The protests that began last week in Egypt are ongoing, and today brings what has been dubbed a “million man march” on the capital city, Cairo. With the Egyptian Army’s statement that it will not fire on its own people, President Hosni Mubarak’s fate appears to be sealed.
My in-laws are Egyptian, and in the past, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting my wife’s extended family, all of whom live in Cairo. The last time I visited was during Eid ul-Fitr, the celebration that comes at the end of Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting. Staying at an apartment on the Nile, I sipped tea and watched party boats blasting a kind of Arabic-techno music, with crowds along the banks, all celebrating and in good spirits. It was inspiring to be amidst so much jubilation, despite the widespread poverty in which most of the Egyptian population lives. (At one point, I passed an old man sleeping in a corner on the street and bent down to give him some money, only to realize that he was not sleeping – he was dead).
Looking back on that time, it is troubling to watch coverage of the current protests – not because the 30-year reign of an undemocratic ruler is at an end – but because this bustling metropolis, and indeed the country, is in great peril. Currently, my sister-in-law (who is well off by Egyptian standards) is running low on food. The stores are empty – not even a can of beans – and there is nowhere to find more supplies. My wife’s grandmother, who lives just off Tahrir Square, Cairo’s central square, has been confined to her apartment because of the rioters and teargas. Vigilante security groups – made up of everyday citizens – are armed with knives and spades, trying to protect the buildings of women, children and the elderly from violent looters and escaped convicts.
And while the protests continue, the United States and other governments look on anxiously, the fear being, once Mubarak is gone, who will rise up in his place? Will the Muslim Brotherhood – a violent Egyptian opposition group that strives to be seen as a legitimate political force – take control? What will that mean for peace with Israel and the security of the Suez Canal, which remains critical to Western access to Middle Eastern oil? Surely, al Qaeda is salivating at this opportunity, ever eager to exploit ungoverned and under-governed regions.
These protests come at a time when the Tunisian government has been overthrown, Jordanian King Abdullah II has dismissed his cabinet in the face of protests, and the new Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati is a “friend of Hezbolloah” (his own words). North Africa and the Levant are in trouble.
If the United States was concerned about an al Qaeda threat from Yemen – and it should be – our current security concerns should be increasing exponentially, and not only because of al Qaeda. Al Qaeda’s terrorist ideology has taken flight and morphed into the lethal threat of transnational terrorism. We can stamp out al Qaeda wherever they hide, but killing an idea is significantly harder – and this idea does not require al Qaeda for it to fester and grow.
I have a friend in Jordan who related to me that the general sentiment in the area where she lives is that all this unrest is somehow the doing of the United States and its allies. This sentiment is widespread throughout the region. It is the Narrative in action – the belief that the United States hates Islam, Muslims and is hell-bent on taking over the Oxus-to-Nile region, including the Muslim Holy City of Mecca. This pervasive idea is the underpinning of the transnational terrorist ideology.
With strong governments, education, an open and fair media, and proactive work on the part of the United States to help dispel this myth (that is, the Narrative), we have a shot at showing good people that America is not an enemy of Islam.
But with unstable (or non-existent) governments leading the tumultuous countries now caught up in violent protests, we don’t stand a chance.
And what that means for the people in these countries is that the times of jubilation will always be overshadowed by either an unrealistic fear of an American Crusade against Islam or uncertainty about what their leadership will do in response to such a lie.
I fear I may not be able to again visit Cairo with as much confidence in my personal security as I did before. I fear my extended family may not have enough food to eat or cannot sleep through the night for fear of looters and violent criminals. I fear our country – the United States – will be challenged to achieve any kind of lasting security in the region.
But most of all, I fear ignorance of U.S. motivations will run unchecked in an already unstable region. The more fully the Narrative takes root in the Middle East, the harder it will be to overcome terrorism.
The Egyptian people, from my experience, just want food, safety and a chance to take ownership of their government. What these protests produce is anyone’s guess, but the threat of violence and terrorism in the Middle East is certain to increase.