If Tunisia’s still simmering Jasmine Revolution is a reflection of the way modern technology has empowered and emboldened the weak, the disgruntled, the disenfranchised and the deprived, Egypt is an example of what happens when outdated geopolitical strategies collide with the realities of the modern world.
Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak, an 82-year-old Sunni, is an old-style autocrat, propped up by the United States, who pays lip service to democracy by holding the occasional election while at the same time banning or persecuting the opposition. Egypt faces another election in October, and the question on everyone’s lips now is, will Mubarak stand again, and, if he does, will Egyptians put up with the predictable result?
In return for billions of dollars of support from Washington over the past three decades, Mubarak has played the role of moderate Middle East mediator, willing to pressure Palestinians in their negotiations with Israel (he warned the US against Palestinian elections which led to the rise of Hamas); cracking down on Shia activists at home, and giving stark warnings of the terrible threat a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the Arab world. He doesn’t like Syria, either.
Having warned former President George W Bush against the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for fear it would fall under the influence of Tehran, he still allowed US warships to sail through the Suez Canal, and US warplanes to fly through Egyptian air space on their way to the Gulf. Now he calls for the installation of a new Sunni dictatorship in Baghdad. “Strengthen the [Iraqi] armed forces, relax your hold, and then you will have a coup,” he told the US State Department, according to documents leaked to Wikileaks. “Then we will have a dictator, but a fair one. Forget democracy, the Iraqis by their nature are too tough.”
A fair dictator … like himself, perhaps?
Because of the US’s long, comfortable relationship with Egypt, the Obama administration appears to have been taken by surprise by the speed with which protests swept through Cairo, Alexandria and other parts of Egypt. In an updated assessment of relations between the two countries, the State Department seems to have been under the impression that despite his age and failing health, Mubarak is indeed planning to stand for re-election, and that the result would not be in doubt because of the vote-rigging tactics that have helped to keep him in power.
Only yesterday, Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, said the Egyptian government appeared to be “stable”. But the Facebook and Twitter uprising which toppled Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power can be repeated anywhere. Efforts by the Egyptian authorities to ignore the protests on state TV and block Twitter messages may gain the regime time as it embarks on yet another crackdown on the opposition, but are such methods sustainable?
What must be unnerving for Mubarak is that while the government has blamed the Muslim Brotherhood for the protests, these appear to have attracted people from all walks of life, many with no political allegiance whatsoever: they appear to simply want a better life. And what must be worrying Washington is that the certainties a Mubarak in power offers the US may soon be replaced by a power vacuum, the likes of which could present the US and the Middle East with huge challenges for years to come.
Mubarak’s son, Gamal, who had been tipped to succeed his father, is reported to have fled to Saudi Arabia (which, incidentally, is sheltering Tunisia’s Ben Ali). Mohamed ElBaradei, the former chief of the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog agency IAEA, has called for political and economic reforms and openly encouraged the demonstrations, but it is not clear how much grassroots support he has. The Muslim Brotherhood, persecuted for years by the security forces, though fairly rudderless of late and not openly supporting the protests, could seize an opportunity. The Egyptian military are powerful and influential, and a coup might guarantee a transition to more of the same, but this is clearly not what Egyptians want.
President Barack Obama wanted change in the United States. With demonstrations in pro-Western Jordan; the Hezbollah returning to power in Lebanon; Tunisia still unsettled in the wake of the Jasmine Revolution, and now the challenge to Mubarak in Egypt, he is facing change in the Middle East.