Analysis: Mubarak will have to pay a significant price

But the ruling party will do its utmost – which is considerable – to stop the Tunisia domino effect producing a similar result.

Egyptian riot police in Cairo 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Egyptian riot police in Cairo 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
“Egypt has a strong and stable regime.” That is how most political pundits have been starting their recent analyses of the fast-moving events in the region.
And that was true enough until three days ago. But the situation is changing, in Egypt and beyond. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was brought down by the first popular revolution in Arab history, and the ripples are spreading.
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Though it is still doubtful they will bring about similar results in other countries, the mass demonstrations in Egypt were born in Tunisia. That display of people power ignited the smoldering anger of the Egyptians, unleashing years of pent-up resentment against the Mubarak regime.
“If it worked for them, why can’t it work for us?” the Egyptians mused.
And not only them. Even in Syria, the mighty Assad is worried now. His civil servants got an unexpected raise, and Facebook was shut down.
In Jordan, the protests have been taking place for weeks now. Foreign workers in Dubai have demonstrated over the pittance they are paid; 70 of them were jailed for their pains.
Things seem to have quieted down in Algiers after the recent turmoil, but unrest could start anew at any time. In Morocco and in Yemen, which saw protests on Thursday, it is feared that poverty, unemployment and corruption could lead to some sort of popular outburst.
Col. Gaddafi, who initially berated the Tunisians for getting rid of Ben Ali, quickly reconsidered and changed his tune to one of congratulation.
The king of Bahrain wants to convene an urgent summit of Arab rulers.
So where is Egypt headed? It’s not only other Arab countries that are asking the question; the United States and Israel are closely monitoring the situation.
Mubarak’s is the biggest Arab country; were his regime to topple, the entire Middle East might be thrown into disarray.
Egypt is also the centerpiece of American policy in the region, receiving more than $1 billion in military aid. The alliance has been based on America’s conviction that the government is stable and that there will be no reconsidering the peace treaty with Israel.
Egypt has not known such violent and determined mass demonstrations since the bread riots of 1977, which forced president Anwar Sadat to cancel an increase in the price of bread and other basics. But the economic situation is far worse today. Poverty is everywhere.
An estimated 40% of the population earns less than $2 a day.
Official figures put unemployment at 10%; the truth is probably twice as bad. Twelve percent of the people suffer from malaria and hepatitis C. Corruption is pervasive among the ruling elites.
Mubarak did enact muchneeded economic and financial reforms, but only the richest benefited. Nothing was done to improve the lot of the masses.
And in today’s world of satellite television, internet and social networks, the people are far more aware of their plight.
Once upon a time it was complacently argued that no popular explosion could ever occur in Egypt, since the people were as slow to react as flow of the Nile. Not anymore.
The Nile may still flow slowly, but the Egyptians have been simmering for several years.
Recent uncertainty around the future of the regime has made the situation worse.
Now nobody knows what will happen in the presidential election, due to be held in September.
Will Hosni Mubarak try to be reelected for a sixth time? What of his health? Will his son Gamal succeed him? Mubarak hasn’t been saying; he may not have made up his mind. He may have wanted to decide at the last minute, according to the situation at the time. But the situation is changing right now.
There is a new player, too.
Mohamed ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has bolstered the opposition to Mubarak and brought hope for change. The parliamentary elections held in November demonstrated that the regime was not ready to make the slightest concession, and almost all opposition representatives were kicked out of parliament through intimidation or outright fraud.
The Jasmine revolution brought renewed resolve. A handful of Egyptian youths set themselves on fire, emulating the Tunisian graduate whose desperate gesture sparked the process that ousted Ben Ali.
Next came a massive demonstration, orchestrated by the socalled Six April bloggers, young people who have been leading smaller protest movements in Egypt for the past two years.
They were joined by smaller opposition parties and the movement for change created by ElBaradei. He chose to stay in Austria, where he has maintained a home, until flying back on Thursday.
Egypt’s main opposition parties did not associate themselves with the demonstrations to date, and are still hesitant.
The Muslim Brotherhood allowed just a token few of its leaders to participate and told its supporters to demonstrate if they so wished. It is known that Egyptian security services expressly warned the Brotherhood throughout the country not to call on followers to take part, but such warnings have never much deterred the Brotherhood, whose aim is to encourage chaos to topple and replace the regime. What probably happened is that the Brotherhood, which has its own agenda, came to the conclusion that now was not the time for a direct confrontation.
Likewise in the secular largest opposition party, Wafd. Its leaders have not been seen at the demonstrations, but its members were given free rein to participate. The leftist Tagammu party and the Nasserist party also refrained from calling on their activists to get involved. Here, again, the parties were evidently not convinced that the protests would be successful and decided not to directly anger the regime.
What is more surprising is that the Coptic church asked the faithful not to demonstrate, but to come to church to pray for Egypt – again in a bid to avoid confrontation with the regime. Nevertheless, several associations of young Copts did call on their members to join in the demonstrations.
Subsequent events showed how wrong the opposition parties had been. Tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of young protesters, with no leaders in sight, demonstrated in 15 cities in the last few days. They stood their ground and even used force against the police and the security forces. They knew what they wanted and it wasn’t just food and work.
They called for the removal of the president and his family.
“Go away Mubarak,” their makeshift signs urged.
And for the first time in history, portraits of the leader displayed in the streets were torn down.
They also chanted that they did not want his son Gamal to succeed him. They demanded democratic elections; they wanted the infamous emergency laws repelled. Never before had such fierce criticism been leveled against the president and his family. Indeed, until now, no one could criticize Mubarak. If this has changed, then everything has changed.
The Egyptian security apparatus had prepared well. Massive forces had been deployed in places where trouble was expected. Efforts were made at first not to use force, but that changed when the police realized that the demonstrations would get out of hand if the protesters were not dispersed quickly.
So far five people have died, hundreds have been wounded and there have been a thousand arrests. Yet the protests go on, and it is not clear when they will end, even though the government has now expressly forbidden them. This is all new territory – a new phenomenon, led by a previously unknown breed of players: students and young adults with college degrees who cannot find work, people from the lower-middle classes, impoverished and wanting a better life. They want democracy, freedom of expression, work, Internet, Facebook, Twitter. They want another world, not a closed totalitarian or religious regime. These are not the bearded Muslim Brothers, shouting “Allah Akbar.”
And this, too, links them to the Jasmine revolution.
Will ElBaradei galvanize these forces? Is he the leader they seek to replace the old parties they feel have betrayed them? The Mubarak regime is based on a huge ruling party present in every village and every city, and on a disciplined army and security forces whose allegiance is not in doubt. They will do their utmost – which is considerable – to stop the protests.
But they will have to act with great restraint, avoiding a blood bath while being sufficiently determined to show the protesters they had better go home.
Mubarak will have to pay a price: He may need to take economic measures to alleviate some of the poverty, perhaps put an to the emergency laws and organize credible, free democratic presidential elections.
If he manages to weather this crisis, he and his regime will emerge weakened.
It is too early to tell what all this might mean for the US and Israel – two countries that, notably, have not been mentioned in the course of the demonstrations. The Egyptians want democracy, human rights and better living conditions, and they will need American financial assistance more than ever.
The Obama administration was slow to support the Jasmine revolution. Indeed the president waited until it had succeeded to signify his approval. But it has cautiously asked the Egyptian government to respect freedom of speech and legitimate protest.
Regarding Israel, there is no reason to anticipate moves to reconsider the peace treaty, which could lead to conflict that would be disastrous for the economy and for the country’s links with the US.
In Tunis, the chain of events quickly ousted a president, and sparked ferment across the region. In Egypt, the hope has to be that it will force the government onto the path of progress and reconciliation.
The writer is a former ambassador to Egypt, and a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.