It is not an Arab Spring, says Ben Wedeman, CNN’s Senior Correspondent in Cairo, as it has lasted through several seasons, and is likely to continue several more. He prefers the term Arab Revolt, and believes there is no going back.
Wedeman spoke at the Abraham Forum hosted by St. John the Baptist Episcopal Church in Maadi, Egypt on March 22. The forum is directed by church rector Rev. Paul-Gordon Chandler, and aims to promote dialogue between religions and cultures for the sake of peace and better understanding. The title of Wedeman’s lecture was ‘Reflections on the Current Middle East’.
Wedeman began with a question he is often asked: Did you see it coming? While he said the conventional wisdom on Egypt was that with Mubarak’s looming death a power struggle would soon emerge, no one anticipated Tunisia. Yet with the level of education and demographics of youth, the gains of the Arab Revolt are here to stay, even as the struggle will likely continue for a while to come.
Wedeman’s lecture walked the audience through the harbingers of the revolt in Egypt, stating why there was some evidence discontent was in the air. In 2000 several thousand Cairo University students protested Israeli policy in Palestine and Egyptian complicity. In 2003 there were clashes between police and protestors in Tahrir Square over the US invasion of Iraq.
Shortly thereafter the nation went temporarily silent as Mubarak collapsed while addressing parliament on State TV. Finally, in 2008 the protests at Mahalla al-Kubra in the Nile Delta witnessed significant anger against Mubarak himself, with demonstrators smashing his picture and stomping upon it.
Still, the January 25 protests caught everyone by surprise. Whereas during even the sizeable protests of the past there were at least five policemen per demonstrator, on this occasion the security forces were overwhelmed. Being on the street, Wedeman noticed as well they were largely new, young conscripts, whose fear was palpable in their visage.
Among the noteworthy anecdotes Wedeman shared was his comment to a fellow journalist following an ‘alternate reality’ speech given by then-speaker of Egypt’s upper house, Safwat el-Sharif at the headquarters of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, given on January 28.
Wedeman told his colleague to take a picture of this building, as he wasn’t sure it would last much longer. That evening, on the Day of Rage, it burned.
The evening grew even more interesting as Rev. Chandler opened the floor for questions and answers. The following is a capsule of the different topics:
I think the military council will hand over power as they have promised, as they do not want the responsibility of running the country. What they want is to keep their significant perks, as they control between 30-40% of the economy. SCAF will go back to their barracks while they maintain an influence, but their fate will be decided by their coming interactions with the elected parties.
I can’t predict anything, but unlike Egypt there is a significant percentage of the population which is truly afraid of what will happen if the regime falls. The consequences could get very nasty. I recently spoke with activists in Jordan and asked if they were planning to push forward. No, they replied, we have been watching Syria and we think it is best to give reform a chance first.
Iran in Syria?
Certainly Iran has a lot at stake in Syria, as it is their main connection to the Arab World. Yet the news that their Quds forces have been operating is not sure, as it is mainly reported by Washington and Tel Aviv, where news should always be taken with a grain of salt. Iran’s interest is comparable to that of the Sunni Gulf states, which are heavily calling for the fall of Assad. It underscores a Sunni-Shia split in which the Gulf States are now retaliating against the interference of the Iranian regime in their region following the Khomeini revolution.
Egypt becoming Pakistan?
This is not a realistic scenario, because the Egyptian character will push back against the extremism which is seen in Pakistan. Yes, Egyptians are very religious, but they have a long history of welcoming foreigners and do not have a deep hatred of the ‘other’. Having a significant percentage of the population as Christians also works against a Pakistan outcome, as seen in the example of the historic Wafd Party.
Ah, they are the elephant in the room. Even President George Bush’s democracy promotion agenda left Saudi Arabia off the table. Their influence through oil is simply too large to ignore. There have been demonstrations there, which have been met with violence. Yet here we see how the interests of the West trump their principles – and then some. But yes, they definitely need change, especially in the area of women’s rights.
I see the Brotherhood as pragmatic businessmen who know they must compromise to get and stay in power. I’m not worried about them in the short term, as opposed to the Salafis, who are more hardline and seem to have come out of nowhere. But it is always a concern when a political group puts religion as a central focus. Religion is a least common denominator which serves to divide. Take Hizbollah, for example. It means ‘Party of God’. If you are against the party of God, you are against God, and if against God, you are an infidel. Still, many in the Brotherhood refer to the example of Turkey, which is not that bad a model, actually.
Democracy with Islamists?
It seems clear that the Salafis are not converts to democracy as an end but as a means to power. The Brotherhood is different, as they have struggled for decades to get into politics, even being persecuted. They talk the talk of democracy, but now they will be put to the test. The reality of governance will probably not allow them to descend into extremism.
Salafi success in the elections was surprising, but they out-Brotherhood-ed the Brotherhood. They engaged in social service work both traditionally and with the elections, and pulled on the power of religious allegiance. Yet it should be noted the Salafis have a long relationship with Egyptian intelligence, which sees them as a counter-weight to their ‘archenemy’ the Muslim Brotherhood. For instance the head of the Salafi Asala Party used to be the head of the Mugamma, the central administrative building in Cairo – just without a beard. Many parts of the regime fell with the revolution, but others remained, chief among them the intelligence services.
Ben Wedeman has won numerous awards in his journalism career and speaks many languages, even dabbling in classical Mongolian. He is married with three children.