The young Egyptians’ revolt for democracy achieved the seemingly unachievable result in short time. “The 18-day Revolution,” many proclaimed when Hosni Mubarak abandoned power on February 11th. There were, however, skeptics who saw a hijacking of the democracy movement by the military and its domestic and foreign backers. Recent developments in Egypt support the views of the skeptics. The youth revolt ended without a revolution. The dictator fell, while Egypt’s nascent democracy was aborted.
The protesters in Tahrir Square were young, courageous, and without much experience in politics and street protest. Their movement was spontaneous and impulsive, and their demands limited. They saw in the removal of Mubarak a chance for an Egypt that respected the political and cultural rights of its citizens. The protesters did not ask for a change in Egypt’s unequal distribution of wealth and income. They did not demand the eradication of poverty, and the restructuring of an economic and social apparatus created by Mubarak, his allies, and the military.
The departure of Mubarak from power did not even bring about the limited political demands the young protesters aspired to. With Mubarak out of office, the military ordered the protesters to return to their homes and workplaces, “resume normal life,” and end anti-government demonstrations. Soldiers evacuated Tahrir Square. Meanwhile, many protesters that were arrested in the days of rage remained in custody, and some beaten and tortured, human rights organizations reported. The violence against people continued.
A peaceful sit-in of 1000 youth in Tahrir Square was violently put down on March 9th. Protected by soldiers, thugs attacked the protesters. The 23-year-old Ramy Esam was among those arrested on March 9th. He was interrogated for four hours and beaten with sticks, metal rods, wires, ropes, hoses, and whips while an officer repeatedly jumping on his face, Ramy told Ivan Watson of CNN. Arrested female protested were forced to undress before male officers and subjected to a virginity test. Those not found to be virgins would be charged with prostitution, the authorities threatened the detailed women.
On March 24th, the Egyptian cabinet announced a new law that banned strikes and demonstrations which impeded the work of public institutions, Human Rights Watch reported. The law practically prohibits the types of peaceful activities which led to the fall of President Mubarak. A symbol of the revolt for democracy, gatherings in Tahrir Square are illegal in the post-Mubarak Egypt.
These and other alarming developments and practices indicate a concerted by the military to minimize the potential democratic gains of the fall of Hosni Mubarak. The rush to hold a referendum on the constitution, and the planned parliamentary elections in September will only guarantee the cling on power by Mubarak’s associates, and other organized political forces like The Muslim Brotherhood.
The Tahrir Square movement was a revolt of the restless and disenfranchised young Egyptians against the older generations and their entrenched power and control of the society. The proposed elections have little chance of changing that power structure. The hasty elections will exclude youth and the women who fought Mubarak and his regime from organizing effectively and partaking in the process with well-defined platforms and demands. For now, it seems unlikely that the Egyptian youth will benefit much from their heroism and sacrifices. The question remains: was this outcome inevitable?
Egypt’s strategic importance to the United States, and America’s financial backing of the military were among the factors that helped derail the outcome of the democracy movement. The Tahrir Square demonstration created the possibility of a civilian transitional government that included youth leaders, representatives of women groups, and labor unions. Soon after the protests began, Mohammad ElBaradei emerged as a representative of a broad coalition of civilian forces. Even Muslim Brotherhood accepted ElBaradei’s representation. But, a coalition of that nature was too open-ended and unpredictable for Washington, and the armed forces of Egypt. They would not have accepted a transitional government let by ElBaradei. ElBaradei, the winner of Nobel Peace, was quietly sidelined, and Omar Suleiman, a leading figure in Egypt’s intelligence apparatus, and the close ally of Mubarak became the head of the transitional government.
People’s protest shook the foundations of the government of Hosni Mubarak. The United States’ backroom deal makings with the military, however, guaranteed the survival of old order and its U.S. friendly policies without the discredited dictator. A postmodern coup d’etat replaced a potential revolution.
BEHZAD YAGHMAIAN is a professor of political economy at Ramapo College of New Jersey, and the author of Embracing the Infidel: Stories of Muslim Migrants on the Journey West and the forthcoming The Greatest Migration: a People’s Story of China’s March to Power. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.