Savouring what the Egyptian people achieved

Today’s Guardian editorial highlights the necessary move away from America and its corrupted policies in the Middle East. What truly sane and democratic nation wouldn’t want to break free from that?

Thirty years of dictatorship disappeared in 30 seconds. This was the time it took for Vice-President Omar Suleiman to announce that Hosni Mubarak had resigned as president of Egypt and that the armed forces council was taking over as head of state. After 18 continuous days of protest in which the occupants of Tahrir Square resisted everything the dying regime dared to throw at them – armed mobs, occasional gunfire, waves of arrest, the shutting down of the internet and the mobile phone network, a media crackdown – the voice of the Egyptian people had finally made itself heard.

Whatever follows, this is a moment of historic significance. It re-establishes Egypt as the leader of the Arab world and Egyptians at its moral core. This revolution – the only word that fits – was carried out by ordinary people demanding, with extraordinary tenacity, basic political rights: free elections, real political parties, a police force that upholds rather than undermines the rule of law. Try as some may to paint them as the lackeys of Islamism, they did this on their own and, to a large extent, peacefully. This was a fight in which Muslims and Christians stood side by side. No sectarian flags were visible in Tahrir Square, just the national one. Together they showed that if they could conquer their own fear – one that was wholly rational – they could go on to bring down the most entrenched and venal of dictators. Mr Mubarak’s fate will not be lost on every other dictator in the Arab world and beyond.

Their achievement was not without sacrifice. More than 300 died fighting for this moment. Nor does the jubilation on the streets of every town and city in Egypt furnish, in itself, the guarantee of a democratic future. Many important questions were left unanswered last night. The biggest centred on what role the army would play in the transition to whatever beckons. Before the crisis, the upper echelons of the army were far from being the potential balancing force between an unyielding president and an angry street. Senior generals who enriched themselves under the former president became part of what one academic has called a military-Mubarak complex. Almost everyone left in power in post-Mubarak Egypt last night, from Vice-President Suleiman down to provincial governors, are career military men. The symbol and head of the regime has gone, but the component parts which supported it still remain. If the experience of Tunisia is anything to go by, the mass demonstrations of the last two weeks may not be the last.

Many will almost certainly demand that Mr Suleiman himself follow his patron’s lead. Even after the revolution started, the former intelligence chief might have played a positive role. But his contradictory statements and actions since then have hardly encouraged the notion that he could be the agent for change. He said that Egypt was not ready for democracy, instructed Egyptians to stop watching foreign satellite channels, and vowed to lift the hated emergency law only when “conditions permitted”. He did, to his credit, talk to representatives of the organisation he once tried hard to crush, the Muslim Brotherhood, but then issued a statement which was so far off the mark that it was denounced by those who had taken part in the meeting. He surely has no further role to play as mediator.

The implications of these events for the US are very far-reaching. Washington has struggled to speak with one voice as it went from preaching stability to declaring that the political demands of the Egyptians were universal and touched America’s core beliefs. Post-revolutionary Egypt may not tear up its treaty with Israel. But it could be less easily swayed to do its neighbour’s bidding in Gaza. Politically, Egypt may become more like Turkey. For Egyptians did not merely re-establish their independence from Mr Mubarak. They also demonstrated their independence from the US and its allies.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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