In February, the world watched in awe as Egyptians converged on Cairo’s Tahrir Square to peacefully overthrow the autocratic regime of Hosni Mubarak. The previous overthrow of Ben Ali in Tunisia had made foreign policy experts take notice, but when Egypt followed, analysts breathlessly echoed the truism that Egypt’s precedent-setting status in the Middle East would remake the region. The peaceful overthrow of Mubarak certainly stoked the public imagination and inspired protests throughout the region.
Protests have become the order of the day in Israel, Lebanon, Yemen and elsewhere, but autocratic leaders are pushing hard against change. The Syrian army escalated its war against civilians today. Ongoing international meddling in the Libyan conflict seems as unlikely as ever to usher peace. And despite little attention from international media, atrocities in Bahrain continue. Just a little over six months after the Egyptian ouster of Mubarak, it is clear that Egypt changed things, though it is impossible to make any generalizations about that change or predict what is to come.
Even in Egypt, the future is uncertain. Egyptian-born journalist Mona Eltahawy notes that Mubarak’s trial this week is symbolically important:
…if there’s one message that’s been coming out of Egypt, especially since we saw Mubarak in that cage as a defendant…it’s that you can do this. You the people of Syria, you the people of Yemen or Libya or any other country, you too can hold your tyrant accountable.
But Egyptians, aware that other countries are looking to them for cues about what to do next, are watching events unfold throughout the Middle East just as carefully. Eltahawy believes this may be indicative of the rise of pan-Arab nationalism throughout the region: “[Egyptians] are very much paying attention to what’s happening…[everywhere] else because it’s this grey communal sense [that] we’re all in it together against these tyrants who’ve ruined our lives for so long.” She likens the unified sensibility to the 1960’s pan-Arabism of Nasser, but thinks today’s cohesion has less to do with autocratic posturing and more to do with grassroots civilian movements.
The Mubarak trial, which began last Wednesday, is a crucial development in the Egyptian story. Citizens increasingly feel they are being excluded from a process that lacks transparency. Almost from the start, the process was mired in anarchic charos. Al Jazeera reported on August 15 that “dozens of lawyers…[shouted] demands at the judges and one another, at times growing so heated in their arguments that some were seen physically restraining their colleagues.” Just a few hours later, the court banned television journalists from filming the trial, which had until then been transmitted on local television stations and Al Jazeera. Outside, people protested throughout the hearings.
Before the trial, the public had become increasingly disillusioned with the army’s management of the transiton. On August 1, members of the army and police force forcibly removed peaceful protesters who had gathered for a sit-in to protest army control. Journalist Robert Dreyfuss argued in The Nation that this signaled an end to the democratic movement and the rise of an army dictatorship. He claimed that the egalitarian politics of the February revolution were so weakened that only “[the] Islamists, including the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists, an even more reactionary and radical (yes, pro-terrorist) faction, are able to mobilize hundreds of thousands of people.” Their presence, he said, “[overwhelmed] scattered secular and liberal demonstrators.”
At this early juncture, that analysis surely seems hyperbolic. Still, it is true that more conservative elements have mobilized in recent weeks as the army government cracks down on the secular protesters. Because they are a new voice in Egyptian politics, they had not had time to create the kinds of organizational structures that, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood already had in place. Since the government has targeted these protesters, conservative activists appear to be most prominent these days.
The people who drove the February ouster of Mubarak might be in prison—or under intense government persecution—right now, but they are not gone. The public absence of the masses at these protests, though, points to the autocratic power that the army maintains—and isn’t interested in relinquishing any time soon. It continues to flex its muscles with the mass imprisonment of pro-democracy activists and the same old human rights abuses that were characteristic of the Mubarak regime. On May 20, one hundred days from Mubarak’s overthrow, human rights researcher Heba Moyarek published a piece about ongoing abuses in The Gaurdian. She wrote:
Arbitrary arrests of protesters by the military have taken place on numerous occasions. At least 85 demonstrators who were detained on 9 March are still in Tora prison [the same jail where Mubarak’s sons and other former regime figures are being held]. The military wants to intimidate people not to protest on the street; all of these guys were taken to the grounds of the Egyptian Museum and tortured – beaten, whipped, subjected to electric shocks from stun guns. They weren’t interrogated, and the aim was never to extract information from them. Officers told them “you are the ones ruining the revolution, we haven’t been home for 60 days because of you.” They were tried in groups of 25 at a time, in military court cases which only lasted 30 minutes, then all sentenced to up to five years behind bars. There have been 5,600 military tribunal sentences like this since Mubarak fell.
Since this report was published, it has become increasingly clear that the security apparatus in Egypt—led by the army and upheld by the police—is not the politically neutral protector of the people it has tried to present. This became clear to the public in August as a result of the the detainment of Asmaa Mahfouz, the beloved figure considered a co-founder of the April 6 movement. Before a military tribunal on Sunday, she ominously warned security forces of the possibility of violent retaliations by the public: “If the justice system does not give us our rights, nobody should be upset if armed groups emerge and carry out assassinations… As long as there is no law there is no justice, anything can happen and nobody should be upset.” This would be a striking turn for the Egyptian revolution, which has thus far prided itself on peaceful tactics.
But the military is not inclined to turn its power over without a fight. There is palpable concern that—even if the public, emboldened by an international outcry—finds a way to out-maneuver the military, the same economic injustices that sparked protest in the first place will be untouched. Last week, Khaleb Diab warned in The Guardian that the focus on free political processes had resulted in the marginalization of calls for economic justice. He said, “You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow, as a number of mature western democracies shaken by recent unrest are learning.” On Al-Jazeera, former CIA operative Robert Grenier echoed this concern, saying, “Those in the Middle East who are currently struggling to democratize their systems of governance would do well to take a hard look to the US model: Not just to copy its positive aspects,…but to avoid its palpable weaknesses.”
It is too early to argue that the Egyptian revolution is over, except for an upcoming showdown between security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood. That would be an insult to the people who have suffered and died in the course of this game-changing moment in Egypt and in the Middle East. The overthrow of Mubarak was deeply significant, as is his ongoing trial. But Western media outlets who simplistically presumed that his downfall was the last stand got it wrong. Analysts who have studied democratic reform know that army control is never an uncomplicated—or good—development in any democratic struggle. Military control does not historically advance democratic ideals. The struggle in Egypt has only just begun, and there is a long road ahead to realize the democratic ideals of Egyptian activists.