Last Week in Egypt: A Recap
These past few weeks have been the most tumultuous ones in Egypt since the Egyptian Revolution of 1952. The news media covered this month’s protests closely, but it was still hard to follow what, exactly, was going on in Cairo. For those of you who had a hard time following the stream of events, here’s a quick breakdown:
Monday, February 7th
For the first time in nearly two weeks, the streets of Cairo began returning to normalcy. Media reports described traffic jams, shops open for business, and long lines at banks. The protest in Tahrir Square lingered, but was not nearly as strong as it had been. It seemed likely that the demonstrations against Mubarak were reaching an end—or at least that’s the impression the Egyptian government was trying to give us.
Tuesday, February 8th
Protestors returned in droves, rejecting attempts by Mubarak to curb resistance. The resurgence was partially due to a live television interview with Wael Ghonim, the Google executive and activist who was imprisoned on January 28th for his role in organizing the protests. He appeared on television Monday night to describe his “kidnapping” and encourage protestors to persevere. It worked—Egyptians flooded the streets on Tuesday.
“The government wanted to say that life was returning to normal,” said a young protestor to the New York Times. “We’re saying it’s not.”
Wednesday, February 9th
The protests continued—it was the largest crowd of protestors since the demonstrations began two weeks before—while the Mubarak administration tried to quell the resistance and take “steps” towards democracy. The Obama administration, meanwhile, was trying to put its two-cents in: Vice President Joe Biden called Egyptian Vice President Omar Suleiman, asking him to lift the emergency law that has denied Egyptians freedom of speech, due process and assembly for nearly 30 years. And, while technically Obama hadn’t thrown his support behind either Mubarak or the protestors, many believed he was going to support Mubarak, so long as his administration took steps towards democratization.
Thursday, February 10th
Egyptians, and onlookers everywhere, prepared for President Mubarak to address Egypt in a televised speech. Many expected him to announce his resignation. Instead, Mubarak reiterated that he will not leave office until elections are held in September. As he spoke, and it became clear that he was not resigning, the crowd of protestors in Tahrir Square exploded with anger, shouting, “Leave” and “Get Out” before heading to the presidential palace. In his speech, Mubarak did say, albeit briefly, that he will hand most of his power over to Suleiman—but he didn’t specify exactly how much. The US government remained relatively neutral, with Obama merely saying, “America will continue to do everything that we can to support an orderly and genuine transition to democracy in Egypt.” He didn’t elaborate on what, exactly, America was doing or was planning to do.
Friday, February 11th
As Mubarak left Cairo for his vacation home in Sharm el-Sheik, the Egyptian military asserted its leadership in a “communiqué” and pledged to oversee the constitutional reforms that Mubarak had promised in his speech the night before. Then, during evening prayers, Vice President Suleiman made a brief televised statement:
“Taking into consideration the difficult circumstances the country is going through, President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak has decided to leave the post of president of the republic and has tasked the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to manage the state’s affairs,” he said.
Thus ended Mubarak’s 30-year rule of Egypt. A council of military leaders is in charge of the country for now. Protestors, meanwhile, were jubilant, shouting “God is Great” and “Egypt is free” as fireworks exploded and cars honked incessantly. Ghonim, the Google executive who was imprisoned, expressed the hope of all when he said, “Egypt is going to be a fully democratic state.”
Egypt has been through a whirlwind of change, but, now that it’s beginning to calm down, the excitement of protestors is giving way to worries from the West.
“There are risks with the transition to democracy,” said Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on February 5th. “It can be chaotic. It can cause short-term instability. Even worse—and we have seen it before—the transition can backslide into just another authoritarian regime. Revolutions have overthrown dictators in the name of democracy only to see the political process hijacked by new autocrats.”
Clinton is right—we have seen it before. Iran is the best, and most worrisome, example; after its own revolution in 1979, the Iranian movement was “hijacked” by radical Islamists. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen in Egypt.
But Egypt is different than Iran, and the revolution we just witnessed was unique. Protestors came from a wide range of economic classes and age groups, brought together by social media websites and a basic demand: let the opposition be heard. Mubarak’s government oppressed the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s Islamic opposition group, just as much as anyone else these past decades. And while the organization does command many Egyptians’ support, it will have to prove that it is worthy—just like any other Egyptian— to win a seat in the government.
“It is their right to participate as much as it is mine, as much as it is anyone else’s in this country,” Amal Borham, a protestor, told The New York Times on February 12th. “They are part of this society, and they have been made to stay in the shadows for a very long time.”
Such is the democratic idealism that has taken hold in Egypt. But it is still uncertain as to whether or not Islam and democracy can coexist; historically, the combination has almost never been successful. Yes, this year’s Egyptian Revolution was different than what we have witnessed in the rest of the Middle East—but just how different is yet to be determined.