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Egyptian Dawn or More Bloodshed?

What does suicide have to do with the dawning of a new political age in the Arab world? On 18 January a young Egyptian woman, Asma Mahfouz, videoed a request to all ‘who are real men’ to come and demonstrate against the government and its repression. At the outset of her blog, she alluded to four who had set themselves on fire in front of the parliament. Nine burned themselves in Egypt; a street vendor whose cart had been taken away by the government had killed himself in Tunisia. The Egyptian security hooligans who arrived to terrorize Asma as she demonstrated with only a few other people to protest the deaths of these people called them ‘psychopaths.’ The al-Azhar warned that suicide is against Islam.  But self-sacrifice – ‘by our blood and our souls’ is the language of protest.

The revolution as it is dubbed, seemed triumphant on 1 February, but protesters were violently attacked by Mubarak’s supporters the following day. Foreign analyses are being churned out to explain why these political changes are occurring now, with such speed and whether they will succeed. Despite shutting down Twitter, Facebook, servers, Al Jazeera, arresting journalists and closing subway stations, protestors poured into Egyptian streets.

To attribute events in Egypt to Tunisia or to social media and al-Jazeera would be wrong. Underlying events are Egyptians’ own lengthy struggles and perceptions that transformation is possible. Various groups, Kifaya, al-Ghad, Sixth of April Youth Movement, We Are All Khalid Sa’id, National Association for Change, Nadeem Centre, Hisham Mubarak (the late attorney, not pro-President) Foundation, Arabic Network for Human Rights and the lawyers and judges have been part of protests; but none received the spontaneous support of such a huge number and wide range of Egyptians until now. The Muslim Brotherhood joined the coalition of five groups led by Mohamed ElBaradei last Friday. 

Fear of counter-revolution against the Free Officers regime is what froze civil expression in Egypt when the communists, workers and Muslim Brotherhood were treated as intolerable threats to the Nasser government. Student activism became possible again in Sadat’s era, but firm rules were established about the ‘forbidden topics’ (the infitah, peace with Israel, corruption, Saudi Arabia etc.)  People complied or they suffered professional defeat, exile or worse.

Ten years of low-level warfare by Islamic groups against government officials, against judges and policemen continued up to the crescendo of the firebombing of buses in Tahrir Square and the massacre of tourists at Luxor. When the truce with the Gama’at Islamiyya and then Gihad Islami (Islamic Jihad) were achieved, detentions, torture and suspension of civilian liberties could have been lifted; but they were not. Extrajudicial actions and state terror have been Egyptian staples; drowning in cold water, the use of dogs, hanging, beatings, electrocution and threats to family members were used. In the 2000’s as new ‘terror’ threats were identified in the Sinai and the mainland, the Minister of the Interior and his employees arrested thousands and these intimidating tactics continued. The emergency laws were extended again and again. Kifaya (Enough!) was formed and organized protests against the invasion of Iraq in 2004; and al-Ghad, a political party was declared about the same time; but neither were large movements.

Egyptian activists tried every angle imaginable to open their system, invite electoral oversight, enlarge the powers of the judiciary, offer legal services, protest through syndicates and document violence. The government was unable to prevent certain protests of foreign events (in Lebanon, Iraq or against the Palestinians). Prices, rents and land rates rose and the privatization made inroads, workers protests and shutdowns once again occurred. Unemployment and migration increased. But desperation breeds compromise. Islamists wielded different arguments about the government, including the incredible pace of corruption. Groups coalesced around rights of women, prisoners or political rights. But the many-stranded opposition was not able to ignite the broader public the way that football rivalries with Algeria could.

The Sixth of April Movement dates to 2008. Strikes had broken out in Egypt’s huge textile factories in Kafr al-Dawwar and al-Mahalla al-Kubra. The police and security tried to suppress the al-Mahalla strike and young educated organizers teamed with workers to hold them off.

The 25 January demonstrations were named after Khalid Sa’id, an al-Ghad activist who had videoed police involvement in drugs. A thousand people turned out to protest the killing of Sa’id in June. With Ben Ali’s exit, self-immolations began and Police Day (25 January) was chosen for protests. The government’s determination to ignore the protests lasted for a few days. President of the People’s Assembly Ahmed Fathy Serour and later on Mubarak admonished the ‘misguided youth’ (demonstrators and activists) as if they were a horde of naughty children sugared up by foreign instigators.

Perhaps populist outrage was not as firmly extinguished with the fading of Arab nationalist promise and the defeat of 1967 as we thought. Arab efforts to spark change have been met with firm resistance and yet, the U.S. interventionism in the region showed that regime change could take place. Saddam Hussein’s statue could be toppled (albeit with Western intervention), rulers mocked in blogs and shoes thrown at President George W Bush. All this emboldened Egyptians to tear down Mubarak’s gigantic photographs.

The crowds which gathered from 25 January until today are making simple requests: Hosni Mubarak must leave! Or be judged! They want freedom, an end to emergency laws and open and free elections. Not a re-shuffling of old and familiar faces. On 1 February an unclear number (anything between hundreds of thousands to two million) massed in Tahrir Square and thousands more in al-Arish, Alexandria, Damanhur, al-Mahalla, Mansura and elsewhere. National media first ignored the protests and then went on the offensive screening paid counter-protesters and others who proclaimed their love for Mubarak. 

The dawning of a new era in Egypt is not a certainty. Far more than the estimated 1.5 million in the security services, special guards, active military and reserves are dependent on the military because it operates large numbers of industries. Much will depend on the reasoning of the military leadership who will prefer Omar Suleiman’s retention to an entirely new cast of characters.

The American press, advisors and prominent op-eds seem more concerned with Israel’s security than Egyptians’ political and human rights. They fear a new government might ignore the Camp David Accords. These Accords were forged without a popular referendum. They were initially supported because Egypt had borne the brunt of three wars, but then opposed because of Sadat’s harsh suppression of opposition to these measures and because of the Arab world’s response.

Quite a few are arguing that the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolutions are not religious or – quite specifically –are unlike Iran’s. It is important to understand that the West has historically opposed various discourses of resistance in this region from Nasserism and Arab nationalism to Islamism. The fact is that the majority of Egyptians are deeply religious and there are many Islamists among them. Islamism, however, is not what has sparked the current anti-authoritarianism but the regime’s contempt for its own people.  Its discourse has been combining with others.

The Islamists of the 1970s continuously alluded to the ruler of Egypt as a Pharaoh.  The Qur’an states that Moses and Aaron were told:

Go both of you, to Pharaoh

For he has indeed  

Transgressed all bounds  

 But speak to him mildly  

Perchance he may take  

Warning or fear Allah (Ta Ha [20]: 43-44)

Mild reprimand, jihad or any other form of opposition has been effective at curbing the Egyptian rulers’ extensive executive powers. Islamist and leftist analysis also perceived the role of the West in bolstering this ‘stable’ ruler. 

Thus far, the populations in other Arab and Muslim countries reflect a mixture of liberal, religious but non-political, Islam. Now, the actors want to give up their existence as puppets. The Egyptian demonstrators have formed a shadow Parliament; they have wearied of being invisible ‘masses.’ They so admired Mahatma Gandhi’s movement, but how to protest peacefully when one is attacked? Meanwhile if other nations continue to see that protest effects change, then the winds of Tunisia and Egypt may indeed blow into Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and possibly further.  

(Note: An earlier version of this article was published by Sociology of Islam )


Dr. Sherifa Zuhur is the Director of Institute of Middle Eastern, Islamic and Strategic Studies. Email.

As part of its editorial policy, the MEI@ND standardizes spelling and date formats to make the text uniformly accessible and stylistically consistent. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views/positions of the MEI@ND. Editor, MEI@ND: P R Kumaraswamy