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NightWatch 20110204

NightWatch

For the Night of 4 February 2011

Thailand-Cambodia: Preah Vihear again. Thai and Cambodian troops engaged in a firefight on Friday afternoon on the border near the disputed 4.6 square kilometer area near the ancient temple at Preah Vihear. A Thai military spokesman said Thai forces sustained no casualties.

Comment: The incident took place while Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya is in Cambodia for the Joint Commission meeting. The Thai apparently are annoyed by Cambodia's prosecution of several Thai for spying, so they stressed a pressure point.

Burma/Myanmar: For the record. The government named a key retired general as president on Friday, an official said, as the military hierarchy retained power in the country's new political system.

Thein Sein, who left the army contest elections last year, "was elected as the president with a majority vote." He had been tipped for the post before the vote, reinforcing allegations that the junta engineered the political process to hide military power behind a civilian facade. This is a study in democracy.


Egypt:
The day of departure demonstrations were large but not as large as those earlier in the past ten days. Low turnout for a Friday after prayers.

The Wall Street Journal reported during this Watch that the Egyptian administration is now searching for a graceful way to superannuate Mubarak. Vice President Suleiman would wield executive authority, while Mubarak remains the titular head of state.

Comment: This arrangement obviously has been one of the government's fall back position in appointing a Vice President. It also is a weakness in the personal system of government Mubarak created. Apparently Himself and his cronies forgot that the Vice President is not the constitutional successor to the Presidency. It is the Speaker of the Parliament.

In a genuine presidential system, such a power arrangement would be the next of all worlds, but Egypt has a hybrid system. New laws or constitutional amendments would need to be passed to enable the Vice President to succeed the President.

It is not certain how much this would satisfy the anti-government opposition because Suleiman is the top spy of the old regime.

News coverage. Today al Jazeera provided reports on demonstrations up and down the Nile Valley in the tens of thousands, even though its base in Alexandria got sacked. Oddly, it seemed to be the only news organization with access to all of Egypt's major cities, despite the crackdown on the international press. Its English language service supplied a mosaic of unrest that no other news sources reported, including Arabic sources. To be specific, no other news sources corroborated the al Jazeera reporting about unrest, except in Cairo and Alexandria.

Special Comment: An alternative interpretation. Most old hands will attest that little is ever straightforward in the Middle East. The mainstream Western media interpretation of events is simplistic, linear and narcissistic: huddled Egyptian and other Arab masses yearning to breathe free but thwarted by sclerotic, venal dictators and their cohorts. It's an underdog story that is spontaneously fresh, it's just not true.

The sclerotic, venal dictator part might ring partly true, but none of the rest is. There are just too many anomalies, inconsistencies and signs of planning. Unlike Tunis, the protestors in Cairo have been organized and supported for ten days. Their banners have been huge and professionally printed. Security forces have been more restrained than in any prior uprising in Egypt.

It is not credible that the Egyptian Army would tolerate protests against the commander in chief without having been directed to do so by people in the chain of command. This is deep Arab politics.

The protests never connected, but in a real revolutionary scenario they always connect. Demonstrations occurred in outlying cities, but they appeared to have no linkage to events in Cairo, where power resides. This was obvious after cell phone and social media services were cut.

In hindsight, the cutting of these services looks like an indicator of an Egyptian government investigation into the backers/instigators/financiers of the demonstrations in Cairo. The demonstrations continued to follow the script, but with much less energy. Without cell phones and internet, the demonstrations should have collapsed into confusion, but they did not. That is a manifestation of planning.

There has been no crescendo. Friday sputtered when it was supposed to climax.

Even in Pakistan, anti-Musharraf or anti-Zardari protestors started their marches in the outlying towns, gathered strength and converged on Islamabad. That is the normal centripetal pattern. It was demonstrated, for example, in the ouster of Indonesia's Soeharto; the overthrow of Thai prime minister Thaksin and the ouster of Ben Ali from Tunisia. That is not what has happened in Egypt and it points to outside interference and artifice.

The alternative interpretation is that a powerful Arab leader has used Egypt as a battleground in a proxy fight with Saudi Arabia for leadership of the Sunni Arabs. Al Jazeera's role in reporting on events in Egypt points to Sheikh Hamad who considers himself a progressive and a leader of the Arabs. He has the wealth to buy whatever effects he seeks to create in the present economy.

Al Jazeera has been much more than an objective news service. It has been the news service that has reported information that no other services have reported and which appears exaggerated, if not fabricated.

Thus, it is not clear what has transpired in Egypt in the past ten days. A month ago, the concern was that Islamists might be gaining ground. In the past ten days, almost miraculously, voices of western-style democracy surfaced. It is simply not credible.

If it is has been a proxy fight for leadership of the Arabs, at this point, it looks like the challengers lost. Mubarak stays. The Army is in charge, but the other linkages are broad and not yet clear.

The oldest leaders of the Arab world are Mubarak and Saudi King Abdallah. They come from different directions, but their interactions with Israel have created greater regional stability than the efforts of any of their predecessors. They are nearing the end, inviting leadership challenges. More instability is likely in the region, but not because Arabs want western democracy.

End of NightWatch for 4 February.

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