).

Reading the Egyptian leftist movement

This piece is an absolute must read. Interesting questions for discussion: The importance of small businesses, or people who are partly small businessmen, partly workers. It’s probably more interesting to think in terms of the boundary between the formal and informal sectors of the economy. I wonder what a revolutionary leftist movement based on the people Paul Amar described will look like? What kind of economic ideas will it use?

Also, the importance of cybercafes as a stereotypical small business, as well as, well, cafes – places of gathering, free speech, and perhaps a little commerce. Or was it the other way around?

Hossam el-Haramawy is angry as hell and is reporting live from the field. His blog is here, with superb photography from the field.

And for me that’s about it – I know they’re there, and increasingly it’s clear that they’re the backbone of the movement. The Brothers are half-in, the right-liberals lionised by the neocons are there but they’re no mass movement. Who else should I be reading?

this is a public service announcement, without much content

Since my last post, we’ve had the two biggest mobilisations of the Egyptian revolution so far. So much for petering out, even though people blogging from Tahrir Square on Tuesday were complaining about the n00bs getting in the way. For clarity, what I was expecting was that the mass mobilisation would continue, but that the back channel talks would become the revolutionary main effort, with the crowds in support, validating the delegates’ authority, backing up their claims, providing an ultimate deterrent power in the background.

Everyone’s now beginning to notice the role of trade unionists and labour activism in general. In fact, the April 6th movement itself memorialises the deaths of a group of strikers. It’s part of the revolution’s DNA. Today’s callout was part of a massive strike wave – my favourite was the column of diving instructors from the Red Sea coast who arrived in Tahrir Square with a banner reading “Mubarak! Get out before the oxygen runs out!” This movement is not running out of anything – not numbers, not commitment, not ideas, not humour. If it didn’t set out as an Internet revolution, people certainly thought it would arrive at its first objective that way.

Which brings us to tonight’s bizarre speech. It was a strange kind of event – revolutionaries gathering to await the broadcast of what was expected to be a pre-recorded statement, while live TV watched them, and bloggers commented on it. I went as far as checking flights into Dubai from Cairo – the timings for one Singapore Airlines movement seemed possible, and their service standards suitable. Surely, sayid rais couldn’t be waiting at the microphone for the weather forecast to be over and the programme controller to give him the green light? Eventually, after his now traditional delay, he spoke and said (after a great deal of guff) that he was handing over extensive powers to the vice president but not formally resigning.

This has been seen as an outrageous and ridiculous statement, but it wasn’t that far off what had been discussed over the last week or so – because a vice president who becomes president after a resignation doesn’t take over full powers, but the president can define the powers of the VP or any minister (the Kompetenzkompetenz, in German), Mubarak could empower his deputy to prepare for a real election, and then quit. Of course, if he delegated his full powers, it would be a philosophical question of some interest in what way he was still president.

It seems quite clear that no-one thinks this is enough. Further, both the Army and the NDP have as good as promised to deliver the president’s head tonight. For his part, Omar Suleiman demanded that everyone stop watching Al-Jazeera (and also Al-Arabiya, the BBC, Abu Dhabi TV, etc), the day after the Egyptian air force signallers stopped trying to jam Al-Jazeera’s satellite transponder (on the Egyptian-owned Nilesat bird – not the first time that an Arab government has tried to wreck a satellite it owns to silence them).

The general theme, of both the Egyptian political elite and the Western ones being at least a day and often more behind events, remains very true. The so-called Article 139 solution – delegation, then resignation – has been discussed for at least a week. Tellingly, it was also the Muslim Brotherhood’s favoured option. We’ve not heard anything from them tonight.

(PS, this is the first post on Fistful of Euros covering Egypt that is categorised “Transition and accession”. It’s a while since we needed that one.)

Kosovo and the ICJ: well, damn

So the International Court of Justice (“ICJ”)delivered its opinion on the legality of Kosovo’s unilateral declaration of independence (“UDI”)today. (I blogged about this a few months ago.)

To everyone’s surprise — mine included — the decision was clear, strong, and favored Kosovo. A clear majority of the judges held that the UDI was legal. They tried to frame the decision narrowly, but it’s still a big win for the Kosovars. Some people are saying it’s therefore a big loss for Serbia, but let’s get real — Serbia had no prospects of recovering Kosovo or ever getting the Kosovar Albanians to accept rule from Belgrade, however tenuous, again. (It is a hit for the Tadic administration, but probably not a serious one.)

Immediate knock-on effects: a few more recognitions for Kosovo. It won’t make that big a difference, though, in the short run — the few EU members who are refusing to recognize Kosovo are mostly doing so for internal domestic reasons, and that won’t change. Russia will still veto any UN resolution affecting Kosovo’s status, which sharply limits room for maneuver.

That said, it’s a win. And the longer-term effects could be interesting.

Meanwhile, watch for various other frozen conflicts, from North Cyprus to Abkhazia, to claim that this decision validates /their/ UDIs. Of course, to make that stick, they’d have to file and win similar suits before the ICJ. And to do that, they’d have to get a resolution past the UN General Assembly. Good luck with that, South Ossetia.

I’d say more, but I haven’t read the decision yet — it just came out a few hours ago, and the ICJ’s website has crashed. Give me a day or two.


Scenes from an internal devaluation

I’ve recently been in Budapest. The city was stinking hot and full of abandoned construction projects, and the Danube was over its banks, flooding the tramway tunnels beneath the approaches of the Chain Bridge, closing the roads on the riverside.

Walking the plank

There were a remarkable number of people sleeping in the streets, although at 35 degrees’ heat, you might have thought they were doing it by choice. Until the incredible assortment of biting insects sailing down the river got to you; I’m still scratching. There weren’t many more than in London or Leeds 15 years ago; in the integrated core of the Euro-Atlantic community, we arrange these things more efficiently. Thatcher never attained a one-year decline of 8% of GDP, which implies that the UK achieved a much greater return of misery per unit of economic recession.


On Erzsebet tel., there’s an abandoned tube station, brand new, empty. The huge stairwell into the ticket hall has been unofficially taken over and used as a nightclub; it’s invisible from street level. I suppose it’s the Big Society, but this doesn’t work as well for cardiac surgery as it does for hipsterism.

Sudden stop

All over there are monuments to the era of EU enlargement and forex loans; huge, crystalline investment ruins in the city centre, shockingly cheap mall developments in the airport suburbs. I stay in the Kempinski, a postmodernist battleship of Zizek’s Happy 90s decorated to please a German privatisation consultant. It’s the architecture of plunk!, not relieved by the cod-jugendstil detailing on the roofline God knows how far above the street, and it has a giant circular glass atrium that renders everything under it intolerably hot.

It’s just possible to make out the outlines of the hopeful era of revolution and accession; you can just about see it, if you screw your eyes up. Back then, the privatisations and shutdowns were justified with the better times to come. And now? The dead malls are often next door to the equivalent buildings of the Communist attempt at a consumer society. There are a lot of people visibly working the streets.

Kosovo snips another cord

So Kosovo just turned off the remaining Serbian mobile phone towers:

The Kosovo Albanian authorities in PriÅ¡tina removed the equipment of all Belgrade-based mobile and landline operators this morning…

Eyewitnesses, who secured the premises, said that “special police” broke into Telekom, Telenor and VIP structures to help cut off cables and take down equipment, at around 05:00 CET.

Eyewitnesses said that workers of a “telecommunications regulatory body” from PriÅ¡tina removed transmitters and randomly severed cables.

As a consequence, 40,000 Serbs are either left without mobile service in that part of the province, or have very poor reception.

A little background. Before 1999, Kosovo was covered by Serbian mobile phone networks. Since 1999, it’s developed its own — three of them. But the Serbian networks have continued to operate towers and provide mobile telephony. Unsurprisingly, most of the users have been Kosovar Serbs in the enclaves. Meanwhile the Kosovar Albanians have been buying chips and service contracts from the three Kosovar networks.

If this sort of thing interests you, there’s more. Continue reading