In the second of our commissioned responses to the Arab Revolutions, Amr G. E. Sabet comments on the ‘Egyptian Condition’.
He focuses on the reasons for the sudden uprising in Egypt: not so much social media, he argues, as recent tensions over water, gas and oil, the consequences of the Camp David Accords, and Mubarak’s role as Israel’s ‘strategic bonanza’
The mass demonstrations which erupted on January 25th 2011 in Egypt and continued for eighteen days, leading to the toppling of Hosni Mubarak, took many by surprise. In a country with a long and historical cultural tradition of stability, and ruled for the last thirty years by an extensive and pervasive security regime which to all intents and purposes seemed to be in total control, what happened during those fateful days was remarkable. Even when many were expecting some kind of an explosion it was difficult to surmise how and when it would happen, and certainly few could anticipate its scope. Not only in terms of the mass of people who were involved, but also due to the fact that it cut across all classes and social and age barriers. It was not simply the revolution of the poor and starving mobs, as many had feared, but also that of the well to do, including, surprisingly enough, even Shaikhs from the conservative educational religious institutions of Al-Azhar, not particularly known for their knack for such activism. Something more than mere economic causes, class formations or generational gaps in other words, were at play. And in a country with a culture and tradition of accommodation and habituated to living under authoritarian regimes and figures from time immemorial, it is not just dictatorship that could have caused this burst. Something more than mere dictatorship served to light the match, and despite some talk here and there about freedom and democracy, as well as its trappings, one should not hasten to describe this phenomenon as a pro-democracy movement. It would be an exaggeration to assume that all the people or even the majority of them, have been incited to the streets for the sake of democracy and it remains too early and perhaps even erroneous to jump to any early conclusions of the kind. If the only problem with the Mubarak regime had been autocracy, nothing of the kind would have likely occurred. The massive popular uprising was in fact a statement about how bad and humiliating things have come to be in that country.
The events started with a group of conscientious young people communicating on cyberspace and agreeing to gather in a large demonstration to express their claims. At such an early stage it was not clear that Mubarak’s resignation was one of their initial demands. The numbers of participants coming out according to one activist were expected to be within the range of about ten thousand. Things could have ended there, with those young people either allowed to vent their frustrations and then go back to their homes, or alternatively easily rounded up, beaten, some of them arrested and the rest finally dispersed; a usual scenario of sorts. This time however things turned out differently. The gathering proved to be a galvanizing point which brought about massive and spontaneous support, surprising to everyone, including the organizers themselves. Such support together with the mindless reactions of the security forces of the regime infuriated the demonstrators and also added to their strength and increased popular participation. This was more than a mere Facebook or Twitter revolution as some have claimed. Both may have been an effective instrument of mobilization, but not necessarily the cause. After all, the overwhelming majority which constituted the mass of the uprising did not necessarily have the luxury of Facebook or Twitter accessibility, and nothing on the surface gave any hint or indication that anything of the kind could happen or is in fact possible. Facebook and twitter do not an uprising make, especially if people are not ready, willing or disposed to embroil in one.
It remains a difficult task to try to explain why and how such an uprising suddenly erupted and to be able to determine with a good measure of certainty what the precipitating factors were. One of course can come up with a myriad of causes, given the wretched and humiliating conditions that the Egyptians had experienced for the last thirty years or so. Most cited reasons have been tyranny, corruption and strong perceptions of foreign domination and colonization of the country, not only by the US but also and most insultingly, by its surrogate state Israel. But still this does not explain away many of the factors which could have hindered such an outburst. The uprising had no visible leadership, no organized ‘vanguard’ in the classical sense of the word, no particular ideological drive, and not even a clear discourse of liberation. It was a form of what Kurt Lewin designated action learning. When no alternatives or openings seemed to be available yet something had to be done, action preceded thinking, rather than the reverse. Yet the question remains, what produced this simultaneous and collective will to act? What helped create this ‘collective mind’ so to speak—the kind of inter-subjective communication in pursuit of an ethical “collective purpose” (Levasseur 2004: 147) — in a deliberately fragmented and ‘unbalanced’ society dubbed by many to have been in a state of coma.
Egyptians have long learned to accommodate autocracy provided the autocrat served vital purposes of social harmony, protected national security in broad terms, projected an image of power and dignity as well as benevolence, and of course showed concern for his people’s basic livelihood. In the case of Mubarak, ineptitude combined with a sense of being able to take control of a country that fell into his lap by a fluke, after the killing of Sadat by a military-Islamist group in 1981, merged to produce a pathetic feeling of contempt for his own people as well as a pathological sense of inferiority when dealing with the US, Israel and Europe. After all if ‘he’ could control these people, then what does this say about ‘them.’ Over the years, the regime became careless enough so as not to feel obliged to go through the rituals of covering its behavior, not even with a fig leaf. While domestically Mubarak sought to project the image of a strong leader in control, his external attitude, observed by many people, did not conform by any measure to what he wished to convey. His craven politics could not be disguised for long, particularly when it was translated into domestic humiliation of the entire society in order that it may accept the unacceptable. The logic was that a people without dignity would accept anything that the ruler had to obey coming, as many Egyptians believed, as commands from external enemies and actors. Being aware of his own shortcomings, Mubarak could only deal with the outside world in a servile fashion. Hence the policies of impoverishment and humiliation were perceived by many in the country as deliberate not coincidental, serving such purposes. Long term agreements with Israel to provide the latter with gas at ridiculously preferential prices, besieging the Palestinians in Gaza for the purposes of Israeli security while claiming at the same time, this to be a matter of Egyptian national security served to give the impression that the regime was in fact merging the country into the Israeli security matrix. What coalesced consequently was a strong sense of moral, political and security degradation.
In addition, the seemingly nonchalant attitude, if not the suspected actual support of the division of the Sudan, a division that Israeli hands were not seen to be far from, with all the potential water and geostrategic security implications for Egypt served not only to exacerbate feelings of humiliation, but also of collective paranoia. When concerns were raised about such threats, the response was simply that Mubarak had contacted former American President Jimmy Carter who advised him there was nothing to worry about concerning Egypt’s share of the Nile water. This was ironic, as Carter was the same American president who got Sadat to sign the Camp David agreements, making promises that once reelected for a second term he would seek a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Palestinian issue. The rest is history. And besides, as a former president, Carter was in no position to make such promises or provide any guarantees. The autocrat did not even appear to be concerned about ‘national security.’ There evolved strong doubts as to who exactly was he working for. These doubts went beyond common conspiratorial rhetoric to being a matter of actual concern. Was the division of Sudan the beginning of a scenario so that the Nile water would eventually be supplied to Israel after dividing other African states? Now that Israel has laid its hands on Egypt’s gas, water in the future, and already oil was being supplied for a long time with preferential prices, was the regime in fact delivering the country’s resources to Egypt’s sworn enemy in the name of a largely suspect so called peace treaty and trade? Statements from two sources seemed to hint toward an answer. The first came from former chairman of the foreign relations committee in the now defunct Egyptian Parliament, Mustafa Al-Fiqi who stated that any president after Mubarak will have to be approved of by the US and not objected to by Israel. The second came from Israeli Minister Benjamin Ben-Eliezer who described Mubarak as a strategic bonanza for Israel; a language reminiscent of intelligence services references to treasured recruited agents. This gave the impression that the presumed ruler of Egypt was nothing but a figurehead, a front man, and a local enforcer. The real rulers were elsewhere. The myth that Sinai had been liberated as a result of the Sadat-Begin treaty was shattered, even among the most self-deluded, when the whole of Egypt was in fact delivered and colonized.
Things did not end there. On the domestic front largely uncommon and threatening phenomena seemed to strike root. Breakdown in social cohesion and moral standards, increasing Muslim-Christian as well as Mazhabi tensions with Shi’i forces such as Hizbullah or countries such as Iran despite the fact that such phenomena did not exist before in the highly homogenous Egyptian society, indicated that something sinister was brewing. The regime was perceived to be the threat to the very stability that it based part of its so called ‘legitimacy’ on. In order to perpetuate the emergency law with which Mubarak could rule by decree ever since he came to power, it dawned on the people that much of what they see, in addition to all the rhetoric about the threat of terrorism was in fact largely a ruse and deception. In fact, there have been reports, yet unconfirmed, that it was former minister of interior Habib Al-Adly, who was behind the explosion which hit a Coptic Church in Alexandria on the eve of the 2011 new year, killing many worshippers as well as some Muslims. The explosion served several purposes from the regime’s perspective. It was a warning to the Coptic Church whose influence was growing out of control. It was a message to the world and the people that the threat of terror still existed that justified emergency laws. The Minister then proceeded to put the blame for the act on an Islamist group in Gaza to turn Egyptians against their Palestinian brethren and to justify the regime’s despised policies toward the enclave. Few however, believed him. But the whole episode was indicative of how the regime endeavored to keep society in a constant state of fear and imbalance. Its subsequent response and reaction to the protestors corroborated such perceptions. In short, the regime and its cronies, supported by Israel and the West, was seen as looting the country, fragmenting and dividing society, turning Muslims and Coptic Christians against each other, deliberately undermining society’s moral standards (perhaps a cynic would say so to allow for some provisions of the populations conference which took place in Cairo in 1996, to be implemented), entangling the country in a full-fledged alliance with Israel against its Arab and Muslim umma, pursuing at the same time a divisive policy among Muslims based on Madhabi lines. Concomitantly, widely circulating and credible reports as well as rumors that forbidden pesticides were being used on agricultural products causing some kind of a cancer epidemic in the country did not help much. It gave rise to much cynicism that the regime was attempting to address the country’s chronic problem of over population by killing its people. In all of this, the Mubarak regime fused all the unvirtuous charactersitics of a Kleptocracy, Kakistocracy, and high treason in the full sense of the word. This entire matrix of policies by the regime which aimed at atomizing and disintegrating society ironically was a major cause for the spread of a wide sense of ‘collective paranoia.’ Contrary to intentions, this served the formation of a ‘collective mind’ that moved people to a spontaneous act emanating from some kind of survival anxiety. This state only needed the lighting match that came from Tunisia, a country with largely similar conditions, to explode. It was this collective mind that allowed for the mass demonstrations to cut across, if not in fact supersede all ideological divisions which the regime had utilized and took full advantage of for thirty years, in order to divide and rule.
To a large extent, this constituted the source of strength for a collective action of the kind before the fall of Mubarak, but may prove a source of significant risk after the fact. This collective effort will have to be translated into a credible break with the old regime, into a vision of construction and rebuilding state and society, and most significantly into a national liberation movement. As far as the first objective is concerned, Mubarak may have been toppled, but his regime still stands. It is most likely that Israel and the US in cooperation with their domestic fifth column or ancien regime will work hard to keep it in place, give and take some changes in faces as well as the rolling of some heads as scapegoats. In other words, a change in appearances rather than in substance will be sought, in order to ensure that any alterations do not affect the perpetuation of old policies. It seems very strange and a good cause for suspicion that a man who has committed all the above would be allowed to reside in his favorite resort in Sharm al-Shaikh in the Sinai Peninsula instead of having him and his family arrested and confined. It raises questions as to whether a ‘counter-revolution’ is in the making in which Mubarak and the army’s top brass are actually in cooperation with Israel. Given the unsavory history of Sharm al-Shaikh, all this does not sound far-fetched.
The two other goals of reconstruction and independence will require mobilization of society, and mobilization will require an ideology. To date it is not clear what ideological focus the country might pursue, but one thing is almost certain. Embarking on building the country’s strength at all levels and on regaining its Arab and Muslim identity, an identity under assault since Sadat signed his treaty with Israel, will face enormous challenges. If seriously pursued, this will put Egypt on an inevitable collision course with Israel and the US, even in the unlikely case that a democratic regime was to emerge. In such an eventuality the US may put tremendous pressure on the army either to take over power or to make sure that all the structures of the ‘ancien regime’ remain intact. Other measures of ‘besiegement’ and pressure of course could be implemented if all else fails.
Any emerging leadership or regime, of whatever persuasion, therefore, will have to be clear about the fact that no measure of political acrobatics could reconcile the Camp David agreements with the country’s goal of national independence, development, as well as the restoration of its Arab and Muslim identity. Steering a middle course or trying to straddle two horses at the same time may prove unfeasible as Mubarak had earlier found out. When he came to power in 1981, he tried to do exactly this; improve relations with the Arab world while continuing to meet the obligations of the Sadat-Begin treaty. Soon he was to find out that this would not be possible for long, and consequently, he threw his lot with Israel, becoming its strategic bonanza.
So far, the removal of Mubarak— if in fact he has been removed— has been the easy part and the enemies of the uprising know it. Whoever happens to come out on top in Egypt will have to face this same dilemma and make difficult choices and decisions. If the same choices that Mubarak had made are made again, then the new regime will be no different. The uprising will have gone bust. The Egyptian people thus, are at a crossroad. What they have achieved so far can be described as mass popular protests which succeeded in toppling Mubarak. This is fine, however, this is not a revolution. It can never be a one unless it had undergone the above transformations. Until then, all options are open including a reversal and/or a counter-revolution.
Amr G. E. Sabet is Senior Lecture in Political Science at Dalarna University, Sweden, and Docent in the Department of Political Science, Helsinki University, Finland. He specializes in international relations, comparative politics, and Middle East politics