"Egyptians have removed a dictator; can they remove a dictatorship?"
Messages received from Tahrir Square, 4.15 pm, Friday 12 February -
"We did it - we DID do it! People are singing, chanting, praying - and crying for those who died at the hands of Mubarak and the regime. We can hardly believe it. We did do it and now it’s a true festival of the oppressed."
“We got rid of the dictator: now we have to get rid of the dictatorship.”
What events! It required a mass movement of immense determination to remove a dictator who seemed cemented into power – and yes, the people did it, with huge implications for the Middle East and for societies across the Global South.
When Rabab El Mahdi and I considered a name for our recent Zed book on Egypt, The Moment of Change came naturally. The phrase embraced profound developments in Egyptian politics over the past decade –the emergence of movements for democratic reform, for workers’ and peasants’ rights, against war in the Middle East, and in solidarity with the Palestinians – and their implications for the whole society. But we did not dream that within 18 months an unstoppable mass movement would drive the dictator and his family from power. When change came it was achieved with disorienting speed – 18 days from the demonstrations of 25 January to an exit by helicopter from the presidential palace.
What accounts for the energies of the Egyptian revolution? To be sure, it’s an expression of economic and social crisis - problems of employment, food security, pressing housing needs and intense pressures on Egypt’s rural population. Egypt has been a laboratory for neo-liberal experiments since the early 1970s, when the regime of Anwar Sadat began its policy of infitah – the “opening”. In the hands of Mubarak these were formalised as policies of economic liberalisation which disposed of the developmental state of the Nasserist era. State industries were privatised, trade barriers removed, and the precious land reform of the 1950s reversed, “returning” to landowning families of the colonial era the plots cultivated by millions of peasant families. Many Egyptians were driven to the margin of survival.
But the revolutionary movement reflects other sentiments, above all deep anger that comes from countless experiences of abuse at the hands of the regime. Mubarak’s economic policies, supported with enthusiasm by the World Bank, the IMF and governments in Europe and North America, were backed by a state which tortured and killed at will. For 30 years the police and security agencies targeted political opposition with impunity, seizing activists who often disappeared without trace or were sent before Military Courts in which they were consigned to long periods in prison. Some were targeted by death squads. In the 1990s there was a spate of mysterious incidents in which people were shot in the streets of Cairo by teams of plainclothes killers - an echo of the US-backed “counter-insurgency” campaigns pursued in Latin America. Meanwhile unprecedented numbers of people were taken from their homes and from the streets by police who brutalised them for no obvious reason except their need to instil fear and maintain control: every police station had its torture cells and every town its victims who could testify to the cruelty of the regime.
In 2003 lawyers and human rights activists formed the Egyptian Association Against Torture (EAAT). This was denied official registration, as Mubarak forbade NGOs to engage in “political activities”. It nonetheless issued a report, Fifty Days’ Harvest of Citizens’ Rights, documenting torture incidents during the 50 days of the conference held in 2005 by the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). This recorded the torture of 90 citizens, seven of whom died in police stations and State Security centres. In a further report on people who died under torture or as a result of torture between May 2004 and May 2005 EAAT identified 26 fatalities; it commented that these represented “only the tip of the iceberg”.
EAAT observed: “When we talk about torture in Egypt we are not talking about a violation here or there... we are talking about an oppressive policy that is adopted by the Ministry of Interior and security bodies and authorities, an organized, systematic and ongoing policy used against citizens. Egyptian authorities use torture as a systematic and organized tool to terrorize citizens and to ensure complete submission of the people to the policies of those authorities.”
In Egypt – the Moment of Change human rights activist Aida Seif El Dawla set out a crushing case against state agencies which had routinised abuse against all manner of people - students, journalists, bloggers, political activists, industrial militants, peasants who resisted land seizures or evictions, and many people persecuted simply in order to induce fear and compliance. She provided testimonies of those who lived to tell of their experiences, together with a joint statement from NGOs which declared that, “We... hold the President of the Republic responsible for torture and killing”. After three decades of Mubarak’s rule, millions of people had concluded that they faced a life or death struggle with the regime – and when last month the Tunisian revolution inspired new hope, anger became determination to settle accounts and to bring a different Egypt into being.
The revolution is a mass movement which rejects neo-liberal agendas and the authoritarian state essential to their implementation. It is a challenge to what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession” and to its outcomes - immiseration, growing inequality, victimisation of the poor and vulnerable, and celebration of wealth and greed. The suburbs of Cairo increasingly resemble those of Sao Paolo, Santiago, Johannesburg and Mumbai, with gated communities in which stand the villas and apartments of the nouveux riches, the local beneficiaries of Mubarak’s reign. Dreamland, Utopia, Beverley Hills, Lakeview and the rest are flanked by shopping malls, hypermarkets and private universities at which the young are trained – notionally at least – to become part of a global elite.
The country’s vast security apparatus has served to guarantee these privileges. Mubarak readily filled the swimming pools of the rich but could guarantee neither bread nor water for the people. In 2007 and 2008 there were demonstrations in towns and villages across the Nile Delta in protest over shortages of drinking water: participants spoke of a Revolution of the Thirsty. The authorities sent riot police to put down these “disturbances”; meanwhile water flowed uninterrupted to the gated communities, and to country clubs and up-market resorts of the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.
Each and every attempt to contest the injustices of al-nizam (“the system”/ “the order”) has met by police methods and blatant vote-rigging. When Egyptians attempted to vote for the few political parties permitted to participate in elections they were greeted by intimidation and often by extreme violence. It became dangerous even to approach polling stations – but just to be sure officials of the ruling NDP routinely manipulated returns, so that the process itself deepened a huge crisis of political representation. This was the system supported by successive US administrations up to the very moment of Mubarak’s departure last week.
Egyptians have removed a dictator; can they remove a dictatorship? Mubarak’s men – in the shape of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces – are still in control, at least formally. All have risen through a system which has brought poverty, torture and abuse - and has disenfranchised the mass of people. They did not assault the mass movement – but can they deliver change to people full of hope and expectation? Surely Egypt’s activists will be returning to the streets to make the promise of change a reality.
Philip Marfleet, co-Editor of Egypt: The Moment of Change, comments on the breathtaking revolution in Egypt, exclusively for Zed