I watched President Mubarak last night (January 28, 2011) with bated breath as he spoke for the first time on Egyptian television after a "Friday of rage" in which thousands of protesters demanding his ouster invaded the streets, torched police stations and other government buildings all over Egypt, notably Mubarak's party headquarters in Cairo, and defied the government imposed curfew that night.
All this in spite of the fact that since morning Mubarak, following Iran's infamous example, had shut down Internet. The web was reputed to guide and hold together protesters, like it had done in Tunisia. But shutting it down could not stop that "Friday of rage", which was the culmination point of four days of uprising. No doubt it was boosted - and better organized - as for the first time opposition parties joined it, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood and ElBaradei, the one-time Director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and 2005 Nobel peace prize winner and a major opposition leader. The day ended with reportedly the arrest of Brotherhood members but not ElBaradei (not confirmed), at least a thousand wounded and several dozens dead (23 in Alexandria alone, confirmed by Al Jazeera on Saturday morning). I'm sure will hear more tragic stories as the protest continues over the next few days.
The popular uprising in Egypt has thus many similarities with the Tunisian so-called Jasmine Revolution which apparently catalyzed it - but is it the same thing? And, more importantly, will it have the same result and culminate in Mubarak's ouster?
In some ways, it is similar:
- it started from a long-brewing, defuse discontent, not guided by any political party, and is focussed on a few simple demands for change: out with Mubarak and his corrupt, repressive regime, and more work, particularly for the educated young;
- it is largely run by the young;
- it was born and held together by Web instruments: the mobile phone, Twitter and Facebook;
- police forces reacted disproportionately and the result has been unwanted death of civilian innocents - nearly one hundred in Tunisia, several dozens in Egypt so far.
Another big difference in the Tunisian case was the army. One tends to forget it and focus too much on the role of Internet (to be sure it was important - but not enough by itself). At the end of the day, when the police was shooting at the crowd and killing people, it was the army that stopped them. It was the army that made the difference and caused President ben Ali to flee the country. And remarkably, General Ammar who guided the Tunisian army did not step into the political vacuum he had helped to create. On the contrary, he shepherded in the transition government. Indeed, on 24 January, he gave a speech warning against a "political vacuum" and calling for people to give the transition government a chance to complete its work, guiding the country to new elections. Think of him as the father of the Tunisian Jasmine Revolution. And keep your fingers crossed that he is not tempted at some point in the future to turn into a new Napoleon...
In Egypt, things are playing out very differently. Egypt is no peripheral player, with almost ten times the population of Tunisia. It controls the Suez canal - and that means much of the oil flow to Europe; it has recognized Israel and has repeatedly acted as a major political agent in the complex game run around Gaza. The Americans consider Egypt a "lynchpin" of their Middle East policy and a major ally, the recipient of billions of dollars in aid ($1.5 billion a year). At first, they rushed to manifest their support to President Mubarak, and even on the "Friday of anger", the White House limited itself to "monitoring" the situation.
And after Mubarak's speech, Obama even called him to urge him to follow through with the reforms he promised. A call that was immediately viewed with disdain by Egyptian protesters.
But what did Mubarak promise exactly? In my opinion: nothing. I watched the entirety of his speech on Al Jazeera television (it's doing a fab job of reporting - the speech was translated as he spoke, line by line). Mubarak came on looking like an old, tired man, with hair died black (just like Ben Ali and Berlusconi - what is it about these old Mediterranean politicians that won't give up?). He wore a white shirt and dark tie, with the arms of Egypt behind him, lit up in yellow, giving him the aureola of a saint, or in his case, a Pharaoh. He rigidly read most of his speech and when he looked into the camera you could see smudges of fatigue under his eyes - a dead fish stare. What he said was worse than the way he looked. He told Egyptians that if they were manifesting in the streets, it was because he gave them the freedom to do so - nice of him! - and he warned them they shouldn't trespass into chaos - now, kiddies, don't overdo it or Dad will get angry! He told them he "understood" their poverty and would attend to their problems by... dissolving his cabinet and nominating a new one right away - the next day. See how quick your Dad is at fixing everything?
A new government appointed by himself, without any consultation with anyone! How can you get more autocratic than that? The absolute tyrant and he doesn't even realize he sounded ridiculous. Imagine for a moment that the major American cities have collapsed in bloody riots and that President Obama comes on television in the middle of the night to announce that he will dissolve the government and appoint a new one the next morning...Yes, that's exactly how absurd the situation is in Egypt. It never occurred to Mubarak that he had to open to the opposition and, if nothing else, at least call for a special commission to enable dialogue with the protesters.
As I write this morning, the police are firing on crowds and army tanks are roaming the streets of Cairo. Yes: tanks. That is the key to the revolution, just as it was in Tunisia: will the army support Mubarak? The police alone cannot re-establish order, it will take the army.
But is the Egyptian army loyal to Mubarak? Ben Ali lost control in Tunisia because he didn't trust the army and had tried to weaken it. Has Mubarak done the same? He is commander-in-chief, and my guess is that he has made sure to maintain good relations with the army. With the $1.5 billion he's been receiving in aid from the Americans every year, it was easy for him to make budget transfers (even if he didn't use American money directly) to buy plenty of toys for his army. Is that what he did? Probably. I don't know and if anyone does, please make comments! Also, one has to consider that the Egyptian army is very large (nearly one million men) and highly structured and modernized. College graduates serve as officers: how many of them sympathize with the protest movement? Hard to say...
Whatever the results in Egypt and Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Arab world where people have manifested their discontent, steps taken towards democracy will falter unless the major Western democracies move forward and come to help. So far that hasn't happened. Tunisia has been left alone to fend for itself, while elsewhere America has come forward in support of all the repressive regimes in the region, from Egypt to Yemen. Unfortunately, that is a very short-sighted policy, as it confirms the opinion already held by many liberal young Arabs: that America is not on their side. And not just America but Europe too, including the European Union.They appear to be on the side of the dictators, all in the name of the "war on terror".
A tragic mistake...