Egypt Rising as Shock Waves from Tunisia Arrive
Prabir Purkayastha, Newsclick, February 3, 2011
Egypt, the centre of Arab politics and culture, is now teetering on the brink of a revolution, threatening the thirty year rule of Hosni Mubarak. It is no longer a question of whether Mubarak will go, but when and how. As we write today, millions are marching in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez and a host of other towns in Egypt. In a country where public protest was stamped out brutally by the police and the Mukhbarat (intelligence agencies), the police have been beaten back from the streets of Cairo in the week-long protests. The army -- till now -- has refused to fire on the protesters and is even fraternising with them.
More than 300 people have died, mostly shot by the police in the first few days. Most of the police forces have now disappeared from the streets. According to some, this is a ploy of the Mubarak regime; withdraw the police, while simultaneously unleashing criminal elements in loot and vandalism, hoping that people would prefer Mubarak to anarchy. If this was indeed the game-plan, this has failed. The people are taking to streets in even larger numbers and are now setting up neighbourhood watch committees to protect their houses and shops.
Mubarak’s response has been to change his Cabinet -- a reshuffling of the pack leaving intact most of the incumbents, only changing their portfolios. He has also appointed a Vice President, Omar Suleiman, his former intelligence chief. This is the first time in his 30-year rule that Mubarak has had a Vice President. Under US pressure, he has now said that he will not run for a sixth 6-year term, which sees Egypt slipping out of US hegemony. The Egyptian people see this as too little, too late. The protesters are clear -- Mubarak has to go before normalcy can begin to return.
The events in Tunisia -- as Newsclick’s interview with Aijaz Ahmad indicates -- are now triggering a much wider response in the Arab region. The shock-waves of Ben Ali’s ouster has now spread to Egypt and also to Yemen and Jordan. People in the Arab world now believe that authoritarian regimes can be overthrown by mass action. Whether they will be or not, will depend on the correlation of forces, particularly on the position the armed forces will take. In Tunisia, they refused to support Ben Ali beyond a point. This was the crucial element in Ben Ali finally being forced to go. What they will do in Egypt remains to be seen. As of now, they have neither thrown in their lot with the protesters nor have they attempted to crush the mass actions. Either way, the armed forces hold the sway in Egypt.
The events in Tunisia and Egypt highlight what has been happening in the Arab world. Arab nationalism had run out of steam by the end of the 60’s. What remained in place were either monarchs -- strongly backed by the imperial powers -- or nationalist strong men, with close links to the military. By the end of the 80’s and the fall of the Soviet Union, almost all the Arab states became -- to a more or less degree -- vassals of the sole imperial power, the US.
The central weakness of the Nasserite legacy is that while it did rid their countries of the then prevailing corrupt and quasi colonial order, it looked upon the militarised state as the primary instrument of building a modern nation. The people were there to applaud and and to participate, but only passively. The Nasserite movements that came to power had legitimacy and the support of the people as it did transform these countries from colonies to independent nations. However, if the leaders betrayed the Nasserite legacy, as did Anwar Sadat, there was very little that the people could do.
In many ways, the earlier Tunisian uprising and the current Egyptian uprising is a continuation of the nationalist movements that had characterised the earlier de-colonisation struggles. That time too, the countries were either formally or effectively colonies. Today, the Arab people see their rulers as surrogates of the West. Hosni Mubarak and Ben Ali are examples of rulers who were propped by Washington to do its bidding and not to represent their people. Almost unanimously, the Egyptian protesters have reiterated that they are proud of being Egyptians. The resonance to an Egyptian nationalism, which has laid dormant for so many years is resurfacing again.
Egypt, of course, occupies a pivotal role in the Arab world. It is by far the biggest country in the Middle East with 85 million people. It is also the strongest military power in the region after Israel. Israel has not forgotten that the Egyptian Army recovered after the disastrous 1967 War and was able to inflict heavy losses initially in the 1973 War. Israel’s sense of invincibility was shaken when Egyptians crossed what Israel thought was an impregnable Bar Yev line along the Suez Canal. This was what prompted Israel and the US to try and reach an agreement with Egypt, handing back Sinai and effectively taking Egypt out of the equation. It is this equation established in Camp David by Israel, Egypt and the US in 1978, which is now threatened by the Egyptian revolt against Mubarak.
Who are the actors in this revolt? If you listen to the western media, it is a leaderless revolt with the Muslim Brotherhood waiting in the wings to take over the movement. The spectre of Khomieni and Iran is raised time again as a possible future for Egypt and therefore -- as Tony Blair put it -- “how to manage the transition”. For the West, the answer lies in transition to a friendly government without Mubarak -- a change of face but not a change of regime. This is what the Egyptian people are rejecting -- they want a meaningful change of regime and they want it now.
The movement which has named itself the National Coalition for Change, include new actors who started the whole movement, a set of older political parties including the Muslim Brotherhood and El Bareidi, the former chief of International Atomic Energy Agency. It is by no means a complete vacuum and is broadly in tune with the sentiments of the people -- Mubarak must go before any meaningful dialogue can take place.
The key actors in the initial actions that catalysed the whole movement are two groups of young people. One is the April 6 Youth Movement, which takes its name from strikes by textile workers in Mahalla which were brutally crushed on April 6 by security forces. The second is another group, called “We Are All Khaled Said”, who were formed in response to the police killing of Khaled Said in Alexandria. Both groups organised the initial protests, largely using Facebook and Twitter and are very much a part of the coalition that is shaping up against Mubarak.
It is true that the older political formations including the Muslim Brotherhood are also very much a part of the movement. But the scale of the action makes it clear that it is neither lead or created by them -- it is mass action supported by all sections of society in Egypt. It is not that differences do not exist in the movement -- of course there are significant differences that will emerge in the future. What matters now is that they present a united front to Mubarak and the forces supporting him, including the US.
The key issue that worries the West is the future role of the Muslim Brotherhood. What they forget is that the world sees their opposition to Islamic fundamentalism as completely hypocritical. It is welcome as long as it is Saudi Arabia and a host of Emirs and kings supporting the West. Then women’s rights, democracy and all other issues disappear. It is only when western interests are threatened that Islamic forces become unacceptable. It is also not forgotten in the world that the ex-colonial powers and the US are quite happy to align with Islamic fundamentalism in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s in the Arab world -- not only against the left but also against the Arab nationalists. Not only Cold War dynamics but also the decolonising process were the reasons for which the US sided with Islamic fundamentalists against secular and nationalist forces. Oil and the Suez Canal is what drove US policy in the Arab world then and is what drives it now.
The issue of Palestine and Israel is of course behind the reactions in the West. Egypt was a managed state and a willing partner in the barricading of Gaza. If Mubarak goes, it will be very difficult for any new Government not to listen to the people's voice on Palestine. And as everybody who has visited Egypt knows that the people's sentiments run very deep on the Issue of Palestine.
Once a collaborationist Government in Egypt goes, the mix in the Arab world will change. Even if Jordan and other countries do not, Egypt will come back to a more nationalist path, and there is no way that this can be reversed in the near future. The entire fabric of military and strategic alliances that the US and Israel have put together in the Middle East is bound to unravel, if Egypt changes.
It is important to recognise that Tunisia was the start of a new process in the Middle East and the Arab world. It is not going to stop with Egypt, but Egypt is the key player in this region. Once Egypt is free of the current regime, it will irrevocably change the Middle East equation. For Israel, the US and the West, this is not good news. For the rest of the world, there is joy and solidarity. Yes, the course of Egypt’s revolution is not clear. But any change from the current regime can only be for the better. This is what people in Egypt are asserting; an Egypt’s in which the people's voice does matter. This is the Egypt that they want and they are not going to stop before they get there.