'Worse than 1967'
Egyptian intellectuals tell Amira Howeidy that Arab regimes don't seem to be learning the right lessons from the occupation of Iraq
A few days after President Hosni Mubarak's 19 March speech blaming the Saddam Hussein regime for the Iraqi crisis, 29 prominent Egyptian intellectuals -- representing a wide range of the political spectrum -- issued a statement announcing their "disagreement" with the president's position. The aggression on Iraq, said the statement, is an "imperialist one" carried out by the US on Iraq and the Arab world to "use and enslave" people. The signatories said they fully support all forms of "effective" resistance, both "official and popular", to protect "Egypt's national security and Arab security in general".
In the aftermath of the unexpectedly speedy fall of Baghdad on 9 April and the subsequent military occupation of Iraq, silence reigned in Cairo, the Arab world's largest capital. While Arab and Western TV stations aired images of jubilant Iraqis dragging statues of their outgoing dictator through the streets of Baghdad as Washington cried "liberation", many here were shaking their heads in disapproval. Not only is the US-British military occupation of Iraq a stab in the heart of national Arab unity, observers argue, but the "catastrophe" of Iraq's bleak and uncertain future is bound to affect the Arab world, including Egypt, quite negatively.
This point of view is not limited to pessimists, but in fact seems to reflect the concerns of a vast majority of independent Egyptian intellectuals, politicians and analysts.
One of them is Amin Youssry, a former diplomat who served in several Arab capitals, including Baghdad. "The fall of Baghdad began with the fall of Cairo when President Anwar El- Sadat broke the constants of history and geography and visited Israel [in 1977]." Two years later, Egypt became the first Arab country to recognise Israel and sign a peace agreement with the former enemy. Since then, argues Youssry, the Arab front has weakened, leading to the situation "we are in today: the occupation of Iraq".
Youssry who is one of the 29 signatories of the statement protesting Mubarak's position on the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, refutes the wide-spread conviction in the West -- and especially the US and Britain -- that Iraq was "liberated" from "dictatorship". "Since when did the US support democratic regimes in the world? Didn't the US bring down democratic regimes in Latin America and replace them with despotic client regimes instead? Didn't the US support Saddam Hussein as it does many Arab dictators?"
Views like these are not new to Arab ears. Even before the invasion of Iraq, government officials and pundits alike sounded warnings about the dangerous repercussions of the war. But now that the war is over, there seems to be more than one interpretation of the expected repercussions, at least as far as regimes and those in civil society are concerned.
"I'm actually glad this aggression took place," said Youssry, "because it's about time the Arabs woke up and understood the US's role in supporting the region's despots. We might not see the repercussions of this realisation today, in a month's time or even in a year, but eventually, we will."
A day after the fall of Baghdad, a reporter asked President Mubarak about his warnings regarding the war's repercussions and its potential for reshaping the map of the Middle East. "I don't want to say there will be a 'different region'," answered the president, "but what happened offers many lessons and the Arab region has to develop. This is a very important matter."
In fact, in the run-up to the war, the Egyptian government implemented several measures that seem to correspond with American demands for "good governance" in Egypt. Two months ago, the ruling National Democratic Party announced its plans to establish a governmental Institute for Human Rights, as well as cancel State Security courts and abolish hard labour prison sentences. In January the president announced the appointment of the first woman judge and declared Coptic Christmas -- 7 January -- a national holiday.
Critics, however, argue that these changes are not enough. "This is political window dressing, not real democracy," said Fahmy Howeidy, a prominent writer. In order to confront the increasing level of the dangers facing the Arab world, Howeidy said, much more is needed. "The problem is that the existing Arab regimes have been there for so long, they've become immune to change."
Many are comparing the occupation of Iraq with the 1967 defeat, when Israel occupied the West Bank and Sinai and destroyed Egypt's air forces, sending shockwaves across the region that lasted for several decades. Howeidy argues that the situation today is even "worse than in 1967". The '67 defeat affected the entire Arab region, but "did not change the balance of power in the world. Back then there was the USSR. Today the US says, 'I'm the leader of the world.'"
Still, the more pressing problem, in Howeidy's view, is that the fall of Baghdad and the subsequent occupation of Iraq was shown on TV, "minute by minute".
"We didn't see Israel's occupation of Palestine in 1948, nor did we see the tripartite aggression on Egypt in 1956, or, for that matter, the 1967 defeat. But this time we saw it all, through Arab eyes, which has created a lot of zeal, as well as a lot of tension between the government and society. People have been mobilised against their regimes, but without channels to vent that sentiment, an outburst will occur and we don't know what its manifestations will be."
The speed with which Washington turned against Syria -- described by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer as a "rogue" state -- has added to the feelings of anxiety and frustration. "This is a colonial war," Yehia El-Refai, a former judge and honourary president of the Club of Judges, told Al-Ahram Weekly. "First it was Iraq, then it will be Syria, and then, Egypt," said El- Refai, who places the blame for this turn of events squarely on "our catastrophe: one-man rule in the Arab world. Something has to be done about it, and real change has to take place, because we really don't want more military coups like the ones that have taken place in the region's history."
El-Refai, Youssry and Howeidy were all signatories of the statement protesting Egypt's position vis-à-vis the Iraqi crisis. Today, however, they -- along with the other signatories -- have no idea what their next step will be. According to American University in Cairo economics professor Galal Amin, who also signed the statement, they're in a phase of "catching" their "breath". The sudden Washington-Damascus showdown took him by surprise. "I think that those intellectuals who experienced 1967 and were affected by it, do not have the energy to take the lead anymore," he told the Weekly. Then who will? Amin said he didn't know, and that that was the real danger.
C a p t i o n : Anti-war demonstrations in Egypt reflected public anger at the US as well as Egyptian domestic politics
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Al-Ahram Weekly Online : 17 - 23 April 2003 (Issue No. 634)
Located at: http://weekly.ahram.org.eg/2003/634/eg6.htm