The streets of Cairo have been filled with violence and blood. Peaceful protests which began on January 25, 2011 turned violent when police fired on crowds, which in turn burned police stations and the headquarters of the National Democratic Party. When the police left the streets, calm reigned briefly before a restrained army. Then prisoners escaped and looting ran rampant. The regime encouraged more violence in order to create an atmosphere of anarchy that would require Mubarak’s firm hand. The government shut down the internet, cell phones, and trains. These measures hindered protesters from spreading their message. But still they continued to protest.
President Mubarak bitterly refused to leave office until September and insisted he wanted to “die on the soil of Egypt.” When he warned protesters to stop their protests because he would not tolerate chaos, the streets of Cairo were bound to get bloody. Mubarak, after 30 years in office was about to expose his cruelty to the world, something all Egyptians already knew. The next day, February 2, the protesters met the ugly forces of state-sponsored violence.
First, thugs arrived at Cairo’s Tahrir Square and attacked anti-Mubarak protesters. The Interior Ministry denied it hired them, but many had arrived in buses and some had police identification. Some admitted they had been paid. The attackers included horsemen and camel-keepers from the Pyramids whose business is gone. Petrol bombs and rocks were thrown on protesters and eight were killed that day in Cairo, while hundreds were injured. At least 300 have been killed since the unrest began. There are many who have an interest in keeping Mubarak’s regime in power.
Second, journalists were targeted for rough treatment, detention and arrest. Their cameras were taken. Secretary Clinton declared the events “a violation of international norms.” Reports say that President Obama is advising Vice President Suleiman on a deal for a transfer of power.
It appeared that Mubarak was preparing a bloody fight for supremacy over the protesters. He said that he wanted to resign, but feared chaos would ensue without his rule. But Mubarak is the source of Egypt’s chaos. Egypt’s economy is in tatters. A million tourists and foreigners left the country. Tourism is shattered. Schools and hotels are empty. Foreign investment has been damaged. Revolution is messy.
The United States has supported Mubarak for 30 years. He preserved the peace agreement with Israel following the assassination of his predecessor, Anwar Sadat. He joined the U.S. in the “war on terror.” The U.S. ignored his repressive side even if Egyptians knew it well and were beaten and tortured in the name of security. He allowed his cronies to become wealthy. Of Egypt’s 82 million people, 20%-40% live on less than $2 a day; unemployment is high Under Mubarak, police torture and abuse Egyptians with impunity. Blogger Khaled Said was beaten to death by policemen in Alexandria in 2010. Activists formed the Facebook site, “We are all Khaled Said” which scheduled protests and informed the public about police abuse and torture. Not only was there no justice brought to the state security apparatus, others were killed later by the same police station. This is one reason why the violence in Alexandria has been greater than in Cairo.
The Arab world has been a powder-keg for decades, waiting for a spark. Half of its population is under 17 with few prospects for employment. The Arab world also suffers under police states run by elderly autocrats. The spark for Egypt’s crisis was lit by the tragic self immolation of a desperate Tunisian vegetable cart owner. A policeman took his cart, beat him and yelled, “degage!” (get out). He set himself on fire and died days later. When Tunisians protested, they yelled, “degage, Ben Ali” to their president in defiance. When the army abandoned Ben Ali, he was forced to leave. Tunisia, a country of 10 million people, inspired Egyptian youth to put aside their fear and bring down Mubarak. Egypt with 82 million people is the largest Arab nation and considers itself the birthplace of civilization.
The army’s decision
The turning point in this battle of wills between Mubarak and the protesters has come. It is the army’s choice to make, as it is in many revolutions. Who will they support? The army’s senior officers owe Mubarak for their position, wealth and hardware. It is the mid-level officers who must choose between Mubarak and a better future for the masses. Their decision is critical to the Arab world’s 22 nations. Arab leaders have made cosmetic reforms since the uprisings. But if the popular uprising is quelled, as it was in Iran in 2009, Egyptian democratization will stall. The future is fraught with danger. If the revolution succeeds, there is an opportunity for real democracy and real economic gains.
The United States has known for years that Mubarak’s regime was corrupt, allowed police torture, stifled free speech, falsified elections, and cracked down on opposition. The U.S. tried to get Mubarak to reform, but he refused to make changes or even to appoint a vice president. The U.S. had the ability to cut aid to Egypt because of human rights abuses, but failed to do so because of Egypt’s usefulness in the war on terrorism and its peace agreements with Israel. Mubarak was allowed to continue repression without consequences.
However, Obama’s concern for the protesters has given them support and the spotlight. And his efforts to prevent violence have kept them safe as long as they are before cameras.
Should the U.S. encourage Mubarak to leave? The Obama administration is working behind the scenes for a deal, but Mubarak seems determined to stay until September. The U.S. is using military alliances with Egyptian army officers to urge them to push out Mubarak, keep order, and forge a caretaker government until new elections. President Obama is walking a fine line, because the U.S. is entering Egyptian domestic politics. Other Arab allies, like Yemen’s president, are watching to see if the U.S. will abandon them, too.
Should the U.S. cut aid to Egypt? Congress will decide this difficult issue. Cutting off aid might hurt the army more than it would hurt Mubarak and would sever a tie between Washington and the army, which is vital to a caretaker government and reform. Mubarak’s use of violence and thugs against protesters are human rights violations which allow the U.S. to cut military aid to Egypt. But there are important issues to consider: Egypt’s response and peace with Israel.
The Future for Egypt
This revolution has formed from the bottom up. If it succeeds, it will be the beginning of a new wave of democracy. There should be free elections and a new constitution. Fouad Gerges of the London School of Economics foresees a “rainbow coalition” of liberals, centrists, Islamists and the Muslim Brotherhood. Egyptian-Israeli relations will probably worsen until there is a fair settlement with Palestinians. He believes the Muslim Brotherhood will be part of the government, but will not call for dramatic shifts.
Ultimately, Egypt’s alliance with Israel might not be radically different, because the Egyptian army will benefit in keeping the peace with Israel if Egypt continues to receive $1.3 billion in military aid from the U.S.
However, Egypt needs new elections and the building blocks of democracy, such as the rule of law, civil institutions, and independence of the judiciary, before it can achieve true democracy. If the revolution fails, if Mubarak continues to use violence and the protests are put down, as they were in Iran in 2009, the potential for true democracy in the Arab world will be damaged.
A Region Trembles after Tunisia
The Arab world is in fear and leaders are making modest reforms. Algeria’s President Bouteflika, 73, promised to end the state of emergency “in the near future.” Jordan’s King Abdullah, 49, dismissed the cabinet, appointed a new prime minister and directed new democratic reforms.
The Moroccan government has not been concerned about news of peaceful protests seeking reforms from the king and the resignation of the government. Since King Mohammed, 47, ascended to the throne in 1999, he has worked to alleviate poverty and reduce illiteracy.
In Saudi Arabia, the government has vowed to help those hurt by recent floods. King Abdullah, 86, sought in 2010 to spend billions to reduce unemployment. About 40% of Saudis are under 15. Unemployment for the ages of 20-24 is 43%.
In Syria, Facebook activists threatened protests, which so far failed to happen, probably because they would be met with force. President Assad, 45, insists that Syria is stable. But the government late in January increased heating oil allowances for public workers.
In Yemen, after 20,000 protesters demonstrated, President Saleh, 64, declared that he would not run in 2013 and would not appoint his son as successor. But President Saleh has promised this before and reneged. He has since cut income taxes, ordered more government price controls, and promised to raise wages of civil servants and military forces.
The Egyptian army must decide whether they will stand for Mubarak or the people. These decisions will be the turning point for the whole Arab world. Egypt’s example may prove decisive. Will Arab countries continue to be ruled by dictators and kings who are old men and leave their countries to their sons? Will the recent reforms by leaders of Algeria, Tunisia, and Yemen be solidified? Or will the Arab world continue to be ruled by autocrats with cruel regimes? This is the crisis of the Arab world.
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