In December 1992, Egyptian security forces raided Cairo’s poor neighbourhood of Imababa, in order to curb the growing influence of Islamist groups that were becoming a major threat to the Egyptian regime. This police action led to an unprecedented level of violence on the people of this area. Many, including women and children, were tortured during the subsequent detentions and some did not survive the ordeal. I was conducting research in Cairo during the early 1990s and, as news of police brutality filtered out, I asked my liberal Egyptian friends about the serious human rights implications of such actions. The most common reply I got was that the state was finally acting to protect the people from the threat of an Islamist takeover. The irony of such assertions, which defended the use of torture by the state to guarantee liberal freedoms, was not lost on me. Through my own previous experience as a human rights monitor in El Salvador, I knew that once torture techniques are introduced into a society, these systems do not discriminate between the body of an Islamist radical, a leftist activist or a liberal democrat. This came to pass soon enough in Egypt — once the regime had militarily annihilated the Islamist threat, it turned towards those who were agitating for human rights, democratic reforms and social justice.
I lived in Egypt for two years after this incident. During that time, the entire society was under surveillance and the dreaded Mukhabarat and Mubahis (the intelligence services) created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear. One example of this fear became evident to me when I visited a friend in another poor neighbourhood; he quickly asked me to leave as my presence could be dangerous for both me and his family. Later, I was informed that two preachers from the local mosque had been picked up by the security services on charges of being allied with the Islamists. Their disappearance had an ominous air to it. In a community where people spent most of their time greeting neighbours, visiting each other and participating in joyous and sad occasions, no one had gone to console the families of the preachers for fear of being harassed and questioned by the security police.
With rising unemployment and poverty, these neighbourhoods were considered politically volatile by the state, which feared that urban oppositional movements connected to Islamist groups would rise from these locations. While the imagery of these popular neighbourhoods as breeding ground for Islamist groups permeated the state media during my stay in Cairo, seldom was there an analysis of the social and economic violence of poverty and the lack of amenities suffered by the Egyptian rural and urban poor. The government’s solution to people’s economic demands was focused on security and order, rather than on distribution of resources or on social justice.
Once the regime had managed to crush the Islamists by the mid 1990s, they went after secular opposition members and activists, perpetrating the same violence on these bodies as they had done on the earlier ones. Fear, intimidation and political corruption remained the order of the day. In a seemingly stable Egypt, the gap between the rich and the poor increased with every passing year and every six years the farce of the president’s re-election would be carried out. All this was backed by the full force of the security apparatus and guaranteed by one of the largest armies in the region, sustained primarily by billions in military aid by the United States.
Finally, Egyptians have shaken off their fear and are forcing the ruling elite to notice them. This is a tectonic shift in the political landscape of the country and whatever the outcome, Egypt will never be the same. It is not that the proud and generous people of this ancient culture have not tried to challenge the regime before. One recent example is the Kefaya (Enough) movement of 2005-06, which called upon Mubarak not to run in the 2005 presidential elections; not to groom his son, Gamal, to succeed him; to limit the powers of the executive branch of the government; and to end the state of emergency. All these demands were rejected as Mubarak ran again, kept on grooming his son, expanded the power of the executive branch and extended the emergency.
It was hence a hypocritical Mubarak who, in his speech of February 1, agreed to step down in September, change the constitution to limit presidential terms and hold free elections. However, the regime’s real face was evident when, the very next day, it unleashed its thugs on the protesters in Tahrir Square, while the army looked the other way. The government machinery, ever sophisticated, on the one hand is calling for a dialogue while, on the other, retains its hold on power. State media generates fear of social chaos and of an Islamist takeover; it accuses ‘foreign hands’ of creating turmoil in the country, while arrests and disappearances of political activists continue with impunity.
The regime may still feel that it can marginalise the current movement or violently crush it. The most ominous sign in this regard is the role of the military itself. It has, with masterful ease, put the blame of all past oppression on the civilian security forces and is seeking to play the role of an arbitrator. This, of course, obscures the fact that Mubarak and his close allies all belong to the armed forces (including Vice-President Omar Suleiman, ex-director of the national intelligence agency). The army, after ruling the country for almost 60 years and denying the people their democratic freedoms, now wants people to believe that it can guarantee a transition to democracy.
What will happen in the coming days will depend on how the struggle sustains itself and pressurises this cynical, manipulative and oppressive regime to give up its hold on power. Here in Pakistan, despite formal democracy, the ruling elite should learn from Egypt and pay attention to the concerns of its own populace before the disenfranchised and the marginal take to the streets. For now, let us salute the brave people of Egypt and join them in their struggle for social justice and dignity. Let’s echo their slogan of ‘Yusqut Mubarak’ (‘Down with Mubarak’) and hope that we can all witness a future where Egypt is free and fearless.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 9th, 2011.