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The Eastern World, It is Exploding

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Writing about the incredibly fluid, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute situation on the streets of Cairo is as daunting and frustrating a task as attempting to write a piece about the championship match at Wimbledon -- as it is in play.  With the latter, pace, Sanaa speed and strategy can cause one to lose, regain and once again lose their advantage within the blink of an eye.  With the former, although not so quick-paced, the edge or advantage between pro- and anti-government groups can appear to change from one news cycle to the next; so much so that one wishes for just another couple of hours before committing thoughts to paper . . . or fingers to keyboard. 

   During the years of its far-flung empire, there was an expression which went, "When England n, much of the world catches cold."  2011's version might easily be "When Tunisia sneezes, the rest of North Africa and the Middle East reach for a thermometer."  Make no mistake about it: what began late last month on the streets of Tunis has spread to the streets of Cairo, Sana'a, Algiers and, to a lesser extent, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh.  Likewise, the successful ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has started the clock ticking on the presidencies of Cairo  Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- who may or may not be the ex-president by tomorrow -- Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has agreed to end that country's 19-year-old "state of emergency" and provide more political freedoms.  In Jordan, King Abdullah II, attempting to head off any popular uprising against his government (though not him personally) fired his entire cabinet and installed Marouf Bakhit as the new prime minister.   Despite this move, hundreds of Jordanians have taken to the streets of Amman, protesting, among other things, the new p.m., political corruption and the lack of jobs.

      In Egypt, President Mubarak disolved his cabinet, announced that he would not stand for reelection in September. He then  said that his son -- and heir apparent -- Gamal would likewise not stand for office, and appointed Oman Suleiman vice president.  Not surprisingly, none of these moves have mollified anti-government forces.  The suave, sophisticated Suleiman is well-known to the Egyptian public; he is the longtime head of the feared Egyptian general intelligence service.  In her 2008 book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War On American Ideals, author Jane Mayer describes Suleiman as ". . . the C.I.A. point man in Egypt for renditions -- the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt  . . . for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances."

   Within the past 72 hours the world has watched as pro-government forces flexed their collective muscles, turning what was a relatively peaceful, almost festive, protest into a bloody clash.  Within the past 72 hours, the world has seen journalists hounded, harassed, detained and, in some cases, beaten.  And, it is highly likely that much of the pro-Mubarak contingent -- those on horse- and camel-back -- are paid governmental stooges.  The Obama administration, caught between the Scylla of supporting a longtime ally and the Charybdis of turning its back on what may well be the will of the Egyptian people -- has now urged Mubarak to vacate office ASAP and hand over the reigns of authority to a transitional government headed by the aforementioned Suleiman.

   If writing about this fluid, ever-changing situation is difficult, predicting how it will play out -- and what domino effect it will have on Israel, the Middle East, and indeed the world -- is downright impossible.  Some are taking the road well-traveled and, instead of attempting to understand the underlying cause or causes of these popular uprisings, are in the business of assessing blame.  Among the "usual suspects" are Hamas, al Qaeda, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as "progressives, liberals and god-hating secularists."  Among the more  eye-popping are "CODEPINK" a woman's peace group originally formed to protest the War in Iraq, and "remnants of the Weather Underground."  

   One fascinating byproduct of these uprisings is the changing tune of most neocons and many conservatives.  Where during the Bush years they -- along with the president -- sung out loud and clear on behalf of democratic revolution in the Muslim world, they now engage in a halting recitative which attempts to distinguish between "authoritarian" and "totalitarian" governments, with the former being acceptable, the latter unforgivable.  Funny, isn't it?  Less than 5 or 6 years ago, Mubarak, Ben Ali, and Bouteflika were horrific despots sorely in need of replacement; today they are the descendants of Thomas Jefferson.

   Depending on who one talks or listens to, the outlawed Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is either a bloodthirsty terrorist organization whose main objectives are the total annihilation of Israel and "the restoration of a Muslim caliphate that controls the Middle East and parts of Europe" or "a populist political organization that speaks for a wide segment of the Egyptian lower middle class."  Essam el-Eryan, leader of the group, has publicly agreed to back former IAEA (and Noble Peace Prize winner) Mohamed ElBaradei to negotiate with the Egyptian government.  Some, ascribing to what writer Robert Naiman calls the "cooties school" of diplomacy, object to any endorsement of a process that involves either ElBaradei (he's Iranian) or the Muslim Brotherhood.  Others believe that to "throw the baby out with the bathwater" so to speak, would be shortsighted.

   Who is right?  Who is wrong?  Whose crystal ball offers the clearest, most sharply-focused view of the future?

   At this point, only God knows.  What we do -- or should -- know is that much of the basis for the uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and elsewhere is as much economic as it is political:  high unemployment, high prices, along with government corruption and a huge, huge differential between the haves and have-nots.  It is an old story: revolutions thrive where hunger and hopelessness abides.  Rarely do well-fed people with decent jobs take to the streets demanding the overthrow of government.  

   That I have neither taken sides nor predicted the outcome of what is currently transpiring in the streets of Cairo, Sana'a and Algiers should come as no surprise.  It is, as noted at the outset, a thoroughly fluid situation.  My main concerns are what effect all this will have on the future in general, and on both Iran and Israel (which is of course being blamed by pro-government forces in Egypt) in particular.  I of course have no wish to see Egypt go the way of Iran and come under the thumb of oppressive 9th-century mullahs.  Then too, I can appreciate that the Murbarak government -- along with those of Ben Ali, Bouteflika, and Saleh have done little to alleviate the hunger, hopelessness, joblessness or fear of the people they rule.  Their governments should ultimately get what they deserve.  The big question is whether the people will get what they crave.

   In the end, it is good to keep an old truism in mind:

   It is both lamentable and terribly easy to turn free people into slaves; it is both laudible and terribly difficult to turn slaves into free people . . .

   -2011 Kurt F. Stone

Writing about the incredibly fluid, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute situation on the streets of Cairo is as daunting and frustrating a task as attempting to write a piece about the championship match at Wimbledon -- as it is in play.  With the latter, pace, Sanaa speed and strategy can cause one to lose, regain and once again lose their advantage within the blink of an eye.  With the former, although not so quick-paced, the edge or advantage between pro- and anti-government groups can appear to change from one news cycle to the next; so much so that one wishes for just another couple of hours before committing thoughts to paper . . . or fingers to keyboard. 

   During the years of its far-flung empire, there was an expression which went, "When England n, much of the world catches cold."  2011's version might easily be "When Tunisia sneezes, the rest of North Africa and the Middle East reach for a thermometer."  Make no mistake about it: what began late last month on the streets of Tunis has spread to the streets of Cairo, Sana'a, Algiers and, to a lesser extent, Amman, Damascus and Riyadh.  Likewise, the successful ouster of Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali has started the clock ticking on the presidencies of Cairo  Egypt's Hosni Mubarak -- who may or may not be the ex-president by tomorrow -- Yemen's Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Algeria's Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has agreed to end that country's 19-year-old "state of emergency" and provide more political freedoms.  In Jordan, King Abdullah II, attempting to head off any popular uprising against his government (though not him personally) fired his entire cabinet and installed Marouf Bakhit as the new prime minister.   Despite this move, hundreds of Jordanians have taken to the streets of Amman, protesting, among other things, the new p.m., political corruption and the lack of jobs.

      In Egypt, President Mubarak disolved his cabinet, announced that he would not stand for reelection in September. He then  said that his son -- and heir apparent -- Gamal would likewise not stand for office, and appointed Oman Suleiman vice president.  Not surprisingly, none of these moves have mollified anti-government forces.  The suave, sophisticated Suleiman is well-known to the Egyptian public; he is the longtime head of the feared Egyptian general intelligence service.  In her 2008 book The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War On American Ideals, author Jane Mayer describes Suleiman as ". . . the C.I.A. point man in Egypt for renditions -- the covert program in which the C.I.A. snatched terror suspects from around the world and returned them to Egypt  . . . for interrogation, often under brutal circumstances."

   Within the past 72 hours the world has watched as pro-government forces flexed their collective muscles, turning what was a relatively peaceful, almost festive, protest into a bloody clash.  Within the past 72 hours, the world has seen journalists hounded, harassed, detained and, in some cases, beaten.  And, it is highly likely that much of the pro-Mubarak contingent -- those on horse- and camel-back -- are paid governmental stooges.  The Obama administration, caught between the Scylla of supporting a longtime ally and the Charybdis of turning its back on what may well be the will of the Egyptian people -- has now urged Mubarak to vacate office ASAP and hand over the reigns of authority to a transitional government headed by the aforementioned Suleiman.

   If writing about this fluid, ever-changing situation is difficult, predicting how it will play out -- and what domino effect it will have on Israel, the Middle East, and indeed the world -- is downright impossible.  Some are taking the road well-traveled and, instead of attempting to understand the underlying cause or causes of these popular uprisings, are in the business of assessing blame.  Among the "usual suspects" are Hamas, al Qaeda, Iran, and the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as "progressives, liberals and god-hating secularists."  Among the more  eye-popping are "CODEPINK" a woman's peace group originally formed to protest the War in Iraq, and "remnants of the Weather Underground."  

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http://www.kurtfstone.typepad.com

Kurt Stone is a rabbi, writer, lecturer, political activist, professor, actor, and medical ethicist. A true "Hollywood brat" (born and raised in the film industry), Kurt was educated at the University of California, the Eagleton Institute of (more...)
 

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