Pro-democracy protests in Egypt could be a game changer
As anti-government demonstrations in Egypt gather force, Tuesday’s huge turnout could be the game changer that sets the country and the Arab world on the path for which pro-democracy, and human rights campaigners have long fought.
Demonstrations against Hosni Mubarak’s steel-fisted regime were banned in 1981 and secret service and police, which are the main forces behind him, have always been harsh in repression. But they seemed to hesitate on Tuesday and only two protesters were killed out of tens of thousands. One policeman died from injuries.
Cairo and Alexandria are the nation’s chief urban centers and are trendsetters for the rest of the people. Both saw large turnouts and surprisingly the police did not fire many live rounds. They maintained crowd control mainly with tear gas and water cannons.
These are positive signs although it is too early to tell how this cookie might crumble. Anecdotal evidence from observers within and outside Egypt suggests that Mubarak’s advisers are counseling against harsh repression. They expect that the police will refuse to fire on the people on any large scale if the protests continue and become wider. They also expect the army to intervene against Mubarak if he tries to hang in there through bloodshed.
The wild card is Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB), which is the country’s largest political opposition and social welfare provider especially to the rural and urban poor. Its leaders and many members have been in and out jail for decades because the government fears their influence. Mubarak, who has ruled using emergency laws continuously for nearly 30 years, has never allowed a free and fair vote for fear that the MB might win too many seats. His secret service keeps a close eye partly because it condoned violence in its early days. Human rights activists allege that the police regularly uses torture, including waterboarding, to suppress it.
So far the MB has kept a low profile in the demonstrations, which seem to be fueled mostly by the educated jobless and low-income middle classes unrelated to religion. Pro-Islamic leaders of all stripes are apprehensive of the demonstrators because they expect to lose influence if pro-democracy advocates force Mubarak to abdicate or install genuine freedom of expression.
The US, which gives $2 billion in aid to Egypt each year, protected Mubarak’s authoritarianism because he suppressed Islamic fundamentalism and helps to push Palestinians to US-sponsored negotiations with Israel. It also helps to weaken Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank.
But the White House is changing its approach. Hillary Clinton said Tuesday that Washington supports the “fundamental right of expression and assembly” in Egypt, while urging all sides to avoid violence. This is far short of the push needed to oust Mubarak but does tell the Egyptian street that the Obama administration may distance itself despite the ally’s importance if it continues to suppress freedom of expression.
We can look forward to a changed Middle East if Mubarak is forced to step down and the Muslim Brotherhood fails to use elections as a Trojan horse to grab power. It could also create conditions for a real thaw in the Israel-Palestine peace process, which is stymied by terrorism condoned or conducted by Islamist Hamas from Gaza and the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
The triumph of pro-democracy protesters in Egypt however shaky may greatly weaken the popular appeal of Hamas and Hezbollah in their streets. Ordinary people, fed up of economic stagnation and unemployment, will note that pro-Islamist government and social works are not the only alternative to authoritarian rule. They will see credible evidence of a third way at the non-religious center.
One of the main non-religious opposition groups in Egypt calls itself “Enough”. It is much smaller than the Muslim Brotherhood but its name encapsulates the people’s current mood. Its cry of enough deserves to be heard around the world.