Monday, February 07, 2011

The History Channel

While having dinner with an Egyptian friend of mine two weeks back, the conversation veered round to the recent Tunisian crises. I remarked how Foreign Policy was already predicting that Egypt and Libya would be next to see their long-standing rulers fall. My friend Ahmed considered the possibility for a moment and then replied with a reassuring nod of the head that the west doesn’t understand Egypt well enough and Mubarak would continue to rule. We had a chat yet again last week, this time on Facebook. He had just had a talk with his family and they suggested that he withdraw all his money as the banks are being looted rampantly in Cairo. I concurred with this suggestion as the downside to doing that was just the transaction fee. But I refrained from pointing out how he had been wrong the last week. The poor guy was jittery and I assumed, wasn’t in a mood to be mocked for past lapses in judgment.

One of my regrets of living in the twenty first century is that as far as sweeping political events go, the current times pale into to insignificance compared to the heady days of the thirties and the forties. The modern world is all about keeping pace with the latest update to the latest Apple product or finding out why Bruno Mars wants to hold a grenade. My feeble mental capacity finds it difficult to keep up with the obsession for newer electronic gadgets or seemingly endless reality shows churning out super humans who then disappear without a trace. I yearn for less demanding and old fashioned global events like coup-de-tats and assassinations with an economic recession thrown in every now and then.

However every few years we have one of these milestone events where all history buffs can get their bag of popcorn and start flipping between BBC, CNN and Al Jazeera and watch old school reality television. The current imbroglio in Northern Africa is one such rare opportunity. The frustrating dilemma with historical events is that they usually follow a standard template which makes me look up the dictionary to check how déjà vu is spelt. Nevertheless my opinion is still divided about whether the Egypt/Tunisia story will eventually follow a script which will be vaguely familiar to the students of world events. So I have decided to indulge in some Glenn-Beckish speculation.

Anyone with an opinion on this issue is claiming hoarse how all this sudden burst of resentment among the people is so unexpected. No one apparently knew that Tunisia was ruled by an iron-fisted but benignly named dictator, Ben Ali. Selective and biased reporting, an inadvertent hallmark of the western media, means that any unconventional news from nations with west-leaning despots are met with shock and alarm. North Africa today presents us with an outstanding opportunity to see western diplomacy’s hypocrisy at its finest. While I am a firm believer in having an adaptable, self-serving and hypocritical foreign policy, if I take off my tight fitting nationalist cap for a moment, I find the whole charade of sympathy emanating from the foreign offices of all the western governments highly amusing. Till a month ago Ben Ali and Mubarak were the darlings of the western democracies with the Pentagon regularly outsourcing their illegal renditions and interrogations to Mubarak’s delightfully cooperative security agencies. UK and Switzerland never got conscience attacks when the Mubarak family hoarded an estimated 70 billion dollars in terms of real estate and Swiss Francs. The Bush administration invaded Iraq to “bring” democracy as they thought Saddam’s 98% majority election victories were phony. But Mubarak’s continuous electoral victories with over 90% votes polled in his favour hardly raised eyebrows. I am sure there is a US State Department paper somewhere stating 92% majority as the acceptable boundary between the-people-have-spoken elections and he-is-a-tyrant-who-rigs elections.

With the people on the streets for a couple of weeks, the sight of Hillary Clinton and Obama solemnly rebuking Mubarak to take the right decision and step down and give democracy a chance is perhaps a signature moment showcasing the delightful and highly effective duplicity of US foreign policy. Without doubt, while mouthing its commitment to the Egyptian people’s aspirations, the Americans will be working furiously in the background to keep status quo but minus Mubarak. The masses, gullible as always, will have their ego boosted at having removed a hated figure while their life slips back into the clutches of yet another repressive regime.

At this critical juncture where the situation is poised to turn in any direction, I am tempted to make some predictions. I will bet my money on the ex-spymaster and newly appointed Vice-president Omar Suleiman who should take over the reins and brings things under control with the help of the ever compliant army. Mubarak will be given an unceremonious farewell which will be painted as a “dignified exit for a patriot”. Gamal Mubarak will be making late night phone calls to his ex-es and bitch about how if only his dad had handed over power to him a few years earlier, he would have never allowed any of this protest nonsense. And then he would quietly wait for a comeback and turn the tables on Omer. Hosni himself will spend his days in exile, most probably in Europe, and write long letters to a kindred spirit Ben Ali about how the Yankees fucked them both over when the chips were down. El-Baradei will find himself back in Vienna, a city where he has spent almost all his life, agreeing that parachuting oneself into a volatile situation and exploitatively painting oneself as a mass leader is something only the Gandhis can do. He will also get rid of his designer I-am-a-revolutionary stubble. The Israelis will congratulate each other in private on having accomplished yet another clinical behind-the-scenes operation and the Swiss will mail brochures about their outstanding banking services to the new Egyptian president. The Indian government will obviously continue to monitor the situation till kingdom comes. The Chinese will exploit the confusion and try to buy the pyramids.

But then the above scenario happens only if everyone plays their part. What if the powers-that-be start fucking things up? The situation may tread uncharted waters if the Egyptian masses irresponsibly show continued self-respect and a complete lack of expected riot fatigue. What if the Americans misplace their standard operating procedure handbooks on democracy prevention? What if the Israelis just decide to take some time off from worrying about their existence? What if real change happens? Incredible and unconventional though it may sound, I would still like to hazard a few predictions here too. Mubarak and all his cronies would be thrown out. Some of them would be mysteriously found in dark alleys wrapped in white cloth, an old Egyptian tradition. Gamal Mubarak will send his resume to Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan and get recruited immediately.Elections would be held and El-Baradei will realize he cannot pull a Rahul Gandhi-ish con and then retire with a grumpy face to Vienna. The new government with a sizeable representation from the Muslim Brotherhood will show more kindness towards Gaza and indulge in a bit of saber-rattling about Palestinian rights. The Americans will promptly shut them up with military aid to the tune of a billion dollars. The Swiss will mail brochures about their outstanding banking services to the new Egyptian cabinet. The Egyptian people will begin to get used to the change from hating just one man to hating a house full of squabbling and corrupt parliamentarians. Obama will take credit for the victory for democracy and check with the Norwegians if another Nobel can be obtained. The Indian government will obviously continue to monitor the situation.

And I will then regretfully flip back from Al-Jazeera to AXN and get a gin and tonic.