An Egyptian socialist recalls his exchange with an officer of the mukhabarat (secret police) as riot squads attacked a huge anti-war protest in Cairo in March: ‘”We have to stop you,” shouted the officer. “If we don’t stop you now, you won’t stop at all”.’
This was the fear of President Mubarak as he fretted over how to respond to the Tahrir intifada, the mass demonstration which on 20 March occupied central Cairo for over 12 hours – the first such protest for 25 years. When 60,000 people gathered for a march the next day he ordered mass arrests, in fear that a true uprising was on the agenda. The march was halted – but at a price. The repression has brought together a new coalition of democracy activists who are demanding radical change.
Mubarak appears increasingly anxious and uncertain. Such was the scale of the Tahrir intifada that he was unable to unleash the usual violence. When he struck back the next day the damage was done – millions of people knew that for a few hours Egyptians had expressed themselves freely in public, defying the state, challenging the regime – and surviving. ‘The regime has never seemed so weak,’ says democracy activist Mohammed Ahmed. ‘When the riot police attacked us the next day we knew their officers were frightened – their jobs were on the line. So was the job of the president.’
Mubarak’s lack of confidence stems from the failure of his entire economic strategy. This has been based on the market-led policies of Bush and the World Bank, prioritising privatisation and foreign investment were meant to make Egypt a new industrial centre for the Arab world – a ‘tiger on the Nile’. As the strategy has collapsed, Mubarak has cast around for scapegoats. He blames former ministers and groups within his own ruling party, alleging corruption and criminality. Many Egyptians agree, but add to that the biggest thieves are to be found at the presidential palace.
The Iraq conflict was the last thing Mubarak needed. Bush’s rhetoric about a war for democracy put the Egyptian ruler in the spotlight. For over 20 years he has maintained control by rigging elections and referendums, savagely repressing all opposition and running a tame national media. Hoda Hindi, a human rights lawyer, says, ‘OK, he hasn’t used poison gas on us, but in other respects Mubarak has been little different from Saddam. Until now we have over 30,000 political prisoners who often suffer terrible torture – and some of them have been illegally held for ten or even 15 years.’
In the run-up to war many protesters were seized, imprisoned and tortured. The Egyptian media backed the US, hoping for a quick victory. But Iraqi resistance – and the global anti-war campaign – inspired the Egyptian movement. Mubarak wobbled. A journalist relates how as protests grew the executive manager of a leading newspaper group called his editors together in an emergency meeting to pass on new instructions from the presidential palace. There were a number of key words that staff must immediately change, said the executive: ‘liberation’ was to be replaced by ‘invasion’; ‘coalition’ was now to be ‘the army of occupation’. The press promptly changed tack, attempting to catch the popular mood and to help contain it.
At the same time the regime licensed demonstrations which it hoped could be policed by loyalist political parties. It struck a deal with the Muslim Brotherhood that rallies at the national football stadium would be strictly controlled.
The strategy failed. The Tahrir intifada – in the main city centre square – saw unrestrained criticism of Mubarak. Slogans against the war were mixed with those against the regime: ‘Long live the resistance of Umm Qasr – the rulers of Egypt are traitors’, ‘Our country is plundered by Ala’a [son of Mubarak] and the crooks’, and ‘To liberate Jerusalem we must liberate Egypt from our rulers’.
It was this mood which so alarmed Mubarak that he decided to gamble by using massive force against further demonstrations. This brought him more problems. After he had banned a march from Sayyida Aisha, east of the city centre, judges took the unprecedented step of declaring it legal. Only a massive deployment of riot police and the closure of all main roads in eastern Cairo stopped the march. Infuriated, the judges’ association demanded that basic freedoms must be respected.
For the first time newspapers are carrying articles which ask openly about the future of the regime. What purpose is served by Mubarak’s party? Why can’t it reform? Why doesn’t it dissolve?
The English language ‘Ahram Weekly’, usually closely monitored by the censor, quotes a critic who draws parallels between the experience in Iraq and that in Egypt. Like the Ba’ath Party the ruling party has been built on ‘fear and opportunism’, he says. Both show all the signs of corruption and political stagnation. Neither has a future. Political parties which were all but dead have begun to re-emerge. The Egyptian Communist Party (ECP) has reappeared on demonstrations under its own banners – unseen since the early 1950s. Nasserist groups have revived. A new left has appeared – the most coherent and organised of all the opposition currents, calling for a socialist alternative to the regime, to Islamism and to the old nationalist formulas.
In mid-May the country’s main opposition parties issued a common statement calling for the liberation of Egyptian political life. They have demanded reforms including free election of the president, a reduction of presidential powers, and freedom of the press.
Activists are aware that there will be traumatic struggles ahead. ‘We are going to need all the solidarity we can get,’ says Mohamed Ahmed. ‘The great thing about the anti-war campaign was that we knew we were part of a great global movement. We shall be asking all our friends for support in the struggles to come.’
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