What happened in Tunisia apparently hasn’t stayed in Tunisia. Reportedly organized via the website Facebook, 90,000 Egyptians agreed to demonstrate in a “National Day of Wrath” on Police Day, an Egyptian national holiday. Demonstrators marched in Alexandria, the Nile Delta cities of Mansura and Tanta, and the southern cities of Aswan and Assiut, witnesses reported. Thousands massed in the capital city of Cairo, congregating at the central Tahrir (Liberation) Square on Tuesday chanting, ”Down with Hosni Mubarak, down with the tyrant. We don’t want you!” All across the Muslim world turmoil is erupting – Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, and now Yemen. The frightening possibility is that, rather than being a force for liberation, these regional protests may in fact be undermining democracy by imperiling pro-Western allies one-by-one and fertilizing the soil for Khomeini-like Islamic factions to gain power and sow their killing fields. It could be the Iranian Revolution of 1979 all over again in these nations, and if it is, it represents a horrific scenario for Western and Israeli interests – as well as for the people who will find themselves the victims of the Islamist bloodbaths that will by necessity ensue.
Despite claims by the Interior Ministry that the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition group (although legally banned), is to blame for the mobilization, the Evening Standard of London is reporting that another opposition group, Sixth of April Youth, was responsible for the uprising. ”Tomorrow, don’t go to work. Don’t go to college. We will all go down to the streets and stand hand in hand for you, our Egypt. We will be millions,” one activist wrote on its website. As in Tunisia, where protesters were apparently inspired by the death of a poor Tunisian vegetable vendor who set himself on fire to protest corruption, Egyptians were reportedly aroused in similar fashion by the killing of Khaled Said, a young Egyptian who was reportedly beaten to death by two policemen in Alexandria last year.
Further reports revealed that both Facebook and Twitter were instrumental in the organization of the demonstrations and their coordination. Demands posted on Facebook were far-reaching: the protesters are insisting that Mubarak and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif resign, that the parliament be dissolved, and that a national unity government be instituted. In response, the government has reportedly shut down mobile phone and internet networks, and blocked both Twitter and Facebook accounts.
At the heart of the protests are a dismal economy, an oppressive government, and widespread corruption. Egypt is a country of 83 million people, approximately 60 percent of whom are under 30. That demographic also comprises 90 percent of the unemployed. About 40 percent live below the poverty line, set by the World Bank at $2.00 a day, and one-third of the country is illiterate. Egypt is ranked 138th out of 167 countries on the Democracy Index, as compiled by The Economist magazine, a respected source for measuring political freedom. As recently as last November, Egyptians rioted to protest what they characterized as a “rigged” parliamentary election, when President Mubarak’s ruling National Democratic Party won most of that chamber’s 518 seats.
Mubarak has ruled the country for 30 years, ever since Egypt’s last leader, Anwar Sadat, was assassinated in 1981. Ostensibly, Mubarak is up for re-election this year, but there is widespread speculation that the 82-year-old ruler may retire due to health issues, including surgery last year. Many Egyptians fear that Mubarak is setting up his son, Gamal, to succeed him. Yet in a stunning development, Arabic website Akhbar al-Arab reports that Gamal Mubarak has fled to London with his family.
Rising food prices are contributing to the country’s woes as well, a reality reflected by Sami Imam, a 53-year-old retired teacher who took part in Tuesday’s protests. ”I have not visited the butcher in six months,” he said. Mr. Imam also said something that might encapsulate the reason why so many Egyptians, who have long feared the legendary brutality of Egypt’s 1.4 million strong security forces, took to the streets: “The police cannot kill us because we, to all practical purposes (sic), are already dead.”
That sentiment seems to reflect the current reality which some in the media are referring to as a “tipping point,” the “crossing of a psychological barrier” or a “domino effect” in a country where protests have usually drawn no more than a few hundred people at any one time. Yet the government itself may have played an integral part in allowing the demonstrations to gain momentum: according to Reuters, several police officers reported they were “under orders not to force a confrontation.” It is speculated that the Egyptian authorities did not want “an escalation as in Tunisia, where a rising number of deaths and casualties only served to fire up protesters.”
The number of demonstrators has been estimated at 20,000 country-wide, but such numbers are unreliable because the demonstrations were spread out, and the state-controlled media has downplayed their impact. By contrast, an official statement from the Interior Ministry estimated the crowd to be “10,000 gathered in one central square of Cairo alone,” raising the possibility that the number of Egyptians demanding change is far greater than currently known. The state news agency said 90 people were arrested in Cairo, with a judicial source adding that 64 people were detained in Alexandria.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is urging the Egyptian government to refrain from breaking up demonstrations and to quit blocking communications, adding that the unrest has given Egypt an “important opportunity” to enact far-reaching reforms. ”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,” said Mrs. Clinton.
Yet as Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center and a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution explains, “(t)he Middle East just got more complicated for the Obama administration.” In Tunisia, former president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled since 1987, ran a largely suppressive regime. But it was pro-Western, welcoming to European tourists, and willing to embrace some economic reforms. He was replaced by an ally, Prime Minister Mohammed Ghannouchi, who says he will resign only after democratic elections are held. They will be the first since Tunisia gained independence from France in 1956. Army head Rachid Ammar said he would act as ”guarantor” for the revolution, which is to include a major cabinet shake-up.
Will Egypt undergo a full-scale change, similar to the one unfolding in Tunisia? Some Egyptians dismissed the protests as insubstantial. ”This is all just a waste of time,” said Ali Mustafa Ibrahim, a Cairo cigarette stand worker. “These are a bunch of kids playing cat and mouse. … It’s just going to create more problems and more traffic in the city.” Others were far more optimistic. ”(The protesters) broke the barrier of fear,” said Alaa al-Aswany, author of the best-selling “Yacoubian Building,” which illuminates political corruption, police brutality and terrorism in Egypt. ”The writers of the regime were saying Egypt is not Tunisia and Egyptians are less educated than Tunisians. But here is the thing: these young people proved they can take their rights forcefully.”
Like the revolt in Tunisia, Egyptian unrest reveals the fragility of an American foreign policy strategy which prizes stable Middle East governments, even if those governments are repressive. This is underscored by the fact that Egypt is the fourth largest recipient of U.S. assistance, including $1.3 billion in annual military aid–in return for which Egypt, like Tunisia, supports American interests in the region.
The uprisings in both countries puts the United States between the proverbial rock and a hard place. If the U.S. supports the protesters and their quest for “democracy,” it undermines the governments they have relied upon for maintaining stability. According to Mr. Hamid, the dilemma is relatively insignificant with respect to Tunisia, because that revolt was “spontaneous and leaderless. Islamists–mostly in prison or in London–were nowhere to be seen on the streets of Tunis or Sidi Bouzid.“ Egypt is an entirely different story. “(I)f Egypt is lost, warns Mr. Hamid, “it will be lost to an uprising that includes some of the most anti-American opposition groups in the region, including the Muslim Brotherhood–by far the largest opposition force in the country.
Complicating things even further, Western and Saudi-baked Saad Hariri, prime minister of Lebanon, has been replaced by billionaire businessman Najib Mikat, after Hariri’s government collapsed due the resignation of eleven ministers. What is being referred to as a “coup” has put Hezbollah in effective control of the country, as Mikat has confirmed that his nomination “does not make me committed to any political stance other than protecting the Resistance.” Hezbollah has been designated a terrorist group by the U.S. State Department since the 1980s.
Thus, America is faced with a string of ill-timed upheavals that accrue against its interests, even as two of those uprisings, in Tunisia and Egypt, appear to represent the yearning for self-determination. How do we reconcile the reality that a temporary rendezvous with “democracy” also means the ability to make deadly suicidal choices – as happened in Iran in 1979?
Democracyjournal.org illuminates a possible way out with respect to Egypt, but one which may also prove effective in dealing with whatever governments finally emerge in all three nations. The journal offers a strategy that consists of a two-pronged approach: ”positive conditionality,” in which military assistance provided by the U.S. would require quid pro quo political reform; and “answering the Islamic question,” by which the Obama administration would signal a willingness to deal with the hard-line, anti-American factions (including Islamist groups), “as long as they fulfill the conditions of renouncing violence and committing to the rules of the democratic game.”
In other words, the carrot and the stick. But the carrot and stick need to be maneuvered with the kind of skill in foreign affairs that the Obama administration has yet to demonstrate to any degree of aptitude. There are no easy answers here, but if history is truly being made, it behooves this administration to get on the right side of it. Countries which have been allies are suddenly question marks, and the alternative “answer” is obvious: with Hezbollah in charge, Lebanon is effectively an Iranian proxy. On Facebook there is already a site calling itself the “Tunisian-Iranian Solidarity Network.” Egypt? Time will tell–but time is not on America’s side with respect to any of these upheavals. It is urgently important that Obama gauges the mistakes made by Carter in losing Iran to Khomeini in 1979, and to do all he can to avoid Iran all over again in the Middle East in 2011 and after.