The aftershocks of Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution continue to reverberate across the Arab world. On January 25, Egyptians began an unprecedented revolt against poverty, corruption and thirty years of rule by President Hosni Mubarak, launching massive protests on the streets of Cairo and other cities. The protests began peacefully, but turned violent when the police began using batons, and firing tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the demonstrators. What happens next will determine whether these protests mark the beginnings of a stable, democratic Egypt, or a bump in the long road of autocracy and fake stability.
The Tunisian revolution, a historic first in the Arab world, has emboldened people across the Middle East and North Africa to rise against their leaders and their fossilized autocratic regimes. It sparked other smaller but ongoing protests in Algeria, Jordan and Yemen. After decades of dictatorship, corruption and nepotism, Arab political, social and economic frustration is extremely high, and it is becoming a time bomb for the stability of the region.
Egyptian activists called upon their fellow citizens to start an uprising in an attempt to end Mubarak’s rule. The organizers chose a national holiday, Police Day, to begin what they hope to be the Egyptian democratic revolution. The “Day of Anger” had no official leaders, and the people involved have relied primarily on online social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.
Unlike the Tunisian revolution, the Egyptian revolt was planned ahead of time. However, as in Tunisia, no political movement or party was behind the protest, and regular citizens from all walks of life joined in the protests. Also as in Tunisia, the regime met peaceful protesters with force. But Egyptian protestors have vowed to march on until the regime makes meaningful liberal reforms.
The Mubarak regime will try everything to cling to power. Its decision to use force has resulted in the deaths of six people—including two police officers—and hundreds of injuries. The police have now detained over one thousand people, and banned any further demonstrations. The minister of interior, Habib al-Adly, warned that the regime will tolerate no further protests. In spite of the warning, accompanied by increasing brutality on the part of the regime’s security forces, the protestors are determined not to leave the streets.
The Egyptian regime is in a most precarious position, and it now faces a lose-lose proposition. If the police continue the excessive use of force and quash the protests, the people’s hatred of the regime and its forces will only increase. If the army attempts to put down the protests, that hatred will be directed toward the armed forces. Since the bloodless military coup of 1952, the army has been the backbone of the regime and the guardian of its political order. As an institution, it does not get involved in the daily functioning of the state, yet its influence is felt at all levels, beginning with the office of president. Since 1953, all four Egyptian presidents have come from and been backed by the military, which has consistently guarded the autocratic order.
At nearly sixty years old, the military-backed regime has mastered the art of survival. Through skillful maneuvering, it has reinvented itself several times through cosmetic changes. In the late 1970s, the regime shifted shape and ideology from that of a single-party socialist government to a nominally multiparty system with a mixed economy. From no freedom of speech, Cairo introduced a system with a margin of freedom of speech. These “democratic” reforms were not meant to start a genuine democratic process, but rather to allow dissenters to vent their anger.
But today’s protests are breaking the social contract between the regime and the people. Even if the regime succeeds in crushing the protests, things will not remain the same. The regime will have to offer some changes, as it has in the past, but none of its previous cosmetic changes came about as a result of such widespread protests. Any token changes will only spur political frustrations, and prepare the country for another uprising.
Will Cairo follow Tehran’s path in violently crushing the Green Movement protests of June 2009? Will it cling to power until the country falls into chaos? Or will it engage the opposition and work with it to help create a new social contract? Representative democracy will not come about in Egypt overnight, but if it is inevitable, the regime must work with the people to define the rules of the game, and lay the groundwork for a peaceful political transition.
This year is critical. Egypt will hold presidential elections in September, giving the protest movement another major opportunity to demonstrate against Mubarak and mobilize the population. If the regime acts responsibly, and collaborates peacefully with the opposition, it can ensure stability through its first democratic transition in decades. If not, it will only lead to further rebellion, and certain chaos.