Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The Bitter End of a Dream

February 11th is the anniversary of the Iranian revolution. It also happens to be the date when the Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak resigned, just some weeks after his Tunisian counterpart Bin Ali. And he does not seem to be the last one, the observers are already feverishly arguing about who will be next. On Saturday, February 12th people were protested in Algeria, February 14th in Iran. People begun to move also in Yemen, Jordan, Lybia and other places all over the Middle East.

The events of recent weeks not only signed the end of a part of the dictatorships in the region, but also the end of a great, utopian dream: the dream of the Islamic Republic of Iran to export their revolution to the region.

The new Islamic government in Iran after the Revolution of 1979 took over the country in very good condition. The infrastructure and industry was already built and on high technological level and the conuntry was an important economic and military power. The continued inflow of petrodollars from the often artificially skyrocketing prices gave Iran a unique opportunity: despite the eight-year war with Iraq, the Iranian government has managed to build a network of "branches" in most Muslim countries in the region, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, in Iraq, or SCIRI (Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq). The task of these organizations were ideological and armed attacks against U.S. and Western values and ideas such as secularism and, of course, against Israel. These organizations sought to discredit the country's rulers as incompetent puppets and servants of the West (which often may not be far from the truth), trying to offer people an alternative in the establishment of an Islamic government.

Iran with its aggressive rhetoric against the U.S. and Israel, trying to build nuclear capabilities and the constant boasting of "independent" technical progress, tried to attract the Muslim lands under its wing. It was not important, that apart from Lebanon and Iraq, these were mostly Sunni countries. The fight against the Great Satan and Israel should be enough to unite all Muslims against the common enemy. At the beginning they succeeded. Ahmadinejad was extremely popular in Muslim countries because of its confrontational rhetoric against the U.S. and Israel.

When the Tunisian president was toppled, and the Egyptians refused to build a pyramid to the last pharaoh - Mubarak, Khamenei and Ahmadinejad rushed to shout their thesis that these revolutions were inspired by the Iranian revolution of 1979, it was Tunisians and Egyptians fight for "freedom" against Western oppression.

But maybe they hardly believe themselves. Or they desperately want to believe.

During the most tumultuous days in Egypt, the major foreign news sites that mediated the news and footage of riots in Tunisia and Egypt were blocked or obstructed in Iran..

If the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt are so much inspired by the 1979 "Islamic revolution" of Iran, why the regime is so afraid of showing them?

Already at first glance it is clear that the role of Islamists in these revolutions was rather marginal. They were popular uprisings. It is evident that they resemble the Iranian revolution in its early days, when against the Shah different factions fought side by side, workers, intellectuals, communists and Islamists, who eventually usurped the revolution for themselves.

Several days ago representatives of the "Green" reform movement, asked for permission to demonstrate on Monday 25th of Bahman (February 14th ) to express solidarity with the Tunisians and Egyptians. Of course, they never got an official permission. The call did not spread just via Facebook, people wrote on walls, buses and banknotes, which are a very popular way to spread information in Iran. They handed out leaflets and stickers and stuck posters on walls in all major cities.

The people found the courage to come out into the streets, and the demonstration was again severely suppressed.

The main thing is that Khamenei proclaimed "the right of Egyptians and Tunisians to freedom. "

Khamenei and the official propaganda say that the Middle Eastern and North African countries yearn for Islamist rule. People who overestimate the support for extremist movements in those countries are of the same opinion.

None of this happened so far. Even the Muslim Brotherhood itself rebuked his statement.

In the summer of 2009 all the Tunisians and Egyptians could see clearly what kind of "freedom" an Islamic regime can offer. It discredited itself without any need of help: shooting people on the streets, torturing and raping detainees. If we admit that Tunisians and Egyptians were inspired by Iran, it was rather the Green movement of 2009, rather than the Islamic of 1979. It remains to hope that people will not lose common sense to leave the control to the Islamists, and the current U.S. government will be sufficiently weak and confused to quickly installed their puppet out there, a new dictator of Mubarak's kind: "no matter what doing, important, that he is our friend. "

The time when Islamist factions could win by violence are apparently gone. In the last thirty years, even in the Middle East has changed a lot. Progress can not be stopped, we no longer live at the time of the pyramids, or in times of bloodthirsty invaders waving their swords around. Egyptians and Tunisians know that they need to maintain friendship with the world. To whom could they otherwise show their pyramids and beaches?

And what about Iran? Probably it will have to wake up to the cold reality. It seems that all that its work and investment in the export of Islamic revolution was quite... a waste of time.

Monday, February 14, 2011

The End of the Last Pharaoh. Why Mubarak Had to Leave.

It is Saturday early morning, 12th of February 2011 and I leave my home into the pale morning light. It is not freezing anymore, and the almost spring air is pleasantly whistling in my hair. I have an appointment with Mustafa. I'm late again, as always. He awaits me in front of one of the big shopping centers. He is a twenty seven years old handsome young man with intelligent eyes and a gentle, a bit shy smile.

We sit down in an empty cafe. All around us there are decorations in Egyptian style ... Maybe my friend feels less homesick here. Bands of hieroglyphs twist and whirl on the walls and from a corner a gilded statue of an ancient Egyptian deity with a jackal's head is observing us with its enigmatic glance.

We speak English because his English is thousand times better than my Arabic. He orders an espresso with milk and a Coke, I go for a caffè latte.

- Why do you want to make and interview with me?

- Just out of curiosity. I am interested to know your opinion. And I want to write something about Egypt as well. I love writing. Perhaps one day I can become a professional.

- That's interesting. I did not know that you write. My uncle was a famous writer. His name was Nejib Kilani. He spent 10 years in prison, he married a journalist who helped him a lot. When I was a child, he was my big model. I also wrote short stories, but it did not bring me too much money (he laughs). I still write, sometimes at work I just grab a piece of paper and scribble something ... so ask me what do you want to know?

- Are you happy about the last events in Egypt?

- Well ... on one side, I am pleased, on the other side I am not. Egypt will need some time before it becomes a better place to live. For example, the Sinai Peninsula is dangerous. Look how Egypt developed over the past hundred years: Egypt is a rich country, it has access to the Red and to the Mediterranean, it has museums, and it has a work force of 60 million young people between 18 and 40 years.

- So why people began to protest against Mubarak?

- He he was a dictator, he was selfish, he made many mistakes, he just cared about the people who have money. Ordinary people have a lot of problems, but he did not care. 40% of people are living below the poverty line but Mubarak has 70 billion dollars, tell me where did he get that money?

- So the people's discontent is caused by economic reasons? When did people start to protest? Was it maturing for several months, or was it completely spontaneous?

- Everythingl started on April 6 last year (2010) in Alexandria, where the police killed a young man named Khaled Saeid. Witnesses say it happened in a coffee shop. He was sitting there when the cops came in and wanted to see his documents or search his pockets, or something like that. They began to fight, more cops came and they beat him to death in front of the people. They broke the bones in his face. Moreover, in the hospital they did not want to state in the documents the real reason of his death, they wanted to write that he died of drug overdose, or a similar lie. Then Wael Ghonim appeared, the Google executive who lives in Dubai. It is very rich, but also a very clever man. He worked as a consultant for the Egyptian Ministry of Finance, he was just over twenty and was already a known expert. So, Wael started to write on Facebook and organize the angry people into groups. The decisions over what to do, were taken through voting. The proposal that received the most votes from people was implemented.

- That's really interesting! And what happened then?

- Two days after his return to Egypt, Wael was arrested and spent about 13 days in jail. They interrogated him to find out if he does not work for a foreign secret service, like Mossad, but they haven't found any proof.

- How did the events in Tunisia influencee the Egyptian rebellion? Did they help it?

- Very much, I think it gave at least 50% of the momentum. But Mubarak's system was much stronger than that of Tunisia, and Egypt is a much bigger country and strategically more important.

- How do Egyptians feel about the U.S. role in Egypt?

- The United States always supported Mubarak and Egypt has been traditionally their ally, and also Israel's. Former President Anwar as-Sadat signed a strategic peace treaty with Israel. But the Egyptians do not want the United States decide what will happen in the country.

- You mentioned Israel. What is the opinion of Egyptians about this country?

- You probably know that between Egypt and Israel there was a war. Almost in every family someone died in that war. We, young people, don't feel it that much, but our parents and grandparents, all lost someone or remember someone who died. Of course we are interested in the fate of the Palestinians, but the Egyptians do not want war with Israel. Nobody wants a war. We want economic growth and a better life. Many liked Mubarak since he managed to keep the peace, his foreign policy was good, he could communicate very well with everybody. He was actually a very clever man, he studied in the United States and Americans have predicted that one day he would become president of Egypt. People started to hate him just about a decade ago, when he began to sell off state companies to privates, for example the transport companies, bus and rail. The wages of the people who worked there did not rise, but the cost of travel increased by 150%. During these privatizations that took place during Mubarak's era various speculations happened. For example, let's say, the price of the railway company was 100 million, he sold it for 50 million and the new owner gave him a commission. Because of this corruption and mismanagement people started to hate Mubarak.

- How did the people react when Mubarak handed over the power to Omar Suleiman?

- People did not accept him, they forced him to resign and give the power to the army. Suleiman was a right hand of Mubarak, people knew that nothing would change.

- So, now the army is in power in the country? What is the relationship of the people and the army?

- People trust the army. It is made of ordinary people. With the army the people have a good the relationship, but not with the police. The police are corrupt. I'll tell you an example: you need a driving license. To get it, first of all you have to find out somehow to whom should you give money to deliver to the competent officer. It must someone whom the officer trusts, because you can not just come to the police officer and give him the money. When I was 24, I founded my own company. It was a car-rental company. I started from scratch. I knew some people who owned cars, but they did not use them. So I signed a contract with those people, I paid them a monthly commission and I rented the cars. Some took a car lease. I paid the monthly fees and since the commission for the lease was higher, the people also had some extra money. After the car was paid it remained to those people. My business began to grow. I started with two cars, in a year I've had ten and at the end thirteen. One day the police came and found some stupid reason to close my office. When it stayed closed after a month, I had to finish everything because all the money I gathered I had to give to the car owners. I could not cover it any longer.

- Oh, that´s a pity... It was a very interesting idea. So the cops came and forced you to close everything? Maybe they wanted a bribe .. or they were sent by someone who didn't like that your company grows .... That's sad.

- You see, for such things people decide to emigrate. I wanted to be successful, I started slowly, gradually and I worked hard. It wasn't possible. A few years ago in the Red Sea, a ship returning from Saudi Arabia sank (* he is talking about the disaster of As-Salam Boccaccio 98, which sank on 3rd of February, 2006). It was old, in poor condition, it did not meet safety regulations. Hundreds of people died. Normally, the owner should have been punished, but he is a very rich man, has many of hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh, he was close to the system. He was freed. All these things make the people angry.

- There were reports that in Egypt there were cases of robbery and looting, and some people who were caught were carrying police identification cards. It was an effort to discredit the protesters as a bunch of robbers and rapists, or something else?

- They did it to instil fear among the people, the government wanted people to worry for their families and possessions, and force them to return home to protect them. The government intentionally opened the prisons, where dangerous criminals were held, and gave them a free hand. In addition, the Interior Ministry gave the police two days of leave. They sent them home, including the traffic police.

- This is weird. And why? Did they want to cause chaos?

- Yes. The government wanted to force the people home from the streets. But normal people took over their role.

- Took over their role? Do you mind the role of the police? How did they do that?

- They organized themselves via the Internet, via Facebook. They assigned roles to various groups, they decided that let's say Ahmad and Muhammad will guard the bank, somebody else will direct the traffic, clean the streets, protect museums and monuments, and so on.

- This is amazing!

- People were united. The key was communication. The government understood it and for three days they cut the Internet. People began to organize over the phone. The government cut the phones. People had to hand over messages personally, but even that didn't stop them.

- It is clear! They couldn't do anything more to stop the people.

- People sticked together, all working for one common idea. There were many girls among the people, but no one tried to molest them. The people's thought was united, they all had a common goal.

- What do you think, which group could now win the elections? Whom people trust?

- Politics is like a cake, now every group wants to have the biggest piece. There are many groups that will now compete, but nobody knows who will win.

- What do you think of Mohammad El-Baradei?

- Many people say Baradei lived abroad, he doesn't know the country. But this sometimes can help. When you live in a country, although you may know it well, but there are always some things you cannot see. Only a person who lives abroad sees them. It's like when you wear the same shirt every day, you are comfortable with it, you know it, but you do not see how do you look from outside. Maybe his view from distance and his international prestige can bring something positive too.

- What about the Muslim Brotherhood? Does it have a strong support among the people?

- In my opinion people gave them bad names. They are normal people. However, people will not vote for them, or only to a very limited extent. In the first four days the Muslim groups did not even take part in protests, it wasn't them who began the demonstrations. It was mainly young people around 18, 20, 25 years, and many of them died. It was the new generation. Consider that now almost everyone has Internet at home, even in small villages. They can read about what life is like in the world, what are the laws in Germany, Sweden. Now people have information.

- What about the education in Egypt? Are the people generally literate?

- The generations of people from the sixties are all literate. Among the older there are people who didn't learn to read and write. The young generation born in the eighties is generally well educated. Around 50% of my classmates from high school went to university. I studied law, but I did not practice it. Anyway the quality of education is not very good. It is only theoretical, we lack practical experience, especially in technical fields. It's like when someone describes in detail how to use an iPhone: push this and then this... but you never held an iPhone in your own hands (he laughs).

- What do people really expect from the new government?

- Mainly economic growth. Egypt has a good climate for agriculture, growing vegetables, fruit. Egypt has monuments and museums. Egypt has the Suez Canal, only the daily earnings of shipping are calculated in gold bricks. During these seventeen days we lost 15 billion U.S. dollars from tourism. Egypt has also oil and gas. For example, there is an agreement between Egypt and Israel. Egypt supplies gas to Israel at a price 75% lower than its market price. That is why the Israelis did not want Mubarak to leave. Israelis are afraid, because they need peace, they are normal people like us, good and bad, like everywhere else. There are plenty of mixed marriages of our people with the Israelian people.

- Yes, Israelians supported him until the last minute.

- Mubarak kept very good relations with Israel, the Americans, he knew all former presidents, Clinton, Bush junior and senior. Mubarak also did not want to run away like the Tunisian President Bin Ali. He wanted to prepare, what to do after to leaves ... This uprising was a surprise for many people. Personally, I think it would be a pity if he leaves like this, damned and hated. People need strong personalities like him, but the control was taken from him because he went in the wrong direction. If Mubarak was completely wrong, he would not stay in power for 30 years. My father and my grandfather liked him. He built many things in Egypt, he was in the army, he fought.

- Which one of previous presidents is the most popular among the people? Anwar As-Sadat? Or Gamal Abd An-Nasser?

- Nasser. People liked him. He was an ordinary man, a soldier, but mostly they liked him, because he redistributed the wealth from the rich to the poor. For example, a man had one thousand plots of land and on every piece a person was working for him, just for a meal or a small reward. Nasser took the land from the rich man, left some ten plots for him, and he divided the fields among the people who worked on them. Imagine that you are working in this coffee shop and it is suddenly yours (he laughs). He began to build infrastructure, roads, electricity, industry. He also took the Suez Canal from the British. Only net income from the shipping charges gives to Egypt more than enough wealth. Egypt can become a rich and prosperous country. I hope that it becomes true. People are happy that they got rid of a dictator, but nobody knows what will happen. People only wanred Mubarak to leave, but they still don't have any plan for the future. They protested because of the financial hardship and unemployment, but maybe everything will become even harder.

Mustafa was smiling with his hardly perceivable smile as he was smoking his cigarette and drinking his coke. He looked calm, he didn't show any of the excited enthousiasm of the idealistic revolutionaries. But our conversation gave me a bit of optimism and belief in the power of people.