Mohammed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old man trying to support his family by selling fruits and vegetables in the central Tunisian town of Sidi Bouzid, had his produce cart confiscated by police because he lacked a permit. He was beaten when he resisted. Local officials then refused his hear his complaint. On December 17th, he doused himself in paint thinner and set himself ablaze in front of a local municipal office. Bouazizi’s act of desperation highlights the public’s boiling frustration over living standards, police violence, rampant unemployment, and a lack of human rights. The protests begin in Sidi Bouzid that same day. They quickly spread across the region, then the country.
Four weeks and sixty-six dead later, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s president, flew out of the country, first for Malta, then Paris, before finally turning toward the Gulf, where he was allowed to land in Jeddah [Saudi Arabia]. An indigenous revolt against a repressive Arab regime is, in this interconnected world, echoing across the North African rim (Algeria, Libya and Egypt) onto the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen) and into the Levant (Jordan).
On Tuesday, January 25th, crowds took to the streets of Cairo in what they called “a day of revolution”, petitioning against the very same things that propelled Mr Bouazizi and the crowds in Tunisia – high unemployment, high prices, lack of opportunity, and a non-responsive, corrupt and repressive government. Since the beginning, the Egyptian crowds have called for Hosni Mubarak to step down. Notable is the mix of the crowd – young and old, poor and middle class, and, as of Saturday (the 29th), women. The harsh reaction of police prompted Thursday’s “day of rage” protests in Cairo, during which Egypt’s internal security forces – with the anti-riot paramilitaries of the Central Security Forces (CSF) at the forefront, were completely overwhelmed. American television was rife with images of protesters sitting atop armored police vehicles, cheering and holding their placards. By just after midnight on Friday morning [local time], all police presence had vanished from the streets, having been replaced by the military, which, unlike their CSF counterparts, have largely been welcomed by the demonstrators. At 30 minutes past midnight, President Mubarak appeared on TV, announcing that he had asked his government to resign so that he could appoint new ministers on Saturday. No mention of his stepping down.
Mubarak will not politically survive this uprising. The replacement of cabinet ministers didn’t placate the crowds – “He’s blaming the government!” was a common response.
President Mubarak’s recent moves reveal a growing influence of the military on political affairs. Outgoing Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman is now Vice President (removing the threat of the dynastic succession of Mubarak’s son). Meanwhile, Defense Minister Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi and Egypt’s chief of staff of the armed forces, Lieutenant General Sami Annan are likely managing the political process behind the scenes. More political shuffles are expected, and the military appears willing for now to give Mubarak the time to arrange his political exit. Until Mubarak finally does leave, the unrest in the streets is unlikely to subside, raising the question of just how much more delay from Mubarak the armed forces will tolerate.
As I write this on Sunday morning, BBC is announcing that the Muslim Brotherhood is backing opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the United Nation’s International Atomic Energy Agency, which brings us to the dangerous aspect of the Egyptian situation.
Ayman al Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s second in command of the al Qaeda core, is an Egyptian and came from the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamic supremacist organization that formed Hamas in Gaza. Having been banned as a political party by Mubarak (they typically poll at around 20% of the electorate), they will be unable to sit on the sidelines as Egyptians try to remove Mubarak. And they aren’t.
The Egyptian police are no longer patrolling the Rafah border crossing into Gaza. Hamas armed men are entering into Egypt and are closely collaborating with the Muslim Brotherhood, who are fully engaged in the demonstrations, and are unsatisfied with the dismissal of the Cabinet. They are insisting on a new Cabinet that does not include members of [Mubarak’s] ruling National Democratic Party.
Security forces in plainclothes are engaged in destroying public property in order to give the impression that many protesters represent a public menace. The Muslim Brotherhood is meanwhile forming people’s committees to protect public property and also to coordinate demonstrators’ activities, including supplying them with food, beverages and first aid. With Egypt in a state of crisis and the armed forces stepping in to manage that crisis, however, elections are nowhere near assured. One misfire in the demonstrations, and a bloodbath in the streets could quickly foil the military’s plans and give way to a scenario that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood quickly could exploit. Here again, I worry about the military’s tolerance for Mubarak as long as he is the source fueling the demonstrations. What is now in question is what groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and others are considering should they fear that their historic opportunity could be slipping.
There are four possible outcomes to the chaos in Egypt.
First, the regime might survive. Mubarak might stabilize the situation, or more likely, another senior military official would replace him after a decent interval. Another possibility under the scenario of the regime’s survival is that there may be a coup of the colonels, the historic power transition pathology of Egypt. In this version, the de facto military scaffold supporting Egyptian society remains, backing a leader who addresses the existential problems of governance.
A second possibility is that the demonstrators might force elections in which ElBaradei or someone like him could be elected and Egypt might overthrow the statist model built by Nasser and proceed on the path of democracy. Underlying this path is a tanglefoot of military v police; military v Muslim Brotherhood; military resistance to power-sharing; and so on. A genuine transition to popular government in Egypt will require an acceptable interim government to stabilize institutions and lay the groundwork for legitimate political competition.
The third possibility is that the demonstrators force elections, which the Muslim Brotherhood could win and move forward with an Islamist-oriented agenda. Although the Brotherhood has never mustered more than 20% of the electorate, under chaotic conditions, being the only organized opposition [to the current regime] group, a quick election represents their best chance of electoral success.
The fourth possibility is that Egypt will sink into political chaos. The most likely path to this would be elections that result in political gridlock in which a viable candidate cannot be elected.
If I were forced to choose, I would bet on the regime stabilizing itself and Mubarak leaving Egypt in the hands of an interim government headed by now-Vice President Suleiman or one of the generals. Because of the relative apolitical nature and diversity of the demonstrators, no de facto leader has emerged. This is not a revolt of personality, rather one plainly against Mr Mubarak. The longer he takes to arrange his exit, the higher the risk that extremism wins out.
But that’s a guess and not a forecast.
Unrest in Egypt: President Mubarak dissolves Cabinet after night of protests, CNN, January 28 2011.