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The Road to Revolution is Paved with Bread Not Tech.

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Bread is always the key

And it always has been.

Napoleon’s famous adage that an Army marches on its stomach applies to something else he knew a little something about – popular revolt. Indeed, a brief scan of the French Revolution might be more than a little prescient as Egypt settles in for calamitous disappointment.

Simply put, the story goes like this.

While it was the gifted thinkers of the bourgeoisie in France that framed and drove the conflict with the monarchy, aristocracy, and clergy, it was the energizing of the mob that turned the slow and enlightened march to reform into an irresistible and uncontrollable surge, starting from the Siege of the Bastille in 1789.  And what triggered the rage of the urban poor? Astronomical bread prices brought on by disastrous harvests and cynical price controls. For the Sans-Culottes on the streets of Paris spending 80% or more of one’s meager day wages on bread meant slow starvation. So a sheet of musket fire was hardly something to be feared.

The power of the mob to drive class revenge reached its bloody zenith during the Reign of Terror. Gone was the great oratory of Marat, and the brave populism of Danton, the latter silenced by the dictatorial insanity of Robespierre, himself a victim of the guillotine. And from 1789 to the rise of Napoleon, the Sans-Culottes equated revolutionary glory with one thing above all. Cheap and plentiful bread.

In Egypt, bourgeois reformers with their new social networking toys were able to lay low a dictator (if not the edifice of the state) with the support of an urban poor traumatized by high food prices. Throughout the Arab world, governments are busily meddling with price controls to appease their own masses, and prevent them becoming the street armies of existing middle class democracy advocates. In China, skyrocketing food inflation could bind an unsettled Internet-obsessed middle class with the wider peasantry and put serious pressure on the Communist Party.

Technology is a religion with its own self-serving vanity.  But revolutions happen not so much because of the smart phone, but far more because of the simple baguette.

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Written by coolrebel

February 14, 2011 at 4:35 pm

Egypt: The Army’s In Control. What Next?

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Just Fired Hos. Anyone Want To Be Prez?

In hindsight, Mubarak was done the moment the police lost control. Mubarak could only truly count on the police, and when his attempt to use them to retake the square fell flat a couple of weeks ago, it was only a matter of time before he looked to the Army for protection.

Suleiman wasn’t going to allow Mubarak to take the whole shooting party down, but Hosni begged for time, and Suleiman agreed to try and wait out the demonstrators. The demonstrators responded by realizing they were being penned in the square, regrouped, reinforced and threatened to break out.

After rumors (sourced perhaps from the US but also maybe internally) started to swell that Mubarak was on his way built on the streets, Suleiman told Mubarak to obfuscate and confuse in one last vain attempt to keep him in power, but the demonstrators were having none of it. As the mood turned ugly, there were only two ways to return the country to stablility, fire on the crowd or sacrifice Mubarak.

And so he went.  It all happened, very, very fast.

The Army has bought some time. The protesters have their scalp and the hope is that they’ll go home. The Army’s plan is probably to stack the cards so the transition to democracy is as much in their favor as possible. They also know that now Mubarak has gone, and discussions about the future shape of Egypt are about to begin, the protests, stunning so far in their leaderlessness, are going to need some, but quick.

The Army no doubt relishes the idea of dealing with some US-educated Google executive who lived in the UAE, weeps in public and is married to an American, now being the voice of the Democratic movement. He’d last five minutes, and he’s wisely reluctant to take the reins. They’re even keener on El-Baradei, long time secular resident of Geneva, who’s failed to get the crowd behind him to any meaningful degree and totally lacks a power base. He’s probably the puppet of choice, but it’s unlikely he’s got the chops. So who else is there that’s not the Brotherhood? The answer has to be a fat capitalist member of the business elite. Again, the Army is probably licking its collective camouflaged lips at that one. A technocratic dose of neo-liberalism is probably not quite what the Egyptian street has in mind when they showed up in Tahrir Square.

A full on military takeover is not viable or seen as legitimate (except in an out and out emergency ) so ultimately the Army is going to have to choose a ‘leader’ that is not Suleiman – who has already announced he’s stepping down in favor of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces deal (a name that’s right out of the Military Coup Hall of Fame).

Clearly, Army control is short term, and that’s the way they want it. The last thing the military needs is to actually be responsible for running a poverty-stricken country that survives on tourism, baksheesh and government largesse. Fixing the monumental social and economic problems the nation faces is not in the Army’s manual and never has been. No, they’d rather have some other sucker on the hook for that. And what better way to give that poor schmo legitimacy than to have him, you know, elected by the people.

So what does the Army actually want? Simply put, it wants what it has now. It wants nothing to change. It enjoys tremendous wealth, privilege and power, gets to play with brand new toys like F-16s and M-1 tanks, which, incidentally, don’t actually have to be risked on the field of war. It’s loved by the people and because of the peace with Israel, it can get on with the edifying and decidedly less lethal business of making gobs of money for its officer class through massive involvement in every level of Egyptian economic society. What’s not to like?

And what about the Protesters? What do they want? Well, we’re about to find out that beyond the sacrifice of Mubarak, the various groups in Tahrir Square have precious little in common. But one thing they all want is for stuff to change (in their own very special ways). Of course any change of any kind is exactly what the Army doesn’t want.  Beyond that, there are probably as many visions or Egypt’s future as there are mobile cellphone charging stations in Tahrir Square. And each of the ideas is as charged and potentially dangerous too.

Does the bourgeois elite want Sharia? No way. Does the urban poor want the elite’s economic control and privileges to be maintained? No. Do and old and young see eye to eye? Nope. And guess who knows all that better than anyone? Suleiman and the “Supreme Council”. He’ll exploit those new divisions for all their worth so that the democracy that emerges is weak and fragmented, like the one in Pakistan.

The reason is simple. An ongoing plurality is a disaster for Army power. Divisions are far better, and in a place like Egypt, likely to stifle serious attempts at the very change that Army doesn’t want. I mean, if a plurality called for the peace with Israel to be rescinded, they’d have to go back on a war footing. That would be bad, and what would be even worse is the idea that the military budget could be sacrificed to say, make people’s lives better.

The elephant in the room is Islam. The Muslim Brotherhood knows that economic disaster is its number one ally. The more a national infrastructure breaks down, the more Islam can fill the void. The MB’s offshoot in Gaza, Hamas, plays that card to perfection, as does the Hizbollah in Lebanon, providing its very own “socio-religious contract.”  Egypt isn’t much better off than Gaza, if at all.  That’s good news for the MB but only as long as it doesn’t actually ‘run’ anything with a government seal over its door.

So the MB doesn’t really want power, for the same reason that the Army doesn’t want it. They don’t want to be on the hook, simply because if they were, they’d have to do something. And that’s not easy in a nation like Egypt which is an economic basket case waiting to happen. The last thing the Islamists want is responsibility for that, because it might put a crimp in their popularity. They’d rather pick up the pieces with their Islamic social services after the secular leaders have messed things up. Then they can blame the elite, Israel, as well as the West, and invoke Allah in one fell swoop.

Indeed, staying out of power is probably the only way to keep the MB together. If they won democratic power, they’d have to appease the Egyptian elite and Army which decidedly don’t want Sharia, which would put an end to any upbeat economic prospects in Egypt with all the attendant problems that would cause.  There would also be one other minor problem. If the Brotherhood led a government, their own radical elements would most probably splinter because the beloved Islamic caliphate was taking too long to be forged in the cradle of the Arab world.

Last but not least, spare a thought for the rest of the world.

The authoritarian Arab regimes are all deeply unhappy about developments. At least the oil states can buy off the population. But if that doesn’t work, they do have a problem.

Then there’s the Chinese. That pesky Internet deal certainly worked magic in Egypt, and inflation is on the rise in China big time. Are the cards aligning for a new Tiananmen?

And there’s the West, full of the joys of Spring now that democracy is flowering in Cairo. Except that they don’t like the idea of real democracy, because it’s possible that once the Egyptian people don’t get the economic changes they seek in six weeks flat, they’ll once again turn on their time-honored enemy, the Jews, and demand, democratically, of course, that the peace is rescinded. The last thing the US wants is for its Egyptian Army allies to turn on the Israelis using US hardware. But at the same time, they do not want Pakistan on Israel’s doorstep and have to be seen to be doing the right thing. It’s a most vexing situation for old Barackslider.

All in all, pontificators like Thereisnoplan are having a whale of the time Egypt-watching.

Written by coolrebel

February 11, 2011 at 3:47 am

Egypt: Mubarak Gone. Short Term Hope. Long Term Calamity

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Let’s have some fun.

Time to look at the prognosis for the major characters…

Hos Mubarak;

the embattled President and friend to the West, currently looking for cheap tickets out of Cairo on a variety of Internet travel sites. He’s said he won’t run for “re-election” in September, but the street wants him gone now. Cue power vacuum.

The Army:

Never looked better. Despite the fact that they’ve never won a single battle of any note, their F-16s, M-1 Tanks and new uniforms sure are shiny. And get this, all the protesters love them. With Mubarak on his way out, and the Army elevated to cabinet power by the old man, it’s no surprise that they’ve pre-emptively said they won’t fire on the demonstrators if Mubarak as a last ditch effort to stay in power should ask them. That pretty much seals it for old Hos. With the toys and the status, the Army has everything to lose from the “Arab Revolutionary Spirit” in Tahrir Square. What they’re looking for is something akin to the power enjoyed by the Turkish Army during and after Attaturk. Are they going to get it? Not without a fight. What they’re not looking for is a resumption of hostilities, cold or otherwise, with Israel. That would spell the end of the gravy from the US, which would not take kindly to the unwholesome possibility of US weaponry being used against the Jewish state.

Mohamed El-Baradei:

Expecting decades in the wilderness before shuffling off into history as the AEA chief who let the Iranians get real close to a nuke, instead Mohamed El-Baradei is shaping up to be Mr. Transition to Democracy. He’s got all the credentials. The Army love him, because he has no power base and doesn’t wear a uniform, the Muslim Brotherhood love him because he has no power base and doesn’t wear a uniform. And the Street will soon tire of him because he has no power base and doesn’t wear a uniform. Where does that leave him? Shuffling off into history as the IAEA chief who let the Iranians get real close to a nuke. Ironically, it’s his very weakness that could – in the short term – be his strength. He’s a figleaf and a good one. But it would take a supremely deft touch to turn his lack of power into real control.

The Egyptian Elite:

Pity the poor Egyptian elite. There they were happily building their gated communities and controlling everything with the help of Mubarak and the Army when suddenly, the mob decided to take matters into their own hands. In simple terms, there was growth in the Egyptian economy and a reduction in some key poverty indicators, but not nearly enough to dent the crushing poverty of a mass that’s growing at a huge rate. Simply put, if the US employment is having trouble keeping up with population growth, you can imagine the scale of the problem in Egypt, a nation with none of the democratic edifice, infrastructure, and economic generators. That will put pressure on the elite and leave them looking for protection. Who’s going to guarantee it? The answer is nobody, in public, but probably the Army – in tacit terms at least. Of course, if the elite is unhappy, the Egyptian economy is unhappy, and if the Egyptian economy is weak then the mob will start blaming, you’ve guessed it, the elite. If things start getting a little scary over the next couple of years, things might be looking up for luxury real estate in London.

The “Arab Revolutionary Street”

The Twitterati and Democracy-huggers in Europe and the US are already proclaiming the triumph of people power. For the cameras at least, there will be plenty to rejoice. Elections in September with new political parties, and lots of people with ‘purple-finger disease’ – otherwise known as total delusion that they’re embarking on a great democratic experiment. Much the same BS took place in Iraq and Afghanistan. But after that purple period is over, and nothing happens to tackle the crushing poverty and injustice faced by the millions in the Egyptian mass (or the skyrocketing bread prices brought on by demand and speculation), Allah will be right there to make everything alright, just like he does in Gaza with Hamas (the Palestinian offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood) and Lebanon with Hizbollah.

The Muslim Brotherhood.

The Muslim Brotherhood have played their cards very, very well. They know full well that if they’d been parading premature victory in Tahrir Square that the world would have panicked and backed a an army-sponsored transition to democracy. So they’ve stayed on the down-low, and in the short term are sitting very pretty. Come September, they’ll be a newly legitimized party that can say, “see, we’re not scary, we were just being persecuted by bad old Hos”. That’ll serve them very, very well at the ballot box, as will their rabid anti-Zionist stance that’s likely to surface as they get closer to elections. Figures vary as to their level of support, but it’s at least 20-25% and probably more like 40%. At that level they’ll at the very least be big power players, and could possibly win a plurality. On the surface this is a great time for them, but they’re likely to be victims of their own success. The reason is two-fold. Firstly, the Egyptian Party of God will have to “fix the sewers” and provide more temporal improvements for the masses, and secondly, more radical factions will demand a Sharia state and a state of war with Israel. If the latter don’t get what they want, they could very easily split off from and discredit the pragmatists, and then utilize terror, which would undermine the Egyptian state and economy, further exacerbating the chaos. The Brotherhood might not be able to resist its anti-zionist roots and renew connections with Hamas to arm its extreme factions in Gaza with more powerful rocketry to threaten Israel from a southern flank. Fun, huh?

The Prediction.

A clash between the radical elements of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army Establishment seems likely.

The short term looks good.

The Army will oversee an explosion of parties and participation. There will be an orderly election. The moderates in the Muslim Brotherhood will prevail in the short term, probably in coalition with Egyptian secular nationalists. There will be a vast surge in expectations on the street – which will not be met, because Egypt doesn’t have the economic resources to solve its deep structural problems in anything less than decades.

The mid-term looks shaky.

Dissatisfaction will surge, and the more radical elements in the Brotherhood, furious that the pragmatists haven’t made the move to rescind the Peace Treaty with Israel will split from the group, or move it as a whole, and begin to appeal direct to the masses. There will be a rise in terrorism, fundamentalism, and investment in the country will drop like a stone, as will tourism, further exacerbating the economic problems and widening the vast expectation gap. Consistently high wheat prices will add fuel to the fire, as the mass – newly empowered – seeks to blame what they see as the slow pace of change on the democratically elected government.

The long term could be dangerous but the Army will stabilize the situation.

The Egyptian Army and rejuvenated security forces (sanitized by the new democratic vista) will take on the terrorist fundamentalist movement that may well complete the transformation of the Muslim Brotherhood from tactical pragmatists to wholehearted fundamentalists. The military wing of that group (vowing a return to direct action) will attempt to destabilize Egypt, and the security forces will fail to stop them, unless they return the nation – ironically – to a police state footing with the support of the people. If terrorism in Egypt becomes anything more than occasional, it will shatter tourism – 1/6 of the country’s GDP, and a major source of foreign exchange, and choke off investment. The Egyptian economy will continue to flounder, further undermining long-term stability.  A vicious spiral could begin. The street will demand change and the Muslim Brotherhood – with a major say in government – will require the end of the Israel peace treaty to guarantee its cooperation, and protect its newly found power. If that happens, the West will threaten to withdraw support for the military, which will respond by attempting to bury the Brotherhood, in order to maintain its power.

In short, we could be back where we started.

Written by coolrebel

February 1, 2011 at 12:18 pm

Egypt: The Role of The Internet and Why Beijing is Watching

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There’s nothing the social media and tech mavens like doing more than talking up social media and its influence.

In Iran, that influence turned out to be overplayed, and the ‘Green Revolution’ fizzled out. But in Tunisia and Egypt, it seems like it did indeed play a major organizational role, at least in catalyzing the original clashes. The Iranian police state proved itself much more adept at manipulating social media for its own ends. Plus it had the added advantage of dealing with a rebellion that was bourgeois in origin. The Egyptian riots seem to have a far wider social base, which may prove to be crucial. It’s interesting to note that in both Tunisia and Egypt, satellite cities away from the capital played a big role in fomenting the rebellion.

But regardless of the social pattern, it’s clear to Thereisnoplan that the internet is a crucial part of the equation in Egypt, which explains why it was cut off. Washington has been watching closely, but I’m guessing that Beijing has been taking note too.

China has overheated its economy pretty nicely. A real estate bubble, a more educated, and connected population with vastly increased expectations, inflation levels near the tipping point, and a depressed international consumer economy are adding real pressure for political change. And while China’s conciliatory approach to human rights and democratic change is probably just talk, unlike their distaste for the current Nobel Peace Prize recipient – they’re getting closer and closer to a time when concrete decisions will have to be made.

Capitalism is unsettling. It makes poor people want what richer people have, it makes richer people want more, and it makes both rich and poor think that they can attain their goals. Everyone is restless, nobody is happy, and when they’re not satisfied they want to be able to express that dissatisfaction, and to have their grievances heard and acted upon by their representatives – usually elected. The apparatus of the Chinese Communist Party isn’t built like that. Up until now, China was so poor that it could catch up with the rest of the world and maintain Communist power. But those times are coming to an end.

And the wild card, even the potential decisive factor, is the Internet. The Internet gives the masses the two things Beijing least want them to have – knowledge and the ability to communicate quickly, efficiently, and laterally.  It’s clear that China’s leaders are terrified by the Internet. They censor it, block it, cajole its leaders, but they can’t ultimately control a fluid, ever changing phenomenon. Ultimately, it will prevail, because people want it to. What’s happening in Egypt is probably sending chills down the collective Communist Party spine.

If the Chinese economy melts down in the next decade, which is a distinct possibility, another Tiananmen Square could be cranked up by Social media, the internet and cellphones really, really easily. The student flashmob could grow and grow and get noisier and noisier, very fast. And if they refuse to go home like they refused to do twenty-two years ago, new demonstrations could pop up in other major Chinese cities in hours. Suddenly, the Communist Party would be faced with a nationwide scenario where its authority is threatened, and the party would face an intolerable choice. Fire or back down. If they fire, they could fan the flames and ultimately be consumed by them in which case China enters a period of instability and potential chaos which would reverberate across the entire planet. If they don’t, they open the door to the vagaries of change which could also very conceivably swallow them up.

The Internet is a beast that Beijing can’t control, and ultimately they know it. Access to it is a privilege a new Chinese generation accepts as a right. Remove it or choke it off and you pay the price. Allow it to grow and you lose control. The choices that Chinese leaders are going to be forced to make are choices they will most decidedly not like like making.

Add in festering economic issues and there’s a heady cocktail brewing.

Written by coolrebel

January 29, 2011 at 1:15 am

Egypt: It’s All About the Army Now

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All this talk of “[insert term for revolution here] revolution” in Egypt is a tad premature, and seems to gloss over the apparently incongruous fact that the Army were welcomed into the streets by the protesters. Cheering when the troops get called out is hardly the stuff of the barricades.

The Egyptian moment is moving very, very fast, but it is starting to become increasingly clear that Mubarak’s future is in the hands of the Egyptian military, which is much revered in highly nationalistic Egypt (and in which every young man serves).

So with that in mind, let’s extrapolate what this could mean for Cairo.

Mubarak has a major problem. The moment he asks the Army to fire on the protesters is the moment he books his ticket out of Cairo. The Army’s own credibility and continued power rests on it NOT doing that. The protesters know this and with the brutal and hated police thoroughly routed, it looks like we’ve arrived at stage two of the game. The ball is in the Army’s court.

So what will the Military do? It’s unlikely they want to sacrifice Mubarak – who’s one of their own – and has plied them with plenty of goodies over the decades. But the longer the streets burn (and there’s plenty of unemployed youth to keep them that way) the closer it gets to the tipping point, of losing the public trust and undermining its own power and position.

That point may come soon. And if it does, the Military will have to make some serious decisions. Do they try to convince El-Baradei to lead a transition government, or co-opt an old Field Marshal to restore control? And how long will that transition last and to what? Will the choices the Military makes choke off the billions they get from the US Government?

And what about the Muslim Brotherhood? The powerful decades-old Islamist movement (which helped to spawn and has close ties with close ties to Al Qaeda) in this intensely religious country has wisely stayed behind the scenes. But is it poised to strike and take advantage of the weakness and turmoil facing its enemies? And if does, how will the military respond?

The idea that Egypt’s repressive police state is going to give way to a liberal democracy by next Tuesday is wishful thinking in the extreme. What’s more likely is that we’ll see major fissures developing, and a situation that’s more akin to the current state of Pakistan where Islamists battle a powerful army and toothless civilian army for control of a struggling economy.

Another worrying similarity with Pakistan could also emerge, where the Army – through it’s semi-rogue Intelligence agency surreptitiously supports the Taliban in order to keep it at bay. Could the Egyptians do the same thing in Gaza – opening the border – and plying Hamas with weapons in order to keep the Muslim Brotherhood from striking at the nation’s heart?

Finally, there’s the issue of peace with Israel. Mubarak earns billions by keeping it intact, but will the Military be able to maintain it in the face of an emboldened Islamist threat from within? Can they afford to recall their ambassador to Tel Aviv, and re-establish cold-war ‘hostilities’ with Israel?

To call the situation fascinating is an understatement. But one thing’s for sure, Egypt’s future remains in the hands of the guys with the guns. The question is what they do with them.

Written by coolrebel

January 29, 2011 at 12:37 am

Egypt – So Where’s the Muslim Brotherhood?

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See you around, Hos.

Before we get carried away with the birth of democracy in Egypt, let’s ask ourselves why the United States has been plying the Mubarak regime with a couple of billion dollars worth of play money for the last God knows how long. Was it because he was such a great guy doing right by his peeps? Uhh, no. Could it have been because we needed him to keep the lid on the Muslim Brotherhood, that’s been threatening to give the West indigestion for the last eighty years? Way more likely.

So where exactly have the Muslim Brotherhood been during the riots in Cairo and other cities around the Nile Delta? Not in huge evidence that’s for sure. And that’s what worries Thereisnoplan. You see, it would seem like a smart move for the Brotherhood to stay on the sidelines. After all, if they were seen as stirring the pot, the US and others might be a little less likely to be pushing the Democratic agenda for Egypt, just in case Cairo went the way of Gaza after its Democratic experiment and ended up in the hands of the Islamists. It may be a genuine secular revolt, but – and this is just a wild guess – Thereisnoplan is betting that much of President Obama’s trip to the White House basement (otherwise known as the Situation Room) was spent chatting about just that eventuality.

Egypt is a very religious nation. Even the riots calling for the ouster of Mubarak had to wait until Friday prayers were done before the stones and molotovs could be tossed about. The Muslim Brotherhood has almost certainly learned the Hezbollah and Hamas playbook well. Promise and deliver ‘social services’ to the people and they’ll support you. (The mafia is run on broadly the same basis). In short, they’re well positioning to assume the mantle of power with a convenient one shot democratic moment and promise to help Egypt out of the trough that Mubarak’s cronyism got them dug into over the decades.

Now, it’s unlikely that Mubarak will lose the loyalty of the army and police forces (which would have nothing to gain under the Muslim Brotherhood) and therefore will stay in power, albeit in a weakened position. Maybe he’ll co-opt El-Baradei as the peacemaker he needs to bridge his credibility gap with the rioters, but it’s also possible the army will turn on him and wave him goodbye. Things are moving fast in the Middle East, and many predicted the turmoil in Tunisia would be an isolated moment. It wasn’t. So anything can happen.

And if one of those anythings – say a Muslim Brotherhood takeover – took place (under the guise of democracy, of course) we’d all be in for a helluva ride in the Middle East. Here are a few possibilities.

Egypt could overturn its peace treaty with Israel. That would mean more than the end of Israeli tourism in the Sinai. And while it’s highly unlikely that the militarily decrepit Egyptian forces would ever mount a full scale attack on Israel, it could prompt the reeopening of the Rafah crossing into Gaza and the arming of Hamas with more potent and longer range missiles than the jerried Qassams they’re lobbing these days.

If Mubarak folds his tent, it’ll be interesting to see how he could follow Ben Ali of Tunisia to a gated community in Riyadh or Jeddah. The House of Saud might just regard his arrival there with the same relish as a dose of the collective clap. Instead, they’d be more likely to be opening up the gun lockers for their own security forces in readiness for the distinct possibility that they might be in for the same treatment. And lurking just under the surface in Saudi Arabia is Al Qaeda, who must be watching events in Cairo unfold with glee.

Intifada part three. Could the Palestinians in the West Bank be next? Could they be thinking that hey, if it worked for the those Tunisian and Egyptian dudes maybe it’ll work for us? That would certainly deal a body blow to what’s left of Obama’s latest go at the “Mid East Peace Process”, a game that almost always leads to profound frustration and gloom for Washington. Could a hostile Egypt on Israel’s border embolden Iran? Could Tehran engineer a wholesale pan-Muslim alliance to try and defeat Israel?

Nobody knows, but it’s fun to conjecture, unless you’re in the Situation Room of course.

Written by coolrebel

January 28, 2011 at 11:06 am