State of Denial

by wjw on January 31, 2011

I’ve been watching the Egyptian revolution with more than the usual amount of attention, in part because it’s an absolutely riveting drama, in part to find out whether it’s following the script for Internet-fueled people-power revolutions provided by my forthcoming novel Deep State.

The drama remains absorbing, and the novel is pretty much spot-on.

The original Egyptian protests were inspired by the recent successful Tunisian revolution, and began with a call for action on Facebook, presumably among highly-networked Facebook friends.   (The action in Deep State also begins with existing online networks.)   After the demonstrations began to gain momentum, the Egyptians shut down the Internet.

(This was somewhat easier for Egypt than it would be for most countries— Egypt has only four companies providing servers.  One served the government, the others served everyone else.  Click.  “Yikes!  No more Internet porn!  Guess I have nothing to do but go join the demonstration!”)

The shutdown was followed by a mad scramble for alternative methods of getting online.  (I have a particularly clever one in Deep State.)

As of this writing, police have been withdrawn from the major cities and the army sent in.  The demonstrators are doing what is clearly in their best interest and doing their best to subvert the army, which is composed of conscripts with much more in common with the demonstrators than with the country’s rulers.  Many officers seem to be sympathetic as well.  A few armored vehicles have moved from their lines to join the demonstrators.  Others are now bedecked with flowers and anti-government slogans.

What happens next is pretty much up to Mubarak.  Currently he’s trying to be conciliatory, dismissing his government and telling his vice-president to control inflation and preserve existing subsidies.

But this is pretty clearly not going to work.  The demonstrators unite in proclaiming that Mubarak must go. The fact that their organization is completely ad hoc makes it difficult for security forces to strike against them.  There are no leaders to arrest, no organization to disrupt.  The only way to defeat them is to physically attack large numbers of them, so many that the rest disperse and return to their lives.  Mubarak can only win through a massacre of his own citizens, just as the Burmese dictatorship preserved itself last year, just as China brought the troops from the western part of the country to perpetrate the killings in Tienanmen.

But can Mubarak actually pull it off?  Will his military actually shoot, or will the last six days’ actions have brought too many soldiers into sympathy with the demonstrators?

Mubarak’s a survivor.  He’s been in power thirty years.  But then Tunisia’s Ben Ali had been in power since 1987.

So far the revolution is following the script I wrote for them two years ago.  But a crucial element is what the revolutionaries do next.  They’ve got to form a virtual government.

A virtual government is one that, though unofficial and largely ad-hoc, can assume many of the duties of the official government.  They can suck power away from the structure of government, leaving it hollow, leaving the ministers in their deluxe offices wondering why nobody’s returning their phone calls.

This didn’t happen in Tunisia, which is why Tunisia ended up with a cabinet featuring a lot of the same old faces, people entrenched in power, and presumably intending to stay that way.

Can a virtual state be set up in Egypt?  There are only a few organizations capable of doing such a thing.

The Army. The army has provided Egypt’s leaders (all three of them) since Nasser’s 1953 coup.  Their officers are Western-trained, mainly in the U.S., and follow U.S.-style organization.  If the army told Mubarak to leave, he would have to obey.   Another general would step into his place.  But would replacing one general with another necessarily be an improvement?

The Muslim Brotherhood.  The MB apparently had little to do with the revolution at first— middle-class types began it— but once the MB saw the revolt was a going concern, they got busy organizing.  In a sense, the MB already has a virtual state: they provide education and welfare to a substantial percentage of Egyptian’s citizens.  While a government by the MB probably wouldn’t be the wholesale catastrophe people in the West might think— the organization officially forsook violence nearly 90 years ago— its establishment wouldn’t exactly be a sign of progress.  Their stated goals include re-establishing the Caliphate, establishing Sharia law, uniting all Islamic nations, belief in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and a plan for America that includes “a kind of grand Jihad in eliminating and destroying the Western civilization from within and ‘sabotaging’ its miserable house by their hands and the hands of the believers so that it is eliminated and God’s religion is made victorious over all other religions.”

Quite frankly, this doesn’t seem to be the medicine that Egypt needs.

So who else?

The West seems very fond of Nobel prize-winning diplomat Mohammed ElBaradei.  He’s in the thick of the demonstrations, having got slammed on Friday by a water cannon, but his support among actual Egyptians seems to be, well, not exactly there.  Still, he might have enough stature to hold a government together long enough for elections.

In the meantime, I cheer the rebels on from the sidelines.  And, for those whose smartphones are still working, I recommend Sukey, an application designed to help people in political demonstrations find their way around.

UPDATE:  The NY Times has just announced that the opposition has united behind ElBaradei.  This is, perhaps, a canny attempt to appeal to the West by putting forward a candidate that the West can get behind.  The Times article also stated that the security police are going back onto the streets, which is probably not the best of news.

Dave Bishop January 31, 2011 at 10:00 am

Thanks, Walter, for a very clear summation of the situation in Egypt so far. The Egyptian people are obviously brave and resourceful and I sincerely hope that they succeed in achieving their objectives and securing for themselves a better future.

Interestingly, we’re in the middle of a sort of mini-revolution in the suburb in which I live in South Manchester. A developer has bought a parcel of open land which is well used by the local population. The developer has all sorts of grandiose plans for this land and seems to be supported by the local authority planners (or at least appears to have their ear). The community is incensed about this, has become united as never before – and e-mail and Facebook have played a major role in achieving this unity.

So far we’ve had mixed success (one major victory against the developer and the planners). Unfortunately, our ‘mini-Mubarak’ shows no signs of going away soon.

Congratulations on the publication of ‘Deep State’ – I look forward to reading it very soon.

Aaron Cleavin February 1, 2011 at 4:41 am

This article seems like it had been lifted stright form “This is not a game”

Been using the time machine lately WJW?

Ralf the Dog February 1, 2011 at 6:27 am

Mr. Williams, I would guess that you don’t believe in psychic powers; I don’t either. (Not that people who know me have not accused me of having them quite often.) Because your non existent powers have been so good at predicting world events, I will attempt to predict some things about your book.

“The shutdown was followed by a mad scramble for alternative methods of getting online. (I have a particularly clever one in Deep State.)”

The moment I read that, I had a mental flash of cell phones tied to helium balloons. I am picturing a giant ad hoc network of things floating in the sky. The problem with the Balloons is, they would float away. The either is telling me you have a very creative solution (perhaps cell phones tied to pidgins?)

Why do I keep getting mental images of paper airplanes with rubber bands and wind up propellers?

If my prediction is too close, please delete my comment and feel free to make fun of my new haircut.

John Appel February 1, 2011 at 5:05 pm

One thing that is coming out from the various reports I’m following (Enduring America, Guardian UK, the BBC, etc.) is that while social networking played a role in the initiation of these mass protests, this has really been Al Jazeera’s revolution. (Especially since Internet & mobile phone service has been shut down or crippled by the governments.)

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