The Real Loser in Egypt's Uprising
As the military dissolves parliament and suspends the constitution, Cairo’s fate remains unclear. But one thing’s certain: Al Qaeda had nothing to do with the revolution.
The fall of Hosni Mubarak, president of Egypt for almost 30 years, has sent a shockwave of both unease and hope throughout the Islamic world. Following the collapse of the Tunisian dictator, Ben Ali, the toppling of Mubarak in the largest Arab country is a major milestone in the modern history of the Middle East and beyond. For the last half century, since Mubarak’s predecessor Gamal Abdel Nasser overthrew King Farouk in 1952, regime change in the Arab world had come only via military coups or U.S. invasion. Now two dictators have been toppled by their own people, who forced their countries' reluctant generals to remove one of their own from power. Autocrats in Algiers, Manama, Sana, Riyadh, and Tripoli will be wondering if they are next, other oppositionists will be hoping they are next.
It is much too soon to judge how this will all play out; the longer-term implications of the regime changes in Tunis and Cairo remain unclear. In both cases we are still waiting to see the contours of what will replace the deposed strongmen. In Egypt, the army—which on Sunday dissolved parliament and suspended the constitution—clearly will continue to play a major role in politics. Defense Minister Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, 75, seems to be playing a central role. I have known Tantawi for almost two decades. He is a Mubarak loyalist known for opposing innovation and reform in the military as well as in society at large. Total loyalty to the high command has been the only path to success in Tantawi’s military.
If Tantawi now says he is prepared to help Egypt change and to form a civilian transitional government to arrange new elections, it is only because he sees no other way to protect the army’s economic and political power. The army is a major land owner and financial player that has benefited from billions of dollars in U.S. aid over 30 years. Its generals do not want war but they are no friend of Israel, which they still see as the main foreign enemy.
So in many ways the hard part of the revolution is still ahead, trying to build a new Egypt that endorses change while keeping the old power centers somewhat content. Winners and losers today could reverse position soon. But one can suggest at least one implication.The jihadist narrative of al Qaeda has suffered a serious blow. If there is a springtime of freedom in the Arab and Islamic worlds, one loser is Osama bin Laden and his gang.
Of course, bin Laden and his Egyptian deputy Ayman Zawahiri will rejoice in the downfall of Mubarak, a hated enemy, and they will undoubtedly try to claim some credit for what is happening. But those claims have little or no credence. This is not al Qaeda’s revolution and its ideology has not been vindicated in Tunis and Cairo. To the contrary, the victory of mass demonstrations and civil disobedience strikes at the very heart of the al Qaeda narrative that proclaims change can only come to the Islamic world through violence and terror, through the global jihad.
Instead in Egypt change came about from Twitter and Google, not suicide bombers and hijacked airplanes. Al Qaeda’s only contribution to Egyptian history this year was the suicide attack on a Coptic church on New Year’s Day that killed 23. It tried to divide Egypt. The opposition is trying to unite it. The regime tried to use violence and thugs to intimidate the opposition and it failed. In the end, the army concluded that Mubarak was a liability. Through the entire process, al Qaeda was silent.
What’s more, al Qaeda’s hated enemy, the Muslim Brotherhood, stands poised to play a significant role in the new Egypt. The Brotherhood has mobilized its support behind the demonstrations and is calling for gradual change through the political process, a formula that is anathema to al Qaeda. The Egyptian Brotherhood's offspring, Hamas in Gaza, stands to be a big winner from the changes in Cairo, but Hamas also suppresses al Qaeda’s cells in Gaza.
Bin Laden and Zawahiri are still dangerous in their Pakistani lairs, still capable of terror, and a very serious threat to the Pakistani state along with their allies in the Pakistani Taliban and Lashkar-e-Taiba. They are much better prepared to exploit unrest in Yemen than they were in Egypt if a revolution starts in the Arabian Peninsula’s poorest country. But their narrative has suffered a serious blow in the heart of the Arab and Muslim worlds. They promised that only jihad would bring change. History has showed them wrong.
Did a Martin Luther King comic book help inspire the Egyptian revolution?
While the world's political pundits debate the role the United States has played in the historical events presently occurring in Egypt, one activist is crediting a specific American with playing a part in inspiring a generation of Egyptians to take to the streets in a nonviolent protest that has changed the course of their nation. That American is Martin Luther King, Jr., and his message was transmitted by way of a 50-year-old comic book recently translated into Arabic and distributed throughout the Middle East.
Originally published by the Fellowship of Reconciliation in 1958, The Montgomery Story was a comic book that dealt explicitly with Dr. King's philosophy of non-violent civil disobedience, specifically with respect to the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott. The book included a how-to section that demonstrated how the practice can actually yield results. According to FOR's website, The Montgomery Story sold more than 250,000 copies.
Dalia Ziada is Egypt Director of the American Islamic Congress, a non-profit group founded in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to confront intolerance against Muslims, and later to promote peace and civil rights throughout the Arabic world. The AIC's HAMSA initiative - designed to link civil rights groups throughout the Middle East -- undertook in 2008 a project to translate The Montgomery Story into Arabic (and later Farsi). With the endorsement of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Ziada distributed 2,000 copies of the comic throughout the Middle East, and her efforts were consequently reported on by news sources including Time Magazine and History News Network:
Spreading the message of non-violent resistance throughout the Middle East is ultimately a means to an end for Ziada and the rest of the AIC; that is, to inspire action. "The main message I hope that Arabic readers will take from the MLK comic book is that: change is not impossible. It is time to stop using our muscles blindly. Let's try using our intellect in innovative, creative ways to pressure decision makers and end dictatorship, tyranny and the suppression practiced against us."
In a recent newsletter to supporters of the American Islamic Congress, Ziada indicated that the translated Martin Luther King comic book had been identified as contributing to the air of peaceful revolution in Egypt. The Fellowship for Reconciliation agreed. Ziada shared this anecdote in her communique:
While we can't accurately quantify The Montgomery Story's real influence on the protesters in Egypt or elsewhere, it's certainly cool that a comic book starring one of America's greatest real-life heroes has inspired even one person to take to the streets in the way we've seen over the last several weeks. That an organization as big and forward-thinking as the American Islamic Congress thought to deploy this work - whose actual creators remain unknown - says quite a lot, indeed, and their actions remind us of the potential power and inherent strengths (portability being perhaps the helpful important, in this case) of our beloved medium of comics.
When, at first, we went to print the comic book, a security officer blocked publication. So we called him and demanded a meeting. He agreed, and we read through the comic book over coffee to address his concerns. At the end, he granted permission to print and then asked: "Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?"
The comic book has been credited with inspiring young activists in Egypt and the larger region (we have a Farsi version as well). Last week I distributed copies in Tahrir Square. Seeing the scene in the square firsthand is amazing. Despite violent attacks and tanks in the street, young people from all walks of life are coming together, organizing food and medical care, and offering a living model of free civil society in action.