With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

The Meaning of the Egyptian People’s Revolution

Day seventeen of the Egyptian people’s uprising (February 10, 2011) brought a new dangerous twist to the crisis at the heart of the Middle East.  Beleaguered President Hosni Mubarak gave a television address, but expectations that he would leave were once again thwarted.  He patronized the people, calling them his children; he apologized for the state-sponsored violence of recent days; he attacked foreign powers, clearly meaning the United States, for trying to dictate to Egypt; he asserted, denying an obvious reality, that he would never turn the country into a satellite; he would devolve some of the presidential powers to the longstanding intelligence chief and now vice president Omar Suleiman; however, he would not resign and stay on until the end of his current term in September.

As he continued in this vein, determined to cling on to power, the popular mood of expectation turned into anger.  People chanted “Go, Go, Go.”  Shoes were seen flying in air.  It reminded me of a speech of Romania’s dictator Nicolai Ceausescu in 1989.  Before his fall, Ceausescu tried to address a crowd from the balcony of his palace.  The people booed him in response.  Imagine if Mubarak tried to face the Egyptian people instead of addressing them on state television?  What is surely the final phase of Mubarak’s three-decade dictatorship reminds us of the most tumultuous events in recent history.  The fall of the pro-U.S. Shah of Iran in 1979, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 symbolizing the end of the Soviet Empire and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of 1991.

With popular rage sweeping the country, the pressure on the Mubarak regime, and uncertainty with it, are bound to increase.  Friday will be another day of massive demonstrations.  Already labor unions, government employees, judges and medical staff have been joining the protestors.  The trend is likely to grow, but Mubarak has failed to judge the nation’s mood.  Al Jazeera and Press TV reported about military officers at the Liberation Square in Cairo dropping their weapons and joining the demonstrators.  The loyalties of Egypt’s most important institution, the armed forces, to Mubarak and his regime look less certain.  The game seems to be up.  What legacy will Mubarak leave when he finally departs? For we are witnessing a phenomenon that is irreversible.

Egyptians living under a suppressive regime have broken the fear barrier.  The masses have realized their collective strength and resolved to end their long nightmare.  People have lived through atrocities and pain, economic and political hardships without any obvious recourse, distrust of their rulers and pessimism about their future long enough.  They have reflected on what they must endure if things remained unchanged, examined their own worth and concluded that the system cheats them in every way. Their rage has broken the threshold of tolerance. They have decided that the existence of permanent humiliation is not worthy of continuation. The point of inevitability has been reached in the people’s revolt in Egypt.

The inevitability of a revolution, once the dynamic has reached that point, is no longer in doubt.  However, exact prophecy is trickier.  Juan Cole warns against the temptation to compare Egypt’s popular uprising to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution (Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979, Informed Comment, February 2, 2011).  A number of observers have made alarmist predictions that the Muslim Brotherhood (i.e. radical Islamists) will take over power if Egypt’s military-dominated regime is swept away by popular revolt.

The Muslim Brotherhood is neither a dominant entity in Egyptian polity nor is the movement in collaboration with the radical movements like the Islamic Jihad.  There are secular, left-wing and right-wing parties, religious forces and labor activists in considerable numbers.  Contrary to national elections and referendums to extend military-led rule under President Hosni Mubarak over three decades, the outcome of a free and fair election, if it were held, cannot be predetermined.  However, with more than twenty parties, the scenario of a radical Islamist seizer of power looks unlikely. 

Anti-Americanism in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world, is a different matter.  Political machinations by the ruling elites in and outside Egypt to keep the established character of regime in place will only serve to reinforce anti-American feelings.  Egypt’s uprising has both differences from, and parallels with, earlier civil revolts elsewhere.  The local context of the events in Egypt is different.  However, it is important to recognize what these events mean for the United States, Israel and their strategic designs in the Middle East.  They mean something akin to what the Iranian Revolution meant back in 1979. Mubarak’s desperate attempts to cling on to power look similar to those of Iran’s dictator, the shah, in his final days before he left the country in January 1979.

In the early stages of the Iranian Revolution, a weak American president, Jimmy Carter, in a moment of fatal misjudgment, described Iran as a “free country” and an “oasis of peace and stability.”  As the current Egyptian uprising started more than two weeks ago, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the regime in Cairo was “stable.”  America’s misjudgment and confusion about how to deal with the crisis does not stop there.  The way ahead is littered with political landmines.

President Obama’s soaring rhetoric proved much stronger than his leadership in office.  Today he looks like a weak president in the mold of Jimmy Carter.  In July 2009, he embarked on his Middle East political journey in Cairo with a celebrated speech seeking “a new beginning” with Muslims based on mutual interests and mutual respect, justice and tolerance.  That rhetorical promise now faces a severe test.  Obama seems clueless while American policy is hijacked by hawkish secretaries of state and defense, with the uniformed military top brass openly meddling in Egypt’s affairs; and voices from the United States and Israel declare utter disrespect for the Egyptian people and the reasons for this uprising.  Obama demands that a transition “must be quick, must be peaceful and must start now.”  President Mubarak refuses to resign, promises to go in September 2011 at the end of his current term (thirty years in all) and offers instead committees to discuss reforms and bribes in the form of pay rises.

No matter what comes out of Egypt’s tumultuous events, the American Empire is collapsing.  The Camp David Treaty that bought Egypt to the American camp for billions of dollars is in crisis.  Israel, which has used Mubarak to maintain the blockade of Gaza and divisions in the Arab world, has every reason to be extremely worried.  Autocratic ruling elites of other countries in the region—Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Syria, the smaller Gulf emirates and beyond—must be nervous.  The Egyptian people have all but ensured the end of Hosni Mubarak’s rule and the prospects of a Mubarak dynasty.  However, this is only a partial victory.  The real victory will be the establishment of democracy in Egypt as its people demand.  However, machinations in Israel, the United States and its European allies continue, and real victory is not certain—yet.  Is it to happen soon?  Or the people’s will to be thwarted—again? Attempts to cheat them this time will leave a legacy of anger and bitterness that will have consequences far more serious than the events in Iran in 1979.

Related Links