Hosni Mubarak has finally resigned. The man who was a cautionary, pro-American caretaker for 30 years morphed into one of the most brutal and autocratic dictators on the planet. In the interim, he milked the U.S. State Department for $billions as a legacy of the Camp David accords, and hopefully closed the chapter on the American policy of supporting autocratic regimes, friendly to Western interests, at the expense of human rights and real liberalization. Until recently, a dictator could carefully control the information by shutting down newspapers, radio and TV stations. Thanks to the global information network, that tactic is now a sure backfire.
When I traveled through the Middle East in 1980, I began and ended my trip in Amman, Jordan because that’s where I got the cheapest flight. After a few days in Amman, I boarded an Egypt Air flight for Cairo to study the impact of Camp David. I don’t think there was one woman on the plane. That was also a reflection of Arab street life at the time. The men were Egyptian laborers returning home.
As the plane landed, a spontaneous chant came out in unison from all the passengers – “YAH-YA MISR, YAH-YA MISR” “Long Live Egypt.” The happiness at returning to the country they loved was infectious, though I had yet to set foot there. Naturally, I joined in the clapping and chanting too.
One of the many remarkable elements of the recent demonstrations in Egypt is the presence of women on the street. My time in Cairo found very few women on the streets ever. This was a dynamic and function of a Muslim society.
Reports on the ground from (Medaan Tahrir) Tahrir Square have been truly awe-inspiring. This “awe” has been either 31 or 59 years in the making. The last formal Egyptian Revolution occurred in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nassar took control of the army to seize control from King Farouk. Egypt has had a military government since then, carrying out various forms of individual and political oppression. Reports of badly injured men and women returning to the front lines to throw rocks and challenge the police, illustrates the sense of desperation and intolerance that has been building throughout the lives of all participants. The prevalence of a carnival atmosphere amid the riots marks the truly Egyptian character of this event.
The army was loyal to President Anwar Sadat, who was party to the Camp David accords. His assassination by one of his officers in 1981 was just as shocking as the events of the past three weeks. Mubarak’s appointment at the time was unexpected, and he was promoted as a “compromise candidate,” whatever that meant in a one-party system.
My time in Cairo in 1980 was focused on completing my Master’s Thesis at Michigan on The Impact of Camp David on the Egyptian People. The verdict: not much. The initial $5 billion in American military and economic largesse never trickled down the sieve of baksheesh (gratuity) and corruption to make a difference in the price of bread. American good will and generosity did not demand any accountability. My interview at the time with U.S. Ambassador Alfred Atherton illustrated a fatalistic acceptance of this fact. This may be changing now. The peace with Israel was and is fragile, and the American priority was maintaining a regime friendly to American corporate and military interests.
This primary determinant of “US Foreign Policy 101” has been governing the counterproductive nature of American foreign police since World War II. This factor blinded us the need for balance when popular revolutions occurred in Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Tunesia, Ireland and elsewhere. As a result, anti-American sentiments prevail in most of these countries. We supported brutal dictatorships who were friendly to our economic interests, and turned a blind eye to the consequences too often.
Until recent weeks, Egypt has been a compliant society living in twin fears – of the government and G-d. The government is represented by the omnipresence of the police and army; G-d is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Akhwan al-Muslimun). During the peaceful time of 1980, every street corner had at last one cop or soldier. Most street corners also had Egyptian soap box preachers in the form of a Brotherhood member, shouting prayers through a bullhorn or megaphone, collecting money and giving out small sheets of paper with spiritual messages. But these fears do nothing to mitigate the culture of systemic corruption that is . . . 5,000 years old. While various imperial occupiers have held sway in Egypt over the centuries, the culture of corruption has pervaded through all aspect of the economy, military and civil service. Much of the service economy is driven by the system of baksheesh (gratuity); so is the civilian and military economy. This is why Camp David was a qualified failure. Camp David made NO difference in the lives of most Egyptians – they perceive they got NOTHING from the peace with Israel. The military and government officials all took their cuts, leaving nothing for agricultural subsidies or other real difference makers.
Riots erupted over the bread supply in January 1977 when Sadat had tried to remove the government subsidy on this most important of all Egyptian food staples. He restored the subsidy in response to the riots, leaving the Egyptian economy on shaky ground. The Egyptian Arabic word for bread is “aish”, which literally means “life.” The current uprising was portended by another round of lesser bread riots in January of this year. In 2008, similar “non-political” uprisings occurred when the bread price went up 300% and deliveries were disrupted. Until recent weeks, bread was the only thing that had led to uprisings since the 1952 Revolution. NOW it’s political!
The strikes of civil servants and middle class workers was impossible 30 years ago. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 is the most brazen expression of government dissatisfaction since the 1977 riots. For some, that time was seen as a high point in Egyptian political activism; today represents a new high point. 800 people died as a result of Sadat trying to comply with draconian economic terms that were dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In the past, Egyptians would riot only over the bread supply. This time, they rioted demanding a new government. The question is what form it will take.
The immediate course is that the army is in charge. For the past 18 days, the army has been treading a thin line of acquiescence to authority, and support for the Revolution. The army has held most of the power since 1952, and especially since 1981, and may not easily cede their standing. But new elements have arisen to create a viable alternative. The pieces are not all in place for a smooth transition. The Muslim Brotherhood is the longest-standing, best organized political organization in Cairo. It is a radical fundamentalist organization with few elements of liberalization. The educated class is small, but anxious and ready for change. The recent general strike represents this, as does the full spectrum of Egyptian society, who participated in the demonstrations. The first task is for people to go back to work and rebuild the economy. Painful growing pains are yet to occur in Egypt, but the process has begun. Yah-Ya Misr.
H. Scott Prosterman