The people have emphatically won the battle, but the war is far from over!
Mohammed Bouazizi, the young Tunisian fruit salesman should not be forgotten when history is written. His self-immolation has literally acted as the flame to ignite the seemingly dry grass bed of political apathy in Egypt into what has become a well organised social, political and civil revolution.
Why are they protesting?
People are angry over a myriad of problems from poverty to the lack of employment amongst the young to the corruption and cronyism that has circulated now ex President Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party (NDP) for the past 30 years.
Why is political stability in Egypt important?
Egypt is the most populous Arab country. Its strategic location makes it a gateway into North Africa, the Middle East and Europe so whatever happens there has a political and economic domino effect around the world but especially in the Middle East. Firstly, Egypt has the Suez Canal. It is a significant conduit route for trade between the East and West where eight percent of the world’s shipping traffic including oil tankers and warships flow. The repercussions were felt when it closed for 8 years in 1967 and many do not want a return to that era. This lends Egypt enormous political and economic power [BBC]. Secondly, Egypt is often seen as the ‘neutral mediator in the Mid-East. Its recognition of Israel and the establishment of somewhat ‘cool’ relations after a history of conflict between the two parties are held down in the 1979 Israel – Egypt Peace Treaty. Hence, for an increasingly isolated Israel, Egypt is a heck of a friendly face amongst a crowd of enemies.
What is remarkable is the sheer determination and number of people who were able to come together in a relatively organised and peaceful manner in different major cities. Culminating in the now iconic and aptly named Tahrir (Liberation) Square, the people had a clear defiant message to their autocrat leader… ‘Go Mubarak, Go.’ On 11 February 2011, their will was done. Pro-government protestors had arrived on the scene to turn things ugly but the Egyptian people were resilient in the face of police forces and the estimated 300 people who lost their lives did not do so in vain. Now many are arguing that this form of political participation, ordinary people with ordinary lives taking to the street, is rapidly changing the Arab world as seen in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. This is not democracy being imported by other nations to suit their interests but an organic movement from the Egyptian people to have democracy and justice for them.
What was the international community’s response?
What is interesting is the initial international response to the protests in Egypt. Though millions of people around the globe knew where they stood in supporting the protestors, many of the world leaders must have had sore bottoms from sitting on the fence. The US often sets the precedent which other nations, including Britain, follow but Washington’s initial dithering left an ambiguous message for other world leaders when asked about their views. I imagine some initial private responses ranged from, ‘Let us see how this pans out’ to ‘Oh no, the proverbial has hit the fan’ to ‘people are wanting democracy and that is not in our interests ’. To be honest, it was quite humorous to watch them getting all hot and bothered during interviews. It was almost as if they were without minds of their own. Nevertheless, one can see why the message from Washington was cautious in its tone to condemn the Mubarak regime. The US has to present a liberal cosmopolitan image in support of the protesters and the principles of democracy. After all, the idea of democratic peace has almost become a political truth. Idealistically expressed by leading statesmen, economists, journalists and politicians alike, it has almost been universally acknowledged that democracies do not fight with one another. But, to paraphrase a leading political scientist, ‘democracy is what states, institutions and individuals make of it’. Despite the image of opposing autocratic regimes, it has been in the United States’ interests to keep Mubarak as an ally especially considering the constructed idea of the ‘war on terror’. Egypt’s reward for being so is the billions of dollars in foreign (mainly military) aid which had propped up Mubarak and his NDP party for almost 30 years. Clearly it fears some of the downsides that can come with democracy as the last thing the US (or Israel) want is for the people to choose someone who is not US friendly or get another Iran on their hands.
Who is in charge now?
18 February 2011 marked a week since the Egyptian people successfully saw the man that has led their country for 30 years step down from power and the jubilant scenes in Tahrir square are a testament to the strength of people power. However, many within Egypt and internationally are wary as the military has taken over day to day proceedings. In contrast to the much maligned police and security forces who acted with brutality at times, Egypt’s powerful army, normally loyal to the Mubarak regime, saw itself torn with the plight of the protesters. Yet, the army gave assurances that they would not use violence and force towards its own people which many Egyptians have praised. What must be remembered is that no leader is omnipotent, despite how it may be portrayed. Not having confidence of the people is one thing; not having the confidence of your governments is another. But in many cases if they are unable to maintain the support and confidence of the military, they are politically doomed which is what some argue has happened to Mubarak [Al Jazeera]. Nevertheless, the people and the international community are still awaiting reassurance that there will be a credible transition to democracy on the premise of: free and fair elections, the release of political prisoners, a more transparent government system and a lift on the imposed state of emergency. However, ousting an individual as powerful as Mubarak leaves a power vacuum that some fear the banned organisation, the Muslim Brotherhood, have designs to fill, although they dismiss these claims [BBC]. In spite of this, what seem to be brewing are the telling signs of a military coup. The ‘generals’ are in charge of the country, not Vice President Suleiman or the cabinet but faceless individuals and they need to show transparency if they want to establish credibility and legitimacy. The military currently have the power to set the pace and direction of change for the country. They also more or less decide who will be included in the decision making. Those who wish to be part of the new regime change may find themselves fighting, perhaps with money, for influence with the generals.
What happens next?
As the conveyor belt of events moves along at an increasing pace, the world looks on to Libya. However, there has clearly been a seismic change in Egyptian society as they feel confident to challenge government at every level. They are more organised, united and if they can keep up the momentum, it can only be seen as a good thing, though for how long is another question. An autocrat has gone but left associates, ministers and cronies behind the scenes so where do they fit into the picture? Will the military make the hopes of a transition to democracy an easy or difficult one? How will the US and Israeli foreign policy adapt to not having Mubarak in their pocket anymore? These questions remain unanswered…for now. Nonetheless, with the military taking over, the economic and political impact this may have in the region will keep many on their toes.
Either way, as protestor Abdel Massr fittingly sums up for himself and his fellow Egyptians,
‘We are the example to the world. All over the Arab world they are celebrating our freedom. In America, in Israel, they say Egyptians are not ready for democracy, Arabs don’t know how to use democracy. But that is just their excuse for supporting Mubarak. He was good for them, not for us’. [Guardian]
Article by Mariam Boakye-Dankwa.
Edited by Joe Sutcliffe.