Some of you may have some questions about what is going on in Egypt these days. Or perhaps you have friends who do. Either way, below is some of the basic information you need to make sense of current events.
What are the protests about?
The focus of the media coverage and the public calls has been on the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and this is certainly the central demand of the protests. Less talked about are more fundamental demands, like the rescinding of the emergency laws that have been in force continuously since 1981 and for much of the period before that year since the law was passed in 1958. These laws allow for extreme restrictions on basic freedoms.
Protesters also want Parliament disbanded and elections held for the 454-seat body as well as the presidency. The western media (and much of the Middle Eastern as well) has focused on Mubarak, understandably, since he has also been so prominent in the protests. But while the protesters are certainly insisting that Mubarak resign immediately, the point is much broader than merely replacing the president. It is a call for a broad reform, even restructuring, of the Egyptian government.
Mubarak has agreed to not to run again and has appointed the country’s first vice president. Why isn’t that good enough?
There are many reasons that these steps are not enough for the protesters. Mubarak vowed, when he took over for Anwar Sadat, that he would only be a two-term president, and has also said he would step down soon at other times. Yet he has remained in office for nearly 30 years. In general, the protesters do not trust Mubarak in the slightest and believe if they back off while he is still in power, he will move to stay.
The man Mubarak tapped as his vice president only adds to the mistrust. Omar Suleiman was welcomed by the United States, with whom he worked for many years in his capacity as head of Egyptian military intelligence, including on the “extraordinary renditions” program where the US sent people to Egypt to be tortured. Israel also has expressed enthusiasm for Suleiman. But Egyptians understand Suleiman to have been Mubarak’s right-hand man for years. The protesters certainly do not trust him to democratize their country, and no one in Egypt really believes he is much different from Mubarak.
Who are the protesters and are they united?
One of the biggest obstacles the protesters face is the fact that there is no clear leadership and, beyond wanting Mubarak out and a general dissatisfaction with the status quo, there’s a great diversity of views and priorities. Many of the masses involved simply joined in the protests and are not necessarily a part of any group.
Among groups that are active in the protests there are labor groups, student groups, and opposition parties, including, of course, the Muslim Brotherhood. But for all the concern and consternation about the Muslim Brothers, they have not emerged as leaders in this movement. Really, no one has, and at this stage that is a concern as there is sharp disagreement about even meeting with the government before Mubarak leaves and, more generally, there is no apparent strategy for what to do now that rallying the masses has already happened.
What about the Egyptian military?
The military is not the monolith one would think it is. It has been the essential controlling force in Egypt since it toppled the old regime in 1952. All three of Egypt’s long-standing presidents, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat and Mubarak, came out of the military. But its entrenchment, especially in recent years when there have been no external enemies to fight, has led the military leadership to become something of a business class, and very well-off one at that.
Some schisms have also developed within the military, and this, to some degree, probably accounts for the somewhat puzzling behavior of the military thus far during the protests. On the one hand, they said they stand with the people, and promised that they would not fire on civilians. On the other, they stood by during much of the worst violence and only interceded after a considerable amount had already happened, and the air force commander was named as Mubarak’s new prime minister.
The military still holds a very prestigious place in Egyptian society and their actions will certainly be a major factor in the eventual outcome. But the contention in its ranks can also be troublesome if there is too much jockeying for power in this interim period. And, in any case, it remains unclear exactly where the military wants this to go, other than the fact that they all seem to have agreed that Mubarak’s day is over.
Is this comparable to the Iranian revolution of 1979?
This comparison is really only skin-deep and has been forwarded by people who either do not understand Iran and Egypt, are trying to frighten people in the West or, in the case of the Iranian leadership themselves are cynically distorting what is happening in Egypt for their own purposes.
While it’s true that in 1979 Iran, like in Egypt today, the religious faction was only one of numerous sectors that rose up to overthrow the Shah, the religious groups in Iran had a good deal more support from traditional business sectors than is seen for religious groups, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, today. Indeed, in Egypt today business sectors, both modern and traditional, depends heavily on tourism and international trade. These would be terribly compromised by a religious government resembling any sort of revolutionary or radical doctrine. Iran had oil, which the world needed to flow whoever was in control of the government. Egypt has no resource remotely similar.
There is, in Egypt, no leader comparable to Ruhollah Khomeini. He was considered a hero of the dissident movement well before he actually returned to Iran to redirect the revolution toward his own religious regime. Not only is there no such charismatic leadership, but the prominent religious group, the Muslim Brotherhood is sufficiently conservative that the Mubarak regime allowed it to operate under the radar as a bulwark against much more radical groups.
Finally, while both Iran in ’79 and Egypt today saw their protests led, to varying degrees by labor groups, those movements are much more organized and popular in Egypt today than they were in Iran.
The Muslim Brotherhood is certainly popular, and in a free and fair election they may well win a good number of seats in Parliament. But they have neither the popular nor the financial backing that religious parties in Iran did that enabled them to take over the Iranian revolution. There is certainly a strong sentiment in Egypt that religion has a place in politics, but there is an even stronger conviction that democracy is desirable. The conditions in Egypt are simply not similar to those in Iran 32 years ago.
Is anti-Israel and anti-American sentiment involved in the protest?
These protests have been about Egypt, despite the fact that some Americans and Israelis have tended to see it through the prism of their own countries. Indeed, the absence of mention of the US or Israel has been quite notable.
This protest movement is not about Egypt’s cold peace with Israel or about Egypt’s place in America’s regional strategy. But it is a factor in the overall dissatisfaction with Mubarak. Egyptians have a sort of national pride that is very hard for Americans to understand. The country’s collective memory goes back to prehistoric times and a unified kingdom took shape there over 5,000 years ago. In modern times, Egypt has been among the regional leaders in the Muslim and Arab world.
The peace with Israel may have brought some benefits, largely economic ones (at least after Egypt was re-admitted into the Arab League in 1989 after being banned in 1979), but especially in recent years when Egypt was increasingly complicit with Israel in isolating the Gaza Strip, the feeling increased among Egyptians that their country had become a tool being used against fellow Arabs (the Palestinians) by non-Arab power (the US and Israel). That’s why most serious analysts who are familiar with Egypt believe that the most likely outcome will be that Egypt keeps its treaty with Israel, but that the peace will grow considerably colder and cooperation with the regime of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem and especially the siege of Gaza will end.
No doubt the relationship with Israel, and especially complicity in the siege of Gaza, was part of the internal dissatisfaction that blew up into the protests two weeks ago. Still, judging by statements coming from the protesters, who have generally only discussed it when they have been specifically asked by media, the protesters aren’t thinking much about Israel. This is about the future of Egypt.
Are the protests starting to taper off?
The protests are continuing, but there are new challenges to their sustenance. The government has clearly realized that they can’t completely close Egypt off to all reporting and, perhaps as a result, has also backed off of confronting the protesters with violence. They have announced a 15% hike in state wages, which is certainly intended to weaken the protests by addressing one of their key sparks, sharply rising prices for food and other basic necessities.
There has, of course, been enormous disruption to the lives of most Egyptians and the government surely hopes this will increase pressure on the protesters to stop. But so far, they have been unsuccessful.
There are ongoing talks. Does that mean this is going to end soon?
The entire situation in Egypt is impossible to predict, but at this point, it seems likely that the upheaval will last for some time and is only in its first stage now.
Mubarak is finished, but it remains to be seen if his man Suleiman can gain enough legitimacy to hold the job and usher in reforms. Thus far, many of the protesters have been willing to meet with him and have not demanded that he too resign his post.
It is also extremely likely that there will be some fundamental change in the structure of Egypt’s government; how deep that change is will depend on many of the factors we have discussed here, and are likely to be affected by things we cannot yet predict.