By Ernest Corea*
WASHINGTON D.C. (IDN) – Twenty-one years to the day on which Nelson Mandela emerged from the darkness of 27 years in a South African prison, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak packed his bags and departed with his family from the darkness of 30 years of his own dictatorial regime.
Only a day earlier, Mubarak had declaimed in a pathetic display of paternalism that he would hold out until the elections due to be held in September. The next morning, pfft, he was blown away to Sharm el-Sheikh where, for now, he can luxuriate in isolation.
There are, to be sure, huge differences between the two men and their circumstances, but the coincidence of their dates is fascinating because what happened with each of them on February 11 (1990 and 2011) presented their countries with the challenges and opportunities of a new beginning.
Mandela, an icon at home and abroad, led his people as they confronted those challenges and attempted to seize the opportunities. In Egypt, that process has only begun, and it is too early to tell whether electoral support will identify an outstanding political figure from Egypt’s pro-democracy groups to lead the country towards healing and rebuilding. Who could that be?
The best-known manifestation of Egypt’s anti-Mubarak public upheaval was at Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo. Protests opposing Mubarak took place elsewhere in Cairo, as well as in major cities such as Alexandria; and also in some rural areas. The upheaval was both strengthened and expanded when workers from numerous industries came out on strike in support of the pro-democracy movement.
These developments made it clear to most public figures other than Mubarak and, to a lesser extent, his newly-minted Vice President, Gen. Omar Suleiman, that the Mubarak presidency was not sustainable. It was the military, however, that presented him with a “quit or be kicked out” choice. In leaving the presidency, he handed over power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, thereby effectively suspending the constitution.
Will the military, who have — with a few exceptions — conducted themselves with exemplary professionalism throughout the Egyptian revolution, maintain that record? Or will they attempt to “run the clock down” until they feel confident that the status quo, with some cosmetic modifications, can be preserved.
The military has been a component of the Mubarak system, with influence and engagement even in non-military business activities. Their professionalism will be sorely tested as demands for replacing the system itself and not only the president grow more persistent.
Will the pro-democracy groups remain united even when they have no outstanding figure against whom to combine their resources and energies? Will individual ambitions turn divisive? Will external pressures, overt and covert, be disruptive?
Yes, of course, questions linger, but this is not a time for pessimism. This is a time for Egyptians to savour what they have achieved through non-violent civil disobedience. It is a time for the region to learn the lessons that the Egyptian experience provides.
And it certainly is a time for the world to exult in the triumph of a revolution that took just 18 days (less than the gestation period of a rabbit) to reach its most fundamental goal: Mubarak’s exit.
President Barack Obama said in his first formal comment on the triumph of Egypt’s civil society: “There are very few moments in our lives where we have the privilege to witness history taking place. This is one of those moments. . . . The people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”
Several elements converged to create the historic moment. Perhaps the most important of them was the clarity and simplicity of the revolution’s message: Mubarak must go. As the faithful who gathered day in, day out at Tahrir Square chanted: “Leave, leave, Mubarak.” And “He must go, we will stay.”
When drop-by correspondents sought amplification, they did not receive much more than: “He must go. No more corruption. We want freedom. We want democracy. He must go.”
The unified message and the discipline with which it was kept intact is extraordinary for any combination of groups with disparate backgrounds and priorities. Nevertheless, the Tahrir Square temporarily set aside their separate interests to emphasise the one demand that animated them all.
The Muslim Brotherhood did not preach religious fundamentalism, secularists did not challenge fundamentalists, classlessness was achieved among protestors in a stratified society, and everybody involved in the pro-democracy exercise was unusually energised.
Second, was the effectiveness of communication. Whether it was the over-riding message itself, or information about planned events, a variety of techniques were used to spread the word around.
These ranged from a “command post” at Tahrir Square itself, maximum use of the new information technology and, where all else failed, word of mouth and door-to-door dissemination.
Some observers noted that power was “tapped” from public lighting around the square to power IT devices and, also, that the ubiquitous cell phone connected almost everybody to almost everybody else.
Just as getting the message out was crucial, so was the respect that the pro-democracy movement earned by its commitment to non-violent conduct.
When vigilantes shed their police uniforms and attacked Tahrir Square on horse back and on camels, the protesting crowds retaliated — and their defence was, at the very least, robust. The invaders eventually scurried away, but not before some of them were captured and handed over to the army. The rout of pro-Mubarak forces prompted a foreign observer to ask: “Is Mubarak losing his hand at repression?”
Despite having to defend themselves against an onslaught, the protestors, not only in Cairo but elsewhere in the country, maintained their commitment to peaceful protest. In Alexandria, for instance, observers said, “the efforts by demonstrators, particularly the young, collaborating with the military to protect cultural artifacts from vandals and looters — many of them allegedly identified as police agents — has been truly extraordinary.”
As these various strands together in a strong and unbreakable skein of public resistance, Egyptians showed unflinching courage — and rediscovered themselves.
“The government made us all believe that we are nothing,” a protesting Egyptian said to a reporter. “Now, we have freed ourselves from that belief. We are not nothing.”
“We don’t trust them any more,” a young Egyptian patiently waiting his turn to enter Tahrir Square told BBC. “How can Suleiman guarantee there’ll be no more violence around the election after all the attacks we’ve seen on young people?”
An older Egyptian, who was also part of the protesting crowd, said: “We are asking why there is no committee for young people. He has to ask the young people what they want — this is all about the young people.”
Throughout, the protestors did not lose their infectious sense of humour. Asked whether what had just happened in Egypt would influence events in other Middle East countries, he replied: “For sure. After our Liberation Friday, all dictators have decided to abolish Fridays.”
There will certainly be much to think about in the region, both by governments and potential protestors. Some heads of government and politicians will sleep uneasily in coming days. Others, such as the Israelis, will do better, now that the Supreme Council of Egypt’s armed forces has announced that it will respect existing treaty obligations.
There will also be much to think about in numerous foreign policy institutions beyond the region, as well. The notion that Mubarak or, at least, Suleiman was indispensable for a peaceful transformation to take place in Egypt will surely need to be extensively reviewed at the U.S. State Department.
Those considerations are less significant than the realities that Egypt must face. How soon will power be transferred to an elected, civilian authority? Will the emergency be lifted before elections take place? Who will be entrusted with the responsibility of creating new, democratic institutions that will replace those that need to be taken down? What mechanisms are required to fight corruption?
Modernisation of the economy has fueled growth in recent years, but the fruits of growth have not reached the approximately 40 percent of the population who are considered poor or near-poor. The challenge of turning this situation around will loom heavily before the country and its next government. Failure to make progress on this front will surely lead to a new wave of protests.
Recent events have demonstrated, yet again, that Egypt is a powerhouse of talent, both among the youth and their seniors. Friends of Egypt, and they are numerous, will surely hope that the country’s talent pool will be fully utilised as Egypt attempts to recover from what brought Mubarak down. (IDN-InDepthNews/13.02.2011)
*The writer has served as Sri Lankaâ€™s ambassador to Canada, Cuba, Mexico, and the USA. He was Chairman of the Commonwealth Select Committee on the media and development, Editor of the Ceylon â€˜Daily Newsâ€™ and the Ceylon â€˜Observerâ€™, and was for a time Features Editor and Foreign Affairs columnist of the Singapore â€˜Straits Timesâ€™. He is on the IDN editorial board and President of the Media Task Force of Global Cooperation Council.