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Will Egypt Go Somalia’s Way?

by Dr. Mahamud M. Yahya
Friday, February 11, 2011

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What is currently taking place in our brotherly Arab country, Egypt, is a real, popular revolution of an unprecedented scale. The country had another revolt almost 60 years ago (or more precisely in July 1952), but it was in reality a military coup organized by some disgruntled, patriotic and well meaning junior officers led by the great Col. Jamal Abdel Nasser. They introduced to that country an Arab-style socialism that made some tangible results in the 1950s through the 1970s but this egalitarian system was dismantled, for all intents and purposes, by the incumbent president, Gen. Hosni Mubarak, and his predecessor, Gen. Anwar al-Sadat (who was assassinated in broad daylight by an Islamist soldier in 1981 at a public military ceremony near Cairo). Military coups (or revolutions, “thawra” in Arabic, as their proponents used to call them) were very common and popular in the Middle East and Africa at time – before the very serious shortcomings of military rule and its dismal track record became very clear to every rational citizen. They are now replaced by popular uprising, like the one we have recently seen in Tunisia and what is currently unfolding in Egypt.

At present, Egypt is suffering from enormous socio-economic problems, fuelled by an explosive population growth and a very serious lack of employment opportunities. Today, the country’s population is around 80 million, and even university graduates cannot get jobs. (In the late 1960s, during President Nasser’s time when I lived in there, the country had a population of around 25 million only). Almost half of the country’s population is reported to be currently living below the poverty line. That is why the ordinary populace has staged this huge – but so far relatively peaceful - popular uprising that has been going on for the past three weeks or so.

In this connection, “Radio France Internationale [RFI]” has recently posted the following information on its website: “Avec 80 millions d’habitants, l’Egypte est le plus peuplé des pays arabes. Et c’est sa demographie galopante - la population a été multiplié par 3,5 en 50 ans – qui est largement à l’origine des troubles sociaux qui traverse la pays.” In plain English this means: “With 80 million inhabitants, Egypt is the most populous among the Arab countries. And it is these galloping demographics – the population has multiplied by 3.5% in 50 years – which are mainly at the origin of the social troubles that the country is going through.” RFI then continued by saying: “Près de 40% des 80 millions d’Egyptiens continuent de vivre avec moins de deux dollars per jour. Et 90% des chômeurs sont des jeunes de moins de 30 ans.” [Nearly 40% of the 80 million Egyptians continue to live on less than two dollars per day. And 90% of the unemployed are young people of less than 30 years old]. But the country’s economic capabilities are severely constrained in relation to its population’s very rapid growth; the passage fees from Suez canal and tourism are said to be the two main sources of hard currency for the country. However, due to the current upheavals, the usually risk averse Western tourists are not expected to flock to Egypt for several months – or perhaps years – to come.  The Egyptian people also hanker for the lacking basic freedoms of speech and association in addition to proper, democratic and non-farcical elections. The first important step in this direction will be the abolition of the notorious and very restrictive “Emergency Laws” that the Mubarak authoritarian regime has been using in the last 30 years to subjugate the Egyptian people.

Last night (Feb. 10, 2011), almost the whole world expected that the incumbent president, Mr. Hosni Mubarak, will step down – after ruling that ancient country of great history and civilization with an iron fist for 30 years – and will allow this popular, jasmine revolution to be culminated in a real democracy with free and fair elections in a few months time. However, true to his autocratic nature, Mubarak refused to heed the sincere advice pouring out from both inside and outside the country, and declared that he will not relinquish power any time soon. He just offered a few meaningless and insufficient concessions. But the question is what meaningful achievements can he make that he was unable to accomplish in three long decades? In a recent editorial, the leading American daily, the New York Times, wrote that he’s sticking to this very unrealistic and rigid position because Mubarak has a “PhD in obstinacy!” The good news is that Mubarak has finally succumbed to the overwhelming pressure of the brave Egyptian ordinary people and has decided tonight (Feb. 11) to relinquish power, after 30 years of absolute rule, and transfer the governance of the country to the Egyptian Armed Forces.

To me, Mubarak’s attempt to clinch to power forever, and at any cost, (and perhaps to pass it on his son, Jamal, as he was widely reported to have been planning) is a glaring testimony of the failure of another military man, or absolute dictator, from the Third World – particularly the Arab/African one. Military men always fail because they don’t know how to engage properly in politics. And because they are used to life in military barracks where they just give orders and everybody has to obey and carry them out without questioning. These dictatorial generals don’t understand the real meaning of democracy and the rule of law; and they don’t try to achieve consensus-building approaches. In a war situation, it makes sense to have command and control come from a single source or a “commander in chief”, but that is not the way to engage in today’s politics or to run a nation-state.  Moreover, these often poorly educated military men cannot tolerate any other viewpoint or policy except theirs. They don’t also understand that politics is the “art of the possible”, as they say, and that you have to negotiate with both your friends and foes – and particularly the latter – and reach a compromise with them, if necessary. That’s why the despotic generals always strive for subjugating their critics/opponents and they often attempt to counter the views of their adversaries through brute force. And that is why you can’t find a single Western democratic state headed by a typical military man. If an ex-soldier desires to lead one of these nations, he has to cast aside both his military uniform as well as his soldier mentality and assume the character and modus operandi of a normal politician, as did ex-General Dwight Eisenhower, the 34th President of USA, who had led that superpower during some of its most glorious years in the post-war period of the 1950s.  

The main reason why dictators – especially military men – always attempt to stay in power forever is that they normally abuse power very seriously during their tenure in office and plunder their countries’ financial resources. As such, they are always afraid of being made accountable for their previous abuses, and the horrific crimes they had committed against their own people, in front of a court of law, after losing power. They are willing to stick to the throne even if that ultimately leads to chaos and the total disintegration of their homeland – as happened in unlucky Somalia at the end of the tyrannical regime of Siad Barre in Jan. 1991. They don’t mind causing the total destruction of their countries, if they or their family members or cronies cannot rule them. Another factor is that these Third World dictators – particularly the military ones – can’t understand how the ordinary, weak, divided and fearful people whom they have been controlling, oppressing and subjugating for years – or perhaps decades, as in Mubarak’s case – can now rise against them and demand their departure!

As I alluded to earlier, Mubarak’s uncompromising and very stubborn attitude is another example of how military men in Africa (and in the Arab world) ultimately fail, utterly, in politics no matter how long they stay in power. I don’t believe there was a more honest, patriotic and highly dedicated military leader than the late Egyptian President, Mr. Jamal Abdel Nasser, who had also ruled that country with an iron fist  (or what is known as “yaddun min hadiid” in Arabic) from 1952 until his sudden death in 1970 (at the relatively early age of 52). Initially, Nasser and his socialist ideology were very popular and he made a lot of significant achievements (and his regime even contributed a great deal to the independence of Somalia, as well as the education of its people). But Nasser finally brought about the worst, complete and most humiliating defeat that the Arab world has ever experienced on the hands of the apartheid-like, Zionist state of Israel in 1967. (I was a witness to the terrible defeat of the combined forces of three Arab armies from Egypt, Jordan and Syria by Israel in the now infamous 6-day war of June 1967, as I was doing my undergraduate studies in Cairo, Egypt, at that time.)

Some experts are painting a huge picture of doom and gloom regarding the future of Egypt if the current situation persists rather indefinitely and, particularly, if Mubarak’s regime is hastily overthrown and a serious political and security vacuum develops, as was the case in lawless Somalia two decades ago. But I have no fear for Egypt, because it has a huge number of mature, well-educated and very patriotic citizens – both men and women, as well as a very well-equipped, highly organized, united and professional army. Besides, the Egyptians are, by and large, a non-extremist, civilized and peace-loving people. They are not like the nomadic Somalis who know nothing about running a nation-state. In this regard, the Saudi daily, Arab News, was right when it wrote the following in a recent editorial on Feb. 3, under the title of “Fear of the Unknown”: “We have seen what has happened in Somalia and in Iraq. In the former [Somalia], the power vacuum has created a state of permanent chaos, so much so that Somalia exists in name only. It is the ultimate failed state where competing tribal leaders and rival Islamist groups battle vainly to control and, because no one group is strong enough, succeed only in creating more death and destruction.” The paper then concluded its strong argument by declaring: “No way is Egypt going to be another SomaliaYemen certainly could be another Somalia if there were a power vacuum.”

I couldn’t agree more with this influential Arab newspaper.

Mahamud M. Yahya, PhD

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