Popular uprisings are clarifying events, and so it is with the revolt in Egypt. The Mubarak regime – or some post-Mubarak continuation of it – may survive this challenge, but the illusions that have held it in place have crumbled. The protests in Tahrir Square are a message not only to Mubarak and the military regime that has ruled Egypt since the Free Officers coup of 1952; they are a message to all the region’s autocrats, particularly those supported by the West, and to Washington and Tel Aviv, which, after spending years lamenting the lack of democracy in the Muslim world, have responded with a mixture of trepidation, fear and hostility to the emergence of a pro-democracy movement in the Arab world’s largest country. If these are the ‘birth pangs of a new Middle East’, they are very different from those Condoleezza Rice claimed to discern during Israel’s war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006.
The first illusion to crumble was the myth of Egyptian passivity, a myth that had exerted a powerful hold over Egyptians. ‘We’re all just waiting for someone to do the job for us,’ an Egyptian journalist said to me when I reported from Cairo last year (LRB, 27 May 2010); despite the proliferation of social movements since the 1970s, the notion of a mass revolt against the regime was inconceivable to her. When Galal Amin, a popular Egyptian sociologist, remarked that ‘Egyptians are not a revolutionary nation’ in a recent al-Jazeera documentary, few would have disagreed. And until the Day of Rage on 25 January many Egyptians – including a number of liberal reformers – would have resigned themselves to a caretaker regime led by the intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, if only to save themselves from the president’s son Gamal Mubarak. The first to be surprised by the uprising were the Egyptians themselves, who – in the lyrical early days of the revolt, culminating in the ‘million-man march’ on Tahrir Square on 1 February – discovered that they were capable of taking matters into their own hands, of overcoming their fear of the police and collectively organising against the regime. And as they acquired a thrilling sense of their own power, they would settle only for the regime’s removal.
The Mubarak regime was not the only Arab government to be shaken by the protests: the reverberations were soon felt in Yemen and Jordan, and in the West Bank, where Mahmoud Abbas’s police cracked down on a march called in solidarity with Egypt’s pro-democracy forces. What we’re seeing in Cairo is both new and old: not an Islamist revolt but a broad-based social movement bridging the secular-religious divide, a 21st-century version of the Arab nationalism that had for many years seemed a spent force. And though the Egyptian protests have found a provisional figurehead in Mohammed ElBaradei, the movement is largely leaderless, in striking contrast to the heroic age of Arab nationalism, dominated by charismatic, authoritarian figures like Nasser and Boumedienne.
The revolt that began in Tunisia and spread to Egypt is a struggle against what Algerians call hogra, ‘contempt’, a struggle fed by anger over authoritarian rule, torture, corruption, unemployment and inequality, and – a lightning rod everywhere in the Arab world – deference to the US strategic agenda. Not surprisingly, US officials are nervous that revolts could break out in other friendly states. Asked whether he expected similar unrest in Jordan, John Kerry, who was admirably forthright in calling for Mubarak to stand down, dismissed the idea: ‘King Abdullah of Jordan is extraordinarily intelligent, thoughtful, sensitive, in touch with his people. The monarchy there is very well respected, even revered.’
For years, Arab rulers told their Western patrons not to worry about their subjects, as though they were obedient, if sometimes unruly children, and these patrons were only too happy to follow this advice. There was nothing to fear from the Egyptians, accustomed as they were to despotism since the Pharaonic age. Mubarak might be hated by them, but he was our man in Cairo: ‘family’, as Hillary Clinton put it. (The Clinton and Mubarak families have been close for years.) So long as he opened the economy to multinationals, achieved high growth rates and honoured his foreign policy commitments – allowing swift passage for US warships through the Suez Canal, interrogating radical Islamists kidnapped by the CIA as part of the extraordinary rendition programme, maintaining the peace with Israel, tightening the siege of Gaza, opposing the ‘resistance’ front led by Iran – American military aid would continue to flow, at a rate of $1.3 billion a year.
A façade of euphemism had to be erected to disguise the nature of Mubarak’s regime, and press accounts seemed to bolster it. Reading Western – particularly American – newspapers before the recent crackdown, one would hardly have known the degree of discontent in Egypt. Mubarak was typically described as an ‘authoritarian’ but ‘moderate’ and ‘responsible’ leader, almost never as a dictator. Popular anger over torture – and over the regime’s cosy relations with Israel – was rarely discussed. But when the police attacked peaceful protesters throughout Egypt, and especially after Mubarak’s thugs – armed with grenades, knives and petrol bombs, some wearing pro-Mubarak T-shirts that seemed to have been designed for the occasion – charged through Tahrir Square on 2 February on horses and camels, the regime’s face was revealed: coarse, brutal, an unwitting parody of Orientalist clichés. Newspapers not known for their candour about Egypt began to describe it with a new, hard clarity.
The crisis in Egypt has also been a crisis for the Obama administration. Unlike the ‘colour’ revolutions in Eastern Europe, the Lebanese protests against Syrian troops or the Green Movement in Iran, the uprising in Egypt targeted an old and trusted ally, not an enemy. Coming out in support of the Tunisian protesters made the Obama administration feel good, but it required no sacrifice. Egypt, a pillar of US strategy in the greater Middle East, particularly in the ‘peace process’, was a harder case. Until late January, the US did not hesitate to call Mubarak a friend, or to extend all courtesies to visiting members of the Egyptian military. But when Egyptians went into open revolt, the US was suddenly very tight-lipped about its old friend in Cairo. A new discourse was rapidly invented. Some Western officials failed to catch on to the shift: Joe Biden was widely ridiculed for saying that Mubarak couldn’t be a dictator because he was friendly with Israel; Tony Blair praised him as ‘immensely courageous and a force for good’ – yesterday’s message. But when Blair said that Egypt’s transition had to be ‘managed’ – presumably by the West – so as not to jeopardise the ‘peace process’, he was only saying openly what Washington believed.
Obama couldn’t very well come out against the protesters; they embodied the values which, in his Cairo speech, he claimed the United States would always support. But the administration clearly didn’t want Mubarak to be chased out of office, as Zine Abedine Ben-Ali of Tunisia had been. Instead, he had to be eased out so that a popular revolution could be averted, and a regime friendly to the US and Israel preserved: otherwise Egypt would be ‘lost’. And so, even as Obama increased the pressure on Mubarak to stand down, he refused to side with the demonstrators, reserved his highest praise for the military, and insisted that Washington would not interfere in the question of who rules Egypt. But in the eyes of the demonstrators, the US could hardly pretend to be neutral: the tear gas canisters fired at them were labelled ‘Made in America’, as were the F-16s monitoring them from the sky. In calling for something more than a ‘managed’ transition under military rule, the demonstrators in Egypt were defying not just Mubarak but the US. The Mubarak regime was infuriated by Obama’s statement on 1 February that the transition ‘must begin now’, but the emphasis on an ‘orderly transition’ was a hint that the US preferred continuity, or perhaps a soft coup by defectors in the army: there were, after all, shared interests at stake which no expression of ‘people power’ could be permitted to sabotage. The man who was sent to Cairo to deliver Washington’s message to Mubarak was an old friend: Frank G. Wisner, the former ambassador to Egypt and a lobbyist in DC for the Egyptian military.
Mubarak, when he stands down, is not likely to be missed by many people in Egypt, where he has pledged to spend his last days, but he will be missed in Washington and, above all, in Tel Aviv. Mubarak and Omar Suleiman, now the interim vice president, worked closely with Israel on everything from the Gaza blockade to intelligence-gathering; they allowed Israeli warships into the Suez Canal to prevent weapons smuggling into Gaza from Sudan, and did their best to stir up tensions between Fatah and Hamas. The Egyptian public is well aware of this intimate collaboration, and ashamed of it: democratisation could spell its end. A democratic government isn’t likely to abolish the peace treaty with Israel – even some of the leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood have said they would respect it. But Egyptian foreign policy would be set in Cairo rather than in Washington and Tel Aviv, and the cold peace would grow colder. A democratic government in Cairo would have to take public opinion into account, much as Erdogan’s government does in Turkey: another former US client state but one that, in marked contrast to Egypt, has escaped American tutelage, made the transition to democracy under an Islamist government, and pursued an independent foreign policy that is widely admired in the Muslim world. If Egypt became a democracy, it might work to achieve Palestinian unity, open up the crossing from Gaza and improve relations with Iran and Hizbullah: shifts which would be anathema to Israel.
Almost from the moment the demonstrations began, while much of the world rejoiced at the scenes in Tahrir Square, Binyamin Netanyahu and other high-ranking Israeli officials were urging Western politicians to stop criticising Mubarak, and raising fears of an Iranian-style revolution. For years, Israel had said it could hardly be expected to make concessions in such a dangerously undemocratic region. But as calls for Mubarak’s exit grew, Israeli officials and commentators began to talk about Arab democracy as if it constituted another existential threat to the Jewish state. ‘If, the day after elections [in Egypt], we have an extremist religious dictatorship, what good are democratic elections?’ Shimon Peres asked, while Moshe Arens, the former defence minister, wondered in Haaretz whether Israel could make peace only with dictators like Mubarak. As one Israeli commentator wrote in Yediot Ahronot, Israel has been ‘overtaken by fear: the fear of democracy. Not here, in neighbouring countries.’
Israel’s fears of Egyptian democracy were instantly echoed by its supporters in the US. David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy worried that ‘what starts as a Berlin revolution of 1989 morphs into a Tehran revolution of 1979.’ Israel would then find itself with a Hizbullah-led government to the north, Hamas to the west and the Muslim Brothers to the south. To stave off such a scenario, he said, Egypt would be better off under a military regime led by Omar Suleiman during a transition that ‘brings in constructive forces of Egyptian civil society’. These ‘constructive forces’, according to Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, would not include ElBaradei, whom he attacked as a ‘stooge of Iran’. (ElBaradei earned the enmity of the Israel lobby for denouncing the Gaza blockade as a ‘brand of shame on the forehead of every Arab, every Egyptian and every human being’, and for opposing military confrontation with Iraq and Iran.) ‘Things are about to go from bad to worse in the Middle East,’ Richard Cohen, a columnist for the Washington Post, warned:
The dream of a democratic Egypt is sure to produce a nightmare … The next Egyptian government – or the one after – might well be composed of Islamists. In that case, the peace with Israel will be abrogated and the mob currently in the streets will roar its approval … I care about democratic values, but they are worse than useless in societies that have no tradition or respect for minority rights. What we want for Egypt is what we have ourselves. This, though, is an identity crisis. We are not them.
As I write, Cohen has little to fear. A different kind of nightmare appears to be unfolding in Egypt: the brutal repression of a mass movement for democracy by a regime bent on staying in power, and confident that its backers will give it time to do the job. Seldom has the hidden complicity between Western governments and Arab authoritarianism been so starkly revealed. Protesters are being savagely beaten by the baltagiya – paid thugs – and opposition figures and foreign journalists have been arrested. I have just learned that Ahmed Seif, a human rights lawyer I interviewed last year in Cairo, has been jailed along with several other colleagues, accused of spying for Iran.
By 3 February, Thursday evening, Omar Suleiman seemed to be in charge. A hard, smooth-talking man, he cast himself as a national saviour in an interview on state television, defending Egypt from the ‘chaos’ the regime has done its best to encourage, and from a sinister conspiracy to destabilise the country on the part of ‘Iranian and Hamas agents’, with help from al-Jazeera. Wednesday’s mob violence in Tahrir Square would be investigated, he said (he denied any government responsibility), and the ‘reform’ process would go forward, but first demonstrators must go home – or face the consequences. With this grimly calibrated mix of promises and threats, Suleiman became the man of the hour: later that evening it was reported that the Obama administration was drafting plans for Mubarak’s immediate removal and a transitional government under his long-serving intelligence chief.
Mubarak, however, gracelessly refused to co-operate with the patrons who now find him such an embarrassment. He wanted to retire, he told Christiane Amanpour, he was ‘fed up’, but feared that his rapid departure would lead to ‘chaos’. The longer he remains in office, the more violence we’re likely to see. But even if Suleiman replaces him, it won’t be an ‘orderly transition’ – or a peaceful one – because Egypt’s pro-democracy forces want something better than Mubarakism without Mubarak; they have not sacrificed hundreds of lives in order to be ruled by the head of intelligence.
From the Obama administration we can expect criticisms of the crackdown, prayers for peace, and more calls for ‘restraint’ on ‘both sides’ – as if there were symmetry between unarmed protesters and the military regime – but Suleiman will be given the benefit of the doubt. Unlike ElBaradei, he’s a man Washington knows it can deal with. The men and women congregating in Tahrir Square have the misfortune to live in a country that shares a border with Israel, and to be fighting a regime that for the last three decades has provided indispensable services to the US. They are well aware of this. They know that if the West allows the Egyptian movement to be crushed, it will be, in part, because of the conviction that ‘we are not them,’ and that we can’t allow them to have what we have. Despite the enormous odds, they continue to fight.