The unexpected abdication and hasty escape of Tunisian President Zine Al-Abidine Ben Ali following days of impassioned demonstrations has caused a contagion effect that has sparked uprisings and demonstrations throughout the Middle East, each country hoping to oust their own corrupt and autocratic political leaders. While demonstrations in Algeria and Yemen have been unusually large in number, the arrests and relatively mild disgruntlement of such demonstrations are not a far deviation from the typical push and pull of opposition parties and activists versus governments. What has shocked the world is the events that have spiraled out of control in Egypt.
At first, I expected no more from Egyptian demonstrations than I did from any of the other copycat demonstrations. After all, despite Hosni Mubarak’s tight grip on political power, Egypt was considered a relatively more open and “modernized” Arab state, and pet favorite of the United States. I anticipated large turnouts and angry protesters, followed by repressive government measures and arrests, and subsequently a cowering populace beaten back into resignation for another few years. But instead, it seems that the repressive government measures of imposed curfews, shootings, arrests and imprisonments, and internet shutdown, have only fed fuel to the fire. Protesters ignored the curfew, set the ruling National Democratic Party and National Press Club and various vehicles ablaze, and swarmed the streets. Official security and police forces are visibly absent in Cairo and looters have been given free reign of the capital city. Egypt is now in full blown riot.
On the one hand, the demonstrations in Egypt are a good thing. They are seen by the world as a call for democracy and reform in a country too long under the repressive 30-year rule of Hosni Mubark. After an era of Emergency Law which forbade anti-government protest, the people are finally standing up to its oppressive government and refusing to back down. Facilitated by social networking sites, it seems the new wave of internet political mobilization has finally reached the Middle East. And surprisingly, it has effected change. Mubarak has fired his cabinet and brought in a vice president (thus signaling his imminent departure). And with solidarity demonstrations springing up everywhere, from the U.S. and Europe to other Arab countries, international pressure is heavy on Mubarak to step down. The events in Egypt have been compared to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and it is clear that a revolution is at hand. Finally, after 30 years, Egyptians are taking one step forward.
On the other hand, the events that have followed the demonstrations have been somewhat disheartening. Despite the newfound strength and solidarity among the Egyptian people, some members of the populace are exploiting the chaos for personal gain. On Saturday, civilians were trembling behind locked doors, setting up male members of their family at their doors as vigilante guards. They were not fearful of the government, which they so violently opposed. They were afraid of each other. Not only has the looting and property damage hurt Egyptian civilians and wreaked havoc in the streets, but it has also shown the world that the Egyptian people are not ready to take charge of their own country. It has demonstrated that, perhaps, this population does need a strong-armed authoritarian to keep the peace. In doing so, the actions of these individuals have not only distorted the cause, but made a resounding case for its antithesis.
The progress symbolized in the revolution may also be counteracted by the government’s ultimate response to the violent uprisings. If Hosni Mubarak does step down, there is no widely-supported, capable leader to take his place. There have been mentions of Mohamed Al-Baradei or the new vice president, Omar Suleiman as possible replacements, but with no unanimous support for a new leader, what will come next is a somewhat scary prospect. Most likely, a “temporary” military state will be imposed. And with that, the same (if not more) repressive policies, political imprisonments, and curfews will be enacted. Worst case scenario, Mubarak will remain in power, things will settle down, and he will implement policies that are significantly more restrictive to ensure that such an uprising will never happen again, at least not during his presidency. Any reforms and “opening up” that might have been planned for the next few years will inevitably be derailed as Mubarak attempts to use law and military to keep “his populace” in check. Either way, it is unlikely that the next few years will bring about a more open, democratic government that effectively enacts the wishes of its people. But maybe I’m a hardened pessimist. Sometimes, politics and people have a way of surprising us.
The important thing is, the next few steps taken by the government, the Egyptian people, and the international community will be paramount in determining the fate of the country for decades to come. It is too early to tell if the Egyptians have played their cards right. What is known, is that solidarity is more important now than ever before.