This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2010 issue of Adbsuters, with the current upheaval going on in Egypt we thought it was ripe to run it again and help provide a deeper understanding of the political situation. Read more about the current protests on al Jazeera and The Guardian.
In the lead up to the 2011 presidential elections Egypt is witnessing the emergence of never before seen resistance to its out of touch and decrepit despot. An assortment of young democracy activists, Islamists and Westernized elites are aligning in anticipation of a major rupture.
An election in authoritarian Egypt is usually no reason to get excited. After all, President Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic rule has already lasted for 29 years, bolstered by massive American financial support and draconian “emergency” laws strictly limiting opposition to his regime. However, while Mubarak’s face still stares down from murals and statues across Egypt, he is 82 years old and it is clear that a new chapter in Egyptian politics must soon be written.
It is widely believed that Hosni Mubarak will attempt to pass power to his son Gamal, the former London banker summoned home to be groomed for succession.
However, Egypt is supposed to be a republic, and the notion that their country’s highest office could be given as a gift from fascistic father to spoiled son does not sit well in a country where 40% of the population lives on less than $2 a day and the gap between rich and poor continues to widen. Public anger over a transition of power may well provide the momentum that Egypt’s reformers have been waiting for.
After making peace with Israel in 1979, Egypt became the second largest recipient of US foreign aid. The two billion dollars Mubarak receives annually from Washington have bolstered the military and intelligence establishments, the internal repressive apparatuses pivotal to insulating his regime against domestic opposition.
Under the emergency laws enacted following the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981 it is illegal for more than five people to gather in public without permission, making organizing incredibly difficult. The laws also allow the government to detain opponents indefinitely without charge. According to Amnesty International, 18,000 Egyptian dissidents are currently incarcerated in prisons notorious for torture.
The majority of Egypt’s population are under the age of 30 and have known no leader but Mubarak during their lifetime. They are technologically savvy and hungry for change. With traditional avenues for dissent stifled by the emergency legislation, online new media emerged as an important strategic tool in a burgeoning youth-driven democracy movement.
A Facebook group joined by tens of thousands of people played a key role in attracting support for a general strike on April 6, 2008. The national day of action culminated in a rare public display of rebellion as textile workers in the northern city of Mahalla fought running street battles with police for two days.
The creator of the Facebook group, Ahmad Maher, was dragged from his car and arrested. Living up to their reputation for ignorance and brute force, the Egyptian police beat him while demanding his Facebook password and information on his “friends,” individuals he had never met in person.
While youth revolt is inspiring, alone it is not enough to unseat an entrenched regime. However, a popular movement is building as other more powerful opposition groups join with the Facebook generation in openly challenging Mubarak.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, recently returned home to Cairo to a hero’s welcome. A vocal critic of the US plan to invade Iraq, ElBaradei is a high profile, internationally respected leader with a backbone.
Though he has not yet announced plans to run for president, his National Association for Change is pushing for political reforms ahead of the 2011 elections, including calls for international election monitoring and an end to the emergency laws.
Disavowing violence in the 1970s, the Muslim Brotherhood has grown into the largest and most powerful opposition group in Egypt. They have thrown their support behind ElBaradei and his reform campaign, signaling groundbreaking cooperation between the Islamist group and a secular democracy advocate.
ElBaradei also enjoys the support of the secular street. His Facebook page has over 250,000 fans, a trivial fact to some, but an indicator of his popularity among young activists.
Responding with the petty repression that has come to typify its rule, the Mubarak regime reacted to ElBaradei’s rising popularity by arresting the publisher of a particularly flattering biography.
If Egypt’s opposition movements were encouraged by President Obama’s calls for democracy in his June 2009 Cairo speech, they have since realized the hollowness of his eloquent words.
Relying increasingly on Egypt as a bulwark against Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas, Obama has been even less critical than President Bush of Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. The US recently gave Cairo $260 million in “supplementary security assistance,” while Lockheed Martin announced the sale of 24 F-16 fighter jets to the Egyptian military.
In 2006 Hosni Mubarak told the Egyptian parliament that he would rule, “As long as there is in my chest a heart that beats and I draw breath.”
Mubarak’s last breath will indeed soon come, and with it the Middle East deserves a different kind of leader, something beyond an American lapdog or tyrannical madman. With disparate forces aligning in preparation for the dictator’s death, the potential for a new Middle East looms on the horizon.
What emerges in Egypt may be no better than the present, but whether the future is shaped by Islamists, by Western educated elites or by young idealists, be sure that a major earthquake is coming in the Arab world’s most influential country and the aftershocks will reverberate throughout the region.