Foreign Policy Watch

Geopolitical musings through a progressive lens …by Matt Eckel and Jeb Koogler

Friday, a Day of Protest, and Other Reflections

Friday, the traditional Muslim day of prayer, is quickly becoming significant in the Arab world as a day of protest. Tens of thousands of people poured out into the streets again yesterday throughout the Middle East to call for better government and an end to authoritarian rule. Protesters showed up in huge numbers in Tahrir Square in Egypt, demonstrating the muscle of the people’s movement and calling on the military to move faster in paving the way for democratic rule. In Bahrain, Yemen, Iraq, Jordan, and in Libya — where brave protesters let their voices be heard even in cities under brutal military rule, like Tripoli — the streets were alive with calls for reform and change.

Here are some of my latest thoughts and observations on the events in the Middle East, ordered haphazardly in numbered form (since they don’t follow one clear narrative.)

1.) It’s interesting to note how Jordanians are using much more careful rhetoric than protesters in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen, etc., but are still essentially calling for the same type of revolutionary change. Since direct criticism of the king is likely to land them in jail, Jordanians, when protests first broke out a few weeks ago, called for the ousting of the prime minister. The king’s name was not mentioned. Now, with the prime minister out of the picture (he was sacked a few weeks ago by a nervous King Abdullah), Jordanian protesters are cautiously calling on the monarchy to take it a step further. The chant most commonly heard in the streets is: “The people want reform of the regime.” (الشعب يريد اصلاح النظام) In Egypt and Tunisia, the slogan — which has become the rallying cry for change in the region — was much more direct: “The people want the fall of the regime.” (الشعب يريد اسقاط النظام) But the Jordanian opposition, while getting more bold in their calls for political reforms, has yet to go that far — i.e. to cross that red line and demand an end to the monarch himself.

2.) Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, one of the Arab world’s most influential Sunni sheiks, recently declared a fatwa in favor of the killing of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi during a recent Al Jazeera appearance. (Al Jazeera, I noticed, originally headlined the story and ran an article about the fatwa on its website. More recently, it has changed the headline of the article to something more innocuous.) Qaradawi’s opinion carries some weight in parts of the Muslim world and, given that his fatwa was specifically directed towards members of the Libyan army, it’s interesting to speculate about what role the fatwa may have played in the recent defection of some key Libyan military officials to the opposition.

3.) Egypt’s prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, resigned last week. His resignation had been a demand of Egyptian protesters, who saw Shafiq as another nasty relic of the Mubarak era. It was his appearance last week on an Egyptian television talk show, and his poor performance in the face of an unprecedented level of debate, that some analysts say was enough to do him in. The following juicy account makes me wish I could find the footage…

Until a few weeks ago, it was impossible to imagine watching a prime minister speaking on television in the presence of other guests, let alone opponents who would criticize him. Before January 25, when the uprising against Mubarak erupted, even private channels had to worry about state censorship. Shafiq had to respond to attacks about his performance as prime minister, his relationship to Mubarak, the state of lawlessness in the country, and the failure to release many political prisoners. His answers were often vague, failing to satisfy the other guests.

While he was also humble, taking notes and speaking at length to defend himself, analysts said he lacked the political skill to dig his way out when cornered. Novelist and government critic Alaa al-Aswany landed the heaviest hits, telling Shafiq he had to go because he represented Mubarak’s administration and his presence was an attempt to “manipulate the revolution.” “Your talk is rejected,” said Shafiq. “You are the one that is rejected,” replied Aswany.

“This interview was unprecedented and I think it may have even brought Shafiq down,” Naila Hamdy, professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo (AUC), said. “We have never seen a prime minister have to respond to something like this.” “That particular interview for me marks the beginning of a new era for media freedom,” she said. “Egypt has changed. Media is destined for more than just a shake-up, but rather a media revolution and it has already started.” (Reuters)

4.) I believe that what we’re witnessing in the Arab world right now is the rebirth of pan-Arabism. But it’s not the pan-Arabism that was built on the 60′s-era slogans of socialism and anti-colonialism that was popularized by Nasser. Instead, it’s a pan-Arabism built on a common hunger for political reform and democracy. Across the Middle East, protests have sprung up in nearly every authoritarian country. These protest movements have been inspired by the events in Tunisia, and each one proclaims a similar demand for an end to the daily humiliations of dictatorial rule. This inspiring call for change, of a restoration of human dignity through democracy and the establishment of civil rights, has proven to be a much more salient and compelling pan-Arabism than that of the 60′s. (Commentator Lamis Andoni makes a similar argument, albeit in greater length. Her article can be found here.)

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