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World Views: Egypt's tensions

Alan Johnston | 16:46 UK time, Monday, 7 February 2011

Protester reading newspaper in Tahrir Square


Commentators reflect on the meaning of the crisis in Cairo.

"One of ours was killed," says a woman on the streets of Cairo. "A good man. Educated. The cut-throats killed him in the street," She tells her story on the front page of the Jordan Times, which talks of the city as a bruised, battered place.

And the lingering fear in the air is captured in a piece by Robert Fisk in the Independent , reprinted on the Znet website, where he quotes a demonstrator in Tahrir Square:

"We're safe as long as we have the square. If we lose the square Mubarak will arrest the opposition groups - and there will be police rule as never before... we're fighting for our lives."

But alongside those who are mourning or searching for missing relatives, papers across the Middle East reflect a degree of normality returning to the Egyptian capital. Traffic police are back on the beat and people are taking the chance to stock up with food again.

And the papers chew over the weekend's inconclusive negotiations between the regime and its opponents.

"Problems loom," says an editorial in the Beirut Daily Star:

"But parties that have been so far apart for so long have at least begun talking. It is only through dialogue that such differences can be addressed and even the most arduous journeys of reconciliation begin with a single step. The people of Egypt have manifestly waited long enough. Through decades of poverty and neglect, the downtrodden masses have had their endurance shredded. But desired goals are now within reach. As hard as it is to take and as difficult as it has been to maintain, a little more patience may yield the greatest reward."

The Beruit Daily Star's veteran commentator Rami Ghouri suggests how he thinks the US and Europe should react:

"It is also time for American and European governments - for one moment, for just one brief, shining moment - to declare that they truly support the rights of Arabs to taste genuine liberty, and human and civil rights, rather than to engage in an embarrassing scramble to find the next Arab general to take over from the last Arab general."

Two weeks into the uprising you still find pieces of lyrical writing about the magnificence of the children of Egypt standing up. But a comment piece in the Gulf News strikes a very different note. The thoughts of a businessman, Khalaf al Habtoor are headlined "Egypt's youth uprising has been hijacked":

"There is a fine line between freedom and anarchy and, frankly, the images on our television screens point to the latter. Egypt has become a lawless land. Thugs are torching historic buildings, businesses and shopping centres. Thieves are on the prowl, forcing Egyptian families to barricade themselves in their homes. Foreigners are leaving in droves. The once peaceful Egyptians are beating one another to death. The economy is being decimated by the day. This is not the Egypt I know and love. Tragically, there may be much worse to come. There's a saying: 'Be careful what you wish for. It may just happen'."

With the Muslim Brotherhood at the centre of those weekend negotiations, the movement is dissected. Nowhere more so than in the Israeli papers.

"The (Muslim) Brotherhood is not stupid," writes commentator Barry Rubin in the Jerusalem Post:

"While wealthy, secularized, urban Egyptians may look at it as a peasant rabble, this group has manoeuvred very skilfully in the past. Does it have different factions and tendencies? Certainly it does. Yet it's going to be more united than any other political factor. My concern, at least for the next three years, is not an Islamist Egypt but a radical Egypt. The idea of a `Turkish model' has been raised that is, an Islamist party in power that advances very slowly but steadily toward the goal. Such a government would show its militancy most clearly in foreign policy, which is what other countries are most concerned with, of course."

Writing in the London-based Spectator magazine, John Bradley is equally uneasy about the power of Egypt's Islamists as he considers the country's future:

"Of some things we can be sure: it will be more western, more Islamic and more fervently anti-Zionist... And what of the idea that the Muslim Brotherhood has mellowed of late? This perhaps has more to with its recruitment of media-savvy spokesmen (they are always men) who spout to gullible western 'experts' the virtues of its pro-democracy platform. The general western ignorance about Egypt presents the brotherhood with a tremendous opportunity for media manipulation. Scratch deeper, and you can find its detailed political platform which was published four years ago... It would be terrifyingly similar to Iran's Islamist state."

But by no means all the coverage in the Western media sees the Brotherhood as a looming menace. In the Spectator magazine's rival, the left-wing New Statesman, Tariq Ramadan says Egypt's Islamists have problems of their own to deal with:

"Today's Muslim Brotherhood draws diverse traditions together. But the leadership of the movement - those who belong to the founding generation are now very old - no longer fully represents the aspirations of the younger members, who are much more open to the world, anxious to bring about internal reform and fascinated by the Turkish example. Behind the unified, hierarchical facade, contradictory influences are at work. No one can say which way the movement will go."

The Palestinian Online website comes to the Brotherhood's defence. In an opinion piece it says that casting the movement as some sort of threat is what it describes as "an old trick". It says it's time for the world to get off the Brotherhood's back:

"We've seen its patriotism during the British occupation of Egypt, and their role in Nasser's July revolution. Now the Brotherhood are an integral part of the Egyptian people and its political map. Now they're showing political acumen in dealing with the regime. They've been drained and exhausted by the regime's repression. The minimum that they deserve from us is to defend their right as Egyptians to take part in the political life of their own country."

Fareed Zakaria says in the Washington Post that it is a big mistake to see Egypt's future lying in an Islamist or even Turkish style direction. Instead he suggests you watch the army:

"Since the officers' coup of 1952, Egypt has been a dictatorship, by and for the military... Right now, the military is consolidating power... The businessmen have been turned into scapegoats, sacrificed so the generals can continue to rule. The three people running Egypt - the vice president, prime minister and defence chief - come from the army....the danger is that Egypt will become a sham democracy with real power held in back rooms by generals."

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