Dispatch

The Frankenstein of Tahrir Square

Egypt is spinning out of control. But it's not only the fault of the ruling military junta -- the protesters in the street deserve plenty of blame, too.

CAIRO — Tahrir Square smells like piss. It is no surprise. After all, people had been living there in a tent camp for weeks. Yet the stench is also fitting for Egypt's current impasse. Egyptians -- soldiers, police, activists, soccer hooligans called "ultras," and others -- have abused this ostensibly hallowed ground at various moments since Hosni Mubarak's unexpected fall almost a year ago.

The latest affront to the revolutionary promise of Tahrir came this past weekend, just to the south of the square on Qasr al-Aini Street, where Egypt's parliament and cabinet buildings sit. There, military police and protesters engaged in a pitched battle using rocks, glass, metal, truncheons, and Molotov cocktails. At one point, an Egyptian soldier standing on the roof of the cabinet building literally appeared to urinate on the protesters below. (The symbolism was lost on no one.)

The proximate cause of Cairo's current spasm of violence was the military police's ill-advised effort to clear a relatively small number of protesters from in front of the cabinet building. The clashes, however, have revealed a deeper, more profound problem afflicting Egypt. The country has retreated from the moment of empowerment and national dignity that the uprising symbolized and is now grappling with a squalid politics and the normalization of violence.

What is perhaps most disturbing is that the weekend's battle, which left 10 dead and hundreds injured, didn't seem to have a point. The young toughs who descended on Qasr al-Aini Street after news spread of the Army's efforts to clear the area seemed less concerned with principle than combat. Having cut their teeth and paid for it with the loss of 45 lives in late November clashes with the police and military, these kids seemed to be looking for payback. Qasr al-Aini Street bellowed with chants of "Death to the field marshal" -- a reference to Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) head Gen. Mohamed Hussein Tantawi -- rather than the significantly more inspiring "Freedom! Freedom!" that echoed through the concrete canyon of Tahrir during the January uprising.

How did Egyptians get to this warped, demented, bizarro version of Tahrir Square? It is easy to blame the SCAF, as so many have, but the generals have also had a lot of help. Each of Egypt's primary political actors -- the military, revolutionary groups, Islamists, and liberals -- have contributed mightily to the country's current political impasse and economic collapse through a combination of incompetence, narcissism, and treachery. This has left a society on the edge, one in which minor traffic accidents become near riots, soldiers beat women with reckless abandon, and protesters burn the building containing some of Egypt's historical and cultural treasures.

The military command, which handled the 18-day uprising so well, has compensated for its lack of political acumen with brutality. The combination of both suggests a military command adrift with no real grasp of the political dynamics of the society they lay claim to protect and lead. It is not clear to whom, exactly, Egypt's generals were listening in February when they drew up plans for handing power over to civilian rule, but they have presided over a transition that has sown confusion and heightened tension -- all in the name, ironically, of stability.

The sorry state of Egypt's transition reveals a central problem with the generals' administration of the country. They come up with ideas with the help of a domestic intelligence apparatus that is more brutal than shrewd, toss them out into the public square, gauge how people react, and adjust accordingly. This is terribly destabilizing because rather than doing what is right, they try to situate everything they do in that sweet spot of public opinion. When the fortunes of the revolutionary groups were high, the SCAF responded to their demands. Now, the officers are dialed into that mythical, great "silent majority" that they believe is opposed to the protests.

In a Dec. 19 press conference, Maj. Gen. Adel Emara sought to reinforce that point when he argued that the people on Qasr al-Aini Street did not represent the uprising that toppled Mubarak and that the protesters, not the military, had instigated the violence. Emara was correct on the first point but clearly departed from the facts on the second. The officers seem to be convinced that they have the pulse of the Egyptian people, but the problem is that if this majority is actually silent, how can the officers know what these people are thinking? Indeed, they don't know.

The three-round parliamentary elections -- a marathon process that began in November and will not end until January 2012 -- represents another source of friction. The officers may have felt vindicated by the large and mostly trouble-free first round, but when they woke up to the fact that Egyptians seem to want to invest the parliament with a strong popular mandate, they had second thoughts about the wisdom of their "silent majority." That's why Maj. Gen. Mukhtar al-Mulla told a group of foreign journalists on Dec. 7 that despite the strong turnout, the parliament will not actually be able to "impose anything" on the Egyptian state.

It's unclear how the military will justify this position, but watch out. Such statements put it on a collision course with the Muslim Brotherhood, which has dominated the parliamentary elections. Whatever happened on Qasr al-Aini Street and Tahrir over the weekend will ultimately pale in significance to the coming struggle between the military and the Brothers, who believe that they, not the military, enjoy a popular mandate.

The revolutionaries have much to answer for as well. With all the creativity and energy that went into bringing Mubarak down and is currently going into plans to transform Egyptian society, there has also been much narcissism and revolutionary navel-gazing. The instigators of Mubarak's fall have seemed to be more focused on burnishing their revolutionary cred on Twitter and Facebook -- which are not accessible to the vast majority of Egyptians -- than doing the hard work of political organizing. For months, the revolutionaries have largely spurned the political process that began after Mubarak's ouster. After they were trounced in the March 19 constitutional referendum, many tuned out and began searching for ways to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was January 25.

But they have largely failed to do so. The 17 "Fridays of …" over the spring and summer reflected political goals less than a "I protest, therefore I am" sensibility. It culminated with a two-week sit-in at Tahrir Square that -- because it brought Cairo to a halt and deteriorated into a carnival of self-congratulation rather than a serious political statement -- did much damage to the revolutionaries in the eyes of sympathetic Egyptians. All through the spring and summer, while the revolutionaries were imagining themselves as a permanent revolution against the military, the hated felool ("remnants" of the old regime), or anyone who dared disagree with them, the Muslim Brothers were hard at work, taking advantage of the greatest political opportunity they have had since a schoolteacher named Hassan al-Banna founded the group in December 1928.

If the revolutionaries and their supporters are now stunned that the Islamists -- both the Brotherhood and the Salafists -- are set to dominate post-uprising Egypt, they must take a hard look at what they have done, or not done, over the last 11 months. Indeed, their ability to read Egyptian public sentiment is as bad as that of the military, and a good deal more myopic.

The Muslim Brothers are just about the only ones who have played post-Mubarak Egypt well. Although they did not instigate the uprising, they understood how events were unfolding and helped hasten the demise of a regime they reviled. Additionally, unlike the revolutionaries, the Brothers shrewdly put themselves in a position to prevail. It is not the revolutionaries who scare the military -- it is the Brotherhood, which is capable of displacing the officers as the source of authority and legitimacy in the political system.

Now that the Brothers are poised to dominate parliament, what will be their approach to politics? So far, they have adopted a pragmatic path in an effort to persuade Egyptians and the international community that they can be good stewards of Egypt. For example, the Brothers have reached out to business leaders in Egypt and abroad to solicit their advice on managing the economy and have evinced a decidedly moderate public posture on questions related to minority rights, women, and tourism. This makes sense, given the organization's worldview and historical political strategy, which has always been that time is on its side.

But one should not expect the Muslim Brotherhood to wait forever. Huge protests on July 8 and Nov. 18 demonstrated its political power, while at the same time heightening tensions and polarizing the public. It is hard to believe that with Egypt now within their grasp, the Brothers will settle to lead from behind and pass up the chance to realize their historical goal of ruling the country. If the Islamists cannot resist the temptation to rule and govern, they are heading for a mighty showdown with the SCAF.

The optimistic view is that Egyptians are deep in the throes of a wrenching national debate that will take many years to work out, but is nevertheless healthy. It is, however, becoming increasingly difficult to make that case. To be sure, Egypt is a cacophony of ideas, projects, initiatives, and manifestos. Yet there is no moral leadership to give the best of ideas national political meaning and content. Egypt's would-be wise men have tried -- but pro-democracy stalwart Mohamed ElBaradei could not do it during the uprising, and Essam Sharaf was not strong enough politically to withstand the competing demands of the revolutionaries, officers, and Islamists as prime minister. It remains to be seen whether other Egyptian leaders such Amr Moussa, Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, or Khairat El Shater can be that person, but they are all divisive personalities who may do more to undermine social cohesion than repair it.

The result of all this is Tahrir's Frankenstein monster where there is no leadership, no moral force, no common cause, and no sense of decency. Egyptians are in trouble, and there is not much anyone can do to help them. After these spasms of violence you often hear from Egyptians, "This is not Egypt." It is time for them to prove it.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

North Korea's Pudgy Cipher

For a reporter covering the Hermit Kingdom, Kim Jong Il was everywhere -- and nowhere.

BEIJING — In an age of connection, it's both refreshing and sobering to think that most North Koreans have probably heard Kim Jong Il's voice only once. In 1992 he stood next to his father, then-President Kim Il Sung, and shouted the words "Glory to the heroic soldiers of the Korean People's Army!" And that was it.

His father was a politician: Kim Il Sung kissed babies, gave speeches that lasted hours, and gave dozens, if not hundreds, of interviews to foreign journalists. But Kim Jong Il, who died on Saturday, Dec. 17, of a heart attack according to North Korean media, was a mystery, nearly ubiquitous and distant at the same time. His picture hangs next to that of his father in office buildings and restaurants throughout Pyongyang, placed so that he seems to be glaring down benevolently at you. His pudgy body beckons from paintings and pictures across Pyongyang. On a flight to North Korea in September, the flight attendant handed me an English-language magazine that showed a picture of Kim Jong Il casting his vote in a ballot box, a perfect shadow Photoshopped under his feet. A concert I reported on opened with a woman exalting Kim with a trembling voice. "See these flats?" my guide said from the bus window later on in the tour, pointing to apartment buildings rising out of the concrete emptiness that is Pyongyang. "Kim Jong Il gave these to his people." She spoke about how he would take time from his busy schedule to tirelessly travel around the country, providing on-the-spot guidance and solving problems. But he wasn't everywhere. Shin Dong Hyuk was born in a North Korean concentration camp and said he "had no idea" who Kim Jong Il was until he escaped 22 years later. He says inmates never saw his picture.

Like its just-departed Dear Leader, North Korea itself is a black hole. It's probably the most difficult country in the world on which to report. Almost no North Koreans speak to the outside world; because of the consequences of criticism, those who do speak in one voice. "Korea is at war," Alejandro Cao de Benos, president of the Korean Friendship Association and one of the best-known North Korean fellow travelers, told me. "We don't want to give [the West] more information to give them more lies." The story I published about a North Korean band had to be done without interviewing the band, or any North Koreans, with the exceptions of my guides. The Chinese, who are among the best-informed outsiders about what's going on in North Korea, are generally not that helpful either. The last time I called an analyst to speak about the country he asked me, "How's working for the CIA? Say hi to the CIA for me," and hung up.

Defectors are a valuable source of information, but North Koreans themselves likely don't know that much about what's going on in the country. They knew even less about what was happening with Kim Jong Il, though rumors do circulate. I wrote an op-ed in August, describing my experience writing about the country's crystal-meth problem; I included a story a defector told me about what happened when Kim discovered that his countrymen were abusing the drug. The leader originally decided to blame chemists and send them to villages and camps in the country's remote north. But then Kim reportedly forgave them, concerned that if he went through with the campaign it would destroy the country's field of chemistry, and decided to call crystal meth a "strong antibiotic"; now meth is all over. A great story, but who knows what's actually going on in North Korea?

Few people, North Korean or foreign, are permitted to travel freely around the country. I've spent a scant handful of days in the country on two separate occasions; few Western journalists have had the opportunity to see much more. The only person I've ever met who claimed the ability to do so, an evangelical who name-dropped Kim Jong Il, described "miserable starvation, miserable agony" but refused to elaborate. If anyone knows what the "average" North Korean thinks about anything, that person is not going to share that information while the system is in place. Government sources, potentially the best informed, unsurprisingly paint a picture of absolute loyalty to Kim Jong Il. The evangelical with the permit to travel told me that North Koreans respect him "10,000 times what they respect Kim Jong Il, because I bring them food."

Now that Kim is dead, conjecture will begin to flow, both about his life and what his death means for the political situation in North Korea. Will his brother-in-law take power, or will Kim the youngest be able to hold onto the throne? For a Western audience accustomed to polling, punditry, and reasonably accurate claims about what their leaders are thinking and doing, it's difficult to accept that reporting and commenting on North Korea is no better than conjecture. But that's the only way to understand what's happening. Kim Jong Il was no more than an enigma to us, and so too is the country he built in his own image.

Chiho Jeong/Bloomberg via Getty Images