Sunday, February 13, 2011

Egypt: How the wheel of history turned

By overcoming their fears and defying the man whose regime had terrorised them for 30 years, Cairo's protesters not only drove out Hosni Mubarak, they have changed the Arab world

-Taken from the Observer (with David Sharrock and Paul Harris)
-Cairo - February 2011

There is a tide in the affairs of men which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune, says Brutus in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar as he urges his comrades to seize the moment to overthrow the ruler they see as a tyrant. It has taken decades for the storm surge to break over Egypt, but when it finally did the forces of change proved irresistible, sweeping away Hosni Mubarak in just 18 days of popular and peaceful street protests.

A first draft of why it happened must begin in a rural town in Tunisia on the shores of the Mediterranean where Mohamed Bouazizi was the unlikeliest catalyst of the extraordinary realignment in the region.

Known locally as Basboosa, Mohamed, aged 26, was a street fruit vendor in Sidi Bouzid, where unemployment is conservatively estimated at 30%. He earned around £87 a month, the money going to support his six siblings, including one sister in university. He was regularly stopped by police, who expected him to pay them bribes to allow him to sell his wares from a wheelbarrow. On the morning of 17 December last year he had spent the equivalent of £125 on merchandise when it was seized.

What made the loss harder to take was the humiliation. A 45-year-old female officer slapped him across the face, spat at him, scattered his fruit on the ground and confiscated his electronic scales. Two of her colleagues joined in, beating him. As a coup de grace, the woman insulted Mohamed's dead father, a labourer who died of a heart attack when his eldest son was just three years old.

Mohamed finally snapped. For decades millions of young men like him right across the North African coastal plain have watched television images beamed from the other side of the Mediterranean from a European continent of prosperity, freedom and opportunity. They have watched the cronies of their own regimes growing older and, in their decadence, more arrogant and corrupt. They have watched hope for a better future leaking away.

Seeking justice, Mohamed went to the local governor's office to complain about his treatment. He issued a warning when told that the governor was unavailable: "If you don't see me, I'll burn myself." At 11.30am, less than an hour after he had been robbed and humiliated by the state's forces, he doused himself in petrol in front of the governor's office and set himself alight.

"What kind of repression do you imagine it takes for a young man to do this?" said his sister Samia when her brother finally died of horrific injuries on 4 January. "A man who has to feed his family by buying goods on credit when they fine him ... and take his goods. In Sidi Bouzid, those with no connections and no money for bribes are humiliated and insulted and not allowed to live."

The young man's desperate action was a rallying call long awaited in his country and its neighbours. Mohamed Bouazizi's death became the spark which lit the bonfire on which the corrupt regime of Tunisia's President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali would also perish. And, like a bushfire out of control, there was soon fears that the "contagion" would spread.

In an eerie coincidence with subsequent events in Egypt, it took 18 days for Mohamed to die, during which time Ben Ali was sufficiently shaken by the growing voices of anger and protest that he visited the dying young man in hospital.

At his funeral 5,000 mourners chanted: "Farewell, Mohamed, we will avenge you. We weep for you today. We will make those who caused your death weep." He was buried at Garaat Bennour cemetery, 10 miles from Sidi Bouzid.

By then there was no turning back for the old guard as riots in Sidi Bouzid spread to the capital, Tunis. It seemed miraculous to Tunisians how quickly the iron fist of Ben Ali, president for 24 years, was loosened. The internet played a vital role, subverting the state-controlled communications channels by allowing ordinary citizens to bypass them and organise democratically.

"Game Over!" taunted the placards and cheers of the jubilant crowds in a deliberate reference to the age of online computer gaming – a world beyond the reach of ageing tyrants, where the sans culottes of the Arab world come together in cyberspace.

For decades Tunisia had been characterised by the west as a "model" Arab nation, but the WikiLeaks saga, months earlier, revealed the ugly truth of what its key sponsor, the United States, really thought of this "mafia state", run as a virtual private enterprise by Ben Ali and his hated, avaricious wife Leila Trabelsi, who plundered 1.5 tonnes of gold from the central bank when they fled to Jeddah in Saudi Arabia.

Ben Ali's removal from power suddenly seemed to be creating a potential domino-effect around the region. First he tried to quell the protests by addressing the nation on state television and promising reforms. But when this failed to stem the tide of opposition, and with confidence among the armed forces ebbing from him, he chose to run. An international arrest warrant has been issued by Tunisia and his assets in Swiss banks have been frozen.

While opposition figures, including a leading internet activist, have joined an interim government in preparation for elections within two months, the situation in Tunisia remains highly fluid and volatile, with most ordinary citizens unhappy that so many leading lights of the old regime remain in power.

The results of Mohamed Bouazizi's self-immolation swiftly prompted protests across the region. Inspired by Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution, large protests began in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt, with lesser incidents in Mauritania, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Oman, Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya and Morocco. Many were characterised by a playful, party atmosphere. In Amman, the Jordanian security forces handed out soft drinks to protesters, who laughed as they chanted "Mubarak you are next!"

The Jordanians could not have known they were right. But to fully comprehend the swirling fury of the Egyptian street one must look back nine months. It was near midnight on Sunday 6 June when two Egyptian police officers walked into the Space Net internet cafe on Boubaset Street, a short stroll from Alexandria's crumbling corniche, and demanded to speak to Khaled Said.

According to his mother and sister, Said, 28, was devoted to his pet cats and enjoyed pacing the seafront, flying kites on his own. His room was a jumble of wires and old car batteries, part of a homemade music system Said used to practise rapping; the thumping bass from behind his door could often be heard well into the early hours.

"He was ordinary, like any one of us," remembers his sister, Zahraa. "He never seemed interested in politics at all."

That night Khaled Said was beaten to death by the two officers who came looking for him. They smashed his head against a marble ledge in the lobby of the building next door before throwing his body into the back of a van, driving around, then dumping it by the roadside. It later emerged that Said had taped a secret video depicting what appeared to be corrupt local security chiefs dividing up the spoils of a drugs bust. His family also discovered self-penned anti-government songs stored on his computer.

Three months ago, in the run-up to Egypt's blatantly rigged parliamentary elections, Zahraa told the Observer that the suffering of her brother and others like him could end up shaking the country to its very foundations: "Change will not come from this regime's version of democracy, it will come in the shape of a tidal wave from below. Maybe the torture and murders carried out by our policemen will set that tidal wave in motion." Her words were prescient.

Khaled Said was not the first Egyptian killed at the hands of Mubarak's police force, nor would he be the last. In Said's Sidi Gabr neighbourhood alone, dozens of police torture cases have been logged by local activists over the past eight months, some of them fatal.

But the brazen manner of this particular murder – on a public street and not behind the blacked-out windows of the Sidi Gabr police headquarters – and the fact that the victim was middle-class, with relatives able to resist pressure from the security services to keep quiet, ensured that the name of Khaled Said quickly become synonymous with the staggering brutality and corruption of Mubarak's vast security apparatus, a brutality and corruption to which almost all Egyptians, to a lesser degree, were exposed on a daily basis.

"That was the turning point," claims Heba Morayef, the Human Rights Watch advocate in Egypt. "Prior to that, demonstrations in favour of political reform struck many ordinary Egyptians as somewhat abstract, even if they had vague sympathy with the sentiments being expressed.

"Police cruelty, however, was something that touched people personally and it inspired a whole new, cross-class section of society to adopt a more combative stance towards the state."

After much dithering and buck-passing by the authorities, the two officers responsible (though not their seniors) were put on trial and mass protests in major cities began. The demonstrations were never more than a few thousand strong, and often smaller – not insignificant in a country where a 30-year-old emergency law effectively criminalises any sort of public expression of dissent, but not enough to panic Mubarak's entrenched political elite.

Online, however, it was a different story. Kolina Khaled Said, a Facebook group meaning "We are all Khaled Said", quickly gathered hundreds of thousands, of supporters, who swapped information on other examples of inhumane police treatment and helped organise small-scale acts of civil disobedience.

Along with a loose network of more explicitly political online activist groups, the anonymous administrators behind Kolina Khaled Said – one of whom turned out to be Google's regional marketing executive, Wael Ghonim, who attended to the web page from his home 1,500 miles away in Dubai – tried to find creative ways to get round Egypt's suffocating legal prohibitions on collective action in an effort to make their voices heard on the ground.

Sometimes small groups of youths would "spontaneously" gather in city centres and sing the national anthem; on other occasions individuals wearing black would walk to the Nile at an appointed hour across the country and stand separately by the river in silence, an innocent routine that still managed to provoke a violent response from the security services.

A critical role in the process was played by another online entity, the 6th April youth movement. Taking its name from the date of a 2008 textile workers’ strike in the Nile Delta town of Mahalla Al-Kubra that left three people dead after central security forces opened fire on the crowds, 6th April formed a new bridge between a predominantly young, well-educated generation of urban political campaigners and a rapidly-proliferating wave of labour activism that was already bringing hundreds of thousands of working-class Egyptians into conflict with an unresponsive state over rising unemployment, spiralling prices and an insultingly meagre minimum wage.

“The coordination between those groups had always been lacking before, even though at the root of it all we had the same complaints,” recalls Ahmed Salah, a veteran activist and co-founder of 6th April. “The challenge became to expose the relevance of our separate struggles to each other. We knew that if we could that, everything would be different.”

Although many of them used the internet as an organisational tool themselves, the struggle of Egyptian workers – who sought to obtain their economic rights from a government that had pushed almost half the population below the poverty line through an aggressive series of neoliberal reforms – had often appeared divorced from that of the ‘facebook activists’ so adored by a buzzword-hungry international media. The latter’s genealogy lay in the Kifaya (‘Enough’) pro-democracy movement that peaked in 2005 around the time of Mubarak’s stage-managed re-election, and focused on constitutional reform and an end to the Emergency Law.

Workers’ demands, which included the ability to establish their own trade unions, free from the control of state-backed labour syndicates, seemed more parochial by comparison. Yet taken together the movements offered a substantial challenge to the legitimacy of the Mubarak government, which in its final decade had become characterised by the tight nexus of Egypt’s business and political elite, members of whom were becoming increasingly indistinguishable.

The link-up between 6th April activists and aggrieved workers was not always a smooth one; on the first anniversary of Mahalla’s uprising an online call for a general strike went virtually unheeded. But a spark of collaboration was born, and, for the first time since the early 2000s – when the second Palestinian intifada and America’s invasion of Iraq brought mass protests to Tahrir Square – a loosely coordinated grassroots assault on Egypt’s political overlords appeared to be taking shape.

This vague but energetic new wave of dissent was leaving behind the moribund landscape of formal opposition politics in Egypt, where paper-democrats had long been scrabbling for crumbs of power tossed down by a regime keen to keep up the facade of a pluralist democracy. Now a new alternative avenue of resistance was on the cards and it was led from below, by those who had never known anything other than Mubarak's autocratic rule. With a demographic time-bomb ticking below the surface – two-thirds of Egypt's population is below the age of 30, and each year 700,000 new graduates chase 200,000 jobs – conditions were ripe for a social explosion.

Into this combustible mix entered Kolina Khaled Said, the creators of which took great pains to cast their movement as not party-political, not backed by shadowy foreign forces, and dedicated primarily to encouraging Egyptians not to be afraid. The ingredients for massive social unrest may have been falling into place, but still in the way stood the firmest obstacle of all: fear.

Through a prodigious web of overlapping security agencies ranging from armed riot police to plain-clothes informants to the baltagiyya – casually-employed ex-prisoners and local thugs – Mubarak's ruling clique had effectively instilled a sense of hopelessness in an overwhelming proportion of the population, whose instincts lay in avoiding the state, not defying it.

There was never any doubt that frustration at the status quo was deep and potent in every geographical and social corner of Egypt. If ever a critical mass of street protests were to develop and individuals thought the state's gendarmerie was no longer impregnable, it was likely that a full-scale uprising would quickly balloon. Yet something was needed to break down that initial aversion to open disobedience. Tunisia provided it. Arab neighbours had faced down their own security forces and won; perhaps now Egyptians could do the same.

A change of tactics was essential though if the omnipresent state security agencies were to be outwitted; 25 January, the date of a national holiday devoted to celebrating the achievements of the police force, was selected as the "day of rage" to exploit growing public resentment against Mubarak's security forces which had been fuelled so successfully by Kolina Khaled Said.

An umbrella coalition of youth activists formed small cells and spent the preceding weeks meeting in secret, plotting a series of devolved, localised protests designed to put maximum strain on the state security resources.

In Cairo, 20 protest sites in densely populated, largely working-class neighbourhoods were selected and publicised. One extra location, in the warren of back streets of the Giza neighbourhood of Bulaq Al-Duqrur, was never broadcast – and took police completely by surprise.

"Usually we rally in one place and immediately get kettled in by hundreds or thousands of riot police," said Ahmed Salah, who was involved in planning for 25 January.

"This time we were determined to do something different – be multi-polar, fast-moving, and too mobile for the 'amin markazi [central security forces], giving us the chance to walk down hundreds of different roads and show normal passers-by that taking to the streets was actually possible."

The plan worked better than they could ever have imagined. Throughout the capital and across the country, pockets of protest sprung up and overpowered the thinly stretched riot police, who had no choice but to let the marches continue. Later, when the different strands rallied in city centres – including Cairo's symbolic Tahrir Square –the police used guns and tear gas to disperse them.

But it was already too late. By destroying the smokescreen of police invincibility, even for only a few hours, the youths had pierced Mubarak's last line of defence – the fear his subjects felt at the thought of confronting him – and a fatal blow was struck to a 30-year dictatorial regime.

Nevertheless, Mubarak would prove to be a mightier force than Tunisia's Ben Ali. He knew he could rely upon the support of the Americans, who had long granted him premier status in the region not just as guarantor of peace with Israel but also the bulwark against Islamist militancy. And, as a fabled military hero, he was not just the creature of the all-powerful armed forces but for decades their own guarantee of stability and continuity.

It was only as the demonstrators refused to desert Tahrir Square or accept Mubarak's concessions for as long as they fell short of his departure, and as Washington dithered and flip-flopped, that the army began to have its doubts about continuing to back him.

As the protests continued, their largely peaceful, non-sectarian nature also assuaged the concerns of those Egyptians who feared chaos or extremism lay at the heart of the largest anti-government uprising their country had ever seen. It was the all-embracing solidarity and strength of those in Tahrir and other major plazas in the country, and the restraint they showed in the face of violent state-backed provocation, that really saw the demonstrations mushroom into an broad-based, inclusive mass social movement.

Repeatedly over the past two weeks the Obama administration, the State Department, CIA and the Pentagon had been unsettled and confused by the situation in Egypt. Caught unawares at the prospect of the protests actually succeeding, they reacted too slowly, then too quickly and, finally, were rescued by events on the ground.

But few should be surprised; American strategy was caught between a rock and a hard place. There was an urgent need to respond to the pro-democracy movement, but at the same time that movement was aimed at unseating one of America's most trusted Arab allies, a man who had been a friend to five presidents over three decades.

At the start the crisis only rippled slowly through Washington. On 26 January, a day after protests began in Egypt, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called Egypt a "strong ally". The impression of support for a president whose army soaks up more than one billion dollars of US aid a year was strengthened a day later when vice-president Joe Biden said Mubarak was not a dictator.

American policy appeared in total disarray. Obama's envoy in the crisis, old school diplomat Frank Wisner, travelled to the country. On 5 February he expressed public support for Mubarak staying on, yet such was the confusion in US policymaking now that, mere hours later, both the White House and the State Department disavowed his comments.

As the protests refused to die down after Mubarak said that he would resign in September, US policy hardened again. It coalesced around the figure of new vice-president Omar Suleiman. For American – and Israeli – interests, Suleiman seemed ideal. He was known as a strong man and someone who wanted to preserve the strategic status quo, yet also a figure who had made the right noises, in public at least, about making the transition to democracy.

He was seen as someone who could avoid the nightmare American scenario of a popular anti-Israeli government taking power in Egypt or, worst of all, an Islamist-influenced one.

On 8 February, Biden spoke to Suleiman by phone and stressed the need for an orderly, and swift, transition of power. That convinced many in Washington that it was only a matter of time.

Yet the impact of the Egyptian unrest was spiralling out into the rest of American diplomacy. Last Wednesday Obama spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in a reportedly testy exchange in which the ageing Saudi royal argued for Mubarak to not be humiliated. When news of the conversation leaked it created a flurry of speculation that the revolt in Egypt was exposing the weakness of American power.

On Thursday CIA chief Leon Panetta told Congress that he imminently expected Mubarak to announce that he was likely to stand down. As Mubarak took to the TV screens that evening, Obama watched the speech on Air Force One as he made his way back from an event in Michigan.

Yet Mubarak fell short of the expectations of those in Tahrir Square and of the army generals when he announced he was transferring his remaining powers to Suleiman but remaining as president, if in name only to save his pride.

It was a move that stunned many and seemed to threaten a complete unravelling and a blood bath, with the demonstrators noisily hatching plans to march on the presidential palace in the morning, a move which would force the Army, thus far maintaining a politically detached posture, into choosing sides.

And so it did, the military's supreme council shepherding the defeated Mubarak onto a plane to take him to a luxurious internal exile at his Red Sea palace. It was an extraordinary finale to 18 days of rage; the army had staged a coup with the backing of the people.

Like a swan looking graceful on the surface while kicking its legs furiously underneath, Obama was able to take to the airwaves and welcome in the changes. "The wheel of history turned at a blinding pace," Obama said.

The day Khaled Said died, his mother vowed to wear only black in recognition of his death and the system that produced it. Yesterday, following Mubarak's departure, she dressed in white.


ArtHome said...

Fantastic account

spaz said...

Excellent account of a momentous passage of time.
And stronger without the unnecessary cuts made by the Observer editors in the print edition.

Yusif said...

Beautifully written. Great analysis.

Unknown said...

A fascinating report of events. Thank you.

Zbyszek Luczynski said...

Thank you for this excellent outline of the historical routes of the organisation of the movement in Eygpt and its historical routes. Do you think there is sufficient organisational links to create a new political party which can challenge the massive state repressive apparatus established by mubarek and the intertwined control of the milatary and busness control of the econoimy.
Bank the multi national financiers who are moving on the Egyption stock exchange and other instruments of imperialism both American and European will seek to impose further NEOLIBERAL solutions to the economic problems in Eygpt, trying to buy their economic control over the country.

How strong do you think will the new democratic forces and the confidence of the people and organisations be in resisting those forces?
What is your feeling about how the political nature of the egyptian state which is under a form of martial law after all at present and in the near future?

Unknown said...

What an incisive and beautifully written piece on an enormously important chapter in modern history. Well said,and well done to the people of Egypt!