The Egyptian regime will try to bludgeon or divert the popular movement for change into a phoney transition. If that is seen to happen with US or Israeli connivance, the radicalisation western leaders fear will only be greater. Whatever now happens, the forces that have been unleashed, in Egypt and beyond, cannot be turned back.
By Seumas Milne
3 February 2011
Tony Blair said as the Egyptian uprising brought millions on to the streets, Hosni Mubarak is "immensely courageous and a force for good". Blair is very much a natural companion of Egyptian "strongman"--now Mubarak's vice-president--Omar Suleiman. Cartoon by Steve Bell.
The fate of the Egyptian uprising is in the balance. There is a revolutionary situation in Egypt, but there has not yet been a revolution. In the wake of Hosni Mubarak's pledge not to stand again for the presidency next September, gangs of government loyalists were today let loose on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria.
First, the army spokesman called for the protesters to stand down now "your message has arrived". Truckloads of thugs, armed with iron bars and machetes, many clearly members of the security forces, were then dispatched to Cairo's Tahrir Square to assault and terrorise the mass of peaceful demonstrators and drive them from the city centre – with reports of killings and hundreds injured.
It's the latest and potentially deadliest of the regime's counterattacks against the tide of popular pressure for change. First there was the withdrawal of police from the streets, orchestrated looting and armed provocations apparently staged to scare people into submission with the threat of chaos and social breakdown.
Now Mubarak and his cronies have switched to direct confrontation and the risk of a full-scale bloodbath – after more than 300 people have already been killed – presumably as a prelude to demands that the army take control to keep the "two sides" apart.
The manoeuvres at the top of the regime have transparently been choreographed in Washington. Mubarak's declaration on Tuesday night followed hard on the heels of a visit from the Obama administration's envoy, Frank Wisner, a paid lobbyist of the Egyptian government, who was reported to have "urged" the Egyptian president not to stand again.
The army high command were in the US capital for consultations when the protests began last week. And Omar Suleiman – the intelligence boss now appointed vice-president to oversee political reform – is famously close to the US and Israel; oversaw the CIA's rendition and torture programme in Egypt; and publicly champions the crushing of its largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, by force.
The US administration's floundering response to the peaceful revolt, first hailing the Mubarak regime's "stability" then demanding an "orderly transition", is a reminder of the decisive support western governments have given to Arab autocracies such as Mubarak's for decades – as well as their arrogant determination to keep a grip on whatever might follow him. The echoes of the winter of 1978-9, when US and British politicians rushed to Tehran to prop up the shah as millions demonstrated against his brutal regime, are unmistakable.
The US could have pulled the plug on Egypt's dictatorship, which it funds to the tune of more than $3bn a year, at any time. But the western powers have long regarded democratisation of the Arab world as a threat to their control of the region and its resources. Hence Nicolas Sarkozy's backing for Tunisia's kleptocratic despot Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali until the day he was chased from the country.
Tony Blair, still Middle East envoy of the US-led "Quartet", this week characteristically blurted out the real attitude towards democracy in countries such as Egypt among the west's powers-that-be. The Egyptian president had been, Blair said, "immensely courageous and a force for good" – this of a man who has jailed and tortured tens of thousands of political prisoners – because of his role in maintaining peace with Israel. Change in Egypt had to be "stable and ordered", Blair explained, because the Muslim Brotherhood might be elected and public opinion in the Middle East could "end up frankly with the wrong idea".
So there is some historical or divine justice in the fact that the tipping point for Tunisia's unfinished revolution, which in turned sparked the Egyptian revolt, was the impact of the west's own economic crisis. Falling living standards and rising unemployment as a result of the 2008 crash were the "final trigger", the exiled Tunisian Islamist opposition leader Rachid Ghannouchi told me before he returned home last weekend.
That fed into escalating discontent over mafia-style corruption, gross inequality, repression, censorship, torture and poverty. In Egypt, where 40% of the population is living on less than two dollars a day, the economic pressure has been even greater.
But more profoundly, the upheaval now spreading across the Arab world is at heart a movement for self-determination: a demand by the peoples of the region to run their own affairs, free of the dead hand of largely foreign-backed tyrannies. It's not a coincidence, or the product of some defect in Arab culture, that the Middle East has the largest collection of autocratic states in the world.
Most survive on a western lifeline, and the result across the region has been social and economic stagnation. There is a real sense in which, despite the powerful challenge of Arab nationalism in the 50s and 60s, the Arab world has never been fully decolonised.
For Egypt, the historical pivot of the region and a global force under Nasser, the humiliation of its decaying, subaltern status under Mubarak could not be clearer. The threat of the Islamist bogeyman will no longer wash. In Tunisia, Ghannouchi's Nahda (Renaissance) party is now in alliance with liberals and socialists around a platform of pluralist democracy, gender equality, freedom of conscience and social justice. In Egypt, the more conservative Muslim Brotherhood, working with the whole range of opposition forces, has long been committed to competitive elections and will be an important part of any genuinely independent, democratic Egypt.
The contagion is already spreading across the region: to Yemen, Jordan, Algeria and elsewhere, as regimes scramble to offer cosmetic reforms to head off more radical change. Tunisia has demonstrated that people in the Arab world are more than capable of freeing themselves from dictatorship. They have seen and felt their power. If Mubarak is indeed forced out, it will only be the beginning for Egypt, but it will also reshape the Middle East – and the wider global balance of power – for decades to come.
After today's events, it's clear that the Egyptian regime will try to bludgeon or divert the popular movement for change into a phoney transition. If that is seen to happen with US or Israeli connivance, the radicalisation western leaders fear will only be greater. Whatever now happens, the forces that have been unleashed, in Egypt and beyond, cannot be turned back.