The flowering of democracy, or the birth of another Iran?
Published in The Mail on Sunday (January 30th, 2011)
For the fifth day in a row, Egypt was consumed with rage, fear and hope yesterday. The streets of ancient cities like Cairo and Alexandria were filled again with the burning anger of brave citizens, desperate to pull down a regime that has repressed and impoverished them for so long.
With smoke rising from the burned out headquarters of the ruling party, bodies piled up at the morgues and protesters defying tanks by clambering on to them and urging soldiers to join the uprising, no-one should be in the slightest doubt over the significance of these events.
Whatever happens over the next few days in Egypt, we are at one of those turning points in history. It is a moment when old certainties collapse and the future is that much harder to predict. The outcome could affect us all.
Egypt is not just the home of the Pyramids. It is the most populous Arab country, the pivotal nation at the heart of the Middle East powder keg that dared make peace with Israel. Its history gives it influence over the Islamic world, while its geography gives it influence over Africa and the Mediterranean. This is why shares fell on Friday and the price of gold rose.
In a nation ruled by President Hosni Mubarak with such an iron fist for so long, the scenes of protesters kissing riot policemen, setting fire to police stations and overturning armoured vehicles are nothing short of astonishing.
There have been rumbling protests and frequent strikes in recent years. Now their seething resentment at repression, corruption and unemployment has boiled over in fury.
Much of the anger is focused on the 82-year-old Mubarak, a former air force commander who is preparing for his son Gamal – an investment banker who once worked in London – to succeed him.
Mubarak has ruthlessly crushed opposition by controlling the Press and fixing elections. In November, his party won 500 of the 518 seats in parliamentary elections.
Equally hated are the police, renowned for breathtaking cruelty. One video in circulation showed an officer sexually abusing a motorist with a broomstick. And protesters held up pictures of Khaled Said, a young businessman who police said died after choking on a bag of drugs until photographs emerged of his beaten corpse.
Underlying everything is a crushing sense of hopelessness fostered by the lack of jobs. Gamal has overseen a liberalisation of the economy, which boosted growth but enriched cronies. One despised insider used favourable loans to build a monopoly in iron and steel.
Another former parliamentarian owned a ferry that sank in the Red Sea killing more than 1,000 people; it was unseaworthy but certified by a relative.
Meanwhile, despite the private jets at Cairo airport, half the country lives on less than $2 a day and one in four children are brought up in poverty.
The crowds on the streets of Egypt are young people, a wired generation bitter at the lack of opportunity and rising food prices. Sixty per cent of the region’s people are under 30 and barely half have a job, despite often having good education.
The big question, of course, is what happens next? At least 74 people lie dead and more than 2,000 have been injured. But the president’s desperate reshuffle of his cabinet seems to have done little to quell dissent, with protests continuing and the curfew ignored. Tanks even closed off the tourist sites in Luxor.
The army’s role is critical. In Tunisia the military played a heroic role by pushing out the president then declining to take power. In Egypt, the stakes are higher. The generals enjoy a privileged lifestyle, underpinned by $1.3 billion in military aid handed over each year by the US. This is the main revenue source alongside tourism and tolls from the Suez Canal.
And while Egyptians may loathe their police, they are nationalist and respect their army. So as troops moved on to the streets, there was confusion whether the soldiers were heroes or enemies. Some fired live ammunition into crowds, while one army captain joined the demonstrators yesterday, hoisted aloft as he ripped apart a picture of the president.
The odds remain that Mubarak will reimpose order, although it seems unlikely the generals will allow him or his son to stand in the presidential election later this year. But there is room for optimism that, as appears to be happening in Tunisia, this is the end of a regime based on corruption and thuggery and its replacement with a civil society.
As we have seen countless times in history, however, uprisings are unruly events. They often start swathed in hope and end up disintegrating into fear, hatred and oppression. Nowhere was this better demonstrated than Iran in 1979, when the Shah was overthrown amid widespread joy only for the eventual imposition of a medieval theocracy.
There are many Egyptians who could move the nation forward into democracy. Jostled amid the crowds has been the elderly figure of Mohamed El-Baredi, the Nobel Prize-winning former head of the UN’s atomic watchdog. He is a popular figure having reached the top of international diplomacy and stood up to the Americans over Iraq.
But waiting in the wings, yet to make their move, are the Muslim Brotherhood, the world’s oldest and largest Islamist organisation. They are loathed by jihadists for their embrace of democracy, but at the same time have been highly critical of America and its support for neighbouring Israel. They remain something of an unknown quantity.
Two things are clear, however, Firstly, the bankruptcy of a Western policy that propped up despots rather than embracing democrats. We have seen Tony Blair going on holiday at the expense of Egypt’s hard-pressed people and heard Hillary Clinton telling the world Mubarak and his wife were her friends. Little wonder Western leaders struggled to formulate an adequate response this month.
Secondly, there is no doubt the shockwaves from tiny Tunisia are rippling out across the region. Something that began with the self-immolation of a fruit seller has caught fire. There have been protests in Algeria, Jordan, Morocco and Yemen, while even as far afield as Uganda people fighting for human rights are seeking inspiration from these extraordinary events.
No one knows how high the tide of protest will rise, and whether a succession of repressive royals and gruesome dictators will be swept aside, just as in Eastern Europe in 1989, or cling on despite the unhappiness of their people.
In a region so rich in oil and so central to global stability, the consequences threaten to be profound. But whatever happens, these despots know one thing for sure: they are as relevant to their people as the pharoahs in those ancient tombs buried under the desert sands.