They were brought into Egypt by Anwar Sadat as a counterbalance to the communists. He thought that introducing them to the mix would neutralize communist influence in the country. The Brotherhood succeeded in infiltrating the army and assassinating Sadat, bequeathing the country to Mubarak.
Hosni Mubarak governed Egypt the same way every Arab leader rules his country, like a dictator. There was no Arab democracy until America invaded Iraq and instituted democratic elections. President Bush believed that democracy would take hold in the region and spread like wildfire. His prediction proved wrong. Today instead of Iran becoming increasingly isolated, it has more company. Lebanon is manipulated by Hezbollah, Turkey is turning more Islamic by the day, Tunis is likely to fall in their corner and if the Brotherhood or El Baradei has their way, Egypt will be firmly in Iran’s corner. Jordan’s king has responded to his local demonstrations in a bid to saty ahead of the protests ; The West Bank could be next, after all President Abbas is supported by about 1% of Palestinians.
It is a mistake to confuse democratic processes for democracy, the people behind the Egyptian protests do not believe in the right of people to make laws for themselves, they do not believe in equality, they do not believe in the rule of law, to confuse them with democracy is folly and will lead to another Gaza.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, dead now for almost forty years, was the last beneficiary of an Egyptian popular revolution. He came to power in 1952 after the toppling of yet another corrupt regime. He was no religious fanatic, but unsettled the entire region. He led two wars against Israel. He instigated coups in Lebanon and Iraq, not only fought with Yemen, but used poison gas in his battle with them.
The Iranian revolution which toppled America’s ally, the Shah, and brought the Ayatollah to power, was also portrayed as democratic at the time. The world has regretted that transfer of power ever since. The broad based movement for democracy which was promoted by American president Carter at the time was rapidly usurped by the Ayatollah and his followers. It didn’t take long for their true colors to show. Democracy was the last thing on their mind.
Alexis De Tocqueville, the famous 19th century chronicler of American democracy, said, “the most dangerous moment for a bad government is when it begins to reform itself.” That is evident today in the Middle East, as a fever of protest and growing demands for democratic reform sweep through the autocratic regimes in the region.
It began in Tunisia, where street protests were started by a single individual who burned himself alive in December after being humiliated by the government once too often. This act touched off an explosion of anger which toppled Tunisia’s dictator in January. It has continued to spread across the region, touching off similar protests in Lebanon, Jordan, Yemen and most importantly, Egypt.
With breathtaking speed, the protest grew, defying efforts by Mubarak’s security to suppress them by force. Over the weekend, Mubarak appointed a potential successor as Vice President for the first time in his 30 year rule. By Monday, the leaders of the Egyptian army announced that they would not obey orders by Mubarak to open fire on the protesters. That was followed by an announcement by the new vice president that he would open talks with the opposition leaders. Finally, on Tuesday, Mubarak told the Egyptian nation and the world that he would not run for re-election as president; but that he intended to stay on to oversee the transition.
But this was not enough to satisfy the protesters and their leaders, who insisted that Mubarak must step down before talks could begin on an orderly transition of power.
Egypt is the most strategically significant of the Middle East countries affected by the recent protests. Although the wave of demonstrations that swept across Egypt did not get started in earnest until after the Tunisian government fell, it caught the White House off balance and unable to adjust its policies fast enough to stay ahead of the rapidly changing situation.
Egyptian protesters became increasingly vocal in expressing their growing anger with President Obama’s refusal to support their demands for President Hosni Mubarak’s immediate resignation. Meanwhile Israel, helplessly watched events unfold. Israeli leaders worried whether the peace treaty with Egypt which has been the basis for Israel’s security strategy since 1978 would survive the upheaval.
For the first few days, it appeared that Mubarak would be able to survive this surge of opposition the same way he has in the past, with liberal applications of brute force against the demonstrators by his hated security police. But last Friday, the situation changed. For once, the security forces of Egypt’s Interior Ministry were unable to control the protests. When peaceful protestors eventually broke through their lines, crossed the Nile and reached Liberation (Tahrir) Square in Cairo, where many government central offices are located, the complexion of the struggle changed.
THE REGIME CRUMBLES
Across the country, the pattern was repeated. Unarmed protestors overcame club wielding, rubber bullet firing and tear gas grenade lobbing security police, and eventually drove the government thugs from the streets. As night fell Friday, the protesters set fire to the headquarters of Mubarak’s ruling political party. News pictures of the Cairo night lit up by the flames of burning government buildings around the square were a signal to the world that a fundamental change was taking place. Mubarak’s regime was crumbling.
By Monday, Mubarak had lost the unconditional support of his power base, the Egyptian army, which issued an announcement that it would not fire on protestors who were gathering by the tens of thousands in Liberation Square.
DENIAL ON THE NILE
Shortly thereafter, Mubarak’s newly appointed Vice President, Omar Suleiman, announced that he had been authorized to open a dialogue with opposition leaders on constitutional and political reforms. A week earlier, such an announcement would have been cause for widespread jubilation. But after a week of upheaval in the streets, it was widely deemed to be totally insufficient, as was Mubarak’s reshuffling of cabinet ministers.
A million people were said to have attended the rally in Liberation Square Tuesday evening. Even if that number is exaggerated, the demonstration’s magnitude was much larger than those of the previous week. Attempts by the government to hold down the number of participants by closing roads and shutting down public transportation failed.
On Tuesday evening, Mubarak took another step towards complying with the demands of the Egyptian people. In a televised statement he said that would not run for re-election as president, but indicated his intention to remain in power to oversee the transition to a new government.
He stated that he intends to remain in Egypt, and die there, rather than going into exile, and sought to portray himself as an Egyptian patriot. “I never sought power and influence,” said the man who has ruled with an iron fist for nearly 30 years.
After stating that he would not run for re-election, he said, “My first priority is to restore peace and stability in our country, to ensure the peaceful transition of leadership, and to ensure that the responsibility goes to whomever the people of Egypt choose in the next election.”
“I take pride in my long years serving the people. … I will be judged by history by my merits,” he said.
Mr. Mubarak slammed the protests, saying they began legally but then were “manipulated by political forces” threatening the “safety and security” of the country. “The events of the past few days require us all – people and leaders – to make the choice between chaos and stability, and dictate new conditions and a new Egyptian reality,” he said.
MUBARAK MUST GO
But nothing he said was be sufficient to meet the demands of the protesters who made it clear that they would accept nothing less than Mubarak’s immediate resignation.
The New York Times reported Tuesday that Suleiman and top leaders of the Egyptian military had begun discussions on ways to gently ease Mubarak out of office. That would begin a transition of power to an interim government, pending the holding of national elections. But Egyptian diplomat Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei, the spokesman for the leaders of the protests, said that Mubarak must leave the country before a dialogue could begin with the remaining government leaders.
PLAYING FOR HIGH STAKES
In terms of the balance of power in the Middle East, the stakes in Egypt could not have been higher. Aside from concerns about Israel’s security, a secular, pro-Western Egypt, along with Saudi Arabia, has been a lynchpin of the US strategy in the region to counterbalance and contain the growing influence of Iran and its Islamic fundamentalism.
Egypt is strategically important in its own right. With 85 million people, it is the world’s most populous Arab country, as well as an ancient center of Arab culture and pride. It’s US-trained and armed military is second in the region only to that of Israel. It also controls the Suez Canal, which is a critical conduit for international trade. About 8% of global shipping passes through the canal, a total of about 32,000 ships per year, including tankers carrying about 1.8 million barrels of oil each day.
US HAS NO “PLAN B”
Furthermore, the US has no “Plan B” to fall back upon in case Mubarak’s regime would fall. Even though he has been in power for 30 years, and is now 82 and in ill health, Mubarak never made provisions for an orderly transfer of power and had refused to name a legal successor to himself as president. He seemed to have been grooming his son, Gamal, to take over some day, but he recently indicated that he intended to run for re-election to another 6-year term as president in September. On Tuesday in his speech he said that he had always intended to retire at the end of his current term.
Mubarak inherited power as the next in line when Anwar Sadat was assassinated in 1981. He initially took steps to appear moderate, including releasing political prisoners and allowing a modicum of press freedom. But a wave of Islamist attacks in the 1990s prompted a fierce response from his security forces, as Mubarak banned the Muslim Brotherhood, the radical Islamist organization that has long been Egypt’s most powerful opposition force.
Since then, Mubarak has relied upon an emergency law that allows him to curtail constitutional freedoms, and the unhesitating use of force to beat his opponents into submission.
The death toll among the demonstrators last week was estimated as at least 300, with thousands more injured.
MUBARAK’S SUPPORT EVAPORATES
Until now, Egypt’s middle and upper classes have largely agreed with Mubarak that the likely alternative, an Egyptian government under the control of the Muslim Brotherhood, was worse than his continued rule. But last week’s street protests were not initiated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which only joined in at the end. In addition, it was always assumed that, if all else failed, Mubarak could always rely on the support of the Egyptian military, which has continued to thrive under his rule. That long-held assumption also came into question Friday, when the army moved into the streets of cities across Egypt.
As many as 100 army tanks and armored personnel carriers gathered at the central Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the site of the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981. Egyptian air force jets flew overhead, buzzing the capital, which was taken as a warning to the protestors not to resort to violence, but the army refused to use force directly against the demonstrators. Later some Egyptian soldiers joined with protestors and local citizens to help restore law and order.
A BREAKDOWN IN LAW AND ORDER
That became necessary after protesters broke into four of the country’s major prisons, which had been abandoned by police. They freed thousands of common criminals who raided the prison armories, taking weapons with them into the streets. With the police nowhere to be seen Saturday, gangs of criminals roamed the streets of Cairo, burning and looting.
In response, vigilantes armed with knives, clubs, pistols and shotguns formed patrols to protect their homes and families from the marauding criminals. Sometimes helped by members of the military, they set up checkpoints at intersections across Cairo, stopping cars and demanding identification from the occupants before allowing them to enter their neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, the crisis brought Egypt’s economy to a grinding halt. On Monday, all economic activity in the city of 18 million people ground to a halt for the second consecutive day. Banks, schools and the stock market were closed. Trains stopped running. Lines formed outside bakeries as people tried to stock up on bread and other staples.
Cairo international airport was in chaos as tens of thousands of foreigner desperately sought to get out of the country. Meanwhile, the US government and other countries chartered special flights to help evacuate their citizens and get them out of harm’s way.
With cell phone service still spotty, and most Internet connections cut, the remaining land phone lines connecting Egypt with the rest of the world were jammed with calls from anxious family members seeking to confirm that their children or relatives traveling or studying in Egypt when the protests broke out were safe.
If Mubarak tries to hold on to power, and the demonstrations continue for any length of time, his government could quickly face another crisis, due to the halt in economic activity, including the collapse of Egypt’s tourist trade.
THE ARMY CHOOSES TO STAY OUT OF IT
As late as Monday, it was still unclear whether the army would take sides in the conflict. Finally, army leaders announced that they had given orders not to fire on the demonstrators. The official army spokesman issued a simple statement without further elaboration on state TV saying, “The presence of the army in the streets is for your sake and to ensure your safety and well-being. The armed forces will not resort to use of force against our great people. Your armed forces, who are aware of the legitimacy of your demands and are keen to assume their responsibility in protecting the nation and the citizens, affirm that freedom of expression through peaceful means is guaranteed to everybody.”
That was still one step short of outright support for the demonstrators, but it also sent a clear message, that if the Egyptian people decided that it was time for Mubarak to go, the army would not try to save his position.
At this point, the fundamental character of the protests had changed. No longer could the Mubarak government condemn the protesters as radicals and subversives who did not speak for the Egyptian people as a whole.
They included large numbers of Egyptians from the middle class, as well as the poor and disenfranchised. Their ranks included educated, secular Egyptians as well as the devout Islamic followers of the Muslim Brotherhood. The experience of the Muslim Brotherhood veterans quickly became apparent in the improved organization of the protests, starting on Sunday. But the Muslim leaders were careful to stay largely in the background, and avoided injecting any overtly religious element into the demonstrations.
ELBARADEI PLAYS HIS ROLE
Monday saw an effort to form a broadly-based Egyptian resistance movement, with an agreement between pro-Western democracy advocates and the Muslim Brotherhood to appoint ElBaradei as their spokesman.
ElBaradei earned the resentment of the Bush administration while he headed the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for challenging its assertion that Saddam Hussein’s regime was developing nuclear weapons. In later years, ElBaradei covered up and sought to excuse Iran’s defiance of UN Security Council resolutions ordering it to halt its efforts to build an atomic bomb, even after his own IAEA inspectors uncovered evidence that Iran’s nuclear program did not have peaceful intentions, as the Iranians claim. Nevertheless, whenever his name is mentioned by the international media, ElBaradei is identified as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Because he has spent most of his career working and living abroad, ElBaradei enjoys little popular support from the Egyptian people, but his familiarity in international circles gave the protesters a credible person to put up as a leader.
He also became an instant martyr for the protest movement when Mubarak ordered him to be put under house arrest shortly after he returned to the country last week. ElBaradei was set free from house arrest on Sunday. That night, he joined thousands of protesters celebrating their newfound freedom to speak their minds about Mubarak in Cairo’s Liberation Square.
It was not clear whether the Muslim Brotherhood would go along with suggestion that ElBaradei be appointed as Egypt’s interim leader following Mubarak’s departure, but by lending them his name and credibility, he had already served their purpose.
A TRUE GRASS ROOTS MOVEMENT
The protests which erupted across the Middle East in recent weeks did not originate in the Islamic terrorist movements, although they did exploit them once they got started.
Neither were the protests primarily motivated by anger at the US or frustration over the lack of progress in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. They were sparked by decades of pent up frustration at the lack of responsiveness by autocratic leaders of the Arab states to the basic needs of their people. Unlike previous revolts in the region, the current unrest seems to have gained the support of much of the middle class and the young, who have been driven to despair by chronic unemployment, rising prices for basic foods and commodities, and a lack of opportunity for self-advancement.
The leaders of the protest include veterans of previous failed revolts, who were optimistic that they could succeed this time, due to broader support from the masses, who have joined the street demonstrations in huge numbers.
US CAUGHT BY SUPRISE
The speed with which the protests in the streets of Egypt shook the Mubarak regime to its foundations took US leaders by surprise, even though diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks revealed that US officials in recent years were well aware of the shortcomings of Mubarak’s regime and the growing opposition to it.
As recently as December, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a startling prediction to Persian Gulf leaders in Doha that Arab rulers would face growing unrest, extremism, and even rebellion unless they reformed “corrupt institutions and a stagnant political order.” But when that prediction started to come true a few days later, as Tunisia erupted in revolt, quickly followed by the challenge to Mubarak’s regime, everybody in the Obama administration, including Clinton, seemed taken by surprise.
FEELINGS OF BETRAYAL
As happened in 2009, when street protests broke out in Iran against a stolen presidential election, the muted White House response left pro-democracy demonstrators in Egypt last week feeling betrayed, and created the impression that the US was supporting Mubarak’s regime. The most outrageous comment from a US leader came, once again, from Vice President Joe Biden, when he said that Mubarak wasn’t a dictator.
Clinton’s initial public comments on the developing crisis in Egypt were hopelessly inaccurate and inadequate. She said, “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.”
Mubarak ignored a feeble US demand that he restore access to the Internet and the cell phone networks, which he cut off last week in the hope of crippling communications between the protesters and the outside world.
The White House had hoped to avoid a direct president-to-president conversation, because that would force Obama to make a painful choice. Either he would have to abandon Mubarak, a long-time diplomatic partner who had clung to power for too long, and send a terrible message to other dictators around the world whom the US considers to be its allies. Otherwise, he would be putting the US in opposition to a legitimate Egyptian movement seeking what the WikiLeaks cables revealed the US knew to be long overdue democratic reforms.
TRYING TO SEND A MESSAGE
The Obama administration tried to avoid that choice by sending Mubarak signals of its disapproval using a variety of messengers. These included the diplomats at the US embassy in Cairo, and other Arab leaders friendly to the US, who knew that if the Egyptian protests continued to mount, their own regimes might soon be in jeopardy.
At the Pentagon, a delegation of senior Egyptian military leaders, including Chief of Staff General Sami Hafez Enan, cut short what was supposed to have been a week-long visit after only a few hours. Before they departed for the airport, their Pentagon hosts tactfully expressed the hope that the crisis could be resolved in such a way as to permit the US to continue its long-standing relationship with Egypt’s military, which receives $1.3 billion a year in direct US aid.
By Thursday, the White House realized that the messages were not working, and that Obama would have to start speaking out directly. Using a pre-arranged interview on YouTube, Obama finally warned: “The [Egyptian] government has to be careful about not resorting to violence.” He also said that Mubarak, needed to be “moving ahead on reform–political reform, economic reform”.
But that was not enough. Mubarak spoke to the Egyptian nation in response to the protests for the first time Friday, after protesters had driven his security forces from the streets, and set fire to the buildings in Liberation Square. White House advisors gathered around TV sets to watch the speech on Al Jazeera, instantly realized that it was totally inadequate. His decision to fire his prime minister and cabinet, and his vague promises of reform, were not nearly sufficient to pacify the seething anger in Egypt’s streets.
WHAT OBAMA TOLD MUBARAK
The time had come for Obama to tell Mubarak directly exactly what he wanted him to do. After a 30-minute phone conversation with the Egyptian president, Obama addressed the American people saying, “The people of Egypt have rights that are universal, and the United States will stand up for them everywhere.” While warning both the demonstrators and government forces against violence, Obama declared: “When President Mubarak addressed the Egyptian people tonight, he pledged a better democracy and greater economic opportunity. I just spoke to him after his speech, and I told him he has a responsibility to give meaning to those words, to take concrete steps and actions that deliver on that promise. . . We are committed to working with the Egyptian government and the Egyptian people–all quarters–to achieve” those goals.
Obama’s reference to “all quarters” was widely taken to imply that the US would even be willing to deal with the Muslim Brotherhood in the context of a new, more democratic elected Egyptian government.
But others criticized Obama’s attempt to start distancing the US from Mubarak as too little, coming far too late. Obama had waited so long to speak up that his message had been rendered obsolete by the fast-changing events in Egypt. At that point, anything short of cutting off US support for Mubarak’s regime and demanding his resignation was sure to be seen as inadequate, both by the Egyptian protesters in the streets and advocates of democracy around the world.
Even Secretary of State Clinton’s message on the Sunday news programs that the US wanted Mubarak to create an “orderly transition” to a more politically open Egypt was widely seen as far too timid.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO PEACE IN THE REGION?
Meanwhile, according to a report in Haaretz, Israel diplomats, were calling on the US and European countries to refrain from publicly asking Mubarak to step down in order to prevent the chaos from spreading even further. Prime Minister Netanyahu, in his first public remarks on the situation in Egypt, told his cabinet that the Israeli government’s efforts were “designed to continue and maintain stability and security in our region. I remind you that the peace between Israel and Egypt has endured for over three decades and our goal is to ensure that these relations continue.”
Other Israeli commentators warned that if the US abandons Mubarak, after having supported him for three decades, then other longtime US allies, including Israel, had to realize that the US could abandon them, too, if they fall out of public favor.
Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Egypt, wrote in Yediot Acharonot that, “the only people in Egypt who are committed to peace are the people in Mubarak’s inner circle, and if the next president is not one of them, we are going to be in trouble.”
Giora Eiland, a former national security adviser to the prime minister, warned that even if the next Egyptian government does not immediately cancel the peace treaty with Israel, if that government includes the Muslim Brotherhood, then another war with Egypt becomes a real possibility.
The Israeli consensus seemed to be that even though Mubarak is no friend of Israel, he is still better than many of the likely alternatives. President Shimon Peres said of him Monday, “We always have had and still have great respect for President Mubarak.” Then, switching to the past tense, he added, “I don’t say everything that he did was right, but he did one thing which all of us are thankful to him for: he kept the peace in the Middle East.”
While the world’s focus remained on the events in Egypt, the protests there were having ripple effects throughout the region, including all of Israel’s other neighbors. There were street demonstrations in Jordan calling for King Abdullah to institute reforms and rein in rampant government corruption. They also protested rising prices for basic foods and fuels. The demonstrators re asked the king to fire Prime Minister Samir Rifai, but there were no suggestions that Abdullah himself should step down. On Tuesday, the king complied with the requests of the protesters and fired his prime minister and cabinet.
The situation in Lebanon is still in turmoil over the bloodless political coup carried out by Hezbollah two weeks ago in naming the country’s new prime minister. There is likely to be more trouble when a UN tribunal announces the expected indictment of Hezbollah leaders for their role in the 2005 assassination of a past prime minister.
Even in Syria, there have been calls for mass protests against the government of President Bashar Assad, demanding improvements in human rights, the standard of living and freedom of expression.
Elsewhere in the region, a small anti-government protest in San’a, the capital of Yemen, turned violent over the weekend, when government security forces attacked demonstrators who tried to march to the Egyptian embassy to show solidarity with the opponents of Mubarak. Earlier last week, 100,000 people participated in a march against Yemen’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He has drawn criticism for cooperating with the US military in its drone attacks on al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, (AQAP) which attempted to plant bombs in two air cargo shipments addressed to destinations in the US last year.
There was also a protest led by university students Sunday calling for the removal of the government in Sudan.
WHAT IS THE BEST POSSIBLE OUTCOME?
All this started with the overthrow of the Tunisian government, and has been encouraged by the rapid escalation of the protests against Mubarak in Egypt.
According to an analysis by the Stratfor strategic think tank, even the leaders of the Egyptian military realized that it was time for Mubarak to step aside and were quietly opposed to his plans to run for re-election in September, as well as his earlier plan to pass the leadership of the country on to his son.
The ideal outcome of the current situation for the US would be a takeover of the Egyptian government by advocates of a Western-style secular democracy, but that seems unlikely, given the lack of an effective leader for such a movement. Failing that, the Stratfor analysis says, the best outcome that could reasonably be hoped for would be a peaceful transition to rule by another popular Egyptian military leader, who would maintain cordial ties with the US, and continue to honor the essence of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
COMPARISONS TO RUSSIA IN 1917
As of this writing, the political situation in Egypt remains fluid. The fear is that the longer that chaos is allowed to rein in the streets of Egypt, the less likely democratic forces will ultimately emerge in charge.
Many analysts have compared the situation in Egypt today with the Russian Revolution in 1917. That began in February with the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and the brief emergence of a democratic Provisional Government, under the leadership of Alexander Kerensky, a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party. But by October, Kerensky’s government had been overthrown by the more militant Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin, who imposed a bloody Marxist dictatorship on Russia that lasted for more than 70 years.
For many years, Mubarak had been able to silence criticism from the US and other Western powers of his increasingly authoritarian rule by raising the specter of a Bolshevik-style takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood should he ever loosen his regime’s control over the people. Now that scenario is being put to the test.
Witness the Iranian revolution of 1979. As the result of a series of mistakes by the US in dealing with Iran over decades, that revolution resulted in the emergence of a virulently anti-American radical Islamic regime, which has been a growing threat to the stability of the region ever since. While the similarities between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2011 are far from exact, they are close enough to raise serious concerns about the best way for the US to react as power shifts from the Egyptian government to an amorphous opposition with both democratic and non-democratic elements, and no clear leadership.
Who will ultimately replace him as Egypt’s leader, and what that will mean to Israel’s security, US policy in the region, and Egypt’s 85 million citizens, remains hard to predict.