Old order changeth yielding place to the new. Are there changes in the horizon across the Arab world? Two weeks ago, Tunisian strongman Zine el-Abidine ben Ali fled the country following weeks of street protests.
For the last few days, demonstrators in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, have held signs that declared “Pharaoh no more,” an obvious reference to their distaste of President Hosni Mubarak who have been ruling the country with an iron hand for the past three decades since his predecessor was gunned down by a member of his own army during a military parade. Inspired by events in Tunisia, they have filled the streets in Cairo and Alexandria demanding that Mubarak should step down.
In Yemen, about 100 marchers descended on the Egyptian Embassy to show solidarity with the swelling protests. In Iran students demonstrated in front of the Egyptian interest section office in Tehran to show their support for the protesters in Egypt, Tunisia and other Arab countries. In New York City and Washington D.C., hundreds gathered in a peaceful demonstration over the weekend in front of the United Nations Building and the Egyptian Embassy, respectively, showing their solidarity with the protesters in Egypt. They demanded that the Obama Administration stands with the people and not with the dictator.
In the post-Sadat days, American presidents – Democrats and Republicans alike – have been some of the staunchest allies of the unpopular Mubarak regime. This support, in spite of the fact that his was one of the most autocratic, undemocratic and corrupt regimes with some of the worst records of human rights abuses. Sham presidential elections were routinely held that guaranteed re-election of Mubarak with approximately 99% support. The opposition party members had little or no rights, both inside and outside the parliament. Even the Khatibs (that led Friday prayer services) that criticized the regime for any of its plethora of failures were not safe from Mubarak’s prisons. Many would be picked up by the police days before Jumu’a and returned later, if at all. Others would rot and/or die under mysterious circumstances within the prison cells. Mubarak’s internal security forces had mastered the art of torture -- from electric shocks to sodomy and rape. Nothing was off-limits to these two-legged monsters, responsible for upholding the Mubarak regime at any cost. It was Mubarak’s prisons that produced the Arab rebels like Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, now a close ally of Osama Bin Laden. One may argue that had it not been for these Egyptian torture cells, there probably would never have been a 9/11.
Hours after the countrywide protests had begun the Egyptian interior ministry issued a statement blaming the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt's technically banned but largest opposition party, for fomenting the unrest. But the Brotherhood denied the accusation. Truly, these protests, if we can still call these as such, are spontaneous reactions to decades of Mubarak’s tyranny and utter failure to improve the people’s lot. These outbursts of public anger have very little to do with any particular opposition party. Millions of Egyptians are unemployed today. Many are forced to do multiple jobs to support their family members. Every ordinary Egyptian -- from a sweeper in the cities to the shopkeepers in the bazaars of the major cities, from cab drivers in cities like Cairo - many with Ph.D. degrees - to college and university professors, from a farmer in the Nile Delta to a firefighter in Alexandria -- is tired of poverty, unemployment, government corruption and authoritarian rule.
The Egyptian people want Mubarak out. They are tired of a dictatorship draped in the cloth of democracy. Afraid of losing control, the government imposed curfew, which however has been defied by the protesters. According to state-run TV, at least 100 people have died in the unrest, including 10 members of security forces. For most part the police have backed off from confrontations in most areas of the capital, thus allowing tens of thousands of demonstrators free rein through the Cairo city center. Sporadic lootings of shops have also taken place in certain parts of the major cities. However, the protests across Egypt have not turned ugly yet, and continue to be quite peaceful. [It should be noted that the despised regime may be behind such lawlessness to prevail, thus, justifying a military crackdown where Mubarak or his chosen successor stays in power without a real change taking root in political landscape of Egypt.]
Like most despotic rulers, President Hosni Mubarak refuses to see the obvious and step down. In a televised address last week, the embattled leader tried to deflect blame for the nation's rising anger by announcing that he would form a new government. On the fifth day of growing unrest by demonstrators he named a vice president for the first time in his 30-year reign, a sign that he would continue to resist the popular uprising's call for his resignation. He swore in Omar Suleiman, 76, chief of Egyptian intelligence, as his vice-president. It is obvious that the latter, a shadowy figure with close ties with the popular Egyptian military, has the blessings of the U.S. and Israel. These countries would approve an orderly transition that would maintain Egypt's international commitments.
But such announcements of government shakeup, including naming of a new prime minister, have not been able to sway the Egyptian public. In Cairo and Alexandria, tens of thousands of protesters returned to the streets to demand that Mubarak leave power immediately. Angry crowds were chanting, "Down, down with Mubarak!" and "Mr. Mubarak, wake up -- today is your final day in power!"
Tanks were also in position at Tahrir Square in Cairo, raising questions about how the military would respond. The army's lower-ranking officers and soldiers come from the nation's heartland and feel a bond with the people, but higher up the chain of command the officers' loyalty is to the president. However, the military in general has grown disillusioned with the government policies and wisely, thus far, has avoided any confrontation with the protesters.
Egypt has been a key to American influence in the Middle East for more than 30 years. It has been a partner with the United States in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. It has fought alongside the U.S. administration against Iraq during the Gulf War I. It has been a trusted ally in George W. Bush’s so-called global war on terror. It continues to work with the Obama administration to curb Iranian influence in the Arab world.
Since the days of late president Anwar Sadat, billions of dollars of U.S. aid have been poured into Egypt. Ignored there is the fact that most of the aid ($1.3 billion annually) was meant for military use. The U.S. economic aid in 2009 was cut to $200 million. That is, the per capita share was a meager $2.60 in a country with a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) of $5,400 in 2008. Nonetheless such paltry aids, which did very little to better the lives of ordinary Egyptians, were often exploited by the powerful in either side to show and demand Egyptian indebtedness to the U.S. government. Unmentioned there is also the fact that aid given to Egypt provides the United States with political, strategic, and sometimes economic benefits that far exceed the value of what Egypt has received. According to the IMF Trade Statistics Trends Yearbook, during the 1983–2007 period, Egypt’s total accumulated trade deficit with the United States was $45.1 billion. This sum is far greater than the total size of American economic aid to Egypt to date.
The Obama administration is worried about the continuing unrest in Egypt. It is facing a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" choice. They prefer a peaceful change of old guards without any ripple effect. The fall of Mubarak government could intensify pressures on some neighbors, potentially setting off a tsunami that topples other despotic governments and reshapes the political and security balance throughout the region. The rise of a less friendly government could set off alarms in Israel, and calls for the U.S. to step up its defense of its closest ally -- Israel.
In his Cairo speech in 2009, President Obama said the United States supported the aspirations for greater freedom of Arabs. Yet his administration has continued in many ways the old policies of past U.S. governments. It continues to support the region's authoritarian regimes. It is against popular movements in Lebanon and Gaza. Many Arab activists say they preferred the more sharp-edged message of President G.W. Bush, who pushed a "freedom agenda" than President Obama’s forked-tongue message of freedom.
So far, the official response from the Obama administration has been a measured one recommending that the Mubarak regime needs to change its course and listen to people’s grievances. It would do better by demanding that President Mubarak steps down, and lets the Egyptian people have the freedom to elect their legitimate leaders in a free election. Nothing short of it will allow the Obama administration to be taken seriously by the Arab population, especially its young generation that has been craving for change. Any effort by the Obama administration which undermines people’s aspirations for freedom would be counterproductive. On their part, the Egyptian people ought to be extra careful that their revolution is not hijacked by some opportunists within the armed forces, or by stage-managed actors whose loyalty is more for their foreign masters than to their own people.