Manipulating change to preserve the status quo in Egypt

Manipulating change to preserve the status quo in Egypt

SOURCE: Crescent Online

By Zafar Bangash

In 18 days, the people of Egypt have changed the course of history. They have not only impacted people’s thinking in their own country but also affected regional and global politics. What was considered unthinkable only a few weeks earlier, was made possible by the resilience and perseverance of the people, mostly the youth. They stunned even the most seasoned observers by what they achieved: they forced Hosni Mubarak to resign as president, a post he had occupied for 30 years.

Mubarak is gone — or is he? He refused to announce his resignation in the late night televised address on February 10. He merely talked about transferring some of his powers to Vice President Omar Suleiman, who in turn announced Mubarak’s departure the following day (February 11). Suleiman also said Mubarak had handed power over to the Military High Council. This is problematic. According to the Egyptian Constitution in force at the time, the speaker of parliament should have assumed such powers. The military has since dismissed parliament, suspended the constitution and announced that a committee of experts would draft amendments that would be put to a referendum within two months.

So far, so good but there are concerns about what the military regime has done. It has retained the old guard that were appointed by Mubarak on January 29 to form a “new government”. Both Suleiman and Mahmoud Wagdy, the new interior minister (who formerly served as chief of prisons) are still there. Egypt’s prisons are notorious for torturing detainees and committing other heinous crimes that Suleiman and Wagdy presided over. Both are former generals as indeed are a number of other figures in the cabinet. The state of emergency imposed in October 1981 has not been lifted. It is under this draconian measure that thousands of people — one estimate puts the number at 30,000 — are languishing in prisons. They are not charged with any specific crime but have been tortured and held incommunicado for decades. Hundreds more have now been put in prison since the recent uprising erupted on January 25.

So what exactly has happened that would warrant optimism in Egypt? The euphoria over Mubarak’s departure must be tempered by ground realities. The people’s courage in overcoming fear — the principal instrument used by all tyrants — has broken one major barrier. By refusing to be intimidated, the people neutralized the most potent weapon in the hands of the regime. This was most clearly witnessed on February 2 when the regime’s goons, dressed in plainclothes and supported by criminals released from prisons to attack the protesters, failed to drive them out of Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Equally important was the people’s resolve not to be provoked. Had they retaliated, the regime would have unleashed its immense firepower and the movement may have suffered irreparable damage.

Many observers have lauded the military’s role in refusing to fire at protesters. This needs to be understood in its proper context. Its relatively detached role was part of a larger plan that was being implemented at the behest of the US. It must be borne in mind that militaries in almost all Muslim countries have deep links with the US military and the Pentagon. They receive regular instructions from and are influenced by such “advice” since the US pays for their weapons. Egypt, like Pakistan, is extremely important for US geo-strategic designs.

While the youth were leading the uprising, there was a great deal going on in the background as well. When Mubarak complained that there was external interference, he was not entirely wrong. The US was not manipulating the mass uprising directly; it did not have to. Washington’s plan was to transfer power to a safe pair of hands in Egypt after Mubarak’s departure so that US and Israeli interests, not those of the Egyptian people, are preserved. Preparations for this were launched last year when it became known that Mubarak was suffering from cancer. The US did not want Mubarak’s son, Gamal, to succeed him, hence the planned soft coup. There were also other contenders for the top spot: Suleiman who had until recently served as intelligence chief and presided over torture sessions at the behest of the US, was the favourite.

Cairo was the US destination of choice for “extraordinary rendition” (read kidnapping) and “enhanced interrogation techniques” (euphemism for torture). Then there was Mohamed El-Baradei, former head of International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), projected in the Western media as a “leading opposition figure,” who was parachuted into Egypt just a few days after the uprising began. El-Baradei is member of the George Soros funded International Crisis Group (ICG) that has such other American luminaries as Zbigniew Brzezinski on its board.

During the 18-day uprising, Chairman US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, and Defence Secretary Robert Gates were in constant touch with their Egyptian counterparts, Lt. General Sami Enan and Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi respectively. Mullen admitted this on US television. Other US officials were also regularly talking to the Egyptians, especially Suleiman, the US point man and appropriately dubbed the torturer-in-chief.

While US officials, including President Barack Obama, gradually calibrated their statements as the uprising escalated in Egypt, their principal concern was the protection of Israel. This became even more blatant when Mubarak’s departure was announced on February 11. The US said it expected the new regime to honour its “treaty obligations.” As if on cue, the military regime immediately said it would honour all international obligations. Not surprisingly, this was greeted with great relief in Tel Aviv.

The sequence of events that led to Mubarak’s ouster on February 11 also needs analysis. Mubarak was widely expected to announce his resignation on February 10 following a statement from the Military High Council saying it supported the people’s demands. This was a clear signal that the military would not use force against the protesters in Tahrir Square. Mubarak was now isolated and had to go. The military high command tasked Defence Minister Tantawi to deliver the message to Mubarak.

As a Mubarak protégé and timid in nature, Tantawi was unable to deliver a clear message during the six-hour meeting with Mubarak at which Suleiman and Gamal were also present. It appears both Suleiman and Gamal were able to browbeat Tantawi to agree to cosmetic changes that Mubarak would announce on television that night but he would not resign until elections in September. The euphoria that had greeted the military’s announcement during the day turned into deep resentment when people realized Mubarak was not going.

On the morning of Friday, February 11 — an interesting date since it coincided with the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran 32 years ago — the military said it would not allow protesters into Tahrir Square. Far from being intimidated by the threat, the people clearly anticipated a military-perpetrated bloodbath. Nonetheless, millions of people poured into the streets after Jumu‘ah prayers and started heading toward the television station as well as the presidential palace. Tanks were deployed blocking the road to the palace, their guns pointed at the massive crowd heading their way. It was at this point that army commanders decided to disobey orders to shoot at people. Instead, they turned their turrets toward the palace and joined the marchers.

The military high command realized that the game was up. Troops would disobey orders to shoot at protesters and if the generals did not move against Mubarak quickly, some colonel in the manner of Gamal Abdel Nasser nearly 60 years earlier, would do so. It was at this stage that the military high command sent Tantawi back to see Mubarak and tell him in no uncertain terms to make his exit before there was a revolt among the rank and file of the military. Tantawi was still deferential toward his benefactor: “You have served the country well for 30 years,” he told Mubarak. “It is better to make a graceful exit now.” Delusional for several days, Mubarak still had enough sense to realize that he could no longer cling to power. It is possible Tantawi may also have given assurances that the wealth he and his family have stolen — estimates range from $1 billion to as high as $70 billion — would not be touched although on February 18, the Swiss authorities froze millions of dollars in assets belonging to the Mubarak family. This may be the tip of the iceberg.

The following Friday (Feb. 18), millions of people again poured into Tahrir Square to celebrate their victory but their struggle is far from over. Shaikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, a respected ‘alim who returned to Egypt after 50 years in exile, asked the military to “liberate them from the old regime.” This is sad. It shows a lack of understanding of what has transpired in Egypt and the nature of the military. In every Muslim country and more so in Egypt, militaries are instruments for maintaining the status quo. They are hard-wired to the US to safeguard Western interests. Unless the people remain on the scene, they run the risk of being lulled into complacency and little beyond cosmetic changes would occur. In any case, they are leaderless. This is a great weakness in the otherwise brilliant campaign they have waged thus far.

In addition to workers’ strikes for higher wages, not all the demands of the protesters have been met. During the inconclusive meeting with Suleiman on February 5 at which a representative of al-Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Bro-therhood) was also present, the youth had put forward the following demands:

1. Resignation of President Mubarak

2. Dissolution of Parliament and the Senate

3. Ending the 30-year-old state of emergency

4. Forming a transitional national unity government

5. Electing a new parliament that will amend the constitution

6. Prosecuting all those officials responsible for the murder of more than 300 martyrs

7. Prosecuting all those corrupt officials and those who pilfered the wealth of the country

As is evident, only two of the seven demands have been met despite claims by Suleiman and Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq that nearly 90% have been conceded. The people of Egypt still have a long way to go before they can be truly liberated. Getting rid of a tyrant is one thing; getting rid of the regime by demolishing old structures and putting new ones in place will require a great deal more effort, not to mention sacrifices. There is as yet no evidence that many people in Egypt — whether the Ikhwan, other political parties or spokespersons for the people’s movement — understand this fully.

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