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Tunisia Was the Trigger, Egypt Is the Prize

Published on: January 2011​
Genre: Comparative Middle East Politics​ Category: Op eds​
In the long-delayed modern Arab revolt for dignity, rights and freedom, Tunisia was the trigger, but Egypt is the prize. The Arab popular struggle against autocratic security and police states that was finally initiated earlier this month with the revolt that overthrew former Tunisian President Zein el-Abedine Ben Ali has reached a critical point in Egypt during the past three days. Events reached their tipping point Sunday and are likely to lead quickly to a political transition that replaces President Hosni Mubarak with a new leadership that more accurately reflects political sentiments in the country.

As happened in Tunisia, the revolt against Mubarak and his colleagues occurred very quickly, within a few weeks after young people demonstrated in the streets and called for the removal of the regime. Yet that daring challenge to a powerful police state reflected decades of mass humiliation among ordinary citizens who finally snapped in January 2011, and refused to continue living in a system that denied them their basic citizenship rights. Protesters also want to change the 30-year-old rule of the Mubarak regime because it has been marked by sustained mass mediocrity in the governance realm that in turn resulted in Egypt’s pauperization and marginalization.

Five important developments Sunday combined to mark the beginning of the end of the Mubarak era. The first one started on the street, especially in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, though similar scenes occurred in other cities -- making this a truly national revolt. Demonstrators defied the overnight curfew and held their ground, the police largely disappeared, and the army that replaced them made it clear that its main role was to preserve public order and protect state property, rather than to shoot demonstrators in order to protect the regime. That combination of popular determination and fearlessness in the face of the state’s security apparatus, along with the police and army’s refusal to shoot their fellow citizens, marked a critical tipping point for both sides. The demonstrators realized that their cause was widely supported by other Egyptians, and the security agencies made it clear to the street and the presidential palace that this situation would only be resolved by political negotiations, rather than police brutality.

The second significant development was Mubarak naming General Omar Suleiman as his vice president, providing a trusted figure who is respected by the armed forces. Having a vice president in place -- after leaving the post vacant for the past three decades -- sent the signal that Mubarak probably realized that his days in power were numbered. The lingering problem, however, is that an elderly 70-year-old general replacing another even more elderly general-turned-president is not a sign of Egypt’s renaissance, but rather a signal of old habits persisting. That problem will be dealt with in due course, and Suleiman is unlikely to last long, but it is a critically important logistical move that makes it easier for Mubarak to step aside soon.

The third key development Sunday was the announcement by the speaker of parliament that the existing make-up of that body would be reviewed on the basis of hundreds of challenges that citizens presented to some of the incumbent MPs who were elected in the elections last November and December in which the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) took 81% of all seats. For the speaker of parliament himself to announce this marks a stunning admission of institutional illegitimacy in the organs of state that have been captured and degraded by the total control of the NDP and the security agencies that it represents.

The fourth important event Sunday was the announcement by members of the Egyptian judges association that they support the demands of the demonstrators. That such an announcement was made represents a critically important convergence of the demonstrators’ demands for the end of the Mubarak regime with the commitment to the rule of law that the judges represent. The judges were one of the few institutions of governance in Egypt that both challenged the regime in recent years and also maintained the trust of the citizenry.

The fifth sign of imminent democratization in Egypt was the announcement Sunday that the major opposition movements had formed The National Coalition for Change, and appointed Mohammed ElBaradei to negotiate a transition to more representative and democratic rule with Mubarak's government. The Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition movement, will now work with secular parties and non-governmental organizations that have challenged Mubarak without success over the past several decades. The new coalition is important because it provides a transitional leadership mechanism that is essential for the armed forces to have confidence in seeing a transition occur.

This combination of events indicates that the days of Hosni Mubarak are numbered, but the challenge ahead is not only about making a smooth transition to a more democratic system of governance. It is about relegitimizing the entire structure of government and the exercise of power. This process started in Tunisia, is redefining Egypt, and will slowly percolate throughout the entire region.

Rami G. Khouri is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Dubai School of Government. He is also Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

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