Much ado about reform in Egypt

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Mohamed Yehia

Safar 11, 1425 2004-04-01

Occupied Arab World

by Mohamed Yehia (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 2, Safar, 1425)

In the first week of March the scene in Egypt could well have come out of a black comedy. The General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood launched an initiative for reform in Egypt in a press conference held at the Press Association.

In the first week of March the scene in Egypt could well have come out of a black comedy. The General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood launched an initiative for reform in Egypt in a press conference held at the Press Association. The next day the interior minister called a press conference in which he denounced the association for hosting a "banned organisation", and said that no one is allowed to speak about reform in Egypt except parties sanctioned by the law (i.e. by his own secret police). The minister of education in his turn held another press conference, in which he proudly announced his own exploits, pointing to the dismissal of several thousand "extremist" (Islamic) teachers and saying that this is reform.

In short the Egyptian government, like many other Arab regimes, has been thrown into a paroxysm of terror by the latest American initiative for reform in the Middle East: "the Great Middle East", to be launched officially in June. The official Arab line is that reform should come from within the region, and be brought about by domestic forces, rather than being imposed from abroad. This apparently brave position hides an extremely tangled web of motives, interests and plans. The American reform initiative is joined by several European and, belatedly, Arab plans that have further muddied the atmosphere. Nevertheless, it is not difficult to establish the facts behind the prevailing confusion.

For more than a decade plans for controlling events in the Middle East, and for dominating the region, have come thick and fast from many thinktanks and groups in America and Europe, both private and official. In fact the story of this onslaught goes back at least a quarter of a century, when there was a flurry of plans and initiatives to defeat the Islamic movements in the region. It may seem strange, but is nevertheless true, that this flood of plans and initiatives was to a great measure instigated and aided by appeals from some Arab regimes, Christian minorities, secular elites and security services, all asking their western backers to intervene and bail them out before the Middle East was "lost to Islam". It was in answer to their need that the plans and initiatives for what was variously known as modernisation, development, change, democratisation and reform, was born.

From the beginning all such plans had some common features: secularisation, westernisation, the institution of Israel as a central power, and the consolidation of globalization in the sense of western domination. Even at a very early stage the Arab regimes were very willing, indeed eager to cooperate with these plans and implement them, particularly as their own secretive nature provided the regimes, notably in Tunisia and Egypt, the opportunity to present the measures and policies involved as their own ideas, instead of admitting that they were being imported from abroad. Thus these regimes embarked wholeheartedly upon suppression of the Islamic movements as far back as the early eighties: the era of the Tunisian approach of "drying up the sources" of Islamic commitment,– without bothering themselves about the question that is now heard everywhere, namely whether ‘reform’ should come from abroad or be home-bred. The task of implementing the recommendations made in Washington, London, Paris, Rome, Amsterdam, and Berlin were embraced diligently by an odd assortment of police forces, secular intellectuals, officials and churchmen, without any soul-searching about foreign intervention, because the goal of confronting Islam was paramount.

In those happy days the plans for change or reform coming from the West were carefully targeted and completely geared to consolidate the processes of secularisation and westernisation; the regimes therefore had no quarrel with them, especially as the target was only Islam and the Muslim peoples. Much water has flowed since those times; above all, the American plans for change and so-called reform became public after September 2001 and the declaration of open war on everything Islamic. These initiatives became inextricably linked to the manifest American and Western interventions and onslaught on the Muslim world from East Timur to Mauritania, and from Azerbaijan to Yemen. Indeed the initiatives have been exposed for what they clearly are: blueprints for domination and hegemony, rather than benevolent actions for the sake of the region’s long oppressed populations. This coming out of the closet, so to speak, was enough by itself to embarrass the regimes, which suddenly found that the secret plans they had been implementing for years in cooperation, or rather collusion, with the West were now exposed as western dictates handed down for implementation to governments that the West is now clearly treating as servile agents, not as friends or allies.

It is not that the Arab rulers could not live with embarrassment (or even humiliation for that matter), provided that they came from their western masters. The latest initiatives from Washington are equipped with the usual Islam-specific targeting and the familiar jargon about the empowerment of women, the activation of civil society, and economic liberalisation. But they also contain something that has set alarm bells ringing all over the region, and led some rulers, notably Mubarak of Egypt and Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, to the desperate and previously unthinkable expression of reservations about Washington’s plans. This new, terrifying factor is the intimation that the existing regimes should go, having outlived their usefulness. This hint was hidden, but the message was clear enough for the Arab dictators, who are sensitive to anything that affects their survival, not to miss. This was the real reason for the frantic rejection of the American initiative in the officially-controlled media in Cairo, Riyadh or even Kuwait, and not concerns about the need to preserve "our traditions and cultural identity". When an ailing Mubarak went on an arduous tour of European capitals in early March, the motive for his seeking the intercession of European leaders with the Americans to soften the American initiative was most certainly not the defence of our "specificity" (a specificity that he has done his best for the last quarter of a century to undermine in favour of secularism and westernisation). It was rather to get European backing for his talks in April with Bush, to persuade him to drop the part of the American initiative about sweeping political change affecting the longevity of Arab regimes.

From all this manoeuvring several facts stand out starkly. The Arab rulers have all accepted the Americans’ basic premise that their regimes need radical reform. The rulers have all embraced the West’s demands for reform in their entirety, and some of them have now been imposing these so-called reforms on their peoples for more than a decade. The only thing that has changed is that the proposals come at a time when some of these regimes are fighting for their survival, by trying to hand over power to their sons, whether in the monarchies or in the "republics", and have been caught off-balance. A significant indicator of this state of affairs came when Mubarak told a French newspaper in early March that reform should be gradual and come in small, measured steps. Otherwise, he added, the Islamists will sweep to power through elections and then throw the countries into bloody chaos, as happened in Algeria. This, of course, drew an angry retort from Algiers, but it was an astonishing statement in its explicitness. Mubarak, however, forgot in his anxiety over the prospect of political change that the Americans are a bit too experienced to be taken in by his favourite "cry Islam" ploy.

"Gradualism" is what the whole matter boils down to. They know that they have to comply with the West’s demands, and the plea for gradual change, on threat of the Islamic bogey, is a trick to buy time to fortify their power and hand over to their sons. The noises about reform coming from within are also desperate tricks because the Americans have never said that they will impose anything from the outside. They know very well that it is the local secular and westernised elites that will carry out these ‘reforms’. But they want new, more ambitious, more effective and better-motivated elites to perform this task, and they no longer want the older elites, including, of course, the current rulers. This is the crux of the ongoing controversy, and not any alleged dispute about the content of the reforms or their source.

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