In the aftermath of what distinguished British journalist David Hirst described as “one of the most exemplary, civilised uprisings in history,” Egyptians “feel reborn” and the Arab world again looks upon the ancient nation as the “mother of the world.”
Pride in the removal of the Mubarak dictatorship pervades the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, Luxor and at the Suez Canal. It is a euphoria which springs from the endogenous character of the revolution, achieved despite the violence of the regime’s denouement and hostile opposition from Egypt’s three most important interlocutors: Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.
This was a popular struggle that owed nothing to either Bin Laden’s call for global jihad or the neo-conservative claim that democracy can only be exported to the Middle East at the point of a gun. Over twenty dramatic days, Egyptians of all ages and classes shredded the script that so many with no regard for their economic welfare or political destiny had always written for them.
Celebrations are tempered, however, by the realisation that freedom comes at a heavy price. According to a recent judicial enquiry, at least 846 Egyptians were killed in the three weeks of protests which followed the eruption of January 25 – more than double the figure given in earlier statements by the transitional government – with over 6,400 injured by baltagiya under orders from the Western-backed dictatorship. Most of those killed in Cairo were shot through the head and chest by police snipers from anti-terrorism units attached to the Interior Ministry, who fired from rooftops around Tahrir Square including the old American University at Cairo building (Khairy Pasha Palace).
Unsurprisingly the tourism industry, which generates so much of the country’s foreign reserves, has temporarily collapsed. The pyramids at Giza are almost deserted, no-one is queuing to see the treasures of Tutankhamun in the Egyptian Antiquities Museum which abuts Tahrir Square in Cairo, and hotel occupancy rates struggle to reach 10%. Inflation is currently at 18% (food price inflation is at 50% in a country where 40% of the population survives on less than $2 a day), and unemployment is estimated at 15%, though this is a conservative “official” figure which few people accept: 35% is more likely.
Despite these hardships, it is difficult to find Egyptians who regret what is now universally called “the January 25 revolution.” On the contrary, there is a sophisticated, widespread understanding that momentous political change after three decades of stultifying decay must be paid for with patience and stoic forbearance.
There is, however, one important caveat: today’s sacrifices will only be borne if the ambitious democratic goals of the revolution are consolidated without slippage. In Egypt today there is little tolerance for a reconstitution of the ancien regime or anything less than a fundamental transition to democracy. The system of governance awaits regime change and Egypt’s ruling elite will not relinquish its power without resistance. Activists such as Nawal el Saadawi, Alaa al Aswany and Pierre Sioufi have good reason to be concerned that the revolution could be hijacked by the old order, desperate to preserve its wealth and privileges.
Those inside and outside the country who are trying to pour new political wine into the old cracked establishment bottles are, nevertheless, in for a titanic struggle.
Before January 25
Though undoubtedly inspired by the removal of Tunisia’s despised President Ben Ali on January 14, events elsewhere in north Africa explain the timing of Egypt’s revolution eleven days later rather than its underlying causes.
Without diminishing the inspiring example of Tunisians breaking down their own barriers of fear, exposing the fragile foundations which underpin most dictatorships in the region, there is a pre-history to Egypt’s struggle for freedom which has received little attention in the instant analyses of the Arab Spring which have already appeared.
Though most Egyptians do not have access to the internet, there is no doubt that social media (Facebook, Twitter, You Tube, etc) were pivotal in the organisation of opposition to the regime by young, secular Egyptians who were reluctant to anoint leaders of their movement. And in a country where over 30% of the population is illiterate, information from sources not controlled by the regime, such as satellite TV broadcasters Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya, was vital.
However, for over a decade, organised labour in Egypt confronted the Mubarak regime in a struggle to improve wages and conditions for workers. According to labour historian Joel Beinin, “since 1998 there has been a rising wave of strikes, sit-ins, demonstrations and other actions by workers, with a big spike after the acceleration of the implementation of neo-liberal policies by the ‘government of businessmen’ installed in July 2004. Over two million workers have participated in more than 3,000 collective actions in this period.”
Raising the minimum wage and establishing independent trade unions for the first time in 2008 were significant victories for the labour movement, which in turn inspired student groups to follow their example in the political struggle against Mubarak. The best known of these, the April 6 Youth Movement, took its name from a national general strike proposed for April 6, 2008. The campaign by textile workers in El-Mahalla el-Kubra, an industrial city in the Nile river delta, tried to improve factory conditions and raise the minimum monthly wage. The campaign was violently crushed by government security forces before a strike could materialise, however it remains a significant landmark in the lead up to January’s political convulsions which might not have ultimately succeeded without organised labour joining the protests at the start of February.
According to analyst Nada Matta, economic and social campaigns run by unions against neo-liberal policies over the last decade “in part laid the groundwork” for the January 25 revolt. Solidarity between workers and middle class students became decisive once the economic and political demands of the groups were aligned and fused. Official opposition parties, like their counterparts in the labour movement, played virtually no role in the revolution, and unofficial pre-existing groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood initially abstained fromsupporting the protestors until the new political winds in the country became easier to read.
Over half of Egypt’s population was born after Mubarak came to power, so it is not surprising that young people were prominent at the climax of efforts to remove Mubarak from power in January and February. Groups such as Kefaya, the April 6 YouthMovement and those connected via the We Are All Khalid Said Facebook page made brilliant use of social media to orchestrate and mobilise the “Arab street” in those crucial three weeks.
However, this snapshot of the last days of Mubarak’s regime should not obscure the revolution’s back bearings, which owe just as much to the long, difficult if less spontaneous struggle by organised labour against the ideology of neo-liberalism.
Popular (not elite) opinion
Summarising a recent Brookings Institution poll of Arab public opinion, Noam Chomsky paints a grim picture for those who still believe the West inspires the people of the Middle East:
[The survey reveals] that by overwhelming majorities, Arabs regard the US and Israel as the major threats they face: the US is so regarded by 90% of Egyptians, in the region generally by over 75%. Some Arabs regard Iran as a threat: 10%. Opposition to US policy is so strong that a majority believes that security would be improved if Iran had nuclear weapons – in Egypt, 80%. Other figures are similar. If public opinion were to influence policy, the US not only would not control the region, but would be expelled from it, along with its allies, undermining fundamental principles of global dominance.
These figures may surprise those who deceived themselves into believing that the views of corrupt venal elites were representative of “Arab opinion”. However, Western governments rarely bothered to consider the attitudes of anyone except their authoritarian interlocutors because they didn’t have to or want to. Despite regular odes to democratisation in the region, a “realist” approach widely favoured in the West stressed ‘stability’ at all costs, regardless of how repressive the stabilisation of the masses might have to be. This meant propping up brutal, unpopular tyrants, crucial support for dictators which did not go unnoticed by those who suffered as a consequence. This approach might have to change quickly.
In light of these figures we should not be surprised by their corroboration in the first post-Mubarak poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre three months after protestors in Cairo took to Tahrir Square.
According to the Pew poll, most Egyptians (79%) distrust or have an unfavourable view of the United States and 54% want to annul the country’s peace treaty with Israel (34% want to maintain it). It found that 39% of Egyptians believe the US response to the revolution was negative, 22% said it was positive, and 35% believed the US impact was neither positive nor negative, but largely irrelevant.
Only 31% of Egyptians sympathise with fundamentalists (which may explain why the death of Osama bin Laden was not such a big news item in the country). Interestingly 75% of people polled were positive about the Muslim Brotherhood (only 17% want them to lead the next government), and 70% were also favourably disposed towards the April 6 Youth Movement.
Those in Tahrir Square who risked their lives for a democratic future will not forget that in the critical hours of their struggle, Washington maintained its support for Mubarak until popular protests rendered that policy untenable. This follows a pattern establishe dwith Marcos, Suharto, Chun, Duvalier and other former clients of Washington. As Noam Chomsky has explained, the “playbook” is simple to follow. Support your man for as long as you can until it becomes counter-productive, then suddenly switch sides and retrospectively claim to have been supporting the people’s democratic aspirations all along. On this occasion, young Egyptians who remained connected to independent information sources via social media were not fooled.
To many it seemed Washington was much more interested in maintaining the country’s peace treaty with Israel and keeping the Suez Canal open than it was in backing a political transition. Despite its claim to being the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel’s government led by Binyamin Netanyahu also supported Mubarak to the end. Together with the theocratic government of Saudi Arabia, Israel was the most conspicuous opponent of democratic change in Egypt.
Western Nightmare: A People’s Foreign Policy
A democratic foreign policy and the restoration of its regional leadership are the last things the United States and Israel wanted to see emerging from Egypt’s revolution. And yet there are already signs of new directions from Cairo, even under the transitional government led by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Most of what has happened since February has taken the United States and Israel completely by surprise.
According to the editor of The Guardian, while Mubarak and Suleiman were around, Gaza’s back door was locked for Abu Mazen. Once Mubarak’s veto of Hamas disappeared with him to Sharm el Sheikh, the leader of the Palestinian Authority was forced to compromise with his bitter Islamist rivals. After a four-year feud, Egypt’s foreign minister Nabil al-Arabi was able to cut a reconciliation deal between Fatah and Hamas in less than two months. A formal agreement between the Palestinian groups undermines the ‘divide and rule’ approach that favoured Fatah and which Washington and Israel exploited, with Mubarak’s assistance, to prevent meaningful negotiations on a settlement of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
If that wasn’t sufficiently disturbing to the West, al-Arabi has promised to permanently open the border at Rafah, allowing the free flow of people and goods between Gaza and Egypt. This decision may violate a deal struck in 2005 between US, Israel, Egypt and EU, which was designed to prevent Hamas getting their hands on military hardware. However, providing Cairo holds it nerve – and it will be bolstered by the knowledge that over half the population wants to abandon the 1979 Camp David accords – it is not clear what Israel could do to maintain the blockade without re-occupying Gaza.
Assuming Egypt proceeds with its intention to ratify the Rome Statute and joins the International Criminal Court, some fascinating possibilities arise. It might be wise to send Mubarak and his cronies to The Hague, thus avoiding charges of political retribution that would inevitably be made during a difficult trial at home. If he faces court in situ, Mubarak would become the first Arab head of state to face trial in his own country. The prospect of Egypt’s last Pharaoh singing for his life about the deeds he performed for allies in Washington and Jerusalem – extraordinary renditions and undermining the Israel-Palestine “peace process” – might not make pleasant listening in the West.
The transitional government has also warned that they want to renegotiate the contracts which supply natural gas to Israel because of a widespread view that they were significantly underpriced by corrupt officials and businessmen in the Mubarak government. Supply is likely to be maintained but the price will rise, assuming recent acts of sabotage against the pipeline in the Sinai do not continue.
These developments, as well as plans by Egypt’s foreign minister to normalise ties with Iran, must be giving policy planners in Washington and Jerusalem nightmares. If Cairo does “turn over a new leaf” with Tehran, as al-Arabi has suggested, it will undermine long-standing efforts by the US and Israel to isolate the Islamic republic in the region.
Complacency based on the false hope that deals struck with tyrants over the heads of their peoples would last indefinitely, has given way to high anxiety and a sudden understanding of what democracy, beyond pious rhetoric, might actually mean. Few doubt that behind the scenes, the US and Israel are scrambling to reverse the revolution and preserve the structures that favoured their interests for so long.
A counter-revolution, even one that takes the form of an Army-Muslim Brotherhood alliance, may not, however, pass the test of the streets. On 8 April, frustrated that the gains of the revolution were ebbing and that the old regime was not being brought to account, protestors returned to Tahrir Square demanding the arrest and prosecution of Mubarak and his cronies. The ‘Day of Cleansing’ also united thousands of women, student and religious groups in opposition to proposed laws banning strikes and further protests. A bloody confrontation with security forces ensued, however the ruling military Council backed down within 48 hours, releasing those it had arrested, apologising for its actions and promising to restrain itself in the future. Soon Mubarak’s sons were incarcerated in Tora prison, former ministers were arrested, and the Pharaoh himself was under house arrest at the Sharm el Sheikh International Hospital pending a return to Cairo for interrogation. It was a pivotal moment in the consolidation of the revolution.
Over twenty Mubarak-era Cabinet ministers and regime-friendly businessmen have been now been detained for questioning. They include former Interior Minister Habib el-Adly who has already been convicted of corruption and money laundering. El-Adly also faces further investigation into his role in authorising lethal force against unarmed protestors in January and February, and if successfully prosecuted faces the death penalty.
Following solid support (77%) for the hastily arranged March 19 referendum on constitutional change which will see parliamentary elections proceed in September and a presidential election before the end of the year, student guardians of the revolution expressed concern that new political parties could not organise themselves in time. They opposed the referendum because it advantaged established political groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and whatever replaces Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, now disbanded but likely to be rebadged. Predictably there has also been a splintering of new political voices once united in their opposition to the old regime.
The leadership of the Army remains an opaque group and their policy agenda seems more reactive to public opinion than planned. Providing they maintain broad support across Egyptian society and their financial pipeline from Washington remains open, they seem unlikely to turn against the revolution at this late stage. Rumblings in the US Congress about Egypt’s more independent foreign policy line – meaning closer ties with Hamas and Tehran – could, however, jeopardise $1.3 billion in annual aid Cairo receives from Washington. Any reduction in either military or economic aid would make the urgent challenge of debt relief critical. This is where the West maintains considerable leverage over the shape of post-revolutionary Egypt.
Much could change before votes are cast, however Washington and its allies face a perplexing dilemma. It is hard to see how the Mubarak regime could be reconstituted with new faces, without overwhelming community opposition of the kind that took to the streets in January and February.
That leaves either the Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood or the labour union and socialist Popular Alliance, neither of which are likely to win a numerical majority in the parliamentary elections.
In other words, the choice is between a party containing a number of radical Islamists with which over the last decade the United States has claimed to be at war, and a coalition of left-wing secular nationalists which successive American administrations have vigorously attacked across the Middle East for more than sixty years.
Washington must be wondering where it all went wrong.
Dr Scott Burchill is Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Deakin University and recently travelled to Egypt in a private capacity.