These are exhilarating times for the Middle East. In the wake of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, which brought down the brutally repressive 23-year regime of Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, a wave of demonstrations is sweeping Egypt, Yemen, Jordan, Morocco and Algeria. This is the Middle East’s “Berlin moment”. And everything hangs in the balance in Egypt, the country with the largest population in the Middle East (80 million), and with the greatest influence. As protests there began last Tuesday, commentators asked whether Tunisia had sparked a domino effect – but doubted that Mubarak’s 30-year regime could be toppled.
Certainly, there are important differences between Tunisia and Egypt. In Tunisia, the population is highly educated, women enjoy equal rights, and certain sectors of the economy are strong, but there is high unemployment, especially among the rural poor and educated youth. The government was severely repressive, frequently imprisoning and torturing journalists and anyone who spoke out against it. The army also played a key role in the revolution’s success: when Ben Ali ordered the army to shoot at protestors, its leader General Rached Ammar chose to disobey, and took the people’s side.
Despite extreme poverty and high unemployment in Egypt, Mubarak allowed limited liberty and openness, providing some outlet for its enormous population, though the Muslim Brotherhood was outlawed. Islamism has much greater support here than in Tunisia, and the Egyptian army is more important and more closely integrated with the government than it is in Tunisia. And of course, Egypt is a key ally of the west, providing the route for its oil supply through the Suez canal and officially at peace with Israel since Camp David.
But the previously unimaginable scale of the protests show that Egyptians are emboldened by the Tunisian example. As in Tunisia, the internet, Facebook and Twitter played an essential role in organizing and mobilizing the rallies. The biggest protests started after Friday prayers, when protestors filled the streets and gathered around Tahrir Square in Cairo, and in Alexandria, Suez and other cities. They came from all walks of life: internet-literate young, trade unionists, unemployed, students, professionals and families. The Muslim Brotherhood belatedly decided to take part in the demonstration and swelled the numbers.
The enormity of events caused Mubarak to shut down internet and mobile phone networks, still mostly down. Security forces cracked down on demonstrators in some areas with tear gas and rubber bullets. Plain-clothes police entered the crowds, beating and arresting many. The world was hooked to TV and news reports when protestors first broke the curfew and remained on the streets through the night.
It took Ben Ali 26 days to offer concessions and Mubarak only four. On Saturday, Mubarak spoke, promising reforms and announcing that he was dissolving the cabinet and appointing intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as Vice President and Aviation Minister Ahmed Chafik as Prime Minister. In both cases it was too little, too late. Egyptians continue to protest, breaking the curfew, calling for him to go, chanting that his plane is ready. Now into their seventh day, there are no signs that they are about to end, despite over 100 deaths and 2000 injuries in confrontations with police, the intimidating appearance of low-flying F16 planes overhead, and the forced shut-down of Al Jazeera in Egypt.
But the battle is far from won. As noted by Ahmed Driss, director of the Centre for Mediterranean and International Studies in Tunis, Mubarak’s appointment of a Vice President and new cabinet ministers is a strategy: “he can still leave before the end of his presidential term while ensuring the continuation of the regime.” The regime’s survival is very important for the USA, hence its extremely guarded response so far. Calling for restraint and reforms by the Egyptian government, it remains non-committal about Mubarak as he clings to power.
Israel’s silence is also telling. It can no longer hide behind the justification that without repression, extremists would take over and threaten its existence. It is probably fearful that an Egyptian revolution, along with the recent Palestine Papers revelations, point to a potential new order in which its 63-year repression of Palestinians would finally need to be addressed. It is obvious that most of the demonstrators in Egypt are ordinary, secularist citizens who want real democracy and serious political reform. The Muslim Brotherhood is popular and organized, but is less likely to be dangerously attractive if Mubarak’s dictatorship is no longer the only alternative. If there is a planned, democratic process under an interim government, it will not automatically fill the vacuum.
Much hinges on what role the army will take if it comes to a confrontation between demonstrators and police. The army has entered cities and keeps order. In many cases, tank commanders are fraternizing with protestors, who are taking photos with them. The instances of chaos and looting on the streets can still give Mubarak an excuse to crack down on the demonstrations, and the army has deep and established interests within the Mubarak regime. But the riot police has been withdrawn, another strategic move on Mubarak’s part that eliminates the reason for confrontation.
Though the struggle in Egypt is far from over, the Middle East has changed irrevocably because the barrier of fear has been broken. There is no going back. Apprehension about the potential exploitation of a vacuum by anarchic looters or Islamists cannot be used as an excuse for the continuation of corrupt and repressive regimes that have dominated the Middle East for the last thirty years. Nor can the West afford to prop them up any longer and ignore the will of millions of Arabs.
LANA ASFOUR is a freelance writer based in London and Beirut, but currently in Tunis. She is the author of Laurence Sterne in France. She can be reached through her website.