February 12, 2011, 10:17 PM The Next Egypt By NICHOLAS KRISTOF
My Sunday column attempts to offer four lessons from our failures in the Middle East, Egypt included. My thought is we should get into position to do better for the next Egypt.
So what lessons did I leave out? And, just as important, what is the next Egypt? What country do you think might erupt next? I offer some possibilities in my column but would welcome your views. On my Facebookand Twitter feeds, I asked that same question after Tunisia and a surprising number said Egypt. So I’m betting on you to get it right and give me some useful guidance.
I’ve been critical of the Obama administration’s wishy-washy, weather vane approach to people power in Tunisia and Egypt. But President Obama’s statements yesterday were a big step forward, and his speech just now was pitch perfect. It’s our job as journalists to criticize, but I thought he got it exactly right. He put the United States unambiguously on the side of Egypt’s youth and future and freedom, all while making it clear that Egypt’s future is up to Egyptians to decide.
In the past, the problem was three-fold. First, we seemed to be engaged in behind-the-scenes machinations and plotting with Mubarak/Suleiman, confirming every suspicion that it is actually the United States that calls the shots. Second, we seemed to be favoring cosmetic changes that would allow an oppressive but pro-Western system to survive rather than backing the uncertainty of a popular democracy (especially if it might challenge Israel). Third, although our aim was to out-maneuver the Muslim Brotherhood, our ineptitude ended up undermining pro-Western forces, increasing anti-American sentiment and strengthening the Muslim Brotherhood as an authentic voice of Arab democracy. So it was very important that President Obama kept emphasizing in his speech that Egypt’s future is up to Egyptians to decide — that we’re watching, but not trying to pull strings. And the flattery (“Egyptians have inspired us”) was not only deserved but will also help soothe the irritation that it took so long for Americans to side with a democratic movement.
So Hosni Mubarak is out. Vice President Omar Suleiman says that Mubarak has stepped down and handed over power to the military. This is a huge triumph for people power, and it will resonate across the Middle East and far beyond (you have to wonder what President Hu Jintao of China is thinking right now). The narrative about how Arab countries are inhospitable for democracy, how the Arab world is incompatible with modernity — that has been shattered by the courage and vision of so many Tunisians and Egyptians.
It’s also striking that Egyptians triumphed over their police state without Western help or even moral support. During rigged parliamentary elections, the West barely raised an eyebrow. And when the protests began at Tahrir Square, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that the Mubarak government was “stable” and “looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.” Oops. So much for our $80 billion intelligence agency. On my Facebook fan page, I asked my fans (before the Tahrir protests began) what the next Tunisia would be. A surprising number said Egypt — if you were among them, you apparently did better than our intelligence community. Indeed, Egyptians in Tahrir told me that they were broadly inspired by America’s example of freedom, but that their greatest inspiration came from Tunisia and Al Jazeera. On Tahrir Square, there were signs saying “Thank you, Tunisia.” So, all of you Tunisians and Egyptians, “mabrouk” or “congratulations”! You’ve made history. The score in Egypt is: People Power, 1; Police State, 0.
But the game isn’t over, and now a word of caution. I worry that senior generals may want to keep (with some changes) a Mubarak-style government without Mubarak. In essence the regime may have decided that Mubarak had become a liability and thrown him overboard — without any intention of instituting the kind of broad, meaningful democracy that the public wants. Senior generals have enriched themselves and have a stake in a political and economic structure that is profoundly unfair and oppressive. And remember that the military running things directly really isn’t that different from what has been happening: Mubarak’s government was a largely military regime (in civilian clothes) even before this. Mubarak, Vice President Suleiman and so many others — including nearly all the governors — are career military men. So if the military now takes over, how different is it?
President Hosni Mubarak just appeared on television and didn’t step down, as many had thought he would. Instead, he insisted that he would stay in office through the September elections. He offered cosmetic changes and promises of reform down the road. For example, he said that he would lift the state of emergency…down the road…sometime when the time is right. He seems to have delegated some powers to his vice president, Omar Suleiman, while remaining in office himself.
This is of course manifestly unacceptable to the Egyptian people. Mubarak’s speech was a striking reminder of the capacity of dictators to fool themselves and see themselves as indispensable. If he thinks that his softer tone will win any support, he’s delusional. As he was speaking, the crowd in Tahrir was shouting “Irhal!” or “Go!” And the Egyptian state media — from television to Al Ahram, the dominant newspaper — have been turning against Mubarak, so he’s losing control even of his own state apparatus. An Arab friend of mine who has met Mubarak many, many times describes him as “a stubborn old man,” and that seems exactly the problem right now. Suleiman just spoke as well, praising Mubarak and asking the youth of Egypt to go home and stop watching satellite television. Only possible conclusion: he’s delusional, too. The regime seems so out of touch as to be almost suicidal.
As I prepare to watch Hosni Mubarak give his speech, I’m wondering what Chinese President Hu Jintao of China is thinking these days. Tahrir Square today is so reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in 1989, which I also covered — although it looks as if the ending will be different (touch wood).
The thought seems to have occurred to Hu Jintao as well. After all “Egypt” is not a searchable term in Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, and the Chinese state media haven’t said much about Egypt. China has some parallels — huge popular frustration with corruption, and a middle class that feels left out — but also some differences, including rapidly rising living standards and not such a youthful population.
On my Twitter feed, I asked people what they thought Hu Jintao was thinking. My favorite answer was along the lines of: Thank God I’m the only one in China allowed to watch this.
In my column today, I talk about two videos that demonstrate the brutality exhibited by elements of the Egyptian regime. Both have been on TV, but if you haven’t seen them take a look. They’re stomach-churning, and I think that after seeing them you’ll find that it’s harder to counsel stability, patience, and order.You understand more clearly why young people want change so fervently and are so distrustful of the regime.
Here’s the first. It purportedly shows police shooting an unarmed protester who posed no threat to them:
And here’s the second, which is even more gut-wrenching. It seems to show a government vehicle plowing through protesters. It is incidents like these that underlie the passions at Tahrir Square.
My former travel buddy, George Clooney, caught malaria in January on a trip to Sudan (see what happens when I’m not around to look out for him?). This seemed an opportunity to shine a spotlight on malaria, one of the scourges of much of the developing world, and George agreed to respond to reader questions. Thanks to all for submitting your questions–and I’m truly sorry that the answers were delayed. We were about to post these answers when Egypt intervened and I was too busy dodging pro-Mubarak thugs in Cairo to focus on this. So without further ado, George and I are finally responding.
Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York TimesNicholas Kristof and George Clooney in Chad in 2009.
I am wondering how Mr Clooney is feeling. I had a friend with malaria who was very, very ill!!
I’m feeling much better thank you.
— George Clooney
What side effects did you have? And what were your symptoms when malaria was detected?
Not much in side effects, the symptoms are fever, the chills, and exciting adventures in the toilet..weak..really just very bad flu conditions with a little food poisoning thrown in to make you the perfect party guest.
— George Clooney
Was Mr. Clooney taking any medications for malaria prophylaxis? And if so, how faithfully was he taking them? I hope he visited a travel medicine specialist prior to his trip!
I don’t know about George, but I wasn’t taking malaria pills when I caught malaria in Congo in 1997. I learned my lesson and now usually take Larium when going to a malarial place in Africa. But some people don’t react well to Larium, and so I sometimes steer others toward Malarone. About five Americans die a year from malaria, usually after travel to the developing world, so it’s worth taking it seriously — and seeking treatment immediately if you develop the symptoms after such a trip.
Well, it’s fine to worry a bit, but in Egypt as everywhere else, democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others. I’ve been struck by the number of comments I’ve had, especially on Twitter and Facebook, saying that a democratic Egypt would be overrun by the Muslim Brotherhood, which would be a proxy for Al Qaeda. First, that completely misunderstands the Brotherhood, which hates Al Qaeda and is hated by it. And second, I agree that the Muslim Brotherhood would not be a good ruler of Egypt, but that point of view also seems to be shared by most Egyptians.
This is an issue I try to sort out in my Sunday column, and I note that I talked to lots of women and Coptic Christians — whom you might expect to be nervous about the Brotherhood. But they overwhelmingly welcome democracy and think it’ll be better for them than Mubarak’s autocracy.
Today President Mubarak seems to have decided to crack down on the democracy movement, using not police or army troops but rather mobs of hoodlums and thugs. I’ve been spending hours on Tahrir today, and it is absurd to think of this as simply “clashes” between two rival groups. The pro-democracy protesters are unarmed and have been peaceful at every step. But the pro-Mubarak thugs are arriving in buses and are armed — and they’re using their weapons.
So President Hosni Mubarak has announced that he won’t run for office again in the September elections. That would have been a historic decision if he had made it two weeks ago, and it might have avoided the present mess. But today, it’s too little, too late. And if the White House has devoted its political capital to getting Mubarak to agree to such a half-measure, then I fear that there’s a measure of cluelessness on both sides.
Especially at first, the people at Tahrir were overwhelmingly young men. But now the crowd is democratizing, and today there are lots of women and indeed lots of families making a party out of it. At right, a photo of the youngest protester I saw.
There had been lots of rumors that infiltrators would cause trouble in Tahrir today, so a lot of parents ordered their children to stay home. But many of the children sneaked out or convinced their parents to accompany them. One woman I spoke to said that she had been dragged to the square by her two daughters – and was so happy that she had come. And I stopped by on the way to the Square at the home of my closest friend in Egypt, who hadn’t been near the Square. But she and her husband started accompanying me, ready to turn back at any moment – but ended up staying with me in the Square for hours. People power is contagious!
What maybe doesn’t come through in the television coverage is the celebratory atmosphere and the good humor of many of the protesters. The Arabic signs are mostly rhymes or puns, and so don’t translate particularly well, but here are some that struck me Read more…
6:05 p.m. | Updated with a segment of Times Cast featuring Nick in Cairo.
I’ve got a spare moment right now, while I’m waiting for demonstrations at Tahrir to heat up, so let me describe a bit of how I arrived and what I saw yesterday. I was in Davos and so flew from Zurich, and my plane to Cairo was just about empty. It was a huge plane (presumably because of the need to fly a lot of people out), but only a few scattered passengers. Some of the passengers were Egyptians trying to return to be a part of history – but most of the passengers were reporters pretending to be tourists. One American camera crew was pretending to be part of a wedding party, as a way to explain the cameras.
Some reporters have been turned back at the airport, but I had no trouble. The airport itself is jammed with foreigners trying to leave. People are sleeping on the floors, and at one point, when an announcement of a departing flight was made, a near riot broke out as people desperately crowded toward the gate.
I had dressed up for immigration, trying to look more like a banker than a journalist, and immigration hassled the person ahead of me but didn’t ask me any questions – just stamped my passport and let me go on. ATM’s weren’t working and the hotel counters were closed, and there weren’t many taxis at the airport. But I finally found one who took me to my hotel. That was my scariest moment in Egypt so far: my driver was a maniac. Read more…
Editors note: In light of the events in Cairo, we are holding the next part of this series (the answers to readers’ questions) for a few more days.
We in the news media aren’t always very good at covering issues of global disease like malaria, which kills about 850,000 people every year (about one every 38 seconds). But we’re amazingly proficient at covering celebrities. So when a marquee name is stricken with malaria, this is great news for the media…although, admittedly, not so great news for the celebrity in question. This is where I introduce you to my former travel buddy, who recently contracted malaria while on a trip to Sudan: George Clooney.
Nicholas D. Kristof/The New York TimesNicholas Kristof and George Clooney, who have both contracted malaria in Africa, experiencing happier and healthier times in Chad, 2009.
George was in South Sudan, one of the least developed places on earth, to call attention to the referendum there that may result in the region becoming an independent country — if warfare doesn’t break out first. George has put in place a satellite early warning system that aims to raise the cost of genocide or war crimes, and hopefully prevent them. Somewhere in Sudan, a mosquito carrying the parasite bit him, and he has just recovered. For my part, I suffered malaria in 1997 while reporting in eastern Congo. Note that malaria wasn’t a particular threat to either of us, because when treated quickly it is normally cured easily. But prevention and treatment don’t reach many people in poor countries.
Malaria is still so widespread and lethal partly because it never gets adequate attention — so this seems a chance to try to remedy that. So with your help, we’re going to do both right now. Send in your questions for George and me about malaria, either about his case in particular or about the problem in general — or about why it is that so many still die in places like Sudan of a disease that we know how to eradicate. We’ll go through your questions, and George and I will answer the best during the week of January 30-February 5 and try to shine a light on the problem. And that mosquito that bit George will realize that it took a bite out of the wrong guy.
My Sunday column is a show-and-tell of an experiment I conducted in Beijing to look for the boundaries of what is permissible on the Chinese Internet. A Chinese editor I much admired, Qin Benli, taught me a wonderful expression in Chinese, 擦边球, or cabianqiu, meaning a ping pong ball that just nicks the edge of table. It’s legal, but with no room to spare. Qin told me that that is exactly what a good Chinese journalist aims to do with each article. So I tried to construct a blog and micro-blog (the Chinese equivalent of Twitter) to find out where the cabianqiu are. Below are pictures of a micro-blog and blog that I started in Beijing in December:
I recently stumbled across a video the Times made in 1992, showing how the paper gets made. It includes this clip of my wife (Sheryl WuDunn) and I as Beijing correspondents for the newspaper:
Look at the computers, and you can see what a different age that was. We wrote our articles by computer, but then filed them by telex to New York. (We got our first modem, strong enough to overcome State Security’s phone taps, at the very end of 1992.) The other thing that stands out is: boy, I had a lousy Chinese accent!