Kemper: A nation in revolt

Kemper Fi

Two blocks from my Arabic tutor’s apartment in downtown Cairo stands a building the size of a city block. Its ominous black walls make little secret of the sinister work conducted by its inhabitants. In a city jammed with cars, my taxi ran smoothly past it. Policemen yelled at us lest we take pictures or blow up.

This building housed the headquarters of the Ministry of Interior, an Orwellian institution that commanded 850,000 police, 450,000 paramilitary “Central Security Forces” troops and 400,000 secret police. All were employed in the nasty business of perpetuating President Hosni Mubarak’s regime. In Egypt, there was one security officer for every 37 citizens (America comes in at a little more than 1:500). Today, that building is no longer the keystone of an authoritarian arch. It is now little more than a stone. As of writing, the falling government is barely holding back the crowds by using live ammunition.

This past week has shown us once more that the most pivotal events — the actions, decisions, and chance combinations that define history — often arrive without warning.

The New York Times has written that “Egyptians again were taking control of their destiny.” But the events we are witnessing might be even more novel than that. The last two “popular” shifts in power — which brought in Nasser in 1952, and empowered Ahmed Urabi in 1882 — were top-down agitations from within the military. Before that, the history of Egypt is one of strongmen, elites and foreign invaders.

So watch the news. A new history is unfolding.

But we must be careful not to get carried away in our ebullience.

There is an e-mail “panlist” for expatriates living in Cairo called “Cairo Scholars.” Up until last Thursday the subject lines read “BEAUTIFUL APARTMENT (1500 LE) DOWNTOWN” and “Offer: High Quality Arabic language courses.” Now it is filled with “facebook working proxy,” “NGOs supporting detainees?” and “when will communication work again?” The last real-estate posting — on Friday by a young couple looking for an eight-month lease on an apartment starting in two weeks — got a witty reply-all retort: “I hear there is a lot of space in the National Democratic Party headquarters” and then “Nice views! I hear this place is hot, hot hot!”

The political right insists that Obama should have more strongly voiced his support for democracy in Egypt. But the issue is not so clear-cut. A movement associated with the United States might not have commanded popular traction. A regime wary of American interference may have been too paranoid to topple.

Most importantly, there are aspects of Mubarak’s regime that must be preserved. Indeed, under the shadow of authoritarianism, many thrived. NGOs and charities such as the Children’s Cancer Hospital accomplished extraordinary feats of humanitarianism. Relaxed press laws allowed for the growth and flourishing of semi-independent newspapers and TV channels. Economic reforms over the last decade brought sustained growth of four to seven percent a year. Life expectancy rose from 52 in 1960 to 72 in 2010. The number of passenger cars has doubled since 2000. Plans were even underway to restore and rebuild Cairo’s crumbling downtown.

But most of all, Mubarak maintained peace. In the 30 years before Mubarak, Egypt went to war beyond its borders three times. Since 1981, Egypt has been engaged in no external conflict other than the Gulf War — a remarkable feat for the tenth largest military in the world, and the second largest in the Middle East, a region that defines volatile.

All of this hangs by a very thin thread over a tumultuous future, one fraught with chronic political instability in Lebanon, bellicose repression in Iran, and suffocating theocracy in Saudi Arabia — not to mention the car bombs and rockets of Iraq and the Gaza Strip.

It is satisfying to watch those responsible for the brutal killing of Khalid Saeed — a citizen tortured to death by police last June — cower before protesters. And it is thrilling to watch an unjust and thuggish edifice shatter. But we would be remiss to overlook the growth and stability that edifice had supported.

We should not get caught up in the demands for Mubarak’s retirement. Instead, we should focus on the protestors’ grievances: political liberties, a humane government, less corruption and more economic opportunities.

Ideally, a transitional government will restore order, shepherd Egypt to a free and fair presidential election, and usher in an unprecedented era of representative politics with substantial economic and humanitarian dividends. Realistically, they could do much worse.

So let us hope that policy makers, leaders and those brave men and women in the streets of Cairo take a breath and stay focused — on building, not destroying — as the hard work begins.

Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College.


  • Omar_Mumallah

    Mr. Kemper, I generally enjoy your pieces very much, and the first part of your piece was excellent — it is clear that you have a much more deep understanding of this issue than Mr. Wagener’s piece that was published underneath yours. However, I find significant factual and argumentative issues with the second part of your piece that I would appreciate your clearing up. Please forgive me in advance for the length.

    The first major issue are the economic arguments you make. Your words, “Indeed, under the shadow of authoritarianism many thrived”. You also strangely mention the good work of NGOs and charities in the region right after this statement — as if the proliferation of charity and foreign NGO work in the country are to the credit of the regime, rather than indicative of the colossal lapse in social services Mubarak’s bad governance and gutting of social security programs had left in the country. It is true that in the early years of Mubarak’s rule economic growth was indeed impressive. This is especially true during the ’80s in the colossal development expenditures (enabled by the U.S. money after the peace deal with Israel), totalling a colossal 100 billion dollars — much of which was unfortunately diverted to benefit coprorate interests (esp those with ties to the regime, familial or affinal), and captured by corruption. However, this growth was lop-sided and stillborn — which is why Egyptians make up the largest number of Arab migrant workers in the rest of the Arab world. Unemployment is absurdly high — the economic growth of which you speak is unfortunately concentrated in the hands of a small cadre of wealthy elites (many of whom with connections to the Mubarak regime), rather than in creating jobs for the Egyptian people. You mention that “plans were even underway to restore and reuild Cairo’s crumbling downtown”, however you fail to ask whose policies led Cairo’s downtown to crumble in the first instance.

    You state that “Life expectancy rose from 52 in 1960 to 72 in 2010”. Fair enough. However, life expectancy under Mao’s China jumped much further, from around 35 years at the beginning of his reign, to over 70 years afterwards — more than doubling. Could this at all lend itself to a sensible defense for the policies of the Maoist state? Or could that jump in life expectancy have been achieved without the tens of millions of dead? A similar lapse in logic lines your statement here.

  • Omar_Mumallah

    “Relaxed press laws allowed for the growth and flourishing of semi-independent newspapers and TV channels”. This is a statement constructed to decieve, if not manifestly mendacious. Newspaper editors journalests have been regularly sent to jail, bloggers tortured, having their nails ripped out, bones crushed, their testicles electrocuted, etc. The level of evidence for all of this is absolutely overwhelming, and which I am sure you will not deny. It is true that some newspapers have proliferated, but they did so ony in keeping with Mubarak’s — though cosmetically liberalized — significant repression of the free press.

    And what is this talk about “stability” and “peace”? Stability and peace for whom, rather — a far better question to ask. Do you honestly think that the peace deal with Israel would be broken under a democratic Egyptian state? Isreal’s military superiority over Egypt is now orders of magnitude greater than it was during the previous wars fourty to fifty years ago. Not only that, let us not forget the sweet 1.3$ dollars in aid, conditional on peace with Israel. In any case, it is hard to imagine any regime on Earth that would make such a suicidal decision.

    “Realistially, they could do much worse.” — What is this fearmongering? The Islamist boogeyman or what? The innuendo here troubles me. And in any case, as Dr. King put it “A right deferred is a right denied”. Egyptians have waited for far too long for their rights, it makes little sense for them to have to wait for a transitional gov’t made by those who deferred their liberties for so long (namely the Mubarak cadre and cynical, shortsighted, patronizing, and misguided American politicans and pundits that insured this venal stasis in the country would persist for so many decades).

    Finally, perniciously absent in your piece is any mention of the 1.3 billion dollars that the U.S. government gives to the Egyptian regime on a yearly basis — aid that is the basis for Egypt’s gargantuan internal security apparatus. Currently on CNN there are self-satisfied white men in suits debate what role the U.S. should play in deciding the fate of Egyptians. If you thought colonialism is dead, you had better think again! It is high time we left the government of Egyptians to the Egyptian people — we have done more than enough damage, it is silly to assume that the American government is somehow interested in the welfare of the Egyptian people. The only other sensible and humane option I see is to perhaps use our colossal leverage to convince the Mubarak regime to allow fair elections, freedom of the presses, and to stop torturing while they are at it… Unfortunately the answer of the administration to this strategy has been diappointing to say least (see State Dept. Spokesperson PJ Crowley’s response to this very question here

  • Omar_Mumallah

    OK, I’ve nailed my points to the door. I have taken your piece very seriously — I respect it far mroe than the Wagener piece which is why I devoted so much time to carefully reading and picking at it– and hopefully you see this in my critique, rather than a desire to attack you personally. If you so incline, you can either respond here, or contact me personally and we can talk about it one-on-one. Look forward to hearing your response.

    (Again, sorry for the length)