The Arab Revolution: A Nile Insurgency and Uncertain Egyptian Future
Part 3: Forty Percent of Population Live on Less than Two Dollars a Day
Protesters and police on the Nile Bridge in Cairo: "The people want to topple the regime."
Mubarak survived an attack by the Islamist terrorist group Jihad Islami, which killed his predecessor Anwar al-Sadat during a military parade on Oct. 6, 1981. Since then, stopping Islamist terror has been a central tenet of his policies. Many Egyptians shared Mubarak's sentiments and even supported the regime when, in the 1990s, it searched for the terrorists responsible for attacks on tourists.
Even today, Mubarak is not nearly as hated as former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein or his Tunisian counterpart Ben Ali were when they were in power. A former air force general who distinguished himself in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, Mubarak has earned high marks for his personal integrity. Nevertheless, there has been persistent speculation over the affluent lifestyle of his wife and sons. Gamal, whose greatest political patron is said to be his mother Suzanne Mubarak, owns an investment firm and an apartment in London's upscale Knightsbridge neighborhood. Nevertheless, the assets of the Mubaraks are likely modest in comparison with those of the Tunisian Ben Ali clan.
The Egyptian economy has grown in recent years, and prices on Egypt's stock exchange, which fell by 17 percent last week, have almost tripled since 2005. Many business owners have benefited from this development, which attracted foreign capital to the country. Nevertheless, even as the rich were raking in profits, ordinary people became increasingly frustrated when economic growth failed to improve conditions in the labor market. Some 40 percent of the population live on less than $2 a day, and even members of the educated middle class, whose sons and daughters took to the streets last week, see no improvements in their situation, with real unemployment likely hovering around 20 percent.
Mubarak has built up his army, thanks in part to the $1.3 billion (955 million) in annual military aid he receives from Washington. Meanwhile, he has forgotten his people. "I have no problem with Mubarak running our country," says a protester in Cairo. "But I need a job!"
Despite his failings, the West has stood by Mubarak, giving the Egyptian president little more than mild warnings, as the US embassy cables leaked to the whistleblower website WikiLeaks demonstrate. According to those cables, when US Secretary of State Clinton visited Cairo she was asked not to mention the name of Ayman Nour, an opposition politician who had been arrested in 2005 and was later released.
The 'Facebook Party'
Partly because of a lack of Western support, the opposition remained unsuccessful for years in its attempts to seriously challenge the regime. But now the spark has ignited a conflagration. The "Facebook Party," as novelist Alaa al-Aswani calls the 20-to-30-something generation, has achieved something the traditional opposition parties -- the Islamists, leftists, liberals and Nasserites -- were unable to do.
The founders of a Facebook page titled the April 6 Youth Movement collected 70,000 virtual signatures. Of those, bloggers estimate that at least 15,000 heeded the call of the Internet activists to turn what began as a "day of police" into a "Day of Rage" last Tuesday. In the end, when union members, leftists and ordinary Egyptians joined the protests, it was clear that the "Facebook Party" had achieved its goal. "There were people as far as I could see! A sea of people!" Aswani raved. "It was a special moment. My knees were shaking."
For Aswani, the fact that the revolts remained leaderless was not a weakness but a strength. "None of the classic parties could exploit the protests ideologically. It wasn't about Islamism, socialism or Nasserism. What the people want is simple: freedom and prosperity."
The opposition weekly newspaper al-Fagr (The Dawn) characterized the first day of the protest as a "Last Judgment." The protesters were settling scores with the regime, and with "30 miserable years of poverty, electoral fraud, torture and corruption." The paper was especially critical of the prime minister when it wrote: "The prime minister has three palaces and a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel, and he lives in a perpetual honeymoon."
Muslim Brotherhood's Role Unclear
The role of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood remains unclear. The largest opposition movement in the Arab world, it is demonized by both the Mubarak regime and the United States. The Islamists' critics charge that while the group makes use of democratic principles, it is only doing so to secure power once and for all.
Hala Mustafa, Egypt's leading political scientist, disagrees. "The Muslim Brotherhood is useful to the Mubarak regime," she says. "It constitutes a clear image of the enemy, a justification for the regime to constantly beef up its security apparatus." Social scientist Hassan Nafaa of Cairo University also sees an underlying symbiotic relationship between the secular regime and its Islamist adversaries: "The Muslim Brotherhood knows that its movement benefits from the status quo and social dissatisfaction in Egypt. In fact, that's what is providing the Brotherhood with more and more members."
This could explain why the Islamists took so long to react to the protests and why, in the end, they were relatively subdued in announcing their intention to participate. "A protest that you don't control yourself can easily swing in a completely different direction -- a truly democratic one," says Mustafa.
The Biggest Prize in the Middle East
But for the West -- and the protesters -- Egypt remains the biggest prize in the Middle East. With its 84 million inhabitants, it is the most populous country in the Arab world. Although its influence is waning, Egypt still dominates language and culture, particularly youth culture, in the region. More than seven percent of global shipping traffic and about two percent of petroleum shipments pass through the Suez Canal each year.
Egypt has had a peace treaty with Israel since 1979. It mediates between the Israelis and the Palestinians and, also since 1979, it has been a sworn enemy of Iran. There is hardly a US embassy cable about Mubarak in which the Egyptian leader does not use choice language to rail against the mullahs in Tehran.
What happens if this giant falls? What if the Egyptians, in free elections, vote the way the people of the Gaza Strip did, when they brought the radical group Hamas into power in 2006, or the way the Lebanese did when they voted for Hezbollah? Will the rest of the Arab world follow Egypt's lead, just as Egypt has followed in Tunisia's footsteps?
- Part 1: A Nile Insurgency and Uncertain Egyptian Future
- Part 2: A Difficult Conundrum for Europe and the United States
- Part 3: Forty Percent of Population Live on Less than Two Dollars a Day
- Part 4: Three Scenarios for Egypt's Future
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