When Egypt’s Revolution was at the Crossroads
“It is impossible to predict the time and progress of revolution. It is governed by its own more or less mysterious laws.”
“If this indeed be the hour in which I lift up my lantern, it is not my flame that shall burn therein. Empty and dark shall I raise my lantern. And the guardian of the night shall fill it with oil and he shall light it also.”
~ Khalil Gibran in The Prophet
When the Egyptian youth in the ‘April 6 Movement,’ and ‘We Are Khaled Said,’ with the support of the Kefaya movement and others, called for mass protests on January 25, they did not contemplate a revolution. In retrospect, while seemingly quite modest in their scope, when the youth presented their specific demands to Mubarak’s government, the regime scoffed at them dismissing their demands. Nevertheless, they were determined to press on at all costs.
On that fateful day, the protesters raised four simple demands to the regime: to develop programs to address poverty and unemployment; to end the state of emergency and uphold judicial independence; to dismiss the Interior Minister, whose security apparatus was notorious for torture and abuse of human rights; and to carry out political reforms, including the limitation of presidential terms and the dissolution of the parliament following the massive electoral fraud of last November.
Asmaa’ Mahfouz, one of the organizers of the April 6 Youth Movement who played a critical role in calling for the mobilization efforts for the January 25 demonstration, was as surprised as anyone when the protest turned into a full-fledged revolution. She admitted as much in a recent interview when she commented upon witnessing the massive demonstrations, “I realized for the first time that the call, which I did not dream would draw more than 10,000 people, had now turned into a popular revolution.”
Indeed the transformation from a protest to an uprising to a successful revolution was remarkable. But the ultimate triumph of Egypt’s revolution was not inevitable. At different junctures of the eighteen momentous days the revolution could have been aborted or taken a completely different turn.
Here are twelve decisive moments that played a crucial role in maintaining the momentum of the revolution, ultimately changing the history of the region and the world.
January 25: A new mobilization tactic to rally big crowds
Since at least 2004, Egypt has witnessed many protests, led primarily by the Kefaya opposition movement and more recently by the April 6 Youth movement. But most of the protests drew no more than a few hundred people or at best or a couple of thousands, mainly those ideologically committed or politically active. In every case, the demonstrators were outnumbered by the security forces, which brutally cracked down on them, causing numerous injuries and arrests.
But the Tunisian revolution changed that equation in several ways. First, it inspired Egyptians beyond the activists or elites. Secondly, once the youth organizers decided to take to the streets on January 25, they outsmarted the security forces. (See my article The Making of Egypt’s Revolution).
As a ruse, the youth released announcements for people to gather at certain landmarks and intersections knowing full well that massive security forces would be awaiting them there. Instead, they went in small groups to side streets in poor and middle class neighborhoods with no government agent presence to mobilize these areas to join the protests. In the words of Mahfouz, “I was printing and distributing leaflets in popular areas, and calling for citizens to participate. In those areas, I also talked to young people about their rights, and the need for their participation.”
She continued, “I went to a street in Bulaq Dakrur (one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cairo), where I and a group of members from the movement intended to start protesting. At the same time, other members were doing the same thing in other areas. When we had assembled, we raised the Egyptian flag and began to chant slogans, and it was surprising when a large number of people joined us. This prompted us to take our demonstration down Gamat al-Dawal al-Arabia Street (main street). With increasing numbers joining us, we stopped for some time in front of Mustafa Mahmoud Mosque (major landmark), and then we led the march to Tahrir Square. We found several demonstrations coming from different areas towards this area, and thus we decided to occupy Tahrir Square.”
To the complete surprise of the security forces, the demonstrators reached Tahrir Square numbering over one hundred thousand, which they could neither control nor disperse. Despite the existence of thousands of security forces, this was a new situation that they had not experienced before.
Evening of January 25: Occupying Tahrir Square
The decision by the Interior Minister to crack down hard on the massive demonstration using water cannons, tear gas, rubber bullets and eventually live ammunition, did not break it up as expected. Inspired by the Tunisian model, the demonstrators pressed ahead showing courage and resilience.
Again describing these moments Mahfouz said, “We were faced with significant security enhancements -armored cars, riot police, and central security forces. They started to beat us heavily with tear gas and rubber bullets, and I saw young men die in front of me. I was crying and scared, but I said to myself that I could not back down, because the blood of those young men must not be spilled in vain. Many of us resisted and some of us fled, but in the end a large number of us managed to get to Tahrir Square.”
Upon reaching Tahrir Square the organizers decided to occupy it and called for open-ended demonstrations designating Friday, January 28, as the ‘Day of Rage.’ Describing that evening, Mahfouz said, “Thus we decided to occupy Tahrir Square. However, at around 2 am, we were attacked by the security forces with tear gas and rubber bullets.” By that time, the demonstrators “have broken through the fear barrier,” Mahfouz added. The more casualties suffered by the protesters the more determined they became, thus raising their demands. That evening the protests turned into a popular uprising.
January 26: The Muslim Brotherhood Joins
With few exceptions, most opposition groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) did not take the youth call to protest on January 25 seriously. Although many of the youth members of the MB joined the demonstrations that day, the group’s leadership was skeptical and did not want to be accused by the regime of instigating the protests, thus inviting a new wave of repression of its members.
But once the scale and depth of the protests became known, supplemented by the pressure on the leadership by their youth members, the MB decided to join the massive protests. On January 26, Esam El-Erian, the MB spokesman, declared publicly that his movement would join the ‘Day of Rage’ on Friday, January 28. With their massive grass roots membership across Egypt and their outstanding organizational skills and resources, the participation of the Muslim Brotherhood, followed by other opposition parties and civil society organizations gave the uprising a major boost. Instantly, the uprising promised to turn into a revolution.
January 28: The Security Apparatus Falters
For three decades the regime of Hosni Mubarak managed its total control of the Egyptian society through three main institutions: the state security apparatus, run by the Interior Ministry, the military, and the ruling National Democratic Party (NPD).
On the evening of January 27, former Interior Minster, Gen. Habib Al-Adli, called Mubarak promising to end the protests the following day. Further, he asked for and received permission from Mubarak to use live ammunition but was cautioned to minimize casualties.
As the security forces were by then stretched throughout the country and deprived from sleep for three continuous days, discipline had already broken down. True to its name, it was indeed a day of rage featuring hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, not just in Cairo, but also throughout all the major cities and provinces across Egypt.
On that day, over a hundred protesters lost their lives with thousands more maimed and injured. According to reliable Egyptian press repots, by evening, Mubarak angrily called his Interior Minister telling him that he had lost confidence in him and that the army would take over.
Upon hearing this, Al-Adli decided to withdraw all his security forces from the streets across Egypt, reportedly scoffing at Mubarak by telling his assistants, “let the military save him.” By 5 PM that evening, the first circle of protection around Mubarak was totally broken.
January 29: The military refuses to crack down
By January 28, Mubarak gave his first speech after four days that saw a youth protest developing into a revolution, and a demand to dismiss his Interior Minister into a popular demand for his ouster. His speech appointing his Intelligence Chief, Gen. Omar Suleiman, as a new Vice President, as well as another general as his new Prime Minister, was dismissed out of hand by the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt.
They insisted that he leave power.
Mubarak immediately turned to his second circle of protection. He called his major military officers led by his Defense Minister, Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi and Chief-of-Staff Gen. Sami Anan, requesting that they take control of the streets. He was firmly but politely told that the army would place units in major intersections, and protect government buildings and major landmarks, but would not shoot at the people. Twice he asked that they allow him to use the Air Force and the Presidential Guards, but each time he was rebuffed.
In the presence of Suleiman, they told him that he had to negotiate with the protesters to end the crisis. Meanwhile, they assured him of their loyalty and that they would stay neutral while he dealt with the situation.
February 2: Displaying Courage and Steadfastness in The Battle of the Camel
Once Mubarak lost control of his security apparatus and could not rely on his military, he turned to his third and last circle of protection, his political party, the NDP. But for the past five years he had turned the day-to-day management of the party to his son, Gamal.
On Jan. 29, Gamal convened the major political figures and business tycoons of the NDP to devise a plan to end the sit-in and the demonstrations in Tahrir Square. They had a two-track plan. Mubarak would give a speech, on Feb. 1 that would draw sympathy, as he recalled his service to his country for over six decades while pledging to oversee major reforms. In the speech, he promised not to seek re-election, to leave in September and die in Egypt.
This ploy actually made inroads within many segments of society and threatened to split the opposition. The small pro-government “loyal opposition” actually welcomed the speech, while the youth rejected it out-of-hand.
But Gamal’s second maneuver backfired badly. He was hoping that by splitting the opposition through his father’s speech, he could finish off the remainder through direct attacks in Tahrir Square. By the morning of Feb. 2, he sent a few thousand people demonstrating in support of his father, led by some famous actors and sports figures.
Around 2 PM that day, the unexpected and brutal attacks by the goons of the NPD was in full force, but was faced with stiff resistance by the protesters. For sixteen hours the demonstrators in the Tahrir Square were attacked by clubs, knives, horses, camels, Molotov cocktails, and live ammunition (for details see my article Mubarak’s Last Gasps). Dozens lost their lives while thousands were injured.
At certain crucial moments, this wild idea, whose objective was to empty Tahrir Square, might have succeeded, especially as the protesters were under siege by midnight and being pushed outside the square. While the protesters were pleading with the army to intervene and protect them, it stayed true to its promise of remaining neutral.
It was thousands of members of the MB that descended on the Tahrir Square (estimates range from three to five thousand), led by major MB figures, El-Erian, Mohammad El-Biltagy, and Safwat Hegazy, that broke the siege, fighting and pushing back the NDP attackers for the entire night. By dawn, the battle of the Camel, as it is now dubbed in Egypt, had fizzled and Tahrir remained firmly in the hands of the revolutionaries.
All youth and opposition groups have since acknowledged that if it were not for the courage and skill of the MB, the outcome of the attacks might have been different.
February 6: The Youth rejects the negotiations track
Once Mubarak’s regime was stripped of his three circles of protection, he had no alternative but to turn to negotiations with the opposition. He immediately dispatched Gen. Suleiman to start a dialogue with most opposition parties, especially the youth groups and the MB. Suleiman sent public and private messages to the MB leadership not to pass on this opportunity.
On Feb. 6, he met with over forty representatives of most groups pledging what Mubarak had already promised in his two previous televised addresses. While gaining the support of most parties around the table, Suleiman knew that the most important group to buy into his plan was the MB.
Unannounced at the time, Suleiman met privately with the three representatives of the MB invited to the meeting promising them to lift the ban on their organization that had been in effect since 1954. After the meeting, Suleiman issued a declaration that he and the opposition parties had reached a roadmap to resolve the impasse by vowing to implement major reforms to be supervised by the current government, while allowing Mubarak to stay in power until September.
That evening the MB leaders who attended the meeting held a press conference that did not contradict Suleiman’s assertions. It seemed that for a perceived short-term gain, the MB was looking weak and confused (see my article Meet Egypt’s Future Leaders).
But the youth who had organized the original protest and stayed in Tahrir throughout the revolution, refused to attend the meeting. Upon hearing the declaration by Suleiman, they immediately rejected Suleiman’s promises, renewed their main demand to oust Mubarak and called for millions to take to the streets in their support.
A day later the MB reversed course, and rejected Suleiman’s characterization of the talks. They renewed the revolution’s principal demand for Mubarak’s removal.
February 9: The Labor Unions join the revolution and stage massive strikes
By Feb. 7, the youth organizers issued a passionate appeal to the labor movement and unions as well as to all professional syndicates to join the revolution in full force. Tens of thousands of workers across Egypt responded to this appeal and flocked to the streets. (For details see my article Egypt’s Judgment Day).
In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Kamal Abbass, executive director of the non-governmental Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services (CTUWS) promised that if Mubarak was not out by the following Monday, Feb. 14, all workers across Egypt would then be on strike, a move that would paralyze the entire country.
Since the Battle of the Camel, the army leadership was very nervous and concerned with the deterioration of security and the disintegration of the economy. With the massive labor strikes occurring before their eyes and the state collapsing, the military decided to ask Mubarak to transfer all his powers to the Vice President.
February 10: Mubarak changes his mind
Once the military reached that conclusion, they contacted Mubarak through the newly appointed General Secretary of the NDP, Hussam Al-Badrawi. On the afternoon of Feb. 10, he went to visit Mubarak in his ‘Urooba presidential palace. He expressed in no uncertain terms that the military wanted him to fully transfer his powers to his Vice President. Upon hearing this Gamal Mubarak became angry and kicked him out of the presidential palace.
As he was leaving Al-Badrawi was brought back by Gen. Suleiman to elaborate and to further explain the seriousness of the matter. Under pressure, Mubarak finally relented and pledged to make an announcement to that effect in another televised address that evening.
This development was immediately conveyed by Defense Minister Tantawi to the U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who in turn informed President Obama and the rest of the national security team. On that date, CIA Director Leon Panetta, who was testifying before Congress, said as much in an open hearing. U.S. Officials, under immense pressure from Israel and other autocratic Arab allies who had been leaning heavily for this option, breathed a sigh of relief.
Meanwhile, Egyptians across the country were told to anticipate a major announcement that evening by the president. People in Tahrir had already been split, as some were content with Suleiman serving as an interim president, while the majority wanted the whole regime ousted from power.
However, a major dispute was ensuing in the presidential palace. Fearing the worst if his father was marginalized, Gamal was fuming. He eventually was able to lean heavily on his father persuading him to change his mind and stand his ground. Changing course, Mubarak gave his final address that evening, stubbornly declaring that he would stay in charge as president until completing his term in September. That evening al-Badrawi, who had been hinting all day to the press to expect Mubarak’s transfer of power to his vice president, resigned from his post.
February 11: Millions take to the streets
People across Egypt were now united and more determined than ever to depose Mubarak. That Friday, over ten million angry protesters were in the streets throughout Egypt with one chant ‘The people demand the downfall of Mubarak.’ Not a single city in the country was spared. People were so enraged that they surrounded major governmental buildings, including several presidential palaces, state radio and television, the parliament, and the Council of Ministers. The military concluded that unless action is taken immediately, the country would suffer unspeakable damage.
February 11 afternoon: Showdown between the military and Mubarak
Since his address the previous day, the military leadership in the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) was in a continuous meeting debating their next move. They were angry with Mubarak because he had reneged on his promise. Witnessing the boiling anger in the streets, they decided to deliver a stern message to him, but this time in person.
A delegation led by Chief-of-Staff Anan went to see Mubarak in his presidential palace. They delivered to him the message from the SCAF expressing their regret that he had not followed up on his promise to transfer his powers, and thus he needed to immediately step down. He arrogantly told them that he would not and had nothing else to say.
As they were leaving angrily, they met with Suleiman at the gate. Gen. Anan asked one of his senior officers to accompany Suleiman to one of the waiting military cars, as he was asked to come and meet with the military leadership at the SCAF’s Headquarters.
Surrounded by over twenty of Egypt’s top military brass, Suleiman was asked to call Mubarak on a speakerphone. He told him that it was over, and unless he stepped down, delegating his powers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, he would face charges of high treason.
After collecting himself, Mubarak asked for guarantees for himself and his family. He was told emphatically that the only guarantee he would receive was personal safety for himself and his immediate family. Further, he was told that if any corruption charges were leveled at him or his family in the future, they would have to face them in court. Dejected, he gave his acquiescence.
In a twenty second address Suleiman announced that evening from the headquarters of the SCAF that Mubarak was no longer the president. The military officer that was assigned to him since he left the presidential palace was standing behind him in a clear message to the world that the military was now in charge.
January 25-February 11: Arrogance and Mismanagement
Throughout the crisis, Hosni Mubarak displayed total incompetence and arrogance, sometimes even stupidity. All his decisions were a series of missteps, miscalculations and mismanagement. He was always a few days behind the events on the ground. Had he agreed to the modest demands on January 25, Mubarak most probably would have survived. By the time he dismissed his cabinet, hundreds of people had already lost their lives, raising the demands of the revolution.
When he was able to gain some sympathy after his second address, it quickly dissipated when the NDP goons were unleashed on the demonstrators. When the military was willing to let him serve out his term with dignity if he transferred his powers to his Vice President, he arrogantly refused and challenged them. By the end he incredibly dragged with him Suleiman and all the other officials that he had appointed. It was a textbook lesson on how not to handle revolutionary and popular demands.
One wonders if the revolution might have been aborted, slowed down, or taken a different path had Mubarak acted rationally or reasonably. But almost certainly, the youth of Egypt, determined to fulfill their dreams of a free, just and democratic society, would have pressed on until the end.
As one of the great Arab poets of his time, Nizar Qabbani described this generation of the youth that would lead the future Arab revolutions. Before his death in 1998, he foresaw their resolve for action and change when he prophesized:
We do not want an angry generation
To plough the sky
To blow up history
To blow up our thoughts.
We want a new generation
That does not forgive mistakes
That does not bend
We want a generation of giants.
Corn ears of the future,
You will break our chains,
Kill the opium in our heads,
Kill the illusions.
Don’t read about our suffocated generation,
We are a hopeless case.
We are as worthless as a watermelon rind.
Don’t read about us,
Don’t ape us,
Don’t accept us,
Don’t accept our ideas,
We are a nation of crooks and jugglers.
Corn ears of the future,
You are the generation
That will overcome defeat.
ESAM AL-AMIN can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org