Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Fall of the Egyptian Tyrant

Last Friday, a grim-looking Omar Suleiman announced, “In these grave circumstances that the country is passing through, President Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave his position as president of the republic.” The Vice President continued, “He has mandated the Armed Forces Supreme Council to run the state. God is our protector and succor.” With those much expected words the 30-year reign of Mubarak crumbled. It was the right thing to do, and probably the only rational thing to do for the 82-year autocrat who had by then exhausted all his tricks to cling into power. The previous night in his speech to the nation, he sounded defiant and non-quitting.
Mubarak was a man of the barracks who as an air force pilot had fought in the wars of 1967 and 1973. Despite his peasant background he had earned the trust of his predecessor – the cigar-smoking Anwar Sadat to rise to the post of vice president. He was a survivor. On the day of assassination of President Sadat in 1981, he was sitting next to him and could easily have been killed by Lt. Khalid al-Islambouli, the assassin, if the latter had wanted it to happen. Wounded, Mubarak was spared by Lt. Khalid, who walked past him, saying, “Get out of my way. I only want to kill this son of a dog.”

After being sworn in as the President, Mubarak put together an intricate police state that was no less monstrous than those of Hafez al-Asad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Stability became the watchword of his presidency, with emergency law - which prevented gatherings of more than five people - lasting throughout the 30 years of his rule. Some 1.7 million people worked for his Ministry of Interior. Everyone was spied upon. No one knew whom to trust and share frustration with his tyrannical regime that tolerated no opposition. He suspended what few civil liberties 80 million Egyptians had under its well-trampled constitution. Severe limits on freedom of expression and civil society were imposed. Newspapers and websites faced occasional shut down and bloggers prosecution. Some 10,000 to 15,000 political prisoners, mostly from the Muslim Brotherhood — which has been portrayed as the Islamist bogeyman, rotted in his prisons.

It was a depressing history! A land long known for its ancient civilization, high quality education, superb hospitality, melodious songs and marvelous literature, sly humor and nonstop gossips became hopeless, surly and silent, if not dull or dead.
My Egyptian friends that had returned to their homeland (in contrast to many students that chose not to return) in the 1980s after completing their graduate studies in North America to teach in some of the best universities in the region were not above suspicion from the Mukhabarat. They had every reason to be frightened and entreated me not to write to them because they felt vulnerable and monitored and their letters opened before being delivered. It was a Republic of Fear that Mubarak ran whose stranglehold only grew stronger and suffocating with time.

It was his torture cells that produced the individuals like Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, born of aristocracy and yet feeling dejected and humiliated in a state -- crafted by Mubarak and his henchmen. These latter-day radicals, revolutionaries or terrorists had nothing to lose, but an implausible and somewhat naïve urge to get even with their native tormentors and foreign sponsors.

With absolute power came insatiable greed and unfathomed corruption. Mubarak’s family became filthy rich and powerful. In contrast to his more famous predecessors Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat, Mubarak entertained dynastic aspirations for his son Gamal. He grew oblivious of Egypt’s history of short outbursts of revolution after long periods of calmly submission.

Consequently, when the first pro-democracy demonstrations started on January 25 – the Day of Rage, Mubarak was dismissive of its innate and culminating revolutionary strength drawn from decades of tyranny. He did not want to read the blood-stained writings on the walls. Taking cues from the Pharaoh of the old, he acted arrogant and behaved blind, deaf and dumb. He was unprepared for a revolution and so were his patrons and beneficiaries. One by one the protesters withstood each weapon in his arsenal of autocracy — first the heavily armed riot police, then a ruling party militia and finally the state’s powerful propaganda machine.

When all the draconian measures to quell the protests, including the murder of some 300 Egyptian protesters and injury of another thousand, let alone the shutting down of the internet, failed and his own military chose not to kill its own people in this single most important challenge to his hateful regime, Mubarak was already a dead dictator walking.

After Mubarak’s defiant speech was heard on Thursday night more than 1,000 activists besieged the state TV and radio building in Cairo, in an attempt to end its broadcast of round-the-clock pro-Mubarak propaganda. Tahrir Square was crammed with a crowd that rivaled the quarter-million figure of the biggest protests over the past 18 days. Some 100,000 people gathered in the main square of Alexandria, Egypt’s second largest city. The protesters staged rallies outside the president’s many palaces. With his presidential palace surrounded in Cairo by thousands of protesters on Thursday night, Mubarak managed to flee to his resort home in Sharm-el-Sheikh, probably taking advantage of the cover of the night.

Friday, February 11, saw the largest gathering of the pro-democracy revolutionaries. They came from everywhere. There were young and old people, women in hijabs protesting alongside men with yuppie beards, toddlers on the shoulders of their parents, jean-clad youths alongside homeless people, religious next to secular, Christians and Muslims alike. The labor and trade unions joined in the revolution, and so did the lawyers and doctors. The message from the crowd was loud and clear: Mubarak must leave. Much in common with many other hated dictators of the past, including Marcos of the Philippines, in the last days of his despotic rule, Mubarak felt abandoned or betrayed by his own masters -- the USA and the EU.
Just after the nightfall the much awaited announcement on Mubarak’s resignation came from his hand-picked Vice President. Several hundred thousand protesters, massed in Cairo’s central Tahrir Square, exploded into joy, waving Egyptian flags, and car horns and celebratory shots in the air were heard around the city of 18 million in joy. They chanted, “Egypt is free, Egypt is free,” as the historic announcement was made.

It was a Berlin Wall moment for the Egyptians who after 18 days of protests succeeded in toppling one of the most repressive regimes to ever rule the Muslim world. The message was clear that the Egyptian people, esp. its Muslim population, are not a violent people and they can topple a tyrant without resorting to violence. Well, there were deaths and injuries; however, such were all because of the violence unleashed by the Mubarak regime.

For all these 30 years Mubarak has been able to sell his propaganda. Probably, too well! He presented himself as a bulwark against the so-called Islamists, namely the Society of the Muslim Brothers, stating disingenuously that if he lifted the emergency rule and allowed true freedom and fair election, his regime would fall and the west would have no other choice but to deal with its so-called mortal enemy, and that the treaty with Israel would be annulled. He crushed his opposition and put their leaders behind the bar. The western intelligence agencies, especially the CIA, knew better. But who cared! Lies were swallowed like life-saving elixir. They were too eager and happy to reward Mubarak for his zealotry against the ‘Islamists.’ They surely can afford to be hypocritical when it comes to the Muslim world. Regional hegemony, national security and stability meant more than a hollow ideology!
And Mubarak delivered perfectly in that strategy up-keeping the Israeli-American-European Union interest. So complete was his servility to all interests foreign – everything except the interest of his own poor Egyptians – these outside powers, including donors, ignored his undemocratic ways, brutality and human rights abuses. He secured the Gaza and Sinai borders for Israel and stopped the flow of humanitarian aid to reach the stranded Gazans. With Mubarak in Cairo, Israel could afford to commit all its war crimes against the Palestinian people without feeling ire of the regime to the south. Mubarak collaborated with GW Bush administration in its so-called War on Terror that saw his prisons mimicking the excesses of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay. He worked with the Obama administration and the corrupt and puppet Arab monarchs to curtail Iranian influence in the region.

Truly, Mubarak was no reluctant partner but a zealous one, bought by some $1.5 billion aid yearly from the USA whose majority share - $1.3 billion (to be precise) last year - was spent for military cause. The economic aid of $200 last year meant too little, if at all, for ordinary Egyptians – a share of measly $2.50 per capita -- mostly pocketed by the cronies and family members of the ruling party. With no wars in the horizon, it was only the security apparatus and all those connected with the regime that benefited from such disingenuous aid.

And yet all these cooperation and collaborations with foreign powers did not and could not save Mubarak’s regime. Not even his hated agents of the Internal Security, led by Suleiman, could stop his downfall.

Very few of us could dream of witnessing history. Fewer still is the likelihood of witnessing the downfall of a dictator – protected and nourished by the powerful few and hated by the powerless many. And slimmest still is the probability of witnessing a downfall that is brought about by the unarmed civilians when the odds of success were so little. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 is surely one of those rare moments in history. Hosni Mubarak was thrust by violence into the leadership of the Arab world’s most populous country, and has been forced out by a wave of popular non-violent protest. It’s a momentous event in our lifetime. Like most of us who crave for freedom and human rights for all, Nobel Peace laureate and pro-democracy campaigner Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei was ecstatic with the outcome. He said it was the “greatest” day of his life. “The country has been liberated after decades of repression,” the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency said. He said he hoped for a “beautiful” transfer of power.

Even the U.S. President Obama welcomed the change. Initially, Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary Clinton had said that the regime of Mubarak was stable. Then for the next two weeks, the Obama administration walked a very fine line: it was careful in not upsetting the Mubarak regime, while avoiding to appear hypocritical with the legitimate aspirations of the Egyptian people. The influence of the Israeli lobby runs too deep inside Washington D.C. The lobby obviously did not want to see the fall of their favorite guy and tried everything possible to change the course of popular discourse within the country and to steer policy discussions that would require protecting the regime at any cost. But at the end, sanity prevailed in the White House. It was a reality check that meant willing to let bygones be bygones and minimize damage!

Speaking from the Grand Foyer of the White House the president said, “The people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard. And Egypt will never be the same.”

Interestingly, the fall of the Mubarak regime coincided with the day 21 years ago when Nelson Mandela of South Africa – once declared a terrorist and now a much venerated personality -- was released from prison after 27 years behind the bar. More importantly, this was also the day 32 years ago when the Shah’s despotic regime in Iran fell.

The next few days will be defining moments for Egypt. After all, the old guards of the hated regime are still in charge. The ruling military council is comprised of people that were picked up by Mubarak and his cronies. They can have agenda of their own that are at odds with the rightful aspirations of the Egyptian people. Thus far, fortunately, the military has acted very professionally and announced on state television that the regime’s much hated emergency law will be lifted when the security situation allows. Much to the relief of Tel Aviv and Washington D.C., the ruling council also declared that it would honor all its treaty obligations.
Obviously, the Obama administration and its pro-Israeli friends in Washington D.C. would like the new regime to continue its previous courses on foreign policy, defense and security matters. Fearful of a free election that may bring the Muslim Brotherhood into power, they may even try to sabotage the hard-earned victory of the Egyptian people that could prolong the temporary rule of the military beyond September. Egypt had enough with crypto-military rule – from the days of Naser to Mubarak – no matter under what mask it appeared.

The Egyptian people should be extra vigilant so that their hard-earned victory is not hijacked by others whose loyalty lies to foreign masters. They should not forget the betrayal of 1952 when their dreams to live freely in a dignified way were soiled in the months following the ouster of King Farouq, a corrupt British puppet, when the Free Officers Movement took full control of the country while the Brothers and many of those nationalists who had actively participated in the revolution were put behind the prison walls. Since that time, all of Egypt’s post-1952 leaders have been military officers, and both serving and retired generals are sprinkled throughout the various arms of government.

On its part, Israel should understand that it is in her long-term interest to have a democratic Egypt as a neighbor. Fear-mongering against the Muslim Brothers will not endear her amongst the new generation of Egyptians who have learned to defeat fear. They ought to know that the Society is not what it used to be in the days of Hasan al-Banna and Syed Qutb. A treaty signed between nations is more enduring than between two statesmen. It is also prudent for Israeli leaders to acknowledge the legitimate interests of the Palestinians and to grant them their own state.

In his speech, President Obama said, “As Martin Luther King said in celebrating the birth of a new nation in Ghana while trying to perfect his own, ‘There is something in the soul that cries out for freedom.’ Those were the cries that came from Tahrir Square, and the entire world has taken note.”

Mr. Obama is right. It would be immensely gratifying for all to see that during his administration a free Palestine has emerged. After all, the Palestinian people have been crying too long from behind the apartheid walls of Israel. Their children deserve the same freedom enjoyed by others. Is Mr. Obama ready to stand up to this challenge to right the historical wrong done against this unfortunate people?

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