Already the term ‘post-Tunisia’ is being used to describe the restive mood in the Middle East. Tunisia signalled that it is possible to bring down a seemingly impervious Arab autocracy through a popular movement. Egypt will be the battleground where this notion is seriously tested.
Anti-government demonstrations broke out all across Egypt on January 25 and have continued daily since. Like Tunisia, the explosion of the proverbial ‘Arab street’ in Egypt has been led by civil society. Connected in ways that were impossible scant years ago, Egyptians have been coordinating protests over cell phones and social networking websites. Egypt’s largest organised political opposition, the Muslim Brotherhood, is sitting the protests out. Used to engaging in political theatre with the Egyptian establishment, it will likely sit on the sidelines till a winner begins emerging on Cairo’s streets.
Though not as authoritarian as Tunisia, Egypt’s political system is also relatively closed, and since Hosni Mubarak’s ascendance to the presidency in 1981, the country has been under a nearly uninterrupted state of emergency with the suspension of civil liberties. But it is Egypt’s ongoing political transitions that have greatly exacerbated existing fault lines. Rigged parliamentary elections in late 2010 buried Egypt’s pretensions to parliamentary democracy. And Egypt’s upcoming presidential succession in September — the first in 30 years — ensures triggers for both popular discord and intra-elite struggles involving the ruling party, the military and the Mubarak family. With pressure building at the top and at the grassroots, Egypt appears ripe for revolution.
But there are two significant contrasts between Egypt and Tunisia. First, the Egyptian government, too, has observed the Tunisian example. Establishment forces will, no doubt, attempt to manage the situation on the streets quickly, while attempting to co-opt the movement’s demands. Already over a thousand protestors have been arrested and the popular social networking tool, Twitter, banned. The second contrast is that Egypt occupies a geo-strategic league all its own. It is the most populous Arab country and the premiere military power in Africa. A pliant Egypt also underpins American security architecture in the Middle East, including guaranteeing that Israel faces no credible conventional military threat in the region. In return, since 1979, Egypt has been one of the largest recipients of American military and economic largesse in the world — second only to Israel.
Clearly attuned to these implications, Washington has not yet adopted a colour-coded brand for the embryonic popular movement against the Egyptian government in the vein of the so-called ‘Green Revolution’ in Iran last year. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has reiterated her country’s support for Mubarak, while urging reforms that Washington hopes will act as a pressure valve for the protesters.
At stake is no less than a democratic regime-change in Egypt that would fundamentally alter the face of the region and the fortunes of its people. It is about time.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2011.