Monday, February 14, 2011

Mubarak resigns but where next for Egypt?

President Hosni Mubarak resigned and stepped down as Egypt's ruler after 30 years last week following weeks of protests across the country. But despite his departure, which has been greeted with jubilation, there remains uncertainty for the future of the country. Meanwhile the revolution in Egypt is blowing seeds of discontent across the region with protest seen in several other Arab countries and elsewhere in the world.

The news of Mubarak's stepping down led to scenes of widespread jubilation across Cairo with outbursts of joy and celebration in Tahrir [Liberation] Square. Egyptians celebrated Mubarak's demise with the honking of car-horns, setting off fireworks and waving the national flag jubilantly from what appeared to be every street and neighbourhood of the capital. Similar scene were reported in other cities and towns across the country.
But there remains some cautious optimism. US President Barack Obama said that Egypt must now move to civilian and democratic rule.

This was not the end but the beginning and there were difficult days ahead, the US president added, but he was confident the people could find the answers. "The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard," Obama said. "Egypt will never be the same again...they have made it clear that nothing less than genuine democracy will carry the day." [BBC].

Media commentators also spoke of possible problems ahead. The BBC World Service reported that while there is a general trust of the Egyptian military which has assumed power until elections, there is a worry amongst some that they may themselves may not relinquish their power so easily.

"The obvious thing that is going to be concerning many people is to have some kind of a clear roadmap for the progress towards democratic elections," Al Jazeera's Jacky Rowland, reporting from Cairo, said "After all this was a revolution not only to overthrow President Mubarak, but also to remove the whole system and install it with one where people would have freedom of choice with [regards to who] who runs the country."

The transition of power was announced by the vice-president Omar Suleiman who, in a televised address Friday, said that the president was "waiving" his office and had handed over authority to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Suleiman's 50-word statement was received with a roar of approval and by the tens of thousands in Tahrir Square as well as by other pro-democracy campaigners who were attending protests across the country [Al Jazeera]

Media coverage

The fall of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's government was covered extensively on television around the world. This was one revolution that has been televised, broadcast on the radio and via socia-media on the Internet. And the outcome of 18 days of protest culminated in great excitement not only amongst Egypt's population but also in news reports. "This is one of those days that all of us would say we'll never forget," CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer said.

Only a week before, Blitzer's colleague Anderson Cooper cowered in a Cairo hotel room with shades drawn for a live broadcast. He like many journalists, photographers and cameramen had sought shelter after the Mubarak regime unleashed men to beat, intimidate and take into custody journalists who had entered Egypt to cover pro-democracy demonstrations.

When the announcement that Mubarak was to step down many reporters almost failed to notice. "It was so brief I thought I had missed it," said NBC News reporter Richard Engel. "Then the crowds around me began to cheer." Fox News Channel's Leland Vittert was delivering a live report from above Cairo's Tahrir Square, seemingly unaware that Suleiman had been speaking, when the crowd's eruption caught him off guard. "We're now hearing this unbelievable roar from the crowd," Vittert said. "We don't know what that's about. This is about as developing a situation as you can get. It's unbelievable what's going on in the square." Studio news anchors in New York, scanning their computers, informed Vittert as to why the crowds were suddenly so jubilant. "This is a celebration of a country that has finally stood up for itself," Vittert said later.

Many broadcast networks interrupted regular daytime programming for special reports within five minutes. NBC's Brian Williams was the only one of the top three anchors on duty (David Muir was on for Diane Sawyer for ABC; Jeff Glor for Katie Couric on CBS) and the experience showed. He was quickest to catch the historic import of the moment and the extraordinary nature of the response, pausing for 15 seconds and suggesting viewers simply listen.

Muir and Christiane Amanpour were cautious in their initial ABC reports, concentrating on questions of how the succession would work. At CBS, on-scene reporter Elizabeth Palmer noted how the day brought many uncertainties with it, but Egyptians were intent on celebrating their achievement nonetheless.

Al Jazeera's English network, little seen in the US but available on the Internet, displayed the advantage of its staffing throughout the Arab world. Al Jazeera aired pictures from Alexandria while US-based networks had nothing beyond Cairo.

Correspondent Ayman Mohyeldin struggled slightly to keep emotions in check when asked by his anchors what he felt personally about the moment. "I never thought I would live to see a day like this," Mohyeldin said.

On Fox, anchor Megyn Kelly expressed worry about some of what she was seeing, noting that many people in Israel were worried about what a new Egyptian government would mean and whether it would be an opening to power for Muslim extremists. "Rather than the negativity," commentator Alan Colmes told her, "let's support this." [AP].

Warning to others dictatorships

While Israel may be concerned as to how Egypt develops politically, leaders in other nations across the Arab world are becoming increasingly worried as to how the pro-democracy protests in Egypt might affect their own grip on power. In Tunisia Zine El Abidine Ben Ali ruled the country for 23 years before being forced out. With Hosni Mubarak ousted after nearly 30 years several other countries in the region may see calls for greater freedom.

"The only thing I want to tell you here is that the winds of change are sweeping the Middle East," Arab League chief Amre Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, told CNN. "How it would move and what direction, when, where, I'm not in a position to judge very well what the extent will be. But it is, in my opinion, the winds of change have started."

In nearby Libya, Facebook pages announced peaceful demonstrations scheduled for Monday in the shadow of leader Moammar Gadhafi, who has ruled the country for almost 40 years and just a few days ago reiterated his support for Mubarak.

Across the Red Sea, thousands have protested Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has ruled Yemen for 32 years. The protests seen there have been small and relatively peaceful, though there have been reports that clashes have occurred when undercover police have attempt to interfere.

In Jordan, King Abdullah II has already reshuffled his cabinet after calls for greater freedom. But many observers warn not to look for too many "winds of change." Jamie Rubin, a diplomat in former President Bill Clinton's State Department, pointed to sharp differences in the way Arab countries are ruled.

"What do Tunisia and Egypt have in common? The military made a decision not to intervene," Rubin said. "You have Iran, and we have enormous numbers of people on the street, not so long ago. But security services were prepared to kill them, arrest them, put them in prison. And if you go to Syria, you have a military regime that in the past has been prepared to commit mass murder. So we have to make these distinctions."

"They [Egypt] made a decision to intervene, but not with violence," Rubin said. "They made a decision to let the revolution play out and not to shore up the status quo. Their decision not to use force against the public permitted the public to break through that barrier of fear."

Fouad Ajami, a Lebanese-born scholar and expert on Middle East affairs, said that the people over the decades have begun to lose their awe and fear of their governments.

"Look at the episodes. There was a spider hole, Saddam was flushed out of the spider hole in 2003. And then came the spectacle" of his trial, Ajami said. "And so I think that many Arab governments are worried, and they should be worried. They treat their people badly. They brutalize them. They plunder the money. There's no social contract in many of these states, and I think they have every right to be worried."

"But one has to be careful where and how. I would not want, for example, for there to be a rebellion in Syria, because my worry is that the Syrian regime would commit such atrocities," he said [CNN].

Beyond the Middle East there is concern too. The uprising in Egypt has undoubtedly stunned Chinese leaders and in response Beijing has heavily censored the news coming out of Egypt adding to an already severely restricted information flow. As well as an omission of certain details, many reports showed also showed a complete disortion of the facts [New Yorker].

On face value China's leaders have little to concern themselves. The economy is booming and on Monday it was announced China had become the world's second biggest economy [BBC].

For many Chinese the country's development generates a feeling of national pride, even if not quite all are able to participate fully in China's new found wealth. But look a little deeper and this ostensibly resilient regime is afflicted by many of the same pathologies as Egypt. In China, repression, corruption, low accountability, a surprisingly narrow base of support and fast-rising inequality are all in evidence. Growth and prosperity help the CCP maintain its legitimacy, but the regime may well be aware that performance-based legitimacy is unreliable, at best. The same frustrations that drove Egyptians into the streets could be unleashed in China when its economy inevitably hits a speed bump.

China's continued economic prosperity is by no means guaranteed, and rising food price inflation is a concern, not only for the population but also the CCP. But any revolution will not happen soon.

Egypt's revolution was spawned by the so-called Facebook generation. Protesters organised using Twitter and other social networking sites to spread the message of reform and to rally people to the cause. But in China the Internet is strictly controlled. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and other western based social media websites are blocked in China. And the Chinese based websites are self-censored and subject to strict government guidelines. Anyone posting contentious messages will see their blogs deleted and posts removed. There is even the risk of arrest.

In fact it is fear that prevents any seeds of discontent from growing into anything more than a quiet grumble. When Liu Xiaobo put together his Charter 08 calling for greater democracy he found himself arrested and later jailed for 11 years. In 1989 hundreds were mercilessly gunned down by the People's Liberation Army after they called for reform. Such history is itself heavily censored, but many in China are fully aware how far they can push [FT].

On the streets of Cairo there were bizarre scenes at times with some protesters holding signs written in Chinese [New Yorker]. It raised speculation that some might be urging the Chinese to call for regime change, though others suggested the messages were a sarcastic pun aimed at Mubarak's inability to understand their calls in whatever language the protesters spoke. It could also a poke at Mubarak's cosying up to the Chinese state. Of course such messages did not make it into China's state media which instead said the protests had created nothing but "havoc and instability".

However there was little sign of havoc in Cairo, only jubilation and a gradual clearing up of the mess left by thousands after 18 days of protest. Channel Four's Lindsey Hilsum sent many tweets on Saturday describing how people were cleaning up Tahrir Square some wearing signs declaring, "Yesterday I was a demonstrator, today I build Egypt". Four women with dustpans and brushes wore signs saying, "Sorry for the disturbance, today we build Egypt". By Monday most demonstrators had left Tahrir Square and although there was still some disruption to the economy as many banks stayed closed, the country is reverting to a sense of normality [BBC]. Only time will tell if the transition will bring about stability and rebuild Egypt into a country the Arab people can truly be proud of.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

No comments: