If one week is a long time in politics, one month can bring a generation’s worth of change. The sudden and unexpected collapse of authoritarian rule in Tunisia has breathed new hope into opponents of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who have struggled for years to muster mass support for their democratic agenda. Now hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have risen up alongside them, challenging the conventional wisdom that autocrats in the Arab world have mastered the dark arts of political survival more successfully than anywhere else around the globe. One way or the other, the Middle East will never be the same again.
Egypt and Tunisia had much in common — high youth unemployment, brutal repression by police, economic growth that never trickled down and stagnant political systems centered around crony-capitalist ruling parties.
The Tunisian opposition that helped drive Ben Ali into exile on January 14 has made great progress toward ensuring that the old guard of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party cannot salvage many of the privileges it enjoyed for the past 23 years. In Egypt, as Executive went to press, the battle for the future was still raging, and the latest developments are strong indications that the old guard of the regime will cling to power with some tenacity, possibly at the cost of much more blood of young Egyptians determined to make a clean break with the past.
For the moment, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, 82 years old and in power for three decades, has sacrificed his own son’s presidential ambitions and a prime minister, Ahmed Nazif, with an enviable record as an economic manager, in an attempt to fend off a challenge from the streets that by January 30 looked close to triumph. In only four days, overt opposition to Mubarak, once the preserve of a few marginal politicians, Internet activists and the cowed Islamists of the Muslim Brotherhood, has flourished into a mass movement with no clear leadership, little coordination and a simple agenda: to “overthrow the regime.” When tens of thousands of Egyptians flooded across the Nile bridges into central Cairo at sunset on Friday 28, routing one of the world’s largest police forces dedicated to suppressing protests, it looked like Mubarak was on the run. The headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party was in flames and many jubilant Egyptians were welcoming the arrival of the army as their savior.
But Mubarak, slow and stubborn, but still wily, had more tricks up his sleeve. For the first time in his long reign he appointed a vice president in the person of security adviser and intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman, a man whose public statements have been as rare as Cairo rain. Then he named an old air force associate, former Civilian Aviation Minister Ahmed Shafik, as prime minister, jettisoning technocrat Nazif and his team of liberal economists. Suleiman’s appointment is another nail in the coffin for any plans for his deeply unpopular son Gamal to take over the reins of power.
It was a classic defensive tactic, akin to a circling of the wagons as the enemy advanced. With the army in the streets to reassure ordinary Egyptians who hated and despised the police force, Mubarak was surrounding himself with old military colleagues who would think twice about advising him that it was time to follow Ben Ali into ignominious exile. He has not yet pacified the street, and opposition politicians have dismissed the appointments as too little too late, just like the last-minute concessions with which the Tunisian president tried to save his skin.
For the moment the army is fraternizing on the streets with thousands of protesters telling Mubarak to go. The future of Egypt, and possibly the whole Middle East, now depends on the dynamics of that fragile and shallow alliance between the army and the people. It seems unlikely that the protesters will just give up without violence. When that time comes, will the army stand by the people or by Mubarak?
A successful revolution in Egypt, coupled with that in Tunisia, could be a beacon of light for the Arab world with massive implications for international geopolitics. But an army-backed repression would be a throwback to the dark days of the 1950s, the womb that gave birth to the current autocratic regimes.
JONATHAN WRIGHT is managing editor of Arab Media and Society