Arab Street at Last
Megan K. Stack was a Los Angeles Times correspondent based in Egypt from 2003 to 2007.
There is a monument in Cairo that tourists don’t usually see. It’s a roadside grandstand that gapes like a blind socket in the eastern neighborhoods of a crammed and wheezing city. Always freshly painted, always abandoned, the wooden bleachers have offered up their unspoken reproach since 1981, when President Anwar Sadat stood there and was killed. His assassins were in the army; in the middle of a military parade they broke ranks, screamed “God is great,” threw grenades, and opened fire. In the intervening decades, Cairo has spread and grown: bellowing roads stretched and tangled themselves; tenement houses stacked up into the sky; the country got richer but the money didn’t trickle down. And the reviewing stand stayed. A lone guard stood among the seats, blank and erect. Nominally, it’s a monument to Sadat, the man who made peace with Israel. His tomb is just across the street, and visiting dignitaries lay wreaths there. But it’s also a silent, intimate warning to the people; a frozen spot for a frozen country. After Sadat’s death, Hosni Mubarak became president and reimposed emergency law. Thousands of people disappeared into torture chambers, or into detention without due process. Press was not free. There were no more parades. Don’t forget what you have done, the reviewing stand whispered. Don’t think you have redeemed yourselves. This is why the emergency law will stay. This is why torture, this is why censorship, this is why squalor. You are savages and this is your fate.
I lived in Egypt from 2003 to 2007, in the waning years of Mubarak’s rule, though at the time nobody knew that. There was, not a smug certainty, but a sort of hopeless assuredness among the Cairo intelligentsia. Only a foolish idealist or somebody who knew nothing of Egypt would have dared predict a massive popular uprising against Mubarak. In exchange for a continued cold peace with Israel, the US bestowed billions of dollars on the regime, mixed with the occasional toothless criticism of human rights abuses or brief call for reform. As for the Arab street, as it’s called, many intellectuals in Cairo — Egyptians and foreigners alike — argued that Egyptians were historically, culturally disinclined to revolt. In effect, there was no street; like everything else, it belonged to the regime. The demonstrations we covered then were tiny, desperate affairs organized by small bands of courageous, outlying leftists and battle-worn human rights monitors. Security forces and plainclothes thugs deployed beatings and sexual assault to clear, at most, a few hundred demonstrators and journalists off the streets. When I saw the crowds pouring into Tahrir Square this winter, a memory came back to me — of getting punched and pushed by thugs, and glancing up to see the faces of people gathered on their balconies, peering down to watch their riot police set upon peaceful protestors. Their expressions of disgust and wonderment were unreadable — were they meant for the protestors or the security forces? This winter, I imagined all of those people, put to shame by the outpouring of Egyptian youth, stubbing out their cigarettes, putting down their teacups, and making their way down to the street.
Like so many others, I was wrong about Egypt; I never expected to see an uprising. In retrospect, I spent too much time thinking about Arab rulers, and not enough time considering the generational shift of a rising youth, and what it could mean. Mubarak and Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi seemed ready to pass on their thrones to pampered sons; in Jordan, Syria, and among Lebanon’s Sunnis, the second generation had already taken over. A generation of hard-bitten, ruthless strategists was fading away, leaving countries like inheritances to sons who’d never had to fight for anything. But the change wasn’t only happening in the palaces of crooked leaders. The truisms used to describe a generation of Arabs did not hold true for their children. The younger generation could not be so easily contained. They had glimpsed the world through satellite television and the internet; they had seen their elders humiliated and had come of age through violent years of war and terrorism. For whatever reason, by whatever influence, they are different. They are less submissive than their parents; they are asking questions in public; they are not willing to be ruled by a corrupt father figure. They demand more freedom; they risked their lives for it in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and beyond. And some of them have died for it.
The Egyptians may still get little, in the end, beyond the moral victory of ousting their president. There will be elections, yes, but I’ve covered elections in Egypt; I’ve seen security forces deploy APCs and hurl (US-manufactured) tear gas at voters to keep them out of polling stations. Elections in Egypt have traditionally been dirty, and sometimes violent, and public criticism from abroad has generally been light. For decades, it was quietly understood that any democracy that risked installing the Muslim Brotherhood was not a democracy to be fostered.
Of course, it’s unreasonable of the US to prop up a regime that brutally squashes all secular political opposition — and then complain, after thirty years, that there is no apparent secular alternative to the current rulers. Meanwhile, Mubarak’s policy of banning but tolerating the Muslim Brotherhood has allowed a single force of organized opposition to flourish in half-shadow, just hidden enough to keep everybody guessing as to the number and loyalty of its constituents. The Brotherhood is obviously popular and organized, but nobody knows just how popular. It offers an appealing face to many Egyptians — uncorrupted, harassed by a nasty regime, concerned with the welfare of the poor. Perhaps most of all, the organization espouses values that appeal to many Egyptians, creating a moral resonance not unlike the force that draws many Americans to vote along Christian lines. The Brotherhood is playing a long game; it’s naïve to think its leaders have no interest in power, or that they would be willing to continue the current relationship with Israel if they came to power. If I were an Egyptian Copt, or for that matter an Egyptian woman, I would certainly be nervous about their plans. But there are plenty of other strains in the opposition that shook Mubarak loose — secular leftists, labor syndicates, and crowds of ordinary people who were tired of sinking silently into poverty and stagnation.
The youth in the streets didn’t only shame their parents; in their determination, number, and the simple fairness of their demands, they also shamed the US government into dropping its longstanding support for Mubarak. But underlying foreign policy interests haven’t shifted, nor has the creeping fear of the mercurial Brotherhood. The US government has tried to convince Arabs — Egyptians in particular — that it supports their rights while simultaneously helping to keep the Arab masses from transferring authority from one set of hands to another, lest Islamists rise and delicate interests be destabilized. The flaw, of course, is that this middle ground, this democracy-without-democracy, does not actually exist, and you could only expect it to exist if you believed the people in question were so dim-witted that they simply wouldn’t notice whether or not they had certain rights. It’s occurred to me as I watch the uprisings from my living room in Beijing — in the capital of a rising power whose leaders are utterly uninterested in the human rights or democratic aspirations of other countries — that perhaps history will view this wave of Arab unrest as another stage in the slow crumbling of US empire.
The revolts began under a suffocating Tunisian regime, but when the unrest reached Cairo, regional inertia shifted. Egypt was always a sort of laboratory and center of the sprawling Arab reality: a brutal autocracy with a troubled colonial past, a strong tradition of secular politics, and a powerful and visible Islamist opposition. Now the demand for freedom is spilling out across the region, to countries where politics are cluttered with the complications of tribalism (Yemen, Libya), sectarianism (Bahrain), and the mix of naturalized Palestinians and native “East Bankers” (Jordan). If Egypt’s uprising bogs down or splinters, if it fails to dislodge the ruling elite even as it steamrolls the figurehead — even if nothing further happens, still, everything has happened. Having been encouraged to believe that military coups were “revolutions” and foreign invasion and occupation were “liberation,” Egyptians are finally taking their destiny in their own hands. The uprising in Egypt, the psychological core of the Arab world, is the revelatory event that the Iraq war was cheaply described to be. The unthinkable has happened. The mythical Arab street became manifest, and just this once, it won.