This Issue | Editorial | Feature | E-mail
Other related articles by
Mohamed El-Khawas

Obama and Iraq's Uncertain Future

Obama's New Push for Peace in the Middle East

The Afghanistan War Dairy: Getting the Inside Story

Obama's Policy of Confrontation
Will U.N. Sanctions Bring Iran to Negotiations?

Obama and Iran:
From Accommodation to Confrontation

Will Obama Expand U.S. Military Involvement in Afghanistan?

Obama, Netanyahu and the Peace Process

Three Sovereign Nations, One Common Enemy

Obama's Policy toward Iran

The U.S. Financial Crisis and Latin America

The Ugly Side of Globalization

Obama and Syria: A Change of Course

Egypt's Liberation: A Push for Democracy

By Mohamed El-Khawas

Guyana Journal, February 2011

WASHINGTON, D.C.February 14, 2011: An authentic revolution has taken place in Egypt against President Hosni Mubarak who ruled the country for thirty years. During this period, he controlled the people under an emergency law that put the security forces above the law and empowered them to detain indefinitely and without charge or access to legal counseling anyone who was suspected to be a threat to the state. This law was an instrument of oppression. It suppressed his opponents and denied people their basic rights to assemble and to criticize government policies. It was illegal for a handful of people to gather for political reasons in a public place without permission from the authority. He used the law to ensure that no strong candidate challenged him in presidential elections. He utilized the state apparatus to stifle political freedom, suppress opposition and silence the press and media. He altered the constitution to make it difficult for an opposition leader to run for the presidency, removed term limits so he could continue in office, and left the post of vice president vacant for thirty years. He also groomed his son, Gamal, to succeed him.

On Tuesday, January 25, 2011, informal groups of young Egyptians moved into Tahrir Square in Cairo's downtown. Their numbers swelled as others joined the non-violent protest. Fed up with Mubarak's manipulations of elections and arbitrary police brutality, they wanted a change of regime. They were angry, too, at the country's economic conditions, which were just as bad as the political system. For years, the country has suffered from high unemployment and inflation. University graduates unable to find employment still lived with their parents. Many families lived below the poverty line on three dollars or less a day. One protester said that he made $100 a month and wondered how he could feed his family. Many youth in their 20s and 30s had lost hope in the future, fearing their goals of having jobs, saving money and getting married to start families were not reachable.

When about 20,000 protesters were in Tahrir Square, the police tried to evict them by force. Over the following two days, the police used water cannons, tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, and live ammunitions to disperse the crowd, killing at least 3 people, wounding 49, and arresting 90. The protesters held their ground and demanded an end to Mubarak's rule. On January 28, the ruling party's headquarters were ransacked and set on fire. Remarkably, the protesters were no longer afraid of the government's heavy-handed tactics or police brutality.

After the chaos of these two days, the police pulled out and were replaced by troops to enforce the curfew, which they did not do. Policemen then disappeared from the neighborhoods throughout Cairo, leaving no one to maintain law and order. Thousands of prisoners were let out. Some looting and street fights occurred. These actions spread fear and made Cairo residents feel insecure, possibly designed to have people turn against the protestors. Instead, informal order took hold as people armed themselves and formed groups to defend their properties and patrol the streets.

Protests erupted in major cities across the country. In Alexandria and Suez, people fought back against police who tried to dislodge them from the streets. They also ignored a curfew and stayed in the streets. They all wanted Mubarak out. In several cities, similar revolts emerged, driven by real people who were fed up with the repressive regime that made Mubarak's cronies wealthier and neglected the poor.

Opposition parties and civil society organizations were caught off guard. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest organized opposition group, announced that it would not participate in the protest as an organization but allowed its members to join as individuals. Its leaders called on its supporters to join the protest after Friday's mid-day prayer. This led the government to arrest one of its prominent leaders and to shut down Internet and text-messaging services.

The youthful protesters have not trusted most of the traditional politicians who are viewed as weak. Protestors felt that and these political parties, marginalized by the regime, had made too many compromises and had tolerated widespread corruption for the sake of survival. Mohamed Elbaradei, former chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency and Nobel Peace winner, who rushed home from abroad, emerged temporarily as a spokesman for the opposition. He called on Mubarak to quit and proposed a national unity government to guide the country during the transition. He also advocated dissolving the parliament, rewriting the constitution, opening the political system, restoring freedom of the press, and holding free and fair elections. At this time, however, the protesters focused on getting Mubarak out.

Meanwhile, President Mubarak vowed to hold on to power. He came under pressure from the U.S. and the European Union, which were worried about Egypt's stability and were fearful that Islamists might come to power. They pressured him to introduce reforms immediately. On January 29, Mubarak acknowledged the “legitimate” demand for political and economic reforms and fired the cabinet. He named two longtime confidants, Omar Suleiman, former head of the Intelligence, as vice president and Ahmed Shafiq as prime minister.

These concessions were not good enough for the protesters, who insisted on Mubarak leaving. To increase pressure, they announced that a million-man march would be held on February 1. The military command announced that it would not open fire on peaceful protesters. To prevent people from travelling to Cairo to join the scheduled march, the government halted railway services across the country. It also cut off mobile phone and Internet service to prevent Egyptians from contacting each other or the outside world. These measures did not discourage people from participating in what became the largest protest ever held in Egypt. As many as two million people, including more than 200,000 in Cairo, protested peacefully across the country to let the world know that they wanted Mubarak to quit.

On February 1, the day of the march, a special envoy of President Obama, Frank Wisner, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt, arrived in Cairo to talk with Mubarak and to urge a swift but orderly transition. Mubarak appeared on television and announced that he would not run for re-election in September. However, he insisted that if he left now, chaos and instability would prevail and the Muslim brotherhood would come to power. This theme echoed his long-term strategy for gaining American and European support so he could stay in power. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Mubarak has successfully used the threat of the Muslim Brotherhood to fend off former President Bush's drive to democratize Egypt's political system and to introduce economic reforms. Mubarak stressed to Christiane Amanpour of ABC News that Obama never asked him to leave office and that “You don't understand the Egyptian culture and what would happen if I step down.” He seemed to ignore that Obama made it clear that Mubarak needed “to step aside” while government and opposition leaders negotiated a transition plan.

The Egyptian people don't view the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat. In their view, its members are citizens who have every right to protest against an oppressive regime. For decades, its leaders have renounced violence, have agreed to abide by democratic rules, and have supported genuine democratic elections. It was Mubarak who feared their ascendance to power. He refused to allow them to form a political party and compete with his National Democratic Party in free and fair elections.

It was Mubarak's propaganda that made the West fear the Muslim Brotherhood. Americans and Europeans are now apprehensive that this group might turn Egypt into a theocratic state just like Iran after the fall of the Shah in 1979. This fear is unfounded. Egypt is not Iran. It is a secular state and it does not have a major spiritual or religious figure like Ayatollah Khomeini directing anti-government activities from abroad and waiting to return upon the overthrow of the regime. Thomas Carothers of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace believes that Egypt is more like Indonesia. Both countries have “a relatively secular tradition, a strong army that has (thus far) refused to repress protesters and an uprising led by a mix of youth and civil society.”

Mubarak has been out of touch with ordinary Egyptian citizens for many years. When he was driven in Cairo, streets were emptied and traffic was halted. Sharp shooters were stationed on the rooftops along the road. In Alexandria, he traveled by helicopter over the sea away from the densely populated streets. He surrounded himself by advisers who told him what he wanted to hear rather than the truth. No wonder he was surprised by the widespread discontent among the populace.

A few days later, Vice President Suleiman announced that Gamal Mubarak will not run for the presidency next September. Suleiman reached out to opposition leaders, contacting them in an attempt to agree on a path to reform. He invited the Muslim Brotherhood leaders to join the talks.

On February 2, following the million-man march, the government told protesters to leave Tahrir Square. When they refused, the government or the ruling party decided to confront the protesters and to demonstrate that there were Egyptians who supported the president. On February 3, Mubarak supporters were assembled, including plain clothes police officers, members of the ruling party, and hired thugs who were promised 50 Egyptian pounds (under $10) and a meal. They were transported to Tahrir Square and moved in looking for a fight, turning a peaceful protest into a bloody confrontation. Some rode camels or horses and used whips. Others were armed with Molotov bottles, weapons, brass knuckles, knives and sticks. With the military watching, they attacked anti-government protesters, causing the death of eight people and injuring more than 800 people. Street battles continued into the night and the next day. The fighting ended when the army intervened and separated the two factions. Prime Minister Shafiq apologized for the violence but denied the government's involvement in the counter protest and promised to punish those who were responsible. The Internet was turned on but its traffic was controlled, allowing only pro-government messages to be transmitted.

Pro-Mubarak supporters also targeted journalists working for Fox News, CNN, ABC World News, CBS News, Reuter, Al-Jazeera and others. They told them to leave and chased them down the street. Those who did not reach a safe place were punched and beaten. CNN's Anderson Cooper was punched about ten times and a Dutch reporter was stabbed. They ransacked Al-Jazeera's office in Cairo, roughed up the staff and beat up the director, who required hospital treatment. Three of its journalists were detained. Security officers raided the Ramses Hilton near Tahrir Square and confiscated transmission equipment from news organizations. They detained two employees of the New York Times and four from the Washington Post. Within twenty-four hours, foreign journalists were released but Egyptian employees of the same news outfits were kept in detention.

Security forces also rounded up human rights workers, including those of Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. The raided the Hisham Mubarak Law Center, which provides legal assistance to dissidents and political prisoners. Its lawyers were readying themselves to defend activists and protesters who have been detained during the standoff in Tahrir Square. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned the attacks on journalists and the detention of rights activists, calling it “unacceptable under any circumstances.”

It was not easy to reach a quick solution to Egypt's complex problem. Vice President Suleiman said that the protestors' demand for Mubarak to leave now was “unreasonable.” He and Prime Minister Shafiq met with thirty Egyptian intellectuals, writers, business leaders and legal experts to explore ways to end the protest. They proposed that Mubarak turn his duties over to the vice president who would manage the transition to democracy. Mubarak could stay as a figurehead president until his term expires. This face-saving solution was hard to sell to protestors who didn't believe that the government would carry through on pledged reforms. As a protester put it, “If Omar Suleiman was good for Egypt, then Mubarak would have never appointed him.” Some thought that it might be a ploy to enact cosmetic reforms to ensure that things remain the same. After the violent attacks by Mubarak's supporters, they would not accept any solution short of his departure. They were now willing to die for their cause.

On Friday, February 4, tens of thousands gathered in Tahrir Square still calling on Mubarak to leave. They felt that his departure was essential if other leaders could emerge, who were acceptable to the protesters and not closely connected to the dishonored regime. Only new leadership could implement an agreed-upon transition to a true democracy.

Several potential leaders emerged during the crisis. ElBaradei had no problem negotiating with Suleiman and proposed a transitional government headed by a council of two or three persons, including the military. In his view, it was “unrealistic” to hold the next elections in September because it would take a year to finalize constitutional reforms and put them in place prior to elections. Another possible candidate, Amr Moussa, the Secretary General of the Arab League, is charismatic and well known in the West. He was “given a rousing welcome” by protestors upon appearing in Tahrir Square last week. He told protesters that he is willing to serve if he is called upon to do so. Moussa was Egypt's foreign minister for many years. He was popular for his support for the Palestinians, which angered the Bush White House and might have triggered his removal from the post. His growing popularity also made him a threat to Mubarak. When his name was mentioned as a possible contender for the presidency, he lost his job in the foreign ministry and was given the Arab League post, which kept him out of the news and away from the regime's politics.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has praised the Egyptian military for its professionalism and for staying out of politics. Their neutral stance gained the army the respect of both the American military brass as well as Egyptian protesters. American officials believe that Egypt's military could provide stability and could ensure an orderly transition once agreement is reached with civilian groups. The Obama administration was working behind the scenes to try to guide the fast-moving events toward a resolution. It persuaded opposition leaders to meet with Suleiman on February 6 and called on a group of prominent Egyptians to support the dialogue. The day before the meeting, Gamal Mubarak resigned his leadership posts in the ruling party.

On February 6, Suleiman met with several opposition parties. According to a participant, there were no negotiations but some demands were put forward. Suleiman talked about new concessions, including allowing freedom of the press and releasing people who had been detained since the anti-government protest began on January 25. He also offered to re-instate term limits on the presidency and to create a judiciary committee to study possible constitutional changes that would allow more people to run for the presidency. He pledged not to harass anti-government protesters and not to interfere with the Internet and text messaging.

Unfortunately, none of the participants in the meeting represented the protesters in downtown Cairo. ElBaradei had not attended and said he would not do so until Mubarak steps down. Consequently, protests continued because their demands were not met. In fact, the protesters stopped the army from removing their barricades. Also, several prominent leaders whom Obama viewed as wise men had not participated in the meeting when they learned that Mubarak held a cabinet meeting in the morning, perhaps signaling that he was not relinquishing his authority.

Opposition leaders also were disappointed in Hilary Clinton's remarks at a defense conference in Munich, Germany. She urged them not to reject talks “outright” and called on the government to take further steps to appease the protesters. She warned that there are forces “that will derail or overtake the process, to pursue their own specific agenda,” possibly a reference to the Muslim Brotherhood. She called on the opposition “to support the transition process announced by the Egyptian government.” This was a major shift from Obama's call for Mubarak to start the transition of power “now.” ElBaradei, in a TV interview, said that “this will send the completely wrong message to the Egyptian people.” The apparent shift in American policy angered some protestors in Tahrir Square who began to blame Washington for Mubarak's intransigence. A big banner was hung in the Square, saying: “No Mubarak, No Suleiman.” Both were increasingly seen as American agents. They also chanted: “No negotiation before he leaves.”

Egyptians were furious with Vice President Suleiman's statement that the country was not ready for democracy. The group called the wise men were disappointed that he had not taken steps to carry out the pledged reforms. There were spontaneous labor strikes and work stoppages across the country, making the economy worse. Six thousand workers walked out of the Suez Canal zone and 2,500 textile and steel workers went on strike in Suez. Across the Nile delta, about 1,500 nurses held a sit-in at a hospital, 2,000 workers stopped working in steel factories, and 800 workers went on a strike at a bottling plant. On February 10, 24,000 textile workers planned to strike in Mahala. There were troubles in southern Egypt. In Assiut province, 8,000 protesters blocked the main highway and the railroad to Cairo. Protest had spread to remote parts of the country. Three thousand demonstrators clashed with police in the New Valley region in the western desert. Suleiman warned that civil disobedience acts were “very dangerous for society and we cannot put up with this at all.”

On February 9, there were signs that the government's control on the state-run media was slipping away. A few journalists had rebelled and quit. Others demanded accuracy in reporting. They had been forced to report “lies” to keep their jobs. They had exaggerated the number of pro-Mubarak supporters by claiming that they were in the millions. They had echoed government claims that the anti-government protest was “destabilizing” society and was instigated by foreign powers. Abruptly, they shifted their coverage and began to report accurately on the events in Tahrir Square. Al-Ahram's chief editor, Omar Saraya, a staunch government loyalist, wrote a front-page column, praising the “revolution” and urging the government to carry out constitutional and legislative reforms.

There were signs that Mubarak would resign on the evening of February 10. During the day, General Hassan al-Roueini, the Cairo region commander, told the protesters in Tahrir Square that “All your demands will be met today.” The supreme military council convened an emergency meeting without the presence of Mubarak, the commander-in-chief, and issued a statement, pledging “support for the legitimate demands of the people” and promising “to oversee their interests and security.” In Washington, Leon Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee that “there is a strong likelihood that Mubarak might step down this evening.”

To the surprise of many at home and abroad, Mubarak's remarks that evening only ceded some authority to Vice President Suleiman and made it clear that he would stay in office until the end of his term to see the transition to “free and transparent elections.” As a concession, he announced that he had ordered several amendments to the constitution, including expanding eligibility to allow more candidates to run for the presidency and providing for judicial monitoring of elections. In Tahrir Square, hundreds of thousands of people interrupted his televised speech with angry thundering shouts: “leave, leave,” Angry at his refusal to resign, some wanted to put him on trial. They had come to celebrate his resignation and now their disappointment turned to rage. They vowed to have more marches which might evolve into violent confrontations in the days ahead. Some began marching toward the state television building, while others planned to head to the presidential palace. The army did not intervene to stop them.

In view of the stalemate and the widening public anger, the military could no longer remain neutral. The country was like a powder keg about to explode. A split had developed in the military's rank and file, and could become bigger if the peaceful protest turned to violent confrontation. Thirteen lieutenant colonels had shed their uniforms and joined the protesters in Tahrir Square. Some senior officers threatened to join the protest. Furthermore, many soldiers were already on the side of the protesters.

It was time for the military commanders to decide whether to side with Mubarak or the people. In the end, they abandoned the president and gave him an ultimatum to “step down voluntarily or be forced out.” On February 11, Vice President Suleiman announced that Mubarak stepped down and transferred power to the Armed Forces Supreme Council, headed by Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Another figure to watch is the military chief of staff, Lt. General Sami Enan. No one knows how much power they will reserve for themselves. The military ascendance to power is not a coup in the classical sense because it was handed power as called for by popular demand only to oversee the transition to a free and democratic Egypt.

The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces quickly dissolved the parliament and suspended the constitution. It announced that it would appoint a committee to propose changes to the constitution, which would be submitted to voters. It stated that a free and fair election would be held in six months or when the new amended constitution is completed. Although it declared its commitment to lift the state of emergency, it will keep it in place for a while until normality is restored. The Council has been criticized for keeping Mubarak's recently appointed Prime Minister Shafiq in place. Some opposition leaders prefer to have a government of national unity to help during the transition. They want the military to announce its plan in more detail and to open the political system by starting a dialogue with opposition parties and civil society organizations. As ElBaradei put it, “They need to come out of their headquarters and start taking to the people and tell us what is in store for us.”

This is great victory for the people of Egypt who stayed the course and accomplished in 18 days what no one would have dreamed of a month earlier. They brought Mubarak down and wrote a new chapter on people's power. A jubilant crowd in Tahrir Square and throughout Egypt celebrated the end of a thirty-year dictatorship and the beginning of a new era. Getting rid of Mubarak was the first step because he was the main hurdle standing in the way of reform. Egyptians know it is hard work to build democratic institutions with appropriate checks and balances but they want it put on a fast track. Wael Ghonim, a Google executive and one of the organizers of the January 25th protest, warned that the “Biggest mistake now is to give the Egyptian people too little too slow. Restoring confidence requires a faster pace.” The real challenge confronting the Supreme Council is to maintain a balance between the popular demands for quick change and the necessity of taking time to build sustainable democratic institutions that can stand the test of time.

Mohamed El-Khawas
, Ph.D., is Professor of history and political science at the Department of Urban Affairs, Social Sciences, and Social Work at the University of the District of Columbia, Washington, D.C.