There was a joke going around Cairo for the last few months. God informs Egypt’s elderly and ailing president, Hosni Mubarak, that the time has come for him to bid his people farewell. ‘Really?’ Mubarak says, ‘where are they going?’
That joke isn’t funny anymore. While the people have taken to the streets, demanding an end to his 30 year-long monopoly on power, Mubarak insists he’s staying put. In a speech delivered on the eighth day of a marathon nationwide demonstration, Mubarak said he intended ‘to die on the soil of Egypt’. At least a million protesters were on hand, watching TV screens in Liberation Square in the heart of the capital, as the 82-year old Mubarak conceded he would not participate in the upcoming presidential elections. As a matter of fact, he noted solemnly, he wasn’t planning to anyway and had just somehow neglected to mention it. He did, however, intend to use ‘the remaining months of my term to take the steps to ensure a peaceful transfer of power.’ People booed and stopped listening and wondered what was next.
Up until that speech, Liberation Square was like an Egyptian Woodstock, people camping out, singing, dancing, sharing food and water, tasting freedom for the first time. It was ‘power to the people’ as seldom seen, since until last week these people had no power, period. They were peaceful, self-organized, elated, not only because they felt their great and persistent numbers represented victory, but because they don’t get out much. There’s nowhere to go, nothing affordable for most Egyptians to do, and certainly not together like this, a cross-section of the citizenry mingling and cheering one another on. They were proud and festive, the first Egyptians to hold their ground for so long against an oppressor. Mubarak’s speech made him the father of all killjoys, but protesters still spent the night in Liberation Square.
The next day at around 2pm, a vociferous pro-government contingent, some armed with nail-studded clubs and Molotov cocktails, arrived in the Square, aggressively confronting anyone in their path. Liberation Square became the scene of bloodshed. Mounted police on horses – and camels – charged and cracked their whips, breaking the human chain formed by peaceful protesters, whose numbers had grown since morning, to prevent them from entering the Square. Tanks started moving, with soldiers shouting to stop the fighting but doing nothing to prevent it. Yesterday the army was checking people for weapons before they entered the square; but confusingly, no longer. Rocks were flying according to an Al-Jazeera correspondent, ‘like birds’. (It is a testimony to the ramshackle condition of Cairo’s pavements that rubble was in plentiful supply.) The ugliness had begun. Pro-Mubarak supporters flowed into the Square by the thousands. The wounded were everywhere, filling the field hospital set up by citizens near the Square.
It was mayhem, but strategic mayhem.
A tyrant's choice
On 1 February Mubarak solemnly declared that both people and leadership ‘must choose between chaos and stability’. The military called for the anti-government protesters to stand down, as they’d achieved at least part of their aim, and Egypt needed to return to its stultified and chagrined normalcy, sorry, I meant ‘stability’. The message was largely ignored. That’s when the hoards of Mubarak’s supporters materialized. Where had they been for the last eight days? How did they manage to arrive all at once? Why were so many armed? All evidence points to a staged assault by police in civilian dress, and the hired thugs that typically break up demos or terrorize voters at polls.
It is no coincidence that this uprising began on a joyless national holiday called Police Day (January 25), as the police have earned a reputation for terrorizing the people instead of protecting them
Now, a day later, pro- and anti- government contingents are still fighting for control of Liberation Square, the centre and the symbol for the struggle. The military stands poised on the razor-edged brink of either insurrection (by disobeying eventual presidential orders to end the skirmishes) or breaking their promise not to use force against the anti-government protesters. Meanwhile Egyptians are losing their resolve; if forcing Mubarak’s hand means more loss of life, they wonder if they shouldn’t give up. It’s a grand scenario with Hosni Mubarak cast as saviour, the strongman who, in the eleventh hour, will march in and restore order.
Given the circumstances that placed him in power, Mubarak’s penchant for tight security and displays of force is not surprising; on 6 October 1981, as vice-president, he saw his predecessor Anwar Sadat gunned down metres from where he stood. The problem is that his regime has never known when to let up. The so-called Emergency Law, enacted following the assassination and yet to be repealed, gives carte blanche to the security apparatus, denies citizens due process and the right to assemble or strike, curtails media freedom and enables arbitrary detentions that are often prolonged and harsh. It has eroded civil society, while allowing high officials to flaunt the justice they are meant to uphold. It is no coincidence that this uprising began on a joyless national holiday called Police Day (January 25), as the police have earned a reputation for terrorizing the people instead of protecting them. Protesters arrested and imprisoned in the last week number in the hundreds if not thousands.
The stubborn father
Mubarak’s tenacity is an alloy of stubborn temperament, the habitual exercise of power, and the support of international allies – like the US. But his reticence to surrender authority also reflects the cultural mores that allowed him to hold firm these 30 years
In a speech given shortly after Mubarak spoke on 1 February, President Obama commended the Egyptian people for their bravery and the army for their restraint, while stating that ‘change must begin now’, suggesting that Mubarak would be wise to step aside sooner rather than later. He might have saved his breath. Mubarak’s tenacity is an alloy of stubborn temperament, the habitual exercise of power, and the support of international allies – like the US. But his reticence to surrender authority also reflects the cultural mores that allowed him to hold firm these 30 years. Deference to authority is valued in patriarchal societies like Egypt. This, along with Egyptian resourcefulness in the face of hardship and a general distaste for violence have helped ensure the administration’s longevity – not to mention martial law.
One of today’s pro-government protesters carried a sign reading, ‘Father Mubarak, mother Suzanne [the First Lady], the people are with you and they are sorry’. Mubarak supporters expressed dismay at the president’s loss of face as a result of last night’s speech. Their leader, a war hero, was obliged to seem weak before an international audience owing to the seditious presence of Al-Jazeera and unpatriotic protesters in Liberation Square. Such humiliation is unacceptable and must be vindicated. Whereas the anti-Mubarak protesters are men and women of all ages, from all walks of life, the President’s supporters are mostly men in their 20s-40s. They are willing pawns, powerless people content to be on the ‘strong’ side, the one that usually wins, and according to numerous reports, also pays. The going rate for muscling anti-government protesters is reportedly 100LE daily, the price of two kilos of meat, or a week’s wage for people earning the minimum monthly salary of 400LE (around $90).
Mubarak’s supporters are willing pawns, powerless people content to be on the ‘strong’ side, the one that usually wins, and according to numerous reports, also pays
Mubarak is an expert negotiator, always giving as little as possible and making it seem like lots. In 2005, when he ran for his fifth term, his ‘campaign’ emphasized how he’d recently called for a referendum to enable a constitutional amendment permitting multiple candidates to stand against him, a flimsy gesture since he had virtually no opponents. The only remotely viable one, Ghad party leader Ayman Nour, was thrown in jail immediately following the election, which everyone believed was rigged. Egyptians hunkered down for another six years of Hosni, swearing to form political parties to challenge him in 20011. But it wasn’t that easy. Prospective opposition parties were not officially approved. Mubarak’s younger son Gamal was positioned as his successor.
The seeds of discord
So what did Mubarak offer by way of appeasement following weeks of protests where at least 100 people lost their lives and hundreds more were wounded while millions nationwide demanded his resignation? He said, relax, I’ll go when I’m ready, so stop this nonsense and get back to work. And just to prove there were no hard feelings, he turned the internet on after a week-long blackout. Then again, he probably figured that having potential protesters home checking their email, updating blogs and uploading images, or watching the events on live streams trumped blocking the information that was anyway filtering to the world. When the pro-democracy protesters, unimpressed with his performance, stayed in the square, his zealous supporters jumped in to kick ass and sow the proverbial seeds of discord. Egyptians are consequently divided. The protests are no longer peaceful and some Egyptians are wondering if they shouldn’t cut their losses and back down. Others are committed to fighting to the death.
One woman whose son is in Liberation Square, received an email appeal from a friend suggesting that these ‘young heroes’ surrender before they are hurt, arrested or worse. She answered, ‘Those young people teach us a lesson. They are brave, wise and we were not. They know what they are doing, we didn’t know and we were lost for many years, and we did nothing for them or for ourselves.’
Youth's defiant energy
A huge portion of these protesters are aged 30 or younger and have never known another president besides Mubarak. They know that if they give up now, over a 100 of their fellows will have died in vain and they can only look forward to more rhetoric, procrastination, civil rights administered with an eye dropper, punitive arrests and other breaches of justice. They know their leader, but he doesn’t know them or realize that his regime can no longer rely on fear, filial obedience and grudging compromise to survive.
Despite the threat of injury, death and arrest, protesters – self-organized, without leadership or protection – are holding their ground
This is a new brand of youth and it comprises the bulk of Egypt’s population of 80 million. They are hungry – in every sense of the word – and disenfranchised but also informed and full of defiant energy. They inhabit a different world from the one the president wishes so desperately to preserve, with its orderly privileged hierarchies. Their world is chaos – overcrowded, polluted, dysfunctional, overpriced, bereft of jobs, justice and options.
This uprising is not driven by ideology or politics, but the will for change. Despite the threat of injury, death and arrest, protesters – self-organized, without leadership or protection – are holding their ground for the ninth momentous day and demanding, relentlessly, that Hosni Mubarak stand down. Despite the calls to give up so that order might be restored, their presence is a message to Egypt’s government and every government in the world: you are here to serve and respect the peoples’ wishes – not the other way around. We are the nation, and we are staying. You have betrayed us, and you must go.
This article was written on 3 February 2011.
Maria Golia writes the popular Letter from Cairo column in the New Internationalist magazine.