A story doing the rounds in Colombo’s Arab community last week related how Egypt’s president Hosni Mubarak, besieged by hundreds of thousands of protesters demanding his ouster, had telephoned Tunisia’s deposed leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali seeking his help. Ben Ali politely said he was a little constrained as he himself was in Saudi Arabia.
Mubarak then asked Ben Ali to kindly inform Saudi’s King Abdullah that he (Mubarak) “may come a little early for Hajj …” (Arab custom dictates that nobody seeking to visit a holy place can be turned away. But as every Muslim knows the annual Hajj pilgrimage only takes place during a specific time in the Islamic calendar, hence the joke at Mubarak’s expense.)
The turmoil in Egypt however is no laughing matter for the US and its western allies who are watching these multiple uprisings erupt across the Arab world with great anxiety. Egypt is US’ key strategic partner in the Middle East next to Israel, and receives $1.3 billion in military aid to protect US interests in the region.
|Protesters at Cairo’s Tahrir Square
The unrest in Egypt was not confined to the capital Cairo, where reports estimated over a million demonstrators jammed the streets and Tahrir Square on Tuesday (1st) demanding that Mubarak step down. The spontaneous demonstrations spread to other cities including but not limited to Alexandria and the strategically important Suez.
Although Egypt is not a major oil producing country, reports suggest between 2 – 4 million barrels of oil per day travel through the Suez Canal and the SuMed oil pipeline which also passes through Egypt. The spread of violence in the region or a shutdown of the Suez Canal could potentially wreak havoc on oil prices, a Dow Jones report said.
Egypt’s revolt following protests in Tunisia that led to the flight of its president, has taken the world by surprise, causing unprecedented upheaval across the Arab world. Demonstrations in Jordan resulted in King Abdullah dismissing his cabinet and appointing a new prime minister. In Yemen demonstrators’ calls for President Ali Abdullah Saleh (of 30 years, like Mubarak) to step down elicited a declaration that neither he nor his son will run for re-election.
Algeria has announced it will be lifting a state of emergency that prevailed for 19 years. Whether these moves represent mere cosmetic gestures sparked by panic within the shaky Arab regimes, or whether they will lead to greater political freedoms and an easing of economic hardships for the people of these countries remain to be seen.
Mubarak meanwhile has stated he will not stand for re-election but refuses to step down arguing that his quitting will ‘sink the country into chaos.’ He has appointed his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman as vice president – the first such appointment in 30 years, and reshuffled his cabinet with a former air chief as prime minister. The sudden appointments have been met with skepticism by the protesters and analysts alike. As the (US) Nation’s Laila Lalami said, it “looks like a behind-the-scenes compromise to replace Mubarak with Mubarak Lite.”
A notable aspect of the recent demonstrations was their use of new media. Demonstrators in Tunisia reportedly used Facebook and Twitter to advise Egyptian protesters on how to cope with the police tear gassing etc. Not surprisingly, the internet was shut down across Egypt and SMS services disabled for over a week since the protests began.
It is ironic that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s statement of “deep concern” over the use of violence by the Egyptian government to put down the protests included an appeal to the government to “lift the ban on communications.”
If memory serves us right, this was the same Hillary Clinton who not so long ago vehemently denounced the whistleblower website WikiLeaks for its use of the internet, and whose government is hounding Julian Assange to prosecute him. Strangely, it is the same Clinton who in January last year made a speech in Washington hailing the internet as the ultimate in freedom of information.
Other western reactions to the fast moving developments in the Arab world reveal similar contradictions. Following US president Barack Obama’s initial statement that “concrete steps that advance the rights of the Egyptian people” were needed, European Union leaders who had gathered in Davos, Switzerland for the World Economic Forum made public remarks in the same vein. Later David Cameron, Nicholas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel joined by the prime ministers of Italy and Spain issued a joint statement urging “quick and orderly transition to a broad-based government."
Even if the suddenness of the Egyptian revolution took them by surprise, it’s hard to believe these western powers were unaware of the build up of frustrations in Egypt. How could they not have known, with the advanced intelligence systems and well-heeled diplomatic relations that have been in place all these years? As long as it suited their strategic objectives they were content to prop up the corrupt dictatorships of the region. Now in the face of what appears to be an unstoppable popular uprising they have made an abrupt about-turn in a show of support for democratic reform. Their utterances ring hollow indeed. The leader of the most populous Arab state has been their staunch Middle Eastern ally, but now his number is up it appears.
Foreign Policy magazine’s Josh Rogin put it well when he said (referring mainly to US statements) they were “just trying to get on the right side of history here.”
The question now regarding Mubarak is no longer “if” he will go but “how soon.” After 12 straight days of demonstrations no clear picture has emerged yet as to how this transition will happen or who will replace Mubarak.
With the scenes in Thahir Square turning ugly over the past week it became apparent that the stance of the army is ambiguous. The army has categorically said they will not shoot at demonstrators and had initially been greeted with cheers on the streets, but on Wednesday (2nd) when pro-Mubarak thugs disrupted the demonstrations it appears they did not intervene to prevent the bloodshed. Some of the attackers were identified as police in plain clothes.
Amongst the loose and diverse coalition of opposition parties democracy activist Mohamed El Baradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his arms control work seems to have the widest acceptance at this point. El Baradei who recently returned to Egypt has reportedly “refused to endorse a US or Israeli led attack on Iran” but has also publicly criticized Iran for not cooperating with the IAEA.
It is the Muslim Brotherhood that the US and its western allies are most worried about, on the basis that the Egyptian uprising could turn into an Islamic revolution with Mubarak being replaced by a leader hostile to western interests. Such a change would bring with it the prospect that Egypt might cancel its peace treaty with Israel. But there does not seem to be any indication of this at this point.
The Muslim Brotherhood is not a radical Islamist group though it is a banned party. The protesters seem to come from all walks of life, men and women, students, professionals, Muslims and Christians. Men with beards or women wearing burkas certainly did not dominate the crowds that were seen on the television screens.
Besides, the concerns that protesters voiced regarding poverty, unemployment and disgust with the corrupt ruling elite were largely secular. As the world watches, a region of historical conflict is going through a transformation the outcome of which only time will reveal, and would undoubtedly have global reverberations.
The writer is a senior freelance journalist