Like millions of his fellow Egyptians, Hussein Hassouna spent much of Thursday, Feb. 10, glued to the TV in his office — mesmerized by dramatic images of protesters descending on Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding an end to the 30-year rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
“He’s stepping aside, not stepping down,” Hassouna cautiously told us when asked what was really going on. Barely 24 hours later — when it was clear that the longest-serving dictator in modern Egyptian history had finally relinquished control after 18 days of nationwide protests — this veteran diplomat, like many of his brethren, could hardly contain his joy.
“I’m so proud of this revolution, as both an Egyptian and as an Arab,” Hassouna declared without hesitation. “It’s a triumph for change, democracy and human rights, and it came from the people. This will be a model for the rest of the Arab world. And unlike many other countries, we have to give credit to the army, which did not fire one single bullet at the demonstrators.”
The stunning, relatively peaceful fall of Egypt’s dictatorship has been the lynchpin of what many are calling an “Arab spring” — a groundswell of frustration that is convulsing the region and building up to resemble a Berlin Wall moment in world history.
Hassouna heads the Washington office of the Arab League, an organization whose members include one of the world’s poorest countries, Somalia, as well as one of its richest, Saudi Arabia. The League of Arab States, as it’s properly known, in theory speaks for nearly 360 million people living in a 5.4 million-square-mile swath of territory stretching from Morocco in the west to Oman in the east.
Headquartered in a 10-story building right on Tahrir Square, the organization was founded in 1945, when Hassouna was still in grade school. It’s no coincidence that the league’s secretary-general from 1952 to 1972 was none other than Hassouna’s father, Mohammed Abdul Khalek Hassouna. And like his father, who died in 1992, the younger Hassouna graduated from England’s Cambridge University and has spent a lifetime in the diplomatic service of both Egypt and the Arab world.
None of that, however, prepared him for the rapid-fire chain of events that began Dec. 17, when a frustrated young man in an obscure town in Tunisia set himself on fire, sparking a wave of protests that eventually toppled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali after 23 years in power (see related story). That served as a catalyst for Mubarak’s downfall, which has upended the entire Arab world and left all of its dictators nervously asking themselves the same question: Who’s next?
“I saw there were problems and I knew they had to be faced — poverty, unemployment, frustrated youth,” Hassouna told The Washington Diplomat. “But I never expected it to explode in this way. I thought they would put pressure on their governments, and that the governments would of course respond to their demands.”
Given the momentous events, some Arab watchers question whether the fractured organization that the white-haired, urbane Hassouna represents is even relevant in an age of Facebook and Twitter — he’s a member of neither — that helped drive so much of the protests (spreading, for example, practical tips such as putting vinegar or onion under scarves to protect against tear gas).
Edward Walker, who was U.S. ambassador to Egypt under President Bill Clinton, is one of those experts who thinks the Arab League lacks teeth. “The problem,” he told us, “is that for so many years, it has had to do everything by consensus, and you can’t get all 22 members of the Arab League to agree on anything.”
The Arab League’s first major action was its joint attack on the newly formed state of Israel in 1948. But when Egyptian President Anwar Sadat signed a historic peace treaty with Israel 31 years later, furious Arab governments accused Sadat of treason and broke diplomatic ties with Egypt. The league’s headquarters were transferred to Tunis in protest.
It was Sadat’s assassination in 1981 that suddenly catapulted Mubarak, then a relatively unknown 53-year-old military officer, into the presidency. In 1987, Arab leaders forgave Egypt and resumed relations. Two years later, Egypt was readmitted to the league, whose headquarters were transferred back to Cairo.
That makes sense, given that Egypt has always been considered the heart and soul of the Arab world, exerting a powerful influence on the region’s history, culture, politics and identity. With nearly 80 million people, it’s also the region’s most populous country, and Cairo is by far its largest metropolis. And except for the 11 years the Arab League was based in Tunis, its secretary-general has always been an Egyptian.
Yet in Washington, the 22-member club functions little more than an information mission. The Arab League — with an annual budget of $50 million — lacks the diplomatic status and prestige enjoyed by the European Union, Organization of American States or African Union, for a very simple reason: reciprocity.
“We don’t have diplomatic status and we’ve been trying to get the Obama administration to change that, but U.S. law says that will happen only if the United States gets observer status in the Arab League,” Hassouna explained. At present, only three countries have that: Eritrea, India and Venezuela. In addition, two important Muslim but non-Arab states — Turkey and Iran — have expressed interest in joining as observers.
“I have proposed that the U.S. Embassy in Cairo be accredited to the Arab League; about 30 foreign embassies in Cairo already have accreditation,” said Hassouna, who’s been to all member states except Somalia, Djibouti and the Comoros islands. “I hope we can conclude a memo of understanding this year.”
The Arab world, however, has more urgent concerns at the moment — like simply keeping up with the dizzying spiral of grassroots revolutions that are threatening to tear down autocratic regimes from Algeria to Yemen.
Grievances that have been stewing for years are erupting among almost every sector of Arab society — fueled by an incendiary mix of rampant corruption, high unemployment among young people, rising food and gas prices, the longtime muzzling of basic freedoms, human rights abuses, and stagnant kleptocracies that have stifled development in the Arab world for decades.
But the people have clearly found their voice. The contagion of anti-government rage has swept up Algeria, Yemen, Bahrain, Libya, Jordan, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Syria, Djibouti and Sudan — and that’s as of press time.
Some of the most brutal violence has exploded in Libya, where hardly anyone dared to publicly oppose Col. Muammar Qaddafi, who’s ruled his sparsely populated, oil-rich country since 1969. But people did dare — and paid a heavy toll for speaking out against the strongman, who unleashed a mix of security forces, mercenaries and warplanes on protesters, including funeral mourners, possibly killing hundreds. Qaddafi’s son — in a rambling speech somewhat reminiscent of Mubarak’s televised flop — accused exiles of inciting the violence, threatened Libyans with the prospect of civil war over the country’s oil resources, and warned that “Libya is not Tunisia or Egypt.” His father, incidentally, also lay the blame on brainwashing pills in his own convoluted speech. Although Qaddafi has vowed “to fight to the last drop of blood,” most people agree the mercurial ruler’s days are numbered.
Among those people is Qaddafi’s man in Washington, Ali Aujali, who joined a number of Libyan ambassadors and diplomats around the world resigning to protest the bloody crackdown. “Please, please, help the Libyan people. Help them. They are burning,” the envoy pleaded on ABC’s “Good Morning America” in late February. “We need the world to stand up by us.”
With rising oil prices, the world is certainly paying attention. Yet, for nearly three months now, it’s also struggled just to keep up with what’s been one crisis after another, let alone figure out what to do next.
Libya is only the latest in a long line of dictatorships crumbling under the weight of popular discontent. In Algiers, where thousands have poured into the streets to rally against President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who’s controlled the country with an iron grip since 1999, authorities have pledged to lift the country’s 20-year state of emergency. Thousands of miles to the east in impoverished Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh — who’s been in power for 32 years — has said he won’t stand for re-election when his current seven-year term ends in 2013 in the face of sustained demonstrations (as has Sudan’s longtime ruler, President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, although he insists the protests had nothing to do with his decision).
In Iran, clashes have broken out between riot police and protesters hoping to resurrect the so-called Green Movement, with tens of thousands of demonstrators gathering in central Tehran in defiance of a government ban chanting “death to the dictator” and “Mubarak, Ben Ali, now it’s time for Sayyid Ali!” — referring to the country’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Meanwhile, opposition groups in Syria — which has been ruled by the Assad dynasty since 1970 — created a Facebook page called the Syrian Revolution and started a Twitter campaign urging people to join “day of rage” rallies against Bashar al-Assad. But no one showed up except plainclothes security forces and hopeful journalists, a testament to the fact that Assad’s regime is one of the most repressive in the Arab world.
But the rumblings of democracy are shaking practically every Arab autocracy to its core — even monarchies where it’s sacrilegious to question the king. Hoping to prevent further unrest in his country, Jordan’s King Abdullah II sacked his entire cabinet and called for the formation of a new government that would implement far-reaching reforms. Sporadic outbursts of violence have spread to another previously stable monarchy — Morocco, where King Mohammed VI is confronting an unprecedented challenge to relinquish some of his absolute authority to an elected parliament.
In the wealthy sheikhdoms of the Persian Gulf, leaders are literally buying time to fend off the popular insurrection. Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa granted the equivalent of $2,700 to every Bahraini family in an apparent bid to calm tensions. However, that failed to prevent bloodshed from rocking this small but politically volatile nation — where the majority Shiites have long complained of discrimination by the ruling Sunni elite — as police openly attacked protesters, even firing on mourners and people sleeping, despite a government pledge that peaceful demonstrations would be tolerated.
Kuwait just outlawed any “gatherings, rallies or marches” altogether, while in Saudi Arabia, a rare gathering of opposition activists has asked the king for the right to form a political party — an unheard-of request in an ultra-conservative Islamic country whose monarchy enjoys absolute authority. (That monarchy has even created its own Facebook page encouraging citizens to write directly to the government or, better still, fax in their litany of grievances.)
Although each country’s circumstances are unique, the unprecedented, sweeping nature of the demonstrations has confounded ruling governments, as fed-up young people use social networking tools such as Facebook to stage peaceful protests — without the support of traditional opposition parties — to demand their economic and political rights.
The relentless onslaught is forcing beleaguered rulers to make unheard-of concessions, extending offers of dialogue or pledges of democratic reform to stave off collapse or civil war. Yet many of the gestures have failed to placate citizens who are wary of past broken promises — Yemen being a prime example — or all too aware that one snap election does not equal full-fledged democracy — as evidenced in Iran.
Conversely, in places like Libya, the ill-equipped regimes are relying on the old authoritarian playbook to crush the protests — openly resorting to violence or pulling out tried-and-tested tactics like Internet blackouts and blaming “foreign interference” for the popular revolts.
But this time, it’s clear there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle.
“We live in one world today, linked together by technology and globalization,” Hassouna said. “You can no longer isolate people from the rest of the world. They see on satellite TV what’s going, and then of course you have the Internet. Young people want to assert themselves and of course they’re frustrated. They see the wealth which some segments of the population have, and they feel discriminated against.”
Regardless of what happens next — which is absolutely anyone’s guess — the 82-year-old Mubarak’s departure as president of Egypt will go down as a momentous event in the annals of the modern Arab world, according to Hassouna, a man with a keen sense of history.
“This is the second time an Egyptian leader is ousted,” he told us. “It reminds me of the 1952 revolution, when King Farouk was deposed by Nasser, but in a very peaceful and dignified way. He and his family were put on a ship that sailed to Italy. There was no bloodshed. This shows you that the Egyptians are peaceful.”
Interestingly, on Hassouna’s desk is a small bronze bust not of Gamal Abdel Nasser — the father of pan-Arab nationalism and modern Egypt’s first president — but of President John F. Kennedy, who in 1962 famously said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.”
“I’m getting a lot of calls from Americans expressing their support, and from Arabs who say they’re very proud of Egypt,” noted Hassouna. “For some people, there was always this myth that democracy and Islam cannot go together. Well, we have shown that they can, though we still have a long way to go. We still have to abolish the present institutions. Power must be shared between the military and civilians, and then we should prepare the ground for free elections.”
Hassouna said he’s also proud that two of the leading contenders for president are fellow seasoned diplomats. One is his boss, 74-year-old Amr Moussa, who’s been secretary-general of the Arab League since 2001 and who recently urged his fellow league members to accept that “winds of change are sweeping our societies.” The other is Mohamed ElBaradei, 68, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and a longtime critic of the Mubarak regime who in 2005 was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
For now though, the military is in charge, having imposed martial law on Feb. 13, dissolving parliament and suspending the constitution, as the protesters in Tahrir Square had demanded. The Supreme Military Council, led by Field Marshal Mohammed Tantawi, insists that military rule is temporary and will last until elections are held, as soon as six months from now. The military has already convened a panel to draft constitutional amendments and promptly put them to a referendum. Some hailed the speedy timetable as a sign that the military is eager to hand power to a civilian government; others worry the hasty transition is a maneuver by the military to retain power.
Indeed, even though it was widely hailed for refusing to confront the protesters, averting a bloodbath, the military dictatorship just might be Egypt’s problem rather than its solution, suggests well-known political commentator Fareed Zakaria, writing in the Washington Post.
“Since the officers’ coup in 1952, Egypt has been a dictatorship of, by and for the military. The few presidents since then have emerged from the officer corps; the armed forces have huge budgets and total independence, and are deeply involved in every aspect of society,” Zakaria wrote. “The military seems to have decided to sacrifice Mubarak but is trying to manage the process of change, to ensure that it remains all-powerful.”
Whether the army actually shepherds the transition to a durable democracy or merely a democratic veneer that masks yet another military-backed regime is of course the question on everyone’s minds. The army has, however, assured the world that Egypt will honor all international accords, including its landmark peace treaty with Israel that has endured for 30 years.
Hassouna, who as an Egyptian diplomat traveled to Israel many times as part of talks that led to the signing of the 1979 Camp David accords, no longer meets with Israelis.
“My role is mainly between the U.S. and the Arab world, to promote better relations,” he said. “The Arab League plays an important role in trying to settle crises. We hosted the first conference among all the different factions in Iraq calling for reconciliation. In Sudan, we’ve been observers in all the negotiations taking place between north and south.”
But it’s still the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that stands as the major obstacle to America’s image as an “honest broker” on the Arab street.
“If there is frustration today in Arab societies, remember the general climate existing in the region. There is no peace or security,” the ambassador complained. “The Arabs have been promised a solution to the Palestinian problem, that after the creation of an independent and viable Palestinian state there would be more prosperity. But this hasn’t happened.”
For now though, as much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict consumes the American foreign policy agenda, the Obama administration must first deal with the region-wide uprisings that have caught the entire U.S. government flat-footed, with officials often watching on the sidelines just like everyone else.
So far, President Obama has tread a fine line. When the unrest initially broke out in Egypt, he was careful to preserve stability and not alienate a key ally, but eventually accepted the inevitable reality that Mubarak had to go.
He has since expressed support for the change in power while stressing that the United States won’t interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. “Each country has its own traditions. America can’t dictate how they run their society,” Obama said in a press conference. “History will end up recording that at every juncture in the situation in Egypt that we were on the right side of history.”
Yet some say the United States has long been on the wrong side of history, and the ongoing turmoil is exposing one of the fundamental contradictions in America’s relations with the Arab world. Although the United States and Israel tout democratic ideals, they readily cozy up to decrepit dictatorships that support their strategic interests in the region. It’s a balancing act — some say devil’s bargain — that many agree is untenable. Who after all can claim that Egyptians or Libyans don’t deserve democracy as much as Americans and Israelis do? Yet the autocratic alliances often endure as the lesser of two evils — the bigger evil being Islamists gaining control, Mubarak’s trump card for years — and because the simple fact is that much of the Arab public remains overtly hostile toward both the United States and Israel.
For instance, in a global survey conducted last year by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, just 17 percent of Egyptians expressed a favorable view of this country. Attitudes toward Israel are even less encouraging. In a 2007 Pew survey, 80 percent of Egyptians said the needs of the Palestinian people could never be met as long as Israel exists; only 18 percent said the two societies could coexist fairly.
“No democratically elected Egyptian government could entirely ignore such broadly held attitudes. But it’s less certain how those views would translate into policy,” wrote Ronald Brownstein of the National Journal. “Most experts believe that a post-Mubarak government would not renounce the Israeli peace treaty, nor is Egypt’s influential military spoiling for another round with Israel. A successor government might, however, confront Israel by opening Egypt’s border with Gaza; even Mohamed ElBaradei told the German magazine Der Spiegel that he considers Gaza ‘the world’s largest prison’ and would take that step.”
On the other hand, the Pew survey indicates that fears Egypt will fall into the hands of radical Islamists are overblown. Indeed, the protests were largely secular, driven not by religious fervor but overwhelmingly by resentment over issues such as unemployment, food costs, class inequality, corruption and government oppression. Nevertheless, Egypt is a deeply devout country whose religious beliefs seep into its politics — albeit with limits.
“Fundamentalist religious views dominate in Egypt: In one Pew survey, about four-fifths of Egyptians said they supported both stoning for adultery and the death penalty for Muslims who renounce the faith,” Brownstein pointed out. “But only about one-fifth express support for Osama bin Laden or agree that suicide bombing is justified. That’s not the foundation for a majority coalition.”
Yet even if Islamists don’t take over, Brownstein concluded, “Washington and Jerusalem will have to live with the fact that truly representative Arab democracies will be more anti-Western than compliant autocrats or pampered elites.”
As Egyptians usher in what they hope is the dawn of a new, non-autocratic era, they’re also grappling with ongoing turmoil, as everyone from the police to taxi drivers are airing pent-up grievances. Yet everyone at some point will also have to turn their attention to cleaning up the current mess. For instance, Egypt’s all-important tourism industry — which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the country’s GDP — has been decimated in the wake of cancelled flights, pandemonium at the airport and TV images of men on horseback, armed with whips, galloping through Tahrir Square. No one knows how long it’ll be before busloads of curious Europeans and Americans return to visit the Great Pyramids and buy trinkets at Cairo’s famed Khan el-Khalili market.
Meanwhile, as of press time, Mubarak was reportedly still holed up at his luxurious villa in the Sinai beach resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. The aging leader hasn’t been heard from since his final TV appearance in which he defiantly yet desperately clung to power. Hassouna, watching the broadcast, commented that it was time to establish a “truth and reconciliation commission,” similar to those set up after the overthrow of dictatorships in Argentina, Chile and South Africa.
“I think everyone has to face up to his responsibilities now,” he said. “We should know the truth about what he did and where he stood. Eventually, the Egyptian people have to reconcile and focus on the future, rebuilding the economy which has been shattered by these events.”
Asked about rumors that Mubarak spent his last few days in power moving vast sums of money to accounts in Europe and the Persian Gulf, Hassouna just shook his head sadly. “I’ve heard these outrageous claims that some of our leaders have billions of dollars in Swiss banks. Anyone can speculate, but if there’s evidence that it’s true, then it’s up to the people to make them accountable.”
Hassouna added, however, that the upheavals shouldn’t overshadow the progress Arab countries have made in recent years, particularly in women’s rights, the spread of Internet-based technologies and the growth of private enterprise — advances that, ironically, may have helped precipitate some of the upheaval.
Continued reform will be necessary if the Arab world — saddled with a burgeoning population of young, unemployed, tech-savvy and restless citizens— is to survive. Otherwise, as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton presciently warned in a mid-January trip to Doha, the region risks “sinking into the sand.”
Hassouna insists the region will ultimately rise from the current rebellion and anarchy, and a true Arab spring of freedom and prosperity will emerge.
“Two years ago, at our economic summit in Kuwait, as if predicting what was to come, our leaders decided there was an urgent need to deal with economic integration. They proposed a free trade zone that by 2015 should evolve into a customs union, and by 2020, a common market,” said Hassouna, praising Kuwait’s establishment of a $2 billion fund for small- and medium-size enterprises.
“Arab governments are now contributing to that fund, which will allow the creation of thousands of jobs for young people,” he said. Other Arab League funds specifically address the needs of Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip, as well as the desperately poor inhabitants of southern Sudan, who in January voted overwhelmingly to secede from the government in Khartoum.
“There are huge challenges facing the people of this region, but there’s also an enormous determination to overcome these challenges,” Hassouna told us. “It might take time. It might take a struggle. Not everyone agrees on the solution, but in the long run, we’ll certainly have a better future.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is news editor of The Washington Diplomat.