y Bhaskar Roy
The people’s revolution in Egypt was waiting to happen for a long time. The situation had become acute and it only needed Tunisia’s Jasmine revolution earlier in the months to trigger the protests in Egypt. Is it possible that the Egyptian fire will also spread to the other countries of the region? If it does, the outcome could create a situation the results of which cannot be clearly forecast yet.
The slogans in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria are bread, stability and “go Mubarak”. The people do not have an alternative to Mubarak at the moment, there is no leadership, and they do not care. They just want Mubarak and his coterie to go.
One welcome aspect of the protests was that religion has not been mentioned yet. In his 30 years of rule as President, the 82 year old Hosni Mubarak ensured that all opposition was decimated or emasculated. The largest opposition party, the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, has become an issue among foreign observers as it has come out to join the people’s revolution.
Given the rise and proliferation of Islamic radicalization in the region, the potential return of the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political actor in the region must be a case for concern for all concerned. It is the oldest Islamic society in the region, and organizations like the Al Qaeda have taken indoctrination from the Brotherhood. Reports suggest contact between the two, at least in the intellectual level may still exist. The Al Qaeda’s new spin offs like Al Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb and Al Qaeda in Arabia are the incarnations that are challenging the democratic and secular regimes in the Middle East to North Africa.
The extent of current ideological inclination, its rigidity or neutrality, is not known. Has the Brotherhood reassessed its hard line ideology after being smothered for decades? Difficult to say. But then a radical centre in the Arab world subsumed by dictatorial regimes for different reasons may be ready to explode again given an opportunity.
Egypt has played a key role in the stability of the Middle East, and acted as America’s envoy in the region. It broke ranks with the Muslim countries to be the first to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. It helped broker various interactions between the Palestinian authority and Israel in the USA that helped hold some peace in the region and prepare a rough road map to a solution the Arab-Israel problem. Egypt turned out to be Israel’s best friend in the region, too.
In Egypt, America repeated the same mistake that they have made with other dictatorships – whether one-man or one party – all over the world. Washington empowered the dictators and forgot about everything else that was happening in that country unless the stooge was seriously threatened. US aid to Egypt amounts approximately between $1.3 to 1.5 billion per year. But only about $250 million is for development, and the rest is for military. Egypt, therefore, emerged as the militarily most powerful country in the Middle-East which discouraged other Muslim countries of the region to confront Israel directly.
But the US, as well as the UK, paid little attention to the deteriorating economic plight of the people of Egypt. Hence, the special characteristics of this people’s revolution. The most important aspect is that the upper middle class, the middle class and the working class have joined together. They apparently feel at the moment that whosoever comes after Mubarak and his coterie can only be better as they have sunk to the rock bottom.
Mubarak, like his predecessor, is the product of the Egyptian armed forces. He was the air force chief during the Yom Kippur War with Israel in 1973. The armed forces comprise the main pillar of the Egyptian government and Hosni Mubarak. However, in spite of Mubarak’s visit to armed force command last Saturday, it does not appear that the army on the streets are inclined to have blood of their own people on their hands. Many of their relatives may be among the protesters.
In every dictatorial state, there is a difference between the armed forces and the state security police, especially the secret police. The armed forces are trained to fight the enemy of the country. The security police and the secret police are a different entity altogether – they are trained to ruthlessly crackdown on internal dissidence.
Mubarak may have made a mistake which would greatly cost him the army’s support. All indications suggests that the reported deaths among protesters, numbering over one hundred, happened at the hands of the security police. Women protesters were driven off the streets by the plain clothes secret police groups who groped them sexually. Third was the release of hardened criminals from jails as an example of chaos that would take place if Mubarak was removed. This, perhaps, was the stupidest move that this 82 year old leader could make.
When things have come to such a passé in Egypt, the USA woke up to the possible consequence, because if there is a revolution pandemic its impact could seriously impact the entire region. This could not only affect US influence and stability there, but could be a serious repercussion on energy security which would not spare any major economy in the world. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for peaceful transition on January 30, but has not indicated a preference for a successor.
Former IAEA Chief and Nobel Laureate for Peace, Mohammad El Baradei, a long time critic of Hosni Mubarak has stepped in to offer his leadership for a transition consensus government. El Baradei may not be very well known among the common people of Egypt, but he is the best candidate for the USA to back and persuade the Egyptian armed forces to accommodate him. The armed forces are required to support political stability at the moment, otherwise chaos with undetermined consequences may be assured.
In the midst of all of this, serious attention must be paid to the media, especially social media. The first reaction of any dictatorial regime is clamp down on the electronic media and the social media like SMS, internet messaging, Face Book and other emerging ones. These networks are links to national and international exchanges of views. Dictatorial regimes see this as a threat. Blocking them is a temporary relief, but it also raises frustrations and use of technology get around the electronic fire walls. That outcome can be much worse for a regime which refuses to see what its people want.
The Egyptian revolution is showing a new way to change an unwanted regime – peacefully, and enjoining the armed force. This has worried Egypt’s neighbours, none of which are democratic even by a far shot. Even Saudi Arabia’s Royal regime appears deeply worried. But in Saudi Arabia’s case, the main antagonists are Islamic radicals and terrorists like the Al Qaeda and its affiliates. The entire region from the Persian Gulf to the Maghreb will be influenced by the Egyptian revolution one way or the other. The unraveling may not take place in a week or a month, but it may much shorter than a year.
Therefore, however, much larger questions need to be researched and prepared for. History is witness to movements and revolutions against tyranny and dictatorship. The French revolution, the Russian revolution of 1917, the Chinese revolution led by the Communist Party. But some of them have also seen reverse revolutions when the script went wrong like the breakup of the Soviet Union, and the controlled change of path in China under Deng Xiaoping in 1978-79.
Given the vast and fast ranging changes in a globalised world, can the Communist Party of China (CPC) continue to stifle the voices of dissents with an iron hand? The 1989 students’ uprising in Beijing demanding a clean government and transparency was crushed by military tanks on June 4, that year at the Tienanmen (TAM) square in Beijing. Young blood was spilled, but the experience proved to the leadership that this act could not be repeated. There was division in the military hierarchy on the action, those who refused to act were punished, and the CCP prevailed on the command of one leader, Deng Xiaoping.
One aspect that helped prevent the protests from spreading from Beijing and Shanghai to other parts of the country was the absence of good communication. There was no e-mail, Face Book or SMS in 1989. Today, China is one of the most electronically connected countries in the world. The authorities censor them, block them, but many get around.
The Chinese authorities have blocked news about the Egyptian movement in the internet and print media for national security interests. This reveals how concerned the authorities are of the influence of such democratic revolutions on their country when the challenges from within are growing. At the top level of the CCP, which rules the country, disagreement on democracy is growing. Premier Wen Jiabao has already put his bet on democracy and freedom of speech as the foundation of the country’s future and development. Though he is in a minority, he would be having significant support to make such statements within and outside the country last year.
The Chinese authorities jailed pro-democracy activist and the author of Charter-08, Li Xiaobo, to eleven years, last year. Li was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, and Beijing tried to scuttle the occasion without success. What is significant is old party leaders have supported Li and his Charter-08 with their signature.
The Chinese appears to be moving towards another pro-democracy explosion. People are infuriated with Party apparatchik-bureaucrat-economic mafia nexus when torture and murder of protesters are routine. There is very little difference between the Middle East dictatorship and the CCP dictatorship. Similarly, the CCP is floundering to find an answer. What the Chinese people and activists want is not a western style democracy but a clean, uncorrupt government which is a real people’s government and not the political people’s democratic dictatorship government which has little to do with the people.
The Egyptian people’s revolution is the latest in the modern world’s political maturity. It is certainly going to influence societies in other dictatorial countries in due course. This is a major signal to democracy-ignore it at your own peril. Social media is the modern world’s weapon.
(The author is an eminent China analyst with many years of experience. He can be reached at [email protected])