Walk like an Egyptian

In the 1980’s an LA girl band called The Bangles scored a #1 hit with the song Walk Like an Egyptian. Although I don’t usually go for the same topic twice, if there’s one thing Egyptians have been doing in recent days, it’s walking. In fact, all over North Africa, the masses are in turmoil, scaring the hell out of dictatorships installed for decades in the nations of the Maghreb.

And they’re not just walking, they’re walking all over the established regimes. The southern border of Europe is formed by dominoes that are pretty much identical. All have been ruled with an iron fist. They share a common religion, speak the same language, have large populations, made up mainly of the disenfranchised young; poverty is both widespread and extreme. The Germans have a traditional fishery for brown shrimp in the southern North Sea. The little guys get sent to Morocco for shelling, and are then flown back to the fatherland to be potted or otherwise sold. Too expensive to peel them in Germany. Pretty green, zis traditional fishery!

In The India Road you will find a good deal of  information about Islam, often lurking within other stories. My objectives in writing the book were three: first, to write something in English that would tell a success story that is not Anglo-Saxon; tricky one, that. Second, to put across in a simple way a historical tale of some complexity; one of the nicest compliments I received was from someone who hated learning history, and found herself really enjoying the book. I call it learning by deception. Finally, to write something people would pay to read; by and large everything I had done before was the reverse: academic papers, book chapters―pretty dense stuff, a guaranteed cure for all but the most recalcitrant insomnia.

In my book, when the spy Pero da Covilhã is being prepped for his journey east, he is first sent to North Africa. In this scene, D. Diogo, bishop of Tangier, is ordered by the Perfect Prince, King John II of Portugal, to brief the spy. He makes it plain that the Maghreb is a set of kingdoms, tribal regions that function as hubs.

D. Diogo cleared his throat. “The king wishes you to go to the Maghreb, to the capital of Berberia.” The bishop went on to explain that the empire of the Almohadas was divided into three states. Ifrikia to the east, including Tunisia and part of eastern Algeria, governed by the Hafsias dynasty; in the center Maghreb Al-Ausat, the kingdom of Tremezem, encompassing all western Algeria, controlled by the Abdel-Uaditas Berbers, and Maghreb-el-Acsa in the west, corresponding to Morocco, ruled by the Merinidas people. He lingered on the geopolitics.

The recipe has been the same in all these nations: barely cosmetic democracy, repression of any opposition movements, and in particular those of a fundamentalist Islamic nature, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. They are the most likely to emerge victorious after Mubarak’s imminent departure. The dictators, who have preserved an image of strength and youth even in their dotage by means of lavish applications of hair-dye, use a well-tested combination to defend their regimes: dividing the military and police, encouraging rivalry in multiple intelligence services, playing would-be pretenders against each other, a strong Pretorian guard, and keeping the press as docile as a devoted hound―loyal to it’s owner, ruthless to intruders.

The populations are huge, almost two hundred million strong from Morocco in the west to Egypt in the east. Much of this in a handful of major cities, teeming with the hungry, young men burning with desperate energy and devoid of hope. Worse than that, the religious fervor encourages enthusiastic reproduction. Recently, Belgium emerged from a negative birthrate to a positive one―the government saw this as a sign of a more youthful nation, better able to work and pay the social costs of ageing. However that birthrate largely stems from the children of immigrants from Algeria and Morocco.

With a soaring population, haring past the laboring tortoise of economic growth, and the facile appeal of radical Islam, this is not a regional issue, it will affect Europe in a very significant way. Although separated by the Mare Nostrum of the Romans―Al-Baħr Al-Abyad Al-Muttawasit, or the Middle White Sea, in Arabic―that didn’t stop an eight hundred year rule of the caliphate in Iberia. Worst-case, it could be like Iran moving next door. The Americans are suitably worried, back-pedalling frantically away from decades of support for Mubarak, and complaining loudly about the lack of access to social networks.

From Iran to Islamabad, Tunisia to Cairo, protesters have used mobile tools to organise, defying the classic communication channels, restrictions on the right to meet, and swarming the secret services with an impossibly high rate of internet traffic. The tricks and techniques have been honed in a tradition of millenia of covert communication. In Egypt, as this graph from London’s Independent newspaper of today shows, the regime shut down the net. The country went from almost three trillion bits per second, as the frenzy hit fever pitch, to plain old zero. The last man standing was the operator that carries the Egyptian stock market.

And right now, that’s about the only thing that carries it.

The first national internet shutdown. A milestone in digital politics.

The US concern is to the east, first and foremost Israel, which could soon have a far unfriendlier western neighbor, and the domino effect on moderate Arab nations such as Jordan. Europe is (much like Egypt) in the throes of denial (sorry). The southern European countries see it as a North African issue, and the north European countries don’t see it at all. But the pressure on Europe is downright scary. I hope I’m wrong, otherwise North Africa will soon be blowing a lot hotter than the Sirocco!


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