Inspired by the spontaneous revolution in Tunisia, thousands of young Egyptians took to the streets in Cairo on January 25th 2011, congregating in Tehrir (Liberation) Square. A 20th century dictatorship was overwhelmed by 21st century technology. Facebook and Twitter facilitated instant communication to overcome the government censors. Their protest against poverty, unemployment and government corruption erupted as a peaceful revolt against the thirty years of autocratic rule of President Hosni Mubarak. In unison they demanded Mubarak to leave.
Eighty-two year old Mubarak, caught by surprise sent his family to England, shut off the Internet and imposed a curfew. He employed his usual means to suppress the peaceful protesters by sending the feared police and Special Forces. Police used water cannons, tear gas and rubber bullets, but to their surprise they could not intimidate as in the past. It was reported that about a dozen protesters were killed. This simply made the protesters even more determined and the crowd grew even larger and at places the police were overwhelmed and even beaten.
Out of fear, or as a matter of policy, the hated police were withdrawn on the third day and the army was called out. Some damage to the government buildings was reported, including the world famous Museum of Antiquities. Looting of richer neighborhoods by nefarious miscreants is widely believed to be the act of agent provocateurs and the police, to discredit the peaceful revolution.
The military is one of the most respected and egalitarian institutions in Egypt. People welcomed the soldiers in their tanks and armored carriers as protectors. They did not interfere with the peaceful protest. It was amazing to see protesters joyously riding on the tanks along with the soldiers.
Three days later Mubarak reconstituted his government, appointing a Vice President for the first time. Omar Sulaiman, the new Vice President is respected in some US circles, but the Egyptians know him as the former intelligence chief known for his role in torture of prisoners, particularly in the US extraordinary rendition-for-torture program. Mubarak also replaced the Prime Minister. and the police chief.
Though the spontaneous revolution started with the young, gradually men and women of all ages and people of all political leanings have joined in. On Tuesday the 1st of February, millions of Egyptians marched throughout Egypt, demanding Mubarak’s resignation with sporadic anti US slogans for the long US support for Mubarak. The newly appointed Vice President Sulaiman has offered to meet the leaders of the revolution to discuss ways to proceed with the reforms.
The army has announced that it would patrol to protect people and property, but would not fire on peaceful protest, confirming that Mubarak’s weakening power.
Though the revolution was spontaneous and leaderless, gradually Egyptians from all shades of the political spectrum, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Communists have coalesced behind an internationally respected figure, El Baradei, a 2005 Nobel Laureate and former Director General of International Atomic Energy Agency.
Western governments, especially the United States were also caught flatfooted. Secretary of State Clinton’s first statement was insipid, but by the second day the US administration could read the writing on the wall. Obama strongly urged Mubarak to respect people’s right to peaceful protest and asked for the restoration of the internet connections. He also diplomatically threatened Mubark to behave or jeopardize the annual largess of one and a half billion dollars.
The US has traditionally considered Egypt as one of the most important allies in the Middle East for four reasons. First – Egypt is by far the most populous Arab country. Second – The US considers it a bull work of peace with Israel. It provides enormous leverage to Israel’s occupation and activities in the occupied Gaza and West Bank. Third – After 9/11, Egypt has toed the US line in the war on terrorism, to the extent that it was one of the most important destinations for torture of “extraordinary rendition prisoners” in the Bush administration. And fourth –” Suez Canal is a strategic passage for oil and commerce for Europe.
The nervousness in the US is understandable. The Obama administration is very carefully playing its cards. The US realizes that the era of preaching democracy and supporting dictators in Latin America, Middle East and Asia is over. The much-maligned Wikileaks expose, though embarrassing, shows that the US did urge dictators like Mubarak to ease up on the draconian laws and move towards democracy. It has not gone un-noticed among the intelligentsia in the Middle East and it bodes well for the future of US standing among the people in the region and puts potentates on notice. But the average Egyptian does not consider the US to be a friend. Obama administration needs to be more proactive and on the right side of the unfolding history.
Israel is naturally terribly concerned and considers Mubarak to be a close ally. NPR has reported that it is strongly encouraging the US and others to fully support Mubarak.
Leaders of most of the important parties, especially El Baradei have emphasized that they would honor all treaty obligations, including the peace treaty with Israel. In a democratic Egypt the government would be answerable to its people and would not be pliant to the US policy towards the Palestinians, and would not support Israel’s strangulating blockade of Gaza as Mubarak has. This would bring greater urgency to the peaceful solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and give impetus to the US efforts.
Obviously a major change in the power equation cannot be fully predicted. It poses new challenges and new opportunities. No one doubts that democracy with all its problems and flaws has proven to be a better form of government. It takes time to take root and find its stride.
Some in the West are afraid that Egypt would follow the example of Iran. It is based on ignorance of history as well as geography. The Iranian revolution sprang against a tyrant that suppressed Islam. As it unfolded, instead of looking to the future, the US and Iranian policy makers became prisoners of their past, rooted in the1953 US interference in suppressing the budding democracy in Iran.
Egyptians have no such history. In 1956 Eisenhower forced the withdrawal of the tripartite invasion of Egypt by Britain, France and Israel. To its credit Obama administration has carefully supported the right to peaceful revolution. Though the death toll has reached more than hundred, a whole-sale suppression has not occurred because of a blunt US warning to Mubarak use of force on peaceful demonstrators will not be tolerated.
If handled with care democracy in Egypt is more likely to follow the Turkish model. The Muslim Brotherhood since 1960s has abjured force and has followed political means under an oppressive dictatorship. It is more akin to the Christian right in the US than the theocratic clergy in Iran. Though in a new democracy respect for constitution needs time to take root.
Democratic Egypt would be a positive force in bringing democracy to countries that have educated populations with large-scale unemployment and poverty, such as Syria, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, and Sudan. The Gulf Countries and Saudi Arabia have small populations rich because of petro-dollars and would not follow the current wave of revolutions.
Egyptians are a proud people with a five thousand year of great history, and one of the best-educated young generations in the Middle East. Two years ago when I was in Cairo, I talked to Egyptians from a broad cross section of generational, educational and economic and religious background. They were friendly talkative and inquisitive. They talked about everything under the sun, but could not voice opinions on their government. Liberation is in the air and Egyptians have found their voice.