Newsletter: Vol. 10. Iss. 2
Don't Know Much About History
Peter J. Miano
Peter J. Miano
I just got back to our base in Bethlehem after having spent most of January with two programs in Cairo. Our third program in Egypt since November was in progress when the popular uprising against the Egyptian government broke out. I happened to have been in Tahrir Square-ground zero of the uprising-when the first protests broke out and I watched for about four hours that first day (I returned that night and the next night too).
As I approached Tahrir Square, my first indication that something was awry was the absence of car traffic-unheard of in Cairo. There were a lot of special police on hand, but, from a bridge at about 12:30 PM on 25 January, I spotted only about two dozen protesters. Although calls for demonstrations had been circulating by word of mouth and especially via Facebook, Twitter and sms, no one really expected anything like what would transpire. When I say "no one," I mean no one in anyone's government (U.S. and Egyptian governments included), no one in the so-called "opposition" movements (neither the Muslim Brotherhood nor Nobel Laureate Dr. el Baradei), and, perhaps, not even the organizers themselves. The ominous overthrow of the Tunisian government a week earlier might have telegraphed a domino effect of sorts, but it was not well understood in establishment circles, especially in Egypt and the United States. The spontaneity and seeming suddenness of the uprising reminded me of the first and second Palestinian Intifadas, but the parallels end there. Even one of my Egyptian colleagues was surprised and incredulous when I informed him on the evening of Day One, "Today is the first day of the revolution."
In Egypt, public dissent is carefully regulated and the organizers had received permits to demonstrate in advance. The demonstrations were scheduled for a national holiday called "Police Day." But the police on hand were not the usual and ubiquitous traffic and tourist police. In a walk around Tahrir Square, I easily observed at least 1,000 special police, dressed in black, wearing full riot gear and at least 40 armored police vehicles mounted with water canon. At that point, they were controlling spectators, not protesters. In addition, there were hundreds of plain clothed security personnel making sure that spectators did not stray into the ranks of the protestors.
As the small crowd of protestors, now numbering about 100 entered Tahrir Square, they were managed adeptly by the special police. Undeterred, they changed course, which they seemed to do in a disciplined and directed manner. As they became more confident, they provoked a stiffer police response and when the police pushed on the protesters, their numbers were joined by those who had been spectators. Outnumbered by police at first, the numbers of the protestors swelled to 10-15,000 by mid afternoon and now the police were badly outnumbered. Moreover, the protestors themselves were obviously well organized as groups of new protestors appeared from a different angle almost as soon as the police pushed another group back, causing the police to fall back and regroup repeatedly. Still, however, there was an air of civility among the protesters and professionalism and discipline among the police-a sharp contrast to what I had observed in previous clashes between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers during the two Palestinian uprisings. It was easy to observe the tentativeness of the police, who although well trained and equipped, may have been unprepared to meet such determination among their compatriot protesters. Demonstrators shouted slogans such as, "No, No Mubarak," "We are all Egyptians," and "Not Mubarak, not his sons," indicating that their objective is nothing short of complete regime change. This may have seemed like a long shot on Day One, but on Day Six, it is a distinct possibility.
Facebook was one of the primary ways in which the organizers of the protests circulated word of the event, garnering 90,000 visitors to their Facebook site in a matter of hours in advance of the demonstrations. Cell phones were another tool at their disposal. Along with other networking tools, Facebook and Twitter were shut down by the end of the first afternoon and text messaging was severely disrupted in an effort by the regime to suppress the uprising. By the end of Day Two mobile phone service was shut down and all internet access was blocked.
Egyptian dissent is by no means new. Rather, widespread discontent has been systematically suppressed by the Mubarak regime for 30 years, with the full complicity of his U.S. patron. The Egyptian government has ruled by emergency laws since the assassination of Anwar Sadat 30 years ago. These laws give the government the authority to arrest and hold indefinitely any Egyptian without charge or trial-a tactic employed by the British in Palestine, Saddam Hussein in Iraq and Israel even today. It is also a tactic employed by the U.S. Torture is often used to extract information.
While 25 January 2011 was marked in advance as a "Day of Change," the precipitating moment of the uprising was the parliamentary elections of 28 November 2010. The dubious result of this election was the complete removal of any opposition in the Egyptian parliament-incredible even for a land of miracles! Egyptians were disgusted by that result, incredulous even on Egyptian standards. That was the straw that broke the camel's back, so to speak. Egyptians are out of patience.
The Facebook page used to rally supporters of the new protests is called, "Kefaya," which in Egyptian Arabic means "enough." The stated objectives of the protests are enough of torture, enough of government corruption, enough of unemployment, enough manipulation of elections and enough of the current regime headed by Hosni Mubarak. After the first two days in which the protesters were overwhelmingly young, their ranks are now filled with people of all ages, but the core is well educated, underemployed Egyptians, both men and women. While some of the demonstrators are religious-mosques and churches have been staging grounds for protests-the protestors are distinctly not "Islamists." After observing the protests for seven hours on Day One and Two, it was obvious that there was hardly a bearded man among the protesters indicating that fundamentalism is not a significant factor here. Further, there is no obvious sign that the protesters affiliate with any established political party. No banners or signs indicated political party affiliation. Universally, however, the protesters are fed up with the ruling National Democratic Party.
The protest movement is called variously kefaya or 6 April Youth Movement. Neither of these movements coalesced within established party structures. The traditional opposition movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been officially outlawed in Egypt for 30 years did not anticipate the energy of this uprising and is a minor player. More telling, a leading opponent of the government, Dr. Mohammad el Baradei, the Nobel Laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, was napping at his home in Vienna when the uprising began. He returned from there to join the protests, but was placed under house arrest almost immediately. All traditional opposition groups are now trying to insert themselves into the protest mix, but they are an afterthought to the protesters. This is a broad, popular response to years of ineffective leadership, including that of the traditional opposition parties.
Another obvious and distinguishing characteristic of the protests is that there is no sign of anti Americanism. On the contrary, American ideals of democracy seem to provide some of the inspiration for the protests. If there are any negative aspersions on the United States, it is focused on the failure of the current U.S. administration, like all of its predecessors, to stand on the side of democracy. The U.S. is widely and correctly regarded as the Mubarak regime's primary patron. It is not possible that the U.S. was ignorant for the past thirty years of the corruption, the torture, the ineffectiveness and the suspension of civil liberties. Notwithstanding the saturation of the American public with media messages that we are despised in this neck of the woods, I see no evidence of this in Egypt-or anywhere else for that matter. Moreover, our travelers don't see any either. Egyptians may be frustrated that America is not really the America they dream about, but they are not anti American.
After several days of standard US rhetoric, there seems to be a slight shift indicating that the U.S. wants to distance itself from the Mubarak regime that it supported for 30 years. In light of the many times that the US has opted to support powerful regimes, instead of promoting democracy (South Africa, Iran, Algeria, Iraq), I can't help being cynical about US posturing and pretensions to promote democracy now.
Over the last two days, official administration comments have morphed from confident assertions of trust in the Egyptian government to tentative suggestions that the regime might want to reconsider its ways and introduce needed reforms. Have we forgotten that the U.S. propped up this corrupt, ineffective regime for 30 years? In all of its rhetoric and pretensions to promote democracy, does this administration really not remember that it, like its predecessors, actually discourages democratic reform and habitually sides with authoritarian, corrupt regimes (e.g., Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, to name but a few) as long as they are dutifully subservient to the U.S? Even now, as Mohammaed El Baradei seems to be emerging as a leader of the protest movement and possible successor to Mubarak, the conversation in Washington seems to be, "Is he acceptable to us?"
These past few days, after witnessing the outbreak of the uprising in Egypt against 30 years of a dictatorial regime and after listening to the limp wristed rhetoric emanating from the U.S. State Department, I am reminded of the opening lyrics of Sam Cooke's 1958 tune: Don't know much about history. Not only did the U.S. apparently underestimate the significance of the revolt in Tunisia a week earlier that resulted in the over through of that country's leader, ten days later, the State Department seems to have forgotten that it even happened. Short term memory loss? I don't think so. More like habitual suppression of inconvenient realities. When Hillary Clinton expressed her confidence in Egypt's stable government on day two of the uprising, had she forgotten that Iran under the Shah was also considered stable by the U.S. even up to the even of the Iranian revolution?
On Day Six, no one knows which direction Egypt will go. The Tunisian model is a distinct possibility, but so also in the Iranian model-broad dissatisfaction with an obviously manipulated election was firmly suppressed there in the Spring of 2010. I doubt strongly that there will be a Tienanmen Square style crackdown on the protesters, but this cannot be ruled out. The Mubarak regime may be positioning itself for abdication. The special forces are no longer on the streets. A vice president has been appointed for the first time in 30 years and Mubarak's wife and two sons have already left for London. One thing I do know is that this would be a great time for the U.S. to exercise a little change we can believe in.