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Key players in Egypt’s revolution

09 February, 2011

By Farooq Sulehria


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The situation in Egypt is so fluid it is hard to be one-hundred-per-cent certain if Hosni Mubarak will still be clinging to power by the time these lines are published. On Feb 2, the thug violence employed by the regime in Cairo to disrupt the sit-in at Tahrir Square raised doubts about the dramatic concessions Mubarak had announced just a day earlier. On Feb 4, the tide turned again, with the protest movement reclaiming Tahrir Square.

But why has Mubarak not yet fled the country when, in terms of popular revolt and anti-government mobilisation, the political crisis in Egypt has gone beyond the conditions in Tunisia which resulted in the overthrow of Zine El Abedine Ben Ali? This is a question on many minds.

One reason is the Mubarak regime’s comparatively wider social base compared to Ben Ali’s. The Mubarak regime is more institutionalised. Relying on the army, the regime was able to build a more solid base through crony capitalism. In case of Tunisia, however, the Ben Ali regime was a clique consisting of the first family and its collaborators.

The Mubarak regime is the civilian facade of the Egyptian army. True, the army has until now “stayed away” from the present turmoil. Not because it is neutral, of course, though the Egyptian opposition, in particular the Muslim Brotherhood, has been sowing illusions about the army’s “neutrality.” If the army has not been used until now, it is probably because of the military command’s fear that an intervention would produce disaffection among the rank and file and the soldiers might hesitate to act against the protesters, or disobey orders outright.

But the huge mobilisation of the “Day of Departure” on Feb 4 may lead to the army agreeing to the “soft transition” being planned by Washington, the key external player struggling to forestall the Mubarak regime’s free fall.

Egypt is a cornerstone in the United States’ strategic plans for the Middle East. Therefore, Washington is not merely eager to avert a revolution in Egypt, the most populous Arab country, and arguably the most influential, but is also concerned about the domino effect the change will produce in the Middle East. The Obama administration has strong reasons for that fear. The latest public statements by the United States and its Western allies indicate a change of mind.

According to Egyptian economist and writer Samir Amin, who is based in Dakar, Senegal, “the US plan for Egypt is very similar to the Pakistani model: a combination of ‘political Islam’ and army intelligence.” Egypt’s newly appointed vice president, Omar Soliman, who will take charge in the event of Mubarak’s resignation, was head of the army Intelligence..

In case of elections, the Muslim Brotherhood is likely to emerge as the key parliamentary player. Washington has already baptised the Brotherhood – which favours the free-market system and took a position against the Egyptian workers’ strikes in 2008 – as “moderate.”

The Brotherhood is emulating the AKP of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which came to power as a result of a democratisation process spearheaded by the military. Hence, the Brotherhood has been courting the military and is reluctant to support Mohamed El Baradei.

However, the protest movement is not restricted to political parties. A vast majority of the regime’s opponents have no political affiliations. The opposition includes a vast array of forces, not just the Brotherhood. But the Muslim Brotherhood is definitely the largest force in the opposition. When, under pressure from Washington, the Mubarak regime relaxed the rules of the game for the opposition in the 2005 parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood managed to win 20 per cent parliamentary seats against all odds. In the last elections, held in 2010, the Brotherhood lost all seats but one.

There are parties like the Wafd, which emerged out of the Egyptian struggle for national liberation in the 1920s. It is what one may call a liberal opposition. The National Progressive Unionist Party, or Tagammu for short in Arabic, has five MPs, and is considered leftwing. It adheres to the Nasserite legacy. At one time the Egyptian communists were also active on Tagammu’s platform. However, it was not considered a threat since it tended to be compliant towards the regime. There are also radical Nasserite and far-left groups. These organisations, though miniscule, are very active in the ongoing protest movement.

At the same time, there are social movements like Kefaya, a coalition of activists from various opposition forces as well as activists without any political affiliation. Initially, it was launched in solidarity with the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000. In 2003 it was actively engaged in opposition to the US invasion of Iraq. It gained international attention when it began to agitate against the Mubarak regime.

Although these were ignored by the global media, Egypt saw a series of industrial actions from 2006 to 2009. As in many other countries in the region, independent workers’ unions do not exist in Egypt. There are a couple of recent exceptions resulting from the social radicalisation. Despite the lack of independent unions, Egyptian workers were able to shake the regime.

On April 6, 2008, there was an attempt at launching a general strike in solidarity with the workers. The effort was crushed but it led to the creation of the April 6 Youth Movement.

When Mohamed ElBaradei returned to Egypt in 2009, after his tenure with the International Atomic Energy Commission (IAEA) came to an end, a liberal-left coalition gathered around him. The Muslim Brotherhood adopted a wait-and-see stance on ElBaradei. With his international reputation and connections, and his Nobel Peace Prize, ElBaradei is a powerful candidate against Mubarak. Politicians regrouping behind ElBaradei formed the National Association for Change. These political players, the Egyptian protests are a spontaneous outpouring of mass resentment against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

The key elements that triggered the Egyptian protests are strikingly similar with those behind the uprising in Tunisia: a despotic regime, economic contradictions, high utility bills, staggering joblessness and high prices. These are not confined to Egypt or Tunisia, however, and therefore have wide ramifications in the North Africa-Middle East region. That is why the Tunisian tsunami has had a strong impact across the Red Sea from Egypt, in Yemen under the long-ruling dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh.

 

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