Egyptian Scholar: Revolt Long Overdue
BU grad student says protests beginning of end for Mubarak
Last week, on the heels of a popular revolt that toppled Tunisia’s strong-arm leadership, throngs of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the 30-year-long regime of President Hosni Mubarak, with its decades of escalating poverty, unemployment, and political corruption. The protests were abetted by the internet, as young organizers used Facebook and Twittter to build momentum for their movement. The government has since blocked the internet in an effort to quell the opposition. Mubarak’s only concession to the protesters to date has been to dismiss his cabinet, but international pressure for his resignation has escalated with the arrival in Cairo of Mohamed ElBaradei, 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, often considered a likely opposition leader.
As protests spill beyond Cairo to the streets of Alexandria and Suez, the secular upwelling has been embraced by the officially banned Muslim Brotherhood, fierce opponents of Mubarak, which had initially decided not to join the protests. As Egypt’s future hangs in the balance, protests have also sprouted in the streets of Yemen, Jordan, and Syria. “Like Tunisia, Egypt is flirting with a democratic revolution, not an Islamist takeover,” Cairo-born BU political science graduate student Yasser El-Shimy (GRS’12) wrote recently on Foreign Policy magazine’s website foreignpolicy.com. “The current wave of protests may die down or be brutally repressed. Nevertheless, they represent the beginning of the end of Mubarak’s regime.”
On Monday BU Today spoke with El-Shimy, 28, a lecturer on Middle East politics at the Catholic University of America and a former diplomatic attaché at the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He has been speaking daily with his parents and brother in Cairo.
BU Today: Who are the protesters?
El-Shimy: They are people from all different strata—the rich, the poor, the middle class, the educated, the uneducated. They are from all ideologies—liberal, leftist, Islamist. But mostly they are people who are apolitical, but demand freedom, demand a better system, a better life for themselves and their children. It is a revolution by all sectors.
Egyptians have struggled for decades, you write, citing the Arab saying “a flood begins with a mere droplet.” Did the overthrow of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine help open the Egyptian floodgates?
Tunisia was one precipitating factor that gave Egyptians the idea that they can change conditions themselves, as opposed to just waiting for the president to die of natural causes. However, this has been a long time in coming. The Mubarak regime is extremely unpopular and has failed to deliver economically, socially, or even politically.
What has happened over the years to worsen the situation?
Egyptians had a social contract with the Nasser regime in the ’50s, which was that the government would provide people with jobs and subsidies for food staples and would be a champion for pan-Arabism and the liberation of occupied Arab lands. Nasser’s successor, President Anwar El Sadat, who was later assassinated, signed a treaty with Israel and tried to remove some of the subsidies, but protests forced him to reinstate them almost immediately. Mubarak was timid for the first 10 years to change that, but he was eventually convinced by a group of wealthy businessmen to liberalize the economy by introducing market reforms that lifted subsidies, and have a free market economy. The problem with that was the fact that there was no kind of social or economic safety net for people to fall back on, so the policies created massive income inequalities, and suddenly a group of very affluent businessmen controlled all the wealth of the country, which has a population of about 85 million.
Did Mubarak underestimate the groundswell of opposition?
Mubarak didn’t have his people’s support, and he didn’t seem to care much. He depended on the support of the United States and Israel for his survival. U.S. military aid is the cornerstone of his regime; at the same time Egypt abandoned its historical role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. And Egypt has a very young population—it’s the internet generation, one with aspirations, a generation that sees how the rest of the world lives and wants Egypt to be like that.
Where are the police?
The police have almost completely vanished from the streets of Cairo and Alexandria, and there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that the police were ordered to disband to foster a sense of isolation and panic—the thinking is, once people see what it’s like to live without the reign of a strongman they will rally behind him. But it has had a completely opposite effect. People are joining together to form popular neighborhood committees to protect their property.
According to news reports from the ground in Egypt, most protesters support the military. Does this surprise you?
Yes, I was surprised. I expected the military to push back more. But the military has been embraced by the protesters; they’ve been giving protesters food and water, and you see protesters riding tanks. There is a tangible divide between the higher ranks of military and the corps, with the higher echelons still loyal to the president. I have to say that the military’s stance is very honorable and patriotic, and the military has not delved into the dirty tactics of the police. Because of the police, hundreds of peaceful people have died, suffocated with tear gas, run over with trucks, struck with rubber bullets. People right now hate the police, who in Egypt are infamous for torture and corruption.
Who are Mubarak’s supporters?
There are not many friends of Mubarak right now. There has been an indication, through U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that the United States will back a peaceful, orderly transition. Mubarak has three parties that still back him: the higher echelons of the military (though if push comes to shove I don’t think the top officers will carry out orders of forcibly breaking up protests), other Arab dictatorships like Algeria and Syria, which are afraid of being removed from power, and Israel. The Mubarak regime has been subservient to Israel in many ways—for example, helping Israel enforce the Gaza blockade.
What role might the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood play in a shift of power?
The Muslim Brotherhood was caught off guard like everyone else. They don’t really have any popular backing, and they didn’t participate at first, though now they are starting to participate. But the demands of Egypt’s population are very clear: a civilian secular democratic state. People really do not want to engage in any foreign adventures. They want to resuscitate Egypt’s status before Mubarak, and provide for people’s basic needs.
This is being called a Facebook revolution. How much do you think social media affected getting people out on the streets?
Facebook and Twitter definitely played a role to get it going, but the government was quick to shut down the entire internet. Once the idea is out there that people will revolt, everybody starts taking part. I’m not sure the internet is as decisive a factor as people in America claim it to be. But it helps give a venue and set out a course of action.
How is your family faring in Cairo?
They’re panicking. I’ve been calling them on their landline from here, and now they have cell phone service back. They’re very worried about the looters and all the gangs and criminals that were let out of prison by the police. They formed a neighborhood committee to try and protect their neighborhood. It’s a happy coincidence that our neighbor is a former official of the Ministry of Interior and has quite a few arms at his disposal.
There are reports that Nobel Laureate Mohamed ElBaradei is in line to lead a transitional government. Do you think he’s a worthy candidate?
I think ElBaradei would be a valid transitional leader. He’s not a charismatic strongman figure, but perhaps that is what Egypt needs right now. Egypt has had its share of strongmen.
What do you predict will happen now?
I think Mubarak is a dead man walking. Even if he can miraculously cling to power, his influence will be substantially diminished and he will no longer be a useful ally for the United States. I would not be surprised if someone from the military takes matters into their own hands.
Susan Seligson can be reached at email@example.com Comments