No one knows how long the protests that began in Egypt on Tuesday will last, or how they will end. It isn’t clear how organized the protesters are, or how much violence the regime is willing to use against them now that the cameras are rolling and the posts are flying. What role the Muslim Brotherhood will play in the coming days is anyone’s guess. What is clear is that the crowds in downtown Cairo’s Midan Tahrir have been massive and fearless.
“Mubarak, Mubarak, Saudi Arabia is waiting for you!” was one slogan chanted by protesters on Tuesday—an allusion to the recent fate of deposed Tunisian President Ben Ali. The Egyptian demonstrators also called President Hosni Mubarak a moron, a traitor, a rhinoceros, a pest, a patsy for Israel, and warned that his death was imminent. They told him to get out of the country and to take his son, Gamal—who has been groomed as a possible successor—with him. Pictures of the president have been stomped on and burned. As of Friday, he had not yet made a public statement.
The size and strength of the protests caught everyone by surprise, but a few proximate causes can be suggested, if only to provide some context amidst the onslaught of tweets and updates. The uprising in Tunisia is obviously a significant part of that context. It is true that Tunisia is a small country that plays a minor role on the international stage, while Egypt is a linchpin of regional governance and one of the US’s closest allies. But both regimes are reviled by much of their citizenry as corrupt and brutal gerontocracies. While it still seems unlikely that Mubarak will be toppled, Egyptian protestors can take heart from the fact that six weeks ago no one was predicting a rout of Ben Ali, either.
Another remote cause, however limited and difficult to assess, is the release of WikiLeaks documents. A cache of diplomatic cables relating to the Middle East was published in early December by the independent newspaper al-Akhbar, and the leaks have been intensively discussed by Arab bloggers and political activists. Few subjects anger Egyptians more than their regime’s cooperation with Israel, and several leaked documents suggest just how closely the two countries’ diplomats and security forces work together. The cable sent in June 2009 from the US embassy in Tel Aviv, which reveals that Egyptian officials were consulted about Israeli air and land assaults on Gaza the previous winter, must have been especially galling.
A more local cause for resentment is the parliamentary election conducted in Egypt in early December. Candidates of the ruling National Democratic Party won 93 percent of the seats in the national assembly, up from 75 percent in 2005, in an election that was baldly rigged even by Egyptian standards. (Here you can watch poll workers in Bilbays, a town in the Eastern Delta, calmly filling out a few dozen ballots.) The scheduled presidential election of 2011 is not expected to be any more fair or transparent. “If Mubarak is still alive,” writes US Ambassador Margaret Scobey in one of the WikiLeaks cables, “it is likely he will run again, and, inevitably, win.”
Finally, the bombings in Alexandria over the holidays, in which twenty-one Copts were killed and ninety-seven were wounded as they came out of a church on New Year’s Day, may have sparked an upsurge of national solidarity. The regime was quick to claim that the attacks were planned and executed by foreign terrorists; whether or not that is true, it must have a occurred to many Egyptians that a police state that can’t keep its own citizens safe is literally good-for-nothing. Several of the slogans chanted by protesters over the last couple days were explicit in their message of interfaith harmony: “The crescent and the cross are against killing and torture”; “Muslims and Christians, we’re all demanding change.” (A list of these slogans, in Arabic and English, has been helpfully compiled by The Angry Arab.)
Subtending all these more or less local provocations is the sense, pervasive among Egyptians who do not actually belong to the ruling party, that their relation to the state is based on little more than threatened or actual violence. Posters of Mubarak’s apparently ageless visage are all over Cairo—or they were until recently—but the real face of the regime, as Egyptians experience it, is hidden under a riot policeman’s helmet, tucked behind a tactical shield, protected by batons and the weapons of crowd control. Much of Mubarak’s thirty-year reign has been a skillful, remorseless exercise in pacification: a slow but steady lowering of political expectations, and a widening of the gap between the citizenry and the ruling elite.
It wasn’t always so. After Egyptian army officers came to power in 1952, bringing an end to the monarchy and then the British occupation, it was often said that Gamal Abdel Nasser, the country’s new leader, was the first Egyptian to rule Egypt since the pharaohs. He was a handsome populist and anti-imperialist with a large following across the Arab world. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, along with Tito, Sukarno, and Nehru, he adopted a policy of non-Alignment, emphasizing the independence of Egypt’s foreign and domestic policies. Nasser styled himself as a man of the people and the people identified with him, often deliriously. When he announced his resignation in the wake of Egypt’s catastrophic defeat in the 1967 War, hundreds of thousands of Cairenes rushed into the streets demanding that he stay in office—a neat mirror-image of today’s crowds, who have come to bury Mubarak, not to praise him.
After Nasser’s death in 1970, his successor Anwar Sadat instituted a series of purges and policy realignments that led to rapprochement with the US and eventually to peace with Israel, two alliances that Mubarak has fought to maintain even as Egyptians have become increasingly ashamed and critical of them. While Nasserism may be politically untenable, his legacy of pan-Arabism and national independence is far from being a dead letter. It may survive most powerfully as a kind of bitter reminder or spur to dissatisfaction with the present. Even young Egyptians like those who have filled Tahrir Square over the past few days are aware of how much separates them from the time when Egypt could claim to chart its own course, either at home or abroad. When they see on al-Jazeera that their president has agreed to work harder to close the tunnels connecting Gaza to the outside world, or when they read that Egyptian generals are consulted prior to Israeli airstrikes, they can only feel that the regime represents a foreign imposition.
Conditions inside the country do little to mitigate that feeling. The military, technocratic, and financial elite are increasingly isolated from the rest of the citizens. More and more gated suburbs are constructed along the desertified periphery of Cairo, while the inner city is neglected and allowed to slowly decay. The police forces, unable or unwilling to protect churches but well-practiced at beating protesters, are seen by many Egyptians as thugs and torturers.
Mubarak’s regime has survived many political crises and may well survive the current one. As the demonstrators themselves put it, “Our people have been saying no to him for years, but Mubarak has thick skin.” (It rhymes in Arabic.) Or, as Ambassador Margaret Scobey acknowledged in one of her leaked cables, “[Egyptian General Intelligence Service] Chief Omar Soliman and Interior Minister al-Adly keep the domestic beasts at bay, and Mubarak is not one to lose sleep over their tactics.”
But if enough Egyptians have decided, and are now willing to say out loud that the regime is essentially an occupying force—a kind of encrusted parasite whose interests have almost nothing to do with the interests of citizens—then this crisis could go on until Mubarak indeed catches a plane to somewhere. Ringing through all the chanted slogans of the last two days one hears echoes of the most basic demand of all, first used by Colonel Urabi Pasha in his fight against the British: “Egypt for Egyptians!”
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