Foreign Policy Journal (February 9, 2011)
These are days of reckoning for Hosni Mubarak and those associated with the Egyptian regime in and outside the country. Outpouring of a million or more people in Cairo, in Alexandria, Suez and across the country repeats a familiar lesson. Once people living under a suppressive regime have broken the fear barrier, the masses have realized their collective strength and resolved to end their long nightmare. We are witnessing a phenomenon that is irreversible.
People have lived through atrocities and pain, economic and political hardships without any obvious recourse, distrust of their rulers and pessimism about their future long enough. They have reflected on what they must endure if things remained unchanged, examined their own worth and concluded that the system cheats them in every way. Their rage has broken the threshold of tolerance. They have decided that the existence of permanent humiliation is not worthy of continuation. Then the point of inevitability of a people’s uprising has been reached.
The inevitability of a revolution, once the dynamic has reached that point, is not in doubt. However, exact prophecy is more tricky. Juan Cole warns against the temptation to compare Egypt’s popular uprising to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution (Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979, Informed Comment, February 2, 2011). A number of observers have made alarmist predictions that the Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. radical Islamists) would take over power if Egypt’s military-dominated regime is swept away by popular revolt. What a betrayal of eighty million people?
The Muslim Brotherhood is neither a dominant entity in Egyptian polity nor is the movement in collaboration with the radical movements like the Islamic Jihad. There are secular, left-wing and right-wing parties, religious forces and labor activists in considerable numbers. Contrary to national elections and referendums to extend military-led rule under President Hosni Mubarak over three decades, the outcome of a free and fair election, if it were held, cannot be predetermined. However, with more than twenty parties, the scenario of a radical Islamist seizer of power looks unlikely.
Anti-Americanism in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, is a different matter. Political machination by the ruling elites in and outside Egypt to keep the established character of regime in place will only serve to reinforce the anti-American feeling. Egypt’s uprising has both differences from, and parallels with, earlier civil revolts elsewhere. The local context of the events in Egypt is different. However, it is important to recognize what these events mean for the United States, Israel and their strategic designs in the Middle East. They mean something akin to what the Iranian Revolution meant back in 1978-79.
In the early stages of the Iranian Revolution, a weak American president Jimmy Carter in a moment of fatal misjudgment, described Iran, under a brutal regime, as a “free country” and an “oasis of peace and stability.” As the current Egyptian uprising started two weeks ago, the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the regime in Cairo was “stable.” That only days after Clinton was moved to acknowledge the region being battered by a “perfect storm” demonstrated a crisis in Washington’s understanding of the Middle East similar to the one three decades before. America’s misjudgment and confusion about how to deal with the crisis does not stop there. The way ahead is littered with political landmines.
President Obama’s soaring rhetoric proved much stronger than his leadership in office. Today he looks like a weak president in the mold of Jimmy Carter. In July 2009, he embarked on his Middle East political journey in Cairo with a celebrated speech seeking “a new beginning” with Muslims based on mutual interests and mutual respect, justice and tolerance. That rhetorical promise faces a severe test. Obama seems clueless while American policy is hijacked by hawkish secretaries of state and defense, and uniformed military top brass openly meddling in Egypt’s affairs; and voices from the United States and Israel declare utter disrespect for the Egyptian people and the reasons for their uprising. Obama demands that a transition “must be quick, must be peaceful and must start now.” President Mubarak refuses to resign, promises to go in September 2011 at the end of his current term (thirty year in all) and offers instead committees to discuss reforms and bribes in the form of pay rises.
On February 8 the biggest demonstrations take place since the protests began on January 25. The masses reject Mubarak’s “concessions.” Egypt’s emerging strongman Omar Suleiman, whose intelligence service for years tortured his own people and those the United States sent for “extraordinary rendition” during the “war on terror,” declares that Egypt is “not ready for democracy.” And Obama’s secretary of defense, Robert Gates, pays fulsome compliments to the Egyptian military for showing extraordinary restraint.
No matter what comes out of Egypt’s tumultuous events, the U.S. Empire is collapsing. The Egyptian people have all but ensured the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the prospects of a Mubarak dynasty. However, this is only a partial victory. The real victory will be democracy. As machinations in Israel, the United States and its European allies continue, that real victory is not certain – yet. Is it to happen soon? Or the people’s will to be thwarted – again? The point of inevitability in the Egyptian uprising has arrived. Attempts to cheat them this time will leave a legacy of anger and bitterness could have consequences far more serious and long term than the events in Iran in 1979.