Mustafa al-Fekki, head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Egyptian parliament and a member of the ruling National Democratic Party, called on Mubarak to make “unprecedented reform” to avoid “a revolution”. He told Al Jazeera on 28 January: “The security option alone is not sufficient, and the president is the only one who can put an end to these events.” The heart of the establishment was visibly disintegrating, just as opposition spread to all classes and ages; even clerics from al-Azhar, previously a pro-government institution, joined in the demonstrations.
All repression (100 deaths in four days), and extraordinary measures to detach 85 million people from the world (AFP said the shutdown of the internet was a world first) failed to deter the demonstrators. They went on shouting “Mubarak Must Go!”. Mubarak’s eventual promise to stand down in September looked unlikely to stop the protests.
Meanwhile thousands of people took to the streets in Jordan, Yemen, Algeria and Sudan, demanding that their countries follow Tunisia’s example. Each has a specific context: in Yemen, tensions between North and South; in Jordan, frictions between Transjordanians and Palestinians; in Sudan, the secession of the South (see Sudan’s south succeeds); in Egypt, the Coptic question. And yet they exploded because of the same longstanding problems and frustrations, the same shared aspirations.
Irrespective of the differences between conditions in these countries, the personal and political rights, and freedom of expression, of their citizens had been systematically abused, often through the use of emergency laws that were kept in place for more than 30 years. The mukhabarat (secret police) remain all-powerful and ill treatment, torture and death in detention are not uncommon, in Egypt and beyond. WikiLeaks’ publication of cables from the US embassy in Cairo complaining of police brutality and detention of political dissenters only confirmed what we already knew. Iran was severely criticised for similar practices, but no one challenged Egypt’s status as loyal ally of the West. The Mubarak regime’s disregard for its citizens, with security forces ever-present, left them hungry for dignity and fed the revolt.
Corruption and infitah
These regimes had grabbed not only political but economic power, and become predators of national riches, as in Tunisia. States that had been founded upon independence from colonial rule, and had promised basic protection, social welfare and education, rotted under the effects of corruption, globalisation and infitah (opening to the free market). Even access to university education, which in Egypt once opened the way to decent civil service jobs, no longer offered opportunities to the frustrated young, who watched nouveaux riches spend their wealth. A demographic increase put millions of the young on the job market, with no prospects other than emigration to the Gulf or Europe, neither of which could absorb the growing tide of unemployed.
The growth figures brandished by the champions of neoliberalism – Egypt, Tunisia and Jordan were often praised by international financial organisations – did not mask worsening poverty. In Egypt, social movements have been protesting for years with strikes, struggles by agricultural workers, and demos on the outskirts of the big cities, as in Tunisia (Gafsa), Jordan and Yemen. But never before had the demand for political change been openly and massively expressed.
Tunisia’s revolution has liberated this demand: an Arab people have got rid of a dictator for the first time since 1985, when the Sudanese removed Numeiry. Most Arabs were able to follow the fall of Ben Ali almost as it happened through satellite television: the feature of the new street movements is that television, internet and mobile phones (when not officially blocked) allow oppositions to organise, independent of any party, and ordinary people to follow what is happening.
These regimes had been paralysed over the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands and oppression of its people, and over Israeli attacks, especially on Gaza in winter 2008. A ban on all pro-Palestinian demonstrations was typical of the regimes, with their fear of demonstrations turning against them. The struggle against Israel in the name of unity against the Zionist enemy no longer seems a valid pretext for Arab regimes to maintain their old repressive habits. Egypt and Jordan have signed peace treaties with Israel; the rest of the Arab world seems incapable of reacting to the slow crushing of the Palestinians (when not actively taking part in it, as the Egyptians did in Gaza).
Installing democratic regimes will not help make peace between Israelis and Palestinians, despite the dreams of leaders on both sides. The US columnist Robert Kaplan wrote in The New York Times on 22 January: “It was not democrats, but Arab autocrats, Anwar Sadat of Egypt and King Hussein of Jordan, who made peace with Israel. … Do we really want a relatively enlightened leader like King Abdullah in Jordan undermined by widespread street demonstrations? We should be careful what we wish for in the Middle East.” The support of King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia or PLO chairman Mahmud Abbas are unlikely to save Mubarak or his heir Gamal. By the end of a week of protests in Egypt, the Jordanian monarch had sacked his government and Ali Abdallah Saleh undertook not to seek re-election in Yemen, confirming the region-wide disarray.
Parallel with Iran
The geopolitics of the Middle East is at risk and several western commentators see a parallel between Egypt and the Iranian revolution in 1979. The weakening of the US position, already discernible in Iraq and in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, became clearer with the fall of Saad Hariri’s government in Lebanon. Even if peace between Cairo and Tel Aviv survives the present events, it is unlikely that Egypt can maintain its pro-West diplomatic stance. The new Middle East may be very different.
The dilemma for the Obama administration in the US is cruel and insoluble: criticising Mubarak, as the US has done, weakens the position of its ally and strengthens the demonstrators; supporting him would have little effect except to make the demonstrators more anti-American. The White House’s only channel is its close link with the Egyptian army (which receives $1.3bn a year in US military aid). Sent on to the streets to restore order, the army has not, so far, confronted the demonstrators who happily fraternise with it – reminiscent of July 1952 when the Free Officers took power under Nasser. Most s
ignificantly, well into the first week of demonstrations, it pledged not to use force against demonstrators.
The army is a major power, especially economically, controlling not only the arms industry but some civilian industries. It provides its officer corps with substantial benefits – hospitals, housing, clubs. Could it seize power? Suppress the revolt? Ask Mohamed ElBaradei to orchestrate the opposition? Or itself lead a transitional government? The only structured force in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, played a minor role in the current drama and joined the public struggle only late in the week.
No one can ever understand the moment of revolution. Everything that could have provoked an uprising in Egypt has been present, and not acted upon, for decades. Yet, as often happens, a relatively minor incident, the suicide of a young man in Tunisia, began it all, rallying Tunisians from different political and social backgrounds. The satellite channels reported these events throughout the Arab world in real time, making it clear that the impossible was true – regimes are not eternal, they can be overthrown.
We do not know where and how this will spread, which regimes will fall. (All commentators have noted that the Islamist movements have failed to gain the upper hand.) But the “Arab exception” will not last much longer. The way ahead will not be easy but the Tunisian revolution opened the door; and in the words of French songwriter Jean Ferrat, “an air of freedom that crosses borders and makes you giddy” blew in.