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Egypt’s Judgment Day
“L’Etat, C’est moi.” (I am the state.)
King Louis XIV of France
Leave means Get out
Don’t you comprehend?
O Suleiman O Suleiman
You too must leave
Sitting in sitting in
Till the regime is gone
Revolution revolution until victory
Revolution in all Egypt’s streets
Chants by two million Egyptians, Liberation Square, Feb. 10, 2011
Thursday, February 10, was slated to be a day of preparation for the following day’s activities in Egypt. Friday was dubbed “Defiance Day,” in reference to the test of wills between the people and the beleaguered president. Despite seventeen days of massive demonstrations across the country, Hosni Mubarak remained defiant, still stubbornly refusing to submit to the will of the people, who were coming out by the millions to demand his ouster.
A day earlier, the leaders of the revolution called for a major escalation with another round of massive protests scheduled for Friday. Not only did they ask the people to come to Tahrir Square by the millions, but they also planned to march on state symbols around the country.
By midnight, the buildings of the Council of Ministers, the People’s Assembly (lower chamber of parliament), the Consultative Assembly (upper chamber), and the Interior Ministry were totally surrounded by thousands of people. Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq could not reach his office that day and had to relocate to the Ministry of Civilian Aviation.
The youth of the revolution also issued a passionate appeal to the labor movement and unions as well as to all professional syndicates to join the revolution in full force and ignore the regime-appointed union leaders, who were calling for calm as part of the propaganda machine to undermine the people’s demands.
Strikes and protests by Egyptian labor are neither novel nor surprising. According to Egypt’s Center of Economic and Labor Studies, there were 478 labor protests in 2009 alone, in which 126,000 workers were laid off, tragically resulting in 58 suicides. It was no surprise that this fervent pro-democracy call ignited a spark throughout Egypt.
Tens of thousands of workers across Egypt responded to this appeal and flocked to the streets. As a strike by thousands of workers in the state defense industries was declared in Cairo, these workers managed to block the streets leading to the factories where no one crossed the picket lines.
Other state-owned factories and government agencies throughout Cairo have declared strikes and took to the streets as well. For example, government employees at the Ministry of Environment, the medical Heart Institute, and sanitation workers were on strike. Similarly, public transport workers went on strike while holding a protest calling for Mubarak’s ouster. Postal workers organized their protests in shifts.
In the cities of Asyut and Sohag in Upper Egypt, thousands of workers in the pharmaceutical factories, state electrical power and gas service companies, as well as university employees declared a strike and marched across their respective towns.
Furthermore, in the Nile delta cities of Kafr el-Sheikh, el-Mahalla al-Kobra, Dumyat, and Damanhour, major industries such as textile, food processing, and furniture, have completely halted all production. The strikes then spread along the canal and coastal towns of Suez, Ismailiyyah and Port Said. Approximately 6,000 workers at five government companies managed by the Suez Canal Authority continue to be on strike, threatening to spread widely, impacting the passage of international shipping through the canal.
Furthermore, according to the Ministry of Tourism, over 160,000 tourists left Egypt in the last ten days, resulting in a total loss of at least $1.5 billion in tourism-related revenue to the economy. The Abu Dhabi-based paper The National reported that the country’s industrial output has dropped eighty per cent. The daily economic loss is estimated to be between $300 million and $400 million.
Rahma Refaat, a lawyer and programs coordinator for the non-governmental Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) told The National, “Most of those on strike say that they have discovered that the resources of our country have been stolen by the regime.”
She then cited several strikes as a response to the general call by the pro-democracy leadership of the revolution. She listed 6,000 workers at the Spinning and Weaving Company in the industrial city of Helwan, outside Cairo, 2,000 workers from the Sigma pharmaceutical company in Qesna, while about 5,000 unemployed youths stormed a government building in Aswan demanding the ouster of the governor. “Every hour we hear about a new strike.” She continued.
In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Kamal Abbass, executive director of CTUWS promised that if Mubarak was not out by Monday, all workers across Egypt would be on strike, a move that would paralyze the whole country.
Similarly, professional syndicates heeded the call and showed up to the protests in full force. On Wednesday evening, hundreds of judges dressed in their black robes and green sashes joined with other demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
According to Al-Jazeera over twelve thousand lawyers dressed in their black robes marched on Thursday to Abdeen, one of Mubarak’s presidential palaces in central Cairo, demanding that he resign.
The same day thousands of medical doctors and pharmacists marched in their white coats to Tahrir Square, joining the demonstrators calling for Mubarak’s departure. Meanwhile, thousands of journalists chased their government-appointed union president from his office, and marched to downtown Cairo declaring their support, to the delight of the protesters.
Likewise, actors, writers, directors, singers and musicians were not far behind. For the first time in recent history hundreds of artists joined while chanting with the public in an unprecedented display of support and solidarity.
In addition, many Muslim and Coptic leaders such as the former Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Nasr Farid and Father Fawzi Khalil, showed up at Tahrir Square calling for unity and declaring their support to the Revolution of the Youth as one called it.
In one of the most emotional moments of the day, three army officers, two majors and a captain, showed up in uniform declaring their total support for the goals of the revolution. Maj. Ahmad Ali Shoman declared on live television that he handed his pistol over to his commanding officer earlier in order to join the nonviolent and peaceful struggle against the regime.
He called on President Hosni Mubarak, Vice President Omar Suleiman, Prime Minister Ahmad Shafiq, and Defense Minster Field Marshall Muhammad Hussein Tantawi to resign. He then called on the Army and its Chief of Staff Sami Anan to take over and depose the president on behalf of the people.
The King is checkmated but still wants to play
By early afternoon, over one million people swelled into Tahrir Square. The leaders of the revolution declared that over ten million people across Egypt would be expected to demonstrate the following day after Friday congregational prayers if their demands were not met.
Subsequently, thousands left Tahrir Square that afternoon and surrounded the government-run television and radio building, which has been running anti-revolution propaganda since the first day of the protests. Immediately, government authorities evacuated the building while the army protected it from being stormed by the people, who camped out around it.
By late afternoon, an unexpected declaration by the army was read on state television. It was dubbed Communiqué One, a name reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s army coups. It was read in the name of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which consists of the Minister of Defense, the Joints Chief of Staff, Chiefs of the four military branches, as well as the Commanders of the different weapon systems.
As president, Mubarak is the commander-in-chief of this council. But he was conspicuously absent, which led many people to believe his departure was imminent. The declaration by the spokesperson, Gen. Ismail Etman, gave credence to this conclusion when he declared that the SCAF was “in total support of the legitimate demands of the people.” He further stated that SCAF would be meeting in continuous session in order to decide on what “course of action it should take to secure the demands and gains of the people.”
Shortly thereafter, state television declared that Mubarak would address his people at 11 PM. This declaration fueled speculation that Mubarak was about to step down and resign. This expectation was also bolstered when CIA director Leon Panetta, testifying that afternoon before the House Intelligence Committee, stated that he believed Mubarak would indeed step down that evening. When President Barack Obama delivered a midday address in northern Michigan, he hinted that the Egyptian people would soon accomplish their demand as they were “witnessing history unfold.”
Nevertheless, the embattled Egyptian president’s third address since the inception of the revolution on Jan. 25 was true to form. The delusional president gave a pathetic address in which he reiterated all his earlier “concessions” (not running for a sixth presidential term in September and offering some constitutional reforms.)
He further claimed that the call for him to step down was a “foreign dictation” in a clear reference to Washington. With a straight face he declared that he had never given in to foreign demands and pressure and was not about to do so in this instance, totally ignoring his thirty-year history of providing services to the U.S. as a regional client state.
After pledging that he would remain president until September, he then offered to transfer some of his powers to Vice President Suleiman in order to defuse the crisis. It was a pitiful performance by a person completely oblivious to reality. Incredibly, he once more succeeded in insulting millions of Egyptians by accusing them, in effect, of being part of a conspiracy to depose him and destabilize Egypt.
Shortly thereafter, his Vice President followed Mubarak on television, arrogantly beseeching his countrymen and women to stop the protests and go home. Once more he showed fierce loyalty to Mubarak and thanked him. Perhaps as someone who has served him for eighteen years as the head of the intelligence service, it was to be expected.
He stated that now, as acting president, he has taken over the duties of the president, and was ready to lead in the path of reform. However, in his address, he totally ignored the demands and the will of the people who have withdrawn the legitimacy from Mubarak and his regime.
Likely scenarios: people united will never be defeated
Upon hearing Mubarak and Suleiman back-to-back, the Egyptian people were enraged. Millions who had been in the streets for hours, were now joined by the hundreds of thousands flocking to the streets, displaying their anger, and vowing to stay in the streets until the ouster of the regime. They chanted incessantly, “The people demand the fall of the regime.”
Further, they felt disappointed that their hopes of Mubarak’s stepping down, which were generated earlier by the army’s declaration and by the statements of the American officials, were dashed. What added insult to injury was Mubarak’s contention that the revolution was a foreign conspiracy directed at Egypt to destabilize it, ironically contradicting another statement he gave when he stated that he respected the protesters’ demands.
At every stage in this crisis, Mubarak has proven that he has always been two steps behind the people. Had he given this address two weeks ago, perhaps he would have found more sympathy. But with every speech he has succeeded in enraging and alienating the Egyptian people, in effect uniting them against him because of his arrogance and gross miscalculations.
According to the New York Times, Mubarak has been emboldened by the international support he has received from the leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Oman, and the U.A.E. All these leaders have leaned heavily on the Obama administration, pleading Mubarak’s case and urging the administration not to abandon its close ally. On January 29, Saudi Ambassador Adel Al-Jubair spent twelve straight hours on the telephone rallying congressional and diplomatic support to influence the administration to back Mubarak, at least until his term expires in September.
To some extent certain international actors, such as the United States, by virtue of having considerable leverage over the regime, may actually play a limited role in deciding the success or failure of Egypt’s revolution. But judging from the fast-paced events, there are currently three major domestic players in this high stakes game that might ultimately dictate its outcome: the Egyptian people, who are sustaining the revolution with its almost universal support; the embattled regime, including its stubborn president and vice president; and finally, the army.
To the dismay of their friends in Washington, Mubarak and Suleiman have played their risky move badly. In essence, Mubarak tied the fate of Suleiman (the favored American and Israeli candidate to keep Egypt in the orbit of the West) to his own. In their addresses, both have decided to challenge the Egyptian people, hoping to either divide or exhaust them.
Nonetheless, the people are determined to carry on with their revolution, calling for a massive day of demonstrations and strikes on Friday. Every segment of society has pledged to participate. The joke in Egypt is that the only person who would stay home on that day is Mubarak.
They also vowed not only to demonstrate and stay in Tahrir Square but also to march to several presidential palaces and other government buildings. The pro-democracy organizers insist on escalating their campaign until every corner in Egypt is part of the action and the country is at a stand still.
The crucial question is this: How much is the third side of this triangle, namely the army, willing to tolerate the country’s polarization? How would it determine the outcome of this tense confrontation?
On Friday morning, SCAF issued its second Communiqué, basically endorsing the Mubarak/Suleiman roadmap.
Here are the facts known so far.
The army has pledged to protect the people and their revolution. It declared flatly that it would not shoot at the demonstrators. On the other hand, the army leadership has also shown not only incredible loyalty and deference to Mubarak and his dying regime, but also endorsement of its limited reform program, without the critical support for the ouster of Mubarak or his regime. In short, Suleiman would govern under the protection of the army. Thirdly, the army leadership has expressed grave concerns about the situation, vowing to continuously monitor it, and to intervene at crucial moments, but most likely on the side of the regime.
In his speech Suleiman claimed to have the backing of the army. He confidently warned the people and asked them to go home. The army in its subsequent communiqué confirmed that. Meanwhile, the people rejected his call and vowed to protest by the millions. For their part, the protesters continue to chant that the people and the army are one, expressing an unwavering confidence in that institution.
Observers present different scenarios. One possibility is the direct interference of the army if the situation either turns violent or violence is somehow interjected by other actors despite the non-violent and peaceful posture of the revolution and its leaders.
In this case the army would crack down hard on the people, declaring martial law, and then imposing political leaders as occurred in Algeria in 1992. This could only take place if the regime was able to instigate massive violence on the part of the opposition to justify the army’s violence. As the Algerian model demonstrates, this is a very risky and costly scenario. In this case, the people have to split and the regime must receive unqualified Western backing. An unlikely outcome on both counts.
Another scenario is for Mubarak to leave the country soon under a medical pretext, so that Suleiman could claim that the main demand of the opposition has been fulfilled and thus people should go home while he manages the political dialogue and supervises the process of constitutional reforms.
However, the majority of the people would most likely reject this stand, arguing that whatever presidential authority Mubarak has transferred to Suleiman, he could always retrieve whenever he wishes. More importantly, the pro-democracy revolutionaries have demanded the downfall of the regime, not just the ouster of Mubarak. In their eyes, Mubarak and Suleiman have become indistinguishable. In that case, the army would be forced to intervene.
If the people are not split and stay firm on their demands, including the ouster of the entire regime, the dissolution of both chambers of parliament, the formation of a national unity government, the lifting of the emergency law, and the establishment of a new constitution based on democratic principles, judicial independence, and safeguarding civil rights and freedoms, then it’s unlikely that the army would crack down on the demonstrators.
In this hopeful scenario, the army would calibrate its position, stand with the people, and change its indirect support of Mubarak and Suleiman. In this case, the revolution would have spectacularly succeeded in achieving all of its goals. Clearly, its impact on the region would be enormous.
Already, several countries have been influenced by the events in Tunisia and Egypt. But the successful outcome of Egypt’s revolution would unleash its great potential and serve as the model to neighboring countries. Undoubtedly, this would seriously upset several pro-Western despots in the region, many of whom have already been trying to stem the Egyptian tsunami coming their way.
Algeria, for instance, declared this week that it would lift its state of emergency that has been in effect since 1992. Still the opposition group “Free Youth Movement in Algeria,” called for massive demonstrations against the regime on Saturday, Feb. 12. Many other opposition groups have also vowed to join.
Yemen’s President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, declared in a recent address that neither he nor his son would be candidates in the next presidential elections, scheduled for 2013. Nevertheless, opposition groups have insisted on calling for huge protests on Friday to pressure the regime to open up the political system.
In Jordan, King Abdullah II sacked his Prime Minister in an effort to quell massive protests against the government persisting since mid-January. He has also started a dialogue with the opposition in the hopes of deflecting any revolutionary change.
According to Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, many political observers, including CIA experts, believe that the Saudi regime has all the characteristics of a society suffering from social instability and economic inequality. They consider it a ripe candidate for serious protests and political turmoil.
After eighteen days of massive popular protests and widespread mobilization, it is clear that Egypt’s revolution has been embraced by all of its people. Judgment day is upon the regime and its defenders. Mubarak and his regime have failed. Soon, the army may either usher a new bright dawn for Egypt’s future or a new abyss that would lead to more instability and chaos.
As John F. Kennedy once said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
For background articles by the author see: