Egypt

There’s a LOT going on in Egypt these days.  In fact, it’s not an exaggeration to say that there’s a revolution going on in Egypt right now.  People are out in the streets demonstrating and calling for the president of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, to step down.  Mubarak has been president for nearly 30 years, and the people are fed up with him.

Taking a cue from Tunisia (which also toppled its President recently) and perhaps from the voting that happened in Sudan recently (where 99% of the people in South Sudan voted to leave the country and form a new nation), the people in Egypt are rising up.

If you’re in 9th grade (my intended blog audience), you should at least be peripherally aware that Egypt is all over the news.  Below is a collage of the main web pages from early Monday morning (Jan 31, 2011) from five major news sources: The BBC, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, L.A. Times, and Washington Post.  I will use these five sources to start to discuss what’s going on in Egypt.  I’m also modeling how you need to get news from multiple sources.  Here we go…

The picture right now on the main page of the BBC does a nice job of juxtaposing the pyramids, the symbol of Egypt, with the military response to the chaos that’s been going on in Egypt for the past week:


This is quite a complex story, but let’s take some of each source’s headlines — one at a time — and see what we can figure out.

The BBC mentions that the “debt rating” for Egypt is being lowered by some company called Moody’s that apparently decides how good of a risk various countries are for investments.  Let’s start there:

Okay, so I get that — protests in the street and an unclear government situation would make me less likely to want to invest my money in Egypt.  That’s what debt means — a country wants to do more than it can do by itself, so it issues the government equivalent of an IOU and agrees to pay interest for people who take the IOUs.  If you think the country is stable, it’s a safe investment that will last as long as the country does.  For perspective, China currently holds more than $750 billion of the U.S. Debt: 

According to a June 30, 2009 survey, the U.S. Treasury owed China $757 billion in long-term debt
<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_public_debt>

China thinks the US is a good risk.  I hope it’s right 🙂  But investors who hold debt from Egypt are likely wondering whether that’s such a good investment right about now.

So the investors want to figure out what’s going on.  Let’s see if we can figure out a little of what’s going on in Egypt.  Here’s a description of how the revolt started on Jan 25, from a poignant account in the New York Times:

Clearly, the scent of Tunisia’s “jasmine revolution” has quickly reached Egypt. Following the successful expulsion in Tunis of the dictator Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, the call arose on Facebook for an Egyptian revolution, to begin on Jan. 25. Yet the public here mocked those young people who had taken to Twitter and Facebook to post calls for protest: Since when was the spark of revolution ignited on a pre-planned date? Had revolution become like a romantic rendezvous?

Such questions abounded on social networking sites; but even cynics — myself included — became hopeful as the calls continued to circulate. In the blink of an eye, the Twitter and Facebook generation had successfully rallied hundreds of thousands to their cause, across the nation. Most of them were young people who had not been politically active, and did not belong to the traditional circles of the political opposition … Those who began it and organized it are seething in anger at police cruelty and the repression and torture meted out by the Hosni Mubarak regime.

So that makes sense.  People generally don’t like cruelty, repression or torture.  But there are cruel and repressive regimes all over the world — how is it that people in Egypt managed to fight back?

Here’s some thinking from my friend James, who’s currently teaching in Sudan:

I’d definitely emphasize that no one expected anything of this scale in Egypt, since it has had such a strong “security” apparatus in place for so long. People were always afraid of being arrested (or worse); but now the numbers are so great, it’s impossible to gather up everyone.

Strength in numbers.  Makes sense that when these demonstrations started, one of the first things the Egyptian government did was to shut down the Internet and cell phone communication to make it harder for protestors to organize.


http://www.iol.co.za/scitech/technology/telecoms/egypt-cuts-internet-links-1.1019162

Okay, so who’s this ElBaradei person?  He keeps being mentioned in stories.  He was the main figure on the front page of the New York Times:

Before we get to Mr. ElBaradei, if you can read the red above, the NYT is also concerned that instability in Egypt could have far-ranging effects in a global economy.  Lots of oil ships through the Suez Canal, for example:


http://www.france24.com/en/20110131-egyptian-unrest-hits-world-economy-suez-canal-shipping-oil-gold

Okay, so who is ElBaradei, and why is he beginning to unify the opposition?

Well, he’s a nuclear inspector.  He’s the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (the IAEA, for those in the know), and he and his agency won the Nobel Prize back in 2005.  Here’s a picture of him:

He was born in Cairo, but has lived abroad for a while.  Here’s a blurb from the Wikipedia article about him:

While speaking at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government on 27 April 2010, ElBaradei joked that he was “looking for a job” and is seeking to be an “agent of change and an advocate for democracy” within Egyptian politics. He also made clear that his wife is not very enthusiastic about any potential run.[55]

On 27 January 2011, Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt amid ongoing turmoil, with the biggest mass protests in 30 years. ElBaradei declared himself ready to lead a transitional government if that was the will of the nation, saying that: “If [people] want me to lead the transition, I will not let them down”.[56] Subsequently, “when he joined protesters Friday after noon prayers, police fired water cannons at him and his supporters. They used batons to beat some of ElBaradei’s supporters, who surrounded him to protect him.”[57] On 28 January 2011, ElBaradei was reported to have been placed under house arrest in Egypt.[58] However, the next day, when he was interviewed by Al Jazeera, he said he was unaware of any such arrest.[59]

Later on ElBaradei arrived in Tahrir Square to join thousands of other protesters against the Mubarak regime and spoke directly to the people, stating that they “have taken back [their] rights” and that they cannot go back. A number of Egyptian political movements have called on ElBaradei to form a transitional government.[60]. ElBaradei has also stated that “the people (of Egypt) want the regime to fall”. In response to the appointment of Omar Suleiman as the new Vice President of Egypt, ElBaradei stated that it was a “hopeless, desperate attempt by Mubarak to stay in power, I think it is loud and clear…that Mubarak has to leave today”. Additionally, ElBaradei reinstated the position that when Egypt does become a democratic nation and that “there is no reason to believe that a democracy in Egypt would not lead to a better relationship with the US based on respect and equity.

He’s apparently been an outspoken critic of the Mubarak government in Egypt, and his name has been floated since 2009 as a possible challenger to Mubarak in the September 2011 elections.

That’s something I found odd — elections are coming up in September, so why not wait for the elections?  (they elect new leaders every six years, according to Wikipedia): 

Suffrage is universal and compulsory for every Egyptian citizen over 18. Failure to vote can result in fine or even imprisonment.[1] However, perhaps due to lax enforcement[2], only about 32 million voters are registered (approximately 40% of the total population). Turnout in 1999 was estimated at around 10%<http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elections_in_Egypt>

So maybe that answers the question right there: elections have been a farce in Egypt for the past 30 years, so rather than risk elections, the people got fed up and decided Mubarak had to go — at least that’s what they are cheering.

So now this Washington Post front web page makes more sense:

The army has to choose whether to A) stick with Mubarak and put down these uprisings, or B) help someone else take over (probably a military leader — Mubarak recently named Omar Suleiman as his vice president — but maybe ElBaradei will be a force in politics in the future).

And then the question I have is: what’s next?

Let’s assume Mubarak leaves.  Will everyone accept an interim leader until proper elections can take place?  And what do “proper elections” look like?  And who runs things between now and whenever things settle down?

There has been widespread looting in Cairo, which makes sense since there lots of poor people in Cairo and if the police and military are focused on the protestors, nobody is minding the stores.  So some folks are arming themselves and are trying to defend their communities (since they can no longer count on the government to do it for them).

Similarly, there have been a number of prison breaks.  Here’s a headline from an Australian newspaper I found when I searched for “prison breaks rioting Egypt” (there were several hits for that search):


source: http://www.heraldsun.com.au/news/world/looting-engulfs-cairo/story-e6frf7lf-1225997039828

So there’s obviously a lot at stake here.

And not just for the people of Egypt and the people and governments around the world who invest in Egypt and rely on the Suez Canal — but for Israel and for the stability of the Middle East in general.  If we look at the LA Times main page, we can see that Israel is “anxiously monitoring” what’s going on in Egypt.

The US and Israel have a particular interest in Egypt, because of a 1979 peace treaty that Egypt signed with Israel under pressure from President Jimmy Carter.  The US agreed to give a lot of military aid to both Israel and Egypt in exchange for both nations signing the treaty.  Indeed, before 9/11, Israel and Egypt were the largest recipients of US foreign aid — most of that is military aid (Iraq and Afghanistan have since claimed top status).

That treaty has never been popular in Egypt, and if the government changes, it’s unclear whether that treaty would remain in effect.

From Israel’s perspective, the treaty has allowed Israel to focus its military on other fronts, and not have to worry about its border with Egypt.

 NPR had a nice piece about the US aid aspect of the crisis.  Here’s an excerpt that describes some of what’s going on.

The U.S. provides Egypt with $1 billion of military aid a year. The F-16s and the tear-gas canisters that were fired at the demonstrators were all made in the U.S.

“The U.S. is advocating for human rights and everything and they say that they care about human rights,” said protester Khaled Tantawi. “They care about their interests in the Middle East, they do not care about the people.”

In a statement, the White House said President Obama discussed the developments with the leaders of Turkey, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Britain. The statement said Obama supported “an orderly transition to a government that is responsive to the aspirations of the Egyptian people.”

At Cairo’s airport, meanwhile, thousands of passengers were stranded as flights were canceled or delayed. Several Arab nations, meanwhile, moved to evacuate their citizens and the U.S. Embassy in Cairo said it is arranging to begin flying Americans out of Egypt on Monday.

Source for the whole article: http://www.npr.org/2011/01/30/133346160/tensions-continue-to-rise-in-egypt

And as the Wall Street Journal reports, the leader of Syria is trying to enact some reforms to make sure the same sort of thing does not happen to him:

So this is a pretty good start at getting a handle on some of the issues raised by the turmoil in Egypt.  It’s a complex and inter-connected world we live in, isn’t it?  When something big like this happens, we get to see how the world works — and how it got to be that way — or rather, what its history is.

If you want to follow this story as it develops, NPR has solid coverage with good background.

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About Steve Goldberg

I teach U.S. History at Research Triangle High School, a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning.
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