Egypt Protests Continue

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By Brendan De Souza on 4.2.2024

Egypt Protests Continue

As tens of thousands of protestors assemble in Tahrir Square, Cairo, to call for President Hosni Mubarak to resign at a “day of departure” rally, Brendan De Souza reports on a turbulent week in Egypt and the wider implications of events.

One could be forgiven for thinking that absolutely nothing else is happening in the world at the moment as reports from Egypt spill out across the world. This is in part due to incessant media coverage. However, the most important reason is that the events in Egypt have the potential to alter the very fabric of Middle Eastern politics. Alter they might, but whatever happens, it is unlikely to be the beginning of a great new age of Middle Eastern democracy.

The protests in Egypt began in earnest on the 25th January, known in Egypt as National Police Day. The scale and intensity of the protests is unparalleled in recent history (at least since the 1977 Bread Riots) and has lead some to liken Cairo to that of a ‘war zone’, with numerous people dead and thousands injured. Further protests have taken place in the Mediterranean entrepôt Alexandria, the base of the Muslim Brotherhood, and other cities around Egypt.

January 2nd saw a new development with the arrival of pro-Mubarak in Tahrir Square in central Cairo. Arriving in a convoy of buses and armed with bricks, stones, missiles and professionally designed placards, the new arrivals have had violent clashes with both protestors in the square and those leaving it. This was the first incident of pro-Mubarak forces making an appearance and it has been suggested that they were paid to confront the protestors or were indeed undercover police in civilian attire, something along the lines of the Basij in Iran. However, rather than intimidating the protestors, the arrival of Mubarak supporters has served only to strengthen the resolve of the demonstrators and they now appear to be entrenched in Tahrir Square. As things stand, the protestors show no signs of giving in and neither does President Mubarak.

President Hosni Mubarak, a former Air Chief Marshal and Commander of the Egyptian Air Force, has been in power for 30 years. Mubarak’s time in office has been marred by controversy and vast social problems that have left Egypt with a society divided and neglected. Poverty, repression, corruption, high unemployment and rigged elections have been widespread in Egypt over the past 30 years. Egypt has seen its economy grow steadily over recent years, yet most people in the country remain very poor. At the age of 82, and with his health apparently deteriorating, his time in power can only be finite; this has not deterred protesters from calling for his removal now, rather than at the next election.

The problem with calling for a new, fair government is that politicians and leaders generally often have an agenda. It is often the case that the well-loved and revered opposition leaders who should be in power seldom are because they are too honest to their people and their cause – leadership requires certain unpleasant characteristics – namely the desire to succeed and rule. Whilst this is obviously toned down a little in Western democracies, the case seems universally applicable. In the case of the Middle East however, there are plenty of leaders, royal, civil and military, that are unwilling to relinquish power for the aforementioned reasons.

The strategic implications of the current crisis are huge and could have the potential to change the very nature of the Middle East and its relationship with the United States, in particular. It is easy for one to consider the crisis for what it presents itself as – a popular uprising – yet the media has yet to fully appreciate the consequences of it. For all his time in office, Mubarak’s Egypt has been a staunch ally of the United States. In the early independence years prior to Mubarak and his immediate predecessor, Anwar Sadat, Egypt was presided over by Gamal Abdel Nasser and aligned with the Soviet Union. Whilst the international community and nature of states is quite different to how it was in this period, the potential for a dramatic shift in relations is still possible and given historical precedent, the United States is naturally cautious of any hurried change of power in Egypt. The US administration is seeking to avoid a situation like the one it faced in Iran in 1979. For the sake of regional stability and security, it is often in America’s, and the world’s, best interests to have authoritarian, West-ward leaning governments. The problem is that this is completely at odds with the rights of the people. The Egyptian people have every right to protest against Mubarak for what he has done to their society but whilst his regime has seen them suffer, the region has benefited from a degree of stability. One could argue that the Middle East is not stable but if the Egyptian government were to fall and a new system be put in place, the fortunes of all Middle Eastern states would be adversely affected. A change in Egypt would have serious implications for the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, a long-standing statute whose demise is in no one’s interest.

The relative strengths of the protestors and the government is a key issue. If the government has the power and resolve to see off the revolution, it will succeed. If the people are stronger and have greater resolve, they will succeed. At this point it seems that both sides have considerable resolve. The protestors are standing their ground and not being intimidated by government-sponsored forces, but Mubarak has hardly given in to their demands. In every revolution there is a critical point at which the future is decided and the present system changes irreversibly. This point has yet to be reached in Egypt and it remains to be seen whether it will be reached any time soon.

A real concern right now is that the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, or another similarly inclined group, could seize power in the wake of President Mubarak should he step down sooner than expected. If such a group came to power it could signal a seismic shift in relations with Israel and the United States and precipitate a wide reaching conflict in the region.

The preferred option (at least by Western governments) now seems to be a phased shift between Mubarak’s authoritarian regime and a new government comprising elements of the current regime, a new democratic movement and the army. Western governments face the dilemma of exporting democracy around the world and yet at the same time must foster regional stability. Forming a government that produces a panacea here will be next to impossible. The potential for a new democratic government in Egypt is somewhat limited because, as history has taught us, revolutions rarely deliver the outcome most sought after by the people.

Much now depends upon the Egyptian Army and its ability to maintain political order. Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak all owed their power to the military and as can be seen on the streets of Cairo today, the army are not quashing the protestors in the name of President Mubarak, they are deciding their own course of action.

There are two possible outcomes of this crisis. The first is the continuation of authoritarianism, albeit in a slightly different guise to what is extant now. The second is a shift towards an extremist government, the Muslim Brotherhood being the likely candidate here. Neither option embraces the needs of the Egyptian people and it is unlikely their calls for radical change will be listened to. The problem is that democracy does not present itself as a strong enough force to break down the old system and see off the challenge of extremism. The authoritarian government, held up by, and as part of, the army, is unlikely to give in easily but if it were to bow to public pressure and disband in its entirety, it would not be a democratic government established in its place but an extremist one. The problem is that democracy in Egypt would be in its infancy and would not possess a power base like the army that is available to the current regime. Whilst any potential democratic movement would founder, the extremist group, with the power and determination to take control, would make its move. This does make for depressing reading but one should remember that this situation is inherently complex and the protestors, despite being of incredible resolve and determination, are not the only powerful force at work here. For them, the best possible situation would be the establishment of a new, albeit watered down, authoritarian government which would hopefully embrace some elements of democracy over time. What will happen in other Arab countries remains to be seen.



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