|News Reviews from 2011|
Uprising in Egypt: a revolution is not being televised (Feb 2011)
by Simon Belt
I volunteered to write an article or two before the first of the Manchester Salon's current affairs discussions and put my neck on the line to have it picked apart. The idea is to develop and test the analytical and journalistic capabilities of all the attendees at these current affairs discussions every First Tuesday of the month, but little did I realise that one of the most exciting stories for a while would unfold in the week before that couldn't be ignored in favour of an easier topic.
Street protests in Egypt followed quickly after the flight of President Zine Ben Ali of Tunisia to Saudi Arabia in the Jasmine Revolution, and just as quickly escalated to an uprising with rather excited talk of revolution. Big events for sure but seems to have caught many by surprise and with little understanding of what caused such unexpected events. This article then is my comment to help with the First Tuesday discussion.
Before we all get carried away with the prospect of revolution in one of the Middle East's pivotal country, which would surely change the course of world politics, let us just recap on the events leading up to the protests in Egypt. In Tunisia a fruit vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself alight in protest at police seizing his cart, with economic conditions being so desperate. That triggered angry protests resulting in the resignation of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Reporting for the Sunday Times, Marie Colvin says that several young men in Egypt have emulated Bouazizi's suicide by setting themselves on fire to protest against poverty, unemployment and the humiliation of not having enough money to get married. And the existence of such high numbers of many young, unemployed and umarried men is seen as one of the reasons that the protests escalated so quickly and spontaneously, which is worth considering.
Last year, Khalid Saeed, 28 was hauled out of an internet cafe in Alexandria and beaten to death by the police in full view of people on the street - after he accused police officers of taking part in a drugs deal. The initial demonstration last week was called on the officially organised 'Police Day' to highlight police brutality, under the organising name of 'We are all Khalid Saeed'. After the size of demonstration on Tuesday took the police by surprise, forcing them to retreat temporarily, the Government banned demonstrations on the Wednesday, though demonstrators defied the ban incurring the wroth of uniformed police batton charges and plain clothes snatch squads beating and arresting any stragglers they could.
It was after Friday prayers when numbers prepared to march swelled dramatically and with that the demographics changed to include a much wider spread of ages and sexes, making protests genuinely broad based. Assaults by the police who seemed to throw everything they had at the protestors were resisted persistently and decisively resulting in the police finally having to retreat from the streets, in Cairo with its 8m residents at least. Attempts to break the will of protestors resulted in over 100 people being killed with tear gas canisters, rubber bullets and live amunition, and thousands being injured. Similarly sizeable protests, with similar outcomes, took place in Alexandria, Ismailia, and Suez.
In order to limit the organisational capacity of protestors, the state closed down Internet connections, and mobile phone networks and tried to disrupt media outlets, though organisations with satellite links worked very well to provide news broadcasts. Although lack of internet connections for a generation used to having it may explain some effects, there has been a marked absense of purpose and organising aspirations of the protestors beyond the desire for Mubarak to leave office, in the hope of getting some economic benefits from that.
The protests were focussed on symbols of Hosni Mubarak's 30 year regime - the National Democratic Party headquarters and police stations. The pressure on 82 year old Mubarak to announce reform measures were clearly being expressed by the military who didn't initially backup the police, and also from outside the country, especially America with announcement from President Barrack Obama and Secreatary of State Hilary Clinton. Initial attempts to shore up Mubarak's regime with a hands off approach were quickly replaced with thinly veiled directives for Mubarak to move aside and allow an alternative figurehead to take over.
General Omar Suleiman, the 74-year-old intelligence chief was sworn in as vice-president on Saturday, along with Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi to facilitate peaceful transfer of power by military - tanks on street and planes flying over Freedom Square signalling the army were managing the transfer of power were very clear. Although there didn't seem to be any real organisation behind the protests, with the Muslim Brotherhood being the most significant organisation around, they looked totally detached from what was happening spontaneously, providing a nightmare vision for America that has relied upon Egypt's authoritarian rule to provide stability for them in the region.
In contrast to the rhetoric of supporting the 'legitimate claims of the Egyptian people', America had ben supporting the Egyption regime's army (the world's 10th largest army) to the tune of $1.3bn per year, as well as other 'aid' benefits. Much of the arsenal used by the police in killing more than a 100 protesters was done using US supplied equipment.
Police are so hated that looting and arson, including vandalism at the Egyptian National Museum, is widely considered to be carried out or supported by the police, and 'escape' of criminals from prisons with arms were seen as being organised by the police to help scare the middle class into demanding or at least welcoming back the police who'd retreated from the streets of Cairo after failing to quell protestors. On the Friday and Saturday of the protests there were reports of some 100-200 deaths from beatings, wounds from shotgun, teargas canisters and rubber bullets, often being fired at point blank range. Film coverage some on Sky and Al Jazeera show police vehicles being driven directly into crowd with a clear intention to cause serious damage, followed by viscous police beatings in chaotic situations.
Coverage in liberal papers like The Independent on Sunday decry the Americans and British for trying to hold on to Hosni Mubarak, and pleading for the West to allow the Egyptians to make their own solutions democratically, lest the west become too obviously associated with the corrupt regime. Meanwhile, the west's rebuilding activities in Afghanistan are criticised for not being well organised enough even though those activities represent a more intimate controlling aspect to western interference in another's country.
The military have initially taken a softly softly approach so as not to immediately present themselves as an integral part of the state machinary along the police. It does appear to be the case the military chiefs are involved in managing out Hosni Mubarak with the support of American and other western powers, by way of bringing about another face to the state that's acceptable to the protestors. Suleiman initially not supported by as the middle class are panicked into fear of what might happen with masses on street and excercising own authority, they may well accept a different figurehead.
The hallmark of the reporting has been high levels of rumour and speculation, somewhat over-reliant on communication from Twitter sources whenever they can be accessed, and large disparities between limited demands for an end to the corruption of Mubarak and for the availability of basic food and consumer goods, along with western commentators like Julian Assange who belive their digital activities around WikiLeaks for example has helped create a more libertarian climate for change.
Whilst I appreciate that civic life, and the scope for developing clear political strategies by any opposition groups is severely limited in Egypt, it is striking that the detachment from political trends is apparent in the west too. For Julian Assange to claim he helped create the conditions for change in Egypt with his WikiLeaks site, or for Mohamed ElBaradei to leave Vienna and turn up in Freedom Square with a loud-hailer to address his waiting people (who largely have no idea who he is), expresses a profound lack of political connection or any real desire to engage in any political process that connects with the experiences of most people.
It's quite likely that the personalities in the Egyptian state may change, but the inability of the Egyptians protesting on the streets this week to cohere themselves around some politics, to acheive the control they so desperately desire is likely to leave them wanting. The fact that they successfully pushed back at the police, and got a taste of running some things for themselves, albeit of a limited neighbourhood watch character, fills me with hope that their taste for organising their own life control, will take their organisation of politics beyond the reactive to thinking how best to organise for the future.
There is one group of people who will not be allowed the ability to manage and control their own transition from where they are now to where they may want to be and that's the masses of Egyptians. As the likes of Tony Blair and Hilary Clinto come to the fore in discussions about the future of Egypt, the discussion will all be about how 'we' will need to partner with 'the people' in Egypt to allow 'their' real will to be managed, especially if they engage in general strikes and militant action. That represents the complete negation of democracy for the Egyptian masses as most discussion in the west will be to determine what their real will is for them and have external forces manage it into place for them.
Some useful background readings
Egyptian Demonstrators Rev up for Big Friday as Regime Cracks Down, Juan Cole, 28 January 2011
Egyptian youth and new dawn hopes, Firas Al-Atraqchi, Aljazeera 29 January 2011
Egypt protests surprise analysts, Alaa Bayoumi, Aljazeera 29 January 2011
Who is Omar Suleiman?, Jane Mayer, The New Yorker 29 January 2011
Julian Assange: 'How do you attack an organisation? You attack its leadership', Ed Vulliamy, The Observer, 30 January 2011
Egypt crisis: will Obama trust 80 million Egyptians?, The Telegraph, Monday 31 January 2011
Victory to the Egyptian people!, Brendan O'Neill, spiked 31 January 2001