People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 07

February 13, 2011

Mubarak: The Last Pharaoh


Yohannan Chemerapally



THE New Year has not started propitiously for the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world. Tunisia started the wildfire now raging across West Asia. For almost a month, the Tunisians united as never before, faced bullets and brutal police tactics. Eventually they succeeded in getting rid of their long ruling president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The events in Tunisia have had an immediate impact in the region.  But it is in Egypt that the impact has been the most profound so far. The government of Hosni Mubarak is on its last legs as people all over Egypt have risen in unison against the government in last week of January. According to the UN more than 300 people have been killed within the first eight days of the protests that have paralysed Cairo, Alexandria, Port Said and other cities. President Mubarak, for the first time in more than 20 years had to call in the army to patrol the streets of the major cities as he desperately tries to hold on to the vestiges of power. The army was deployed on the streets in 1977 when there were widespread food riots and later in 1986 when police recruits went on a rampage.


The Mubarak government on those two occasions had managed to subdue the opposition but now the political pendulum has decisively swung against the ancient regime. Mubarak has been forced by circumstances to address the Egyptian people twice in succession within a matter of days. On January 28, the Egyptian president announced in a televised speech that he was dissolving his cabinet but refused to step down. Instead, he vaguely talked of instituting some reforms while at the same time threatening to use stronger force to quell the popular upheaval. The next day, he appointed Omar Suleiman, his right hand man and long serving chief of the intelligence services, as his vice president.


This in itself was a significant development, as this is the first time that Mubarak has appointed a second in command after being thirty years at the helm of affairs. The 76 year old Suleiman, who is known to be close to the US and Israel, will take over if circumstances force Mubarak to make a hasty exit. Suleiman has been playing a key behind the scenes role since the nineties. He was instrumental in convincing a reluctant Yasser Arafat to appoint Mahmoud Abbas, at the insistence of the Americans, as the Palestinian prime minister.  Mubarak also appointed Ahmad Shafiq, a former air force commander, as the new prime minister. The thousands of protestors who had mounted vigil for days at Cairo’s Tahrir (victory) square made their anger at the decision known by displaying banners saying – ‘No to Suleiman, No to Shafiq’.




On February 2, Mubarak again made a televised address. This time he announced that he would not be seeking re-election but emphasised that he would remain in office till his current term expires in October this year. He also reiterated that he would not go into exile. The opposition, united as never before, has been steadfastly calling on the old dictator to leave immediately so that a unity government could be formed as the country transits towards democracy. The president’s offer meant that his government and his party, which had monopolised power for more than three decades would be around to supervise the conduct of the next presidential elections. The protestors were livid at Mubarak’s attempts to brazen it out. They had demanded that he leave the presidency in the first week of February. But indications are that the ruling establishment is not giving up without a fight even if it means the spilling of the blood of its own people. The events in Tahrir Square on February 2 when the regime unleashed its thugs on the peaceful demonstrators were a strong signal. Even the international media covering the uprising were not spared. More than a dozen people participating in the protests were killed and hundreds more seriously injured. The Egyptian army patrolling the square had refused to intervene as the peaceful protestors were besieged from all sides.


The newly appointed prime minister appeared on television the next day to claim that the government was unaware of the orchestrated pro-Mubarak mobs rampaging on Tahrir square. Shafir decribed the incident as a “fatal error”. But the new vice president, speaking soon after, did not sound all that apologetic. While describing Mubarak as “the father and leader” he blamed the violence on the pro-democracy protestors. Suleiman blamed protestors with “foreign agendas” for the violence. He also stressed that Mubarak will quit before the October deadline he has set. Neither Mubarak nor his son would be running in the elections, Suleiman averred while demanding that the protestors end their sit in at Tahrir square with immediate effect. Suleiman invited the opposition parties, including the Muslim Brothers (MB) for talks but only after they ended their occupation of Tahrir square. A spokesman for the opposition reiterated that they were ready for talks but only after the departure of Mubarak.    


Suleiman glossed over the fact that snipers were allowed to shoot on demonstrators from neighbouring building. The Egyptian security forces seem to have taken a leaf out of the Thai army’s manual. Many protesting “Red Shirt” demonstrators in Bangkok were shot dead by army and police snipers. The democracy movement there has been temporarily crushed. A video released on You Tube shows an Egyptian police van ploughing into demonstrators at Tahrir square. A report in the Egyptian paper Al Mesryoon claimed that senior Egyptian officials secretly met in Alexandria to plan the confrontation in Tahrir square on February 2.   


The West, after initial flip-flops, seems to have given up on the 82 year old Mubarak, an ally of long standing. President Barack Obama said in late January that Mubarak has to respond to the demands of the people. At the same time, he advised the Egyptian president against using force against the people demonstrating on the streets. After the bloody events in Tahrir Square, in which prominent American media personalities were not spared, Obama took a tougher stance demanding that the political transition start “now”.  A joint statement issued by the leaders of US, Germany, France, Italy and Spain also called for the political transition in Egypt to “start now” while condemning “all those who use or encourage violence”. The statement seems to be apportioning blame between the government and the pro-democracy activists.


The US state department spokesman said on January 29 that president Mubarak’s promise of reform should be followed by action. The Obama administration made it clear that it was not enough “just to reshuffle the deck”. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany issued a statement on the same day calling on president Mubarak “to begin a transformation process that should be reflected in a broadly based government along with free and fair elections”. But the Obama administration is still scrambling to come out with a coherent policy. The confusion was evident when Hillary Clinton said on January 30 that the US “does not favour transition to a new government –  where oppression could take root”. The US secretary of state, said that Egypt should not be allowed to become a “faux democracy” like Iran. Signs are that the Obama administration is orchestrating a backstage military takeover with a pseudo democratic façade. At stake is the future of America’s biggest military and political ally in the region. Egypt along with Israel is the largest recipient of American aid.


Egypt gets a $2 billion largesse annually from Washington for its role as a key strategic ally of West in the region. Most of the tear gas canisters and rubber bullets fired on the peaceful demonstrators originated from the US. Recently released Wikileaks documents have also shown that Washington was quite supportive of Mubarak’s domestic policies, including his plan to groom his son Gamal for the presidency. The Obama administration still continues to insist that the Mubarak regime is not a dictatorship. The US vice president, Joseph Biden, said in the last week of January days before the protests gained nationwide momentum, that Mubarak has been “very responsible – relative to American geopolitical interests in the region”.




Meanwhile the Egyptian people as illustrated by the recent historic events are determined to effect regime change.  Many commentators are in fact comparing the Egyptian president’s dilemma to the Shah of Iran, America’s strongest ally till his overthrow in 1979. The US was taken by surprise at the scale of the popular upsurge in Iran. Similarly, no government predicted the scale of the Egyptian popular uprising in which online activism, like in Tunisia, played a major role. A Wikileaks March 30, 2009 US state department cable reveals the deep fears of the Mubarak government about the dangers posed by the Internet. According to the cables, the government has jailed bloggers who have either insulted Mubarak or Islam. There were an estimated 160,000 bloggers in Egypt in 2009, the US state department cable said. The Egyptian authorities in a desperate last ditch effort had tried to completely block off internet access. Many of the restrictions have since been lifted after there was an international outcry.  


Egypt has been ruled under “emergency law” since 1967. The emergency laws have been used by the government to curtail basic constitutional freedoms and ban many political parties, including the MB. The Communists were ruthlessly dealt with during the time of president Gamal Abdel Nasser. The MB for a short period collaborated with Nasser and Anwar Sadat when he cracked down on the Left. The newly appointed vice president is a strong supporter of the emergency laws that have so effectively silenced the opposition till recently. Suleiman was among the elite officers sent for training to the Soviet Union in the sixties. Nasser reportedly told Suleiman before his departure, that he wanted him to return as “a staunch anti-communist”. Suleiman did not let his president down and eventually went on to become one of Washington’s trusted allies in the region. When Gamal Mubarak publicly supported the abolition of state security courts in early 2000, Suleiman argued for the continuation of the emergency laws.  The lament on the streets this correspondent heard when he was in Cairo last year was that Egypt was one country that did not experience real freedom since the days of the Pharaohs. For the first time, the Egyptians seem to be on the cusp of a new dawn.


Egyptians on the street have freely acknowledged that it was the “jasmine revolution” in Tunisia that gave them the courage to confront the state machinery which since the seventies has specialised in browbeating the people into submission.


The events in Tunisia seem to have acted as a catalyst that ignited the dormant pride and nationalism among young Egyptians. 30 per cent of the Egyptian population of more than 80 million is under 20 years of age. Unlike the older generations, they are no longer in a mood to be cowed down by the apparatus of a security state.


The Egyptian army it seems has been advised against using force against civilians and at the same time also ensure that there is no radical shake-up of the status-quo. In Tunisia, despite the popular revolt, the right hand man of Ben Ali, Mohammed Ghannouchi, has taken over the presidency. US army generals had communicated directly with their Tunisian counterparts when the political crisis was unfolding. The Tunisian army was told to withdraw their support for Ben Ali and also instructed not to fire upon the demonstrators.


The popular upsurge in the region against pro-American despots in the region has taken the West by surprise. The slogan of the Tunisian revolution – Bread, Freedom and Dignity, is reverberating all over West Asia. As a young Arab blogger recently wrote – “Either we live in dignity or die in dignity”.  An Egyptian journalist observed recently that in the Arab world “there are 22 Ben Ali’s and they all need to go”. Interesting times are ahead as the Arab street seems to at long last woken up from its torpor.