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“Our Assessment Is That the Egyptian Government Is Stable”: Thinking of Cairo from New York (Updated)

Tahrir Square, Cairo [BBC] Tahrir Square, Cairo [BBC]

As Jadaliyya's Tough Niece reminds us (My Mother and My Neighbor's Dog on the Tunisian Revolution and Its Aftermath), there has been a lot of fairly uninformed stuff written in the blogosphere about Tunisia and its aftermath, rhapsodies about the revolutionary role of social media and overconfident assessments about what will happen next. I hesitate to contribute to this outpouring. And yet I find it impossible not to write something about Cairo, something for Cairo, just before the breaking of dawn on a day that promises to bring the biggest wave of protest so far.

Seeing photos of the thousands upon thousands of people rallying in Midan Tahrir, reading accounts of the protests — the inspiring ones, such as Ahdaf Soueif’s report of protesters spanning generational, class, and religious divides standing side by side (“And if this sounds romantic, well, it was and is,” Soueif declares forthrightly), as well as the harrowing ones, such as Guardian reporter Jack Shenker’s account of being beaten and arrested by security forces (Shenker managed to record his ordeal, and that undergone by other protesters rounded up indiscriminately by the security forces) — is an astonishing experience for anyone who knows anything of the atmosphere of fear and repression that has overlay political life in Egypt for decades.

During my short time spent in Cairo, I had the chance to meet political activists, human rights workers, and journalists who were involved in working against political repression. The work that they did was heroic, precisely because it was the very opposite of romantic. It was, instead, slow, painstaking, but achingly necessary work, much of it in the form of public memory: recording the names of those who had been unlawfully detained, the accounts of those who had been tortured by the security forces, the everyday details of government abuse and repression. It was work that was constantly interrupted by government raids of offices and homes and other forms of interference, not to mention more overt threats of state violence that were never absent.

Because Egypt has been under a so-called “state of emergency” since 1981 (recently extended by the Parliament), the state has maintained the ability to arrest people without charge, detain prisoners indefinitely, limit freedom of expression and assembly, and maintain a special security court. The space for public protests has been negligible. The occasional protest against the war in Iraq or the occupation of Palestine was tolerated, but as soon as the anti-regime sentiments that bubbled under the surface at any such protest began to make themselves felt, the security apparatus would step in. The occasional protests against the regime, maintained by a few hundred protesters, were outnumbered by two or three times as many security forces. A friend told me about a high-ranking security official who would walk up to individual protesters and greet them, using their full names. The message was as clear as it was chilling: we know who you are, we know that you are here, and we know where to find you if we ever decide to come after you.

In this context, the achievements of the January 25 movement, from the “Day of Anger” to the continuing protests, to whatever may be achieved in the hours after I write this, are astonishing. Many participants in the struggle have described the breaking of a threshold. Shenker describes it this way:

what we’ve seen on Tuesday and Wednesday is that that fear barrier seems to have been broken. I’ve spoken to so many people who are lawyers and bank analysts and software engineers. These are middle-class people who are generally enjoying quite a comfortable standard of living; they’re not on the poverty line. They’ve got a lot to lose, and yet they’re still being motivated to come out, to be beaten, to be hit by water cannons, to be carried off into the desert. And that’s really a remarkable change from what we’ve seen over the past few years.

The novelist Alaa al-Aswany, addressing the protesters, told them “they had brought about the end of the period of repression, adding that even if we get beaten up or arrested we have proved we are not afraid and are stronger than they are.” The blogger Hossam el-Hamalawy declares: “the situation has reached a level that everyone is fed up, seriously fed up. And even if security forces manage to put down protests today they will fail to put down the ones that happen next week, or next month or later this year.” Even more cautious assessments, such as a fine opinion piece in Al-Masry Al-Youm, see the protests as a turning point with “the potential to transform Egypt’s opposition into a larger, more spontaneous and more inclusive movement that is capable of mounting serious political challenges to the regime in the future.”

The inspiration provided by the uprising in Tunisia cannot be doubted, and the incredible resourcefulness of young activists, such as those from the April 6 Youth Movement, who have been using every means at their disposal, from the most cutting-edge social media to the most traditional activist strategies (like photocopied leaflets with tactical advice), needs to be celebrated. But we need to also remember those who have been doing the painstaking work against the everyday repression of the state, who have, at last, been joined on the streets by thousands of others who have finally found an outlet for their outrage and their aspirations.

Here in the U.S., we need to find our voice too. There is more, much more, than we can do than simply gawk at these democratic uprisings, more to do after we’ve Tweeted our updates and posted the latest photos to Facebook (the “walk like an Egyptian on Jan 28” series is a particular favorite of mine). Given the crucial role played by the U.S. government in propping up Mubarak’s regime, and that of so many other aging dictators in the region, we have a role to play that goes far beyond cheerleading. Secretary of State Clinton has been widely mocked for her words regarding the situation in Egypt, especially her statement that “Our assessment is that the Egyptian government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people”; as one commentator put it, “She seems to have tempted fate.” But there is something rather more sinister behind such a statement: Egypt is stable because we say it is stable, or, more accurately, Egypt is stable because we’re making sure it’s stable (as Mostafa Omar points out, “what [Clinton] also forgot to mention is that the tear gas and the tanks that are driving into protesters, the concussion grenades, are all made in the United States. That is the meaning of $2 billion in military and economic aid.”).

The strategy of the U.S. in the region is every bit as desperate, and every bit as violent, as that being carried out by the Mubarak regime against the protesters. It is a strategy that is blindly attempting to maintain a status quo that reveals itself to be less sustainable by the day. A major aspect of Mubarak’s so-called “stability” is his unwavering support for that project that is still laughably called “the peace process” in Israel-Palestine, and his willingness to play ball with the U.S. (according to several WikiLeaks documents, President Obama’s desperate need for “partners” in this process such as Mubarak has led his administration to do even less than the Bush Administration to publicly confront Egyptian officials about jailed dissidents and bloggers).

This desperation can be seen as well in the comments of some Israeli analysts, who have made it clear that they do not want to see Mubarak go: “While we should all congratulate the forces calling for more democracy, if this is the case,” former Israeli ambassador to Jordan Oded Eran noted, taking pains to point out that the opposition in Egypt includes “Islamic fundamentalists,” “for now, the effect is destabilizing.” Eli Shaked, a former Israeli ambassador to Cairo, is even clearer about the undesirability of any alternative to Mubarak: “I am very much afraid that that they wouldn't be as committed to peace with Israel, and that would be bad for Egypt, bad for Israel and bad for the U.S. and the West in general.” Many officials from the nation that likes to bill itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” it seems, are not so crazy about the actual practice of democracy by the citizens of other countries in the region.

This is the ultimate madness of the U.S. government’s desire for “stability” in Egypt and elsewhere in the region: it depends upon denying the democratic aspirations of millions of people. It’s time for those of us here in the U.S. to wake up and fight alongside those who have risen to demand their rights. It may be, to go back to that Tough Niece’s observations, that bloggers in the U.S. are so fascinated with Tunisia and Egypt because it’s been a while since we’ve had such a robust show of democracy here at home. Here in New York, for example, there was a time when thousands of people turned out to oppose their government and make their voices heard. It feels like a long time ago now, but it may be time for our own Day of Anger again.


1) For those wishing to follow events as they unfold, in addition to the updates on this site, the Guardian is providing live updates of the protests.

2) WikiLeaks has released a timely cable, written by Ambassador to Egypt Margaret Scobey in January 2009, that outlines the extent of torture being used by the Mubarak regime, as well as the State Department's long-standing knowledge of the extent of this torture.

3) Israeli officials have been even more forthright about their unstinting support for Mubarak's regime in an interview with Time magazine, with one unnamed but apparently high-ranking official declaring unashamedly: "I'm not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process."

4) A tidy and loathsome encapsulation of the reasoning behind U.S. support for Mubarak can be found in Vice President Biden's comments to the PBS News Hour. Asked whether Mubarak should consider stepping down, Biden replied: "No. I think the time has come for President Mubarak to begin to move in the direction that – to be more responsive to some... of the needs of the people out there." Asked whether it would be fair to characterize Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for thirty-one years, as a dictator, Biden's response was even more revealing: “Mubarak has been an ally of ours in a number of things. And he’s been very responsible on, relative to geopolitical interest in the region, the Middle East peace efforts; the actions Egypt has taken relative to normalizing relationship [sic] with – with Israel. … I would not refer to him as a dictator.” There is almost a level of honesty here: he's a dictator, but he's our dictator.

5) However, in what the Guardian refers to as a "bombshell" announcement, the Associated Press is reporting that the Obama administration may be using military aid to Egypt as leverage over the Mubarak regime: "An Obama administration official says the US will review its $1.5bn in aid to Egypt based on events unfolding in the country, where the authoritarian government is struggling to extinguish huge and growing street protests." This is precisely where pressure from people in the U.S. and a strong show of support for the protesters may have a chance of some concrete success, although simply pushing the Mubarak regime for window-dressing "reforms" should not be seen as an acceptable strategy...

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