The question people have been asking of the Egyptian protests in Cairo ‘why now?’, is fast being replaced by ‘what next?’ So far, the spirit in Tahrir Square is unified on one count – a radical transformation of the status quo, culminating in an immediate end to Hosni Mubarak’s 30 year reign. After that the questions get fuzzier, and much more difficult. News reports have been quick to laud the diversity of the country’s protests, highlighting the tapestry of protesters from the Westernised elite to the more traditional, and cutting across age and gender lines. And while that diversity certainly strengthens the collective voice towards its immediate goal, it could be cause for more chaos once the initial rush wears off.
The revolutions sweeping the Arab world in an almost domino effect (Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan) have little precedent in modern history, and certainly none in modern-day Egypt’s.
The closest parallel would perhaps be Lebanon’s 2005 million-man protests following the assassination of Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
It marked the first time members of the tiny Mediterranean country collectively favoured non-violent demonstrations versus picking up a gun to change the status quo, and the unification of the disparate sectarian groups who until then either engaged in battle with each other or lived in tenuous tension.
They too were united against their common enemy – Syria – and eventually succeeded in ending Syria’s military domination in their country. But events soon afterwards revealed that this coalition was more transient than permanent, and the very same question of what next was answered by a polarization of Lebanese politics, and continuing instability vis-a-vis the various competing factions.
Mubarak, for now, seems resolute in maintaining power, especially by drawing his number two and his number three in his new “reformist” government from his close circle, although some argue this is an exit strategy. The protesters, they insist, won’t stop until Mubarak is out. And thus it seems Mubarak and the protesters are engaged in a staring-down, waiting to see who blinks first. The most immediate, pressing part of that contest is the economy, with fast-depleting food staples and fuel, closed banks, and foreign companies pulling out or pulling back from the capital. Tourism, Egypt’s major source of revenue, is quite expectedly at a standstill.
In some ways Egypt’s role vis-a-vis the US bears resemblance to Pakistan’s crucial role in the nebulous ‘war on terror’. Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid (Israel being the first) in order to be an instrumental ally in advancing US interests in the region, namely the so-called Palestinian ‘peace’ process, brokering Camp David accords and turning a blind eye to Israel’s siege and blockade of Gaza. The fear of Islamic political parties taking over is palpable as far as the United States is concerned. A massive Muslim population that grows exponentially each year and controlled by an Islamic party is perhaps Washington’s biggest fear. Add nuclear capability and that sounds like their fears here and in Iran. But realistically, the chances of an Iran-style revolution are slim to none. There are few ‘fundamentalist’ strains in the army, and Egyptians respect their military. This respect has only been strengthened by the army’s refusal to use force against the protesters.
Another crucial question is, who next? So far Mohamed ElBaradei is the loose leader of the opposition, but is by no means backed by a meaningful percentage of the protesters. The former International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) director-general and Nobel Laureate has spent most of his professional life abroad, prompting some protesters to dismiss him as disconnected from Egypt’s domestic scene. The Muslim Brotherhood – long suppressed under the Mubarak regime – have been prominent in the Tahrir Square protests, but they too have a lack of mainstream popular support.
Either way, the US and Israel are watching with obvious interest. A government ‘by the people’ will likely be less supportive of its country’s ties with Israel, but it remains to be seen (and rather unlikely) that the new government will radically reverse current Israel-Palestine peace policies – at least not to a return to a state of war or de-recognition of the state of Israel, like some of their Arab brethren. It could, more realistically, mean cutting down the concessions granted to Israel, and this means a reorganisation of Middle-East relations in general, with consequences in Palestine, Jordan and elsewhere across the Arab world.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 3rd, 2011.