The struggle underway to influence and control the course of events in Egypt reflects Cairo’s importance not only for the Muslim East but also global politics. The most populous country in the region, Egypt sits at the crossroads of two continents.
The struggle underway to influence and control the course of events in Egypt reflects Cairo’s importance not only for the Muslim East but also global politics. The most populous country in the region, Egypt sits at the crossroads of two continents. It has a rich history and a highly educated population even if its true potential has been frustrated by a long line of dictators. But the 18-day mass uprising that drove Hosni Mubarak from office on February 11 has once again brought Egypt and its people to the centre-stage of global politics. What direction the movement takes will ultimately shape the future of the entire region.
The fact that disparate groups with divergent socio-political outlooks came together to get rid of Mubarak reflected both their strength and potential weakness.
Let us identify the players — internal and external — vying for control in Egypt. At the top of the list are the Egyptian youth that mobilized people in such short time. They actually gave expression to long-repressed feelings by overcoming fear and challenging the dreaded police as well as the army of secret agents that had terrorized the people for decades, even before the brutal Mubarak regime came to power. An entire generation of Egyptians had grown up seeing only Mubarak at the helm. He sat there, like the Sphinx, his big feet covering every inch of public space. What was not covered by his big feet, was occupied by his ambitious sons — A‘la and Gamal — that were being groomed to take over from their cancer-ridden father. The Tahrir Square protesters put to rest at least one upstart family’s ambitions in the Muslim East but this is a small step in their long march to dignity and freedom. The people of Egypt face many more hurdles.
The fact that disparate groups with divergent socio-political outlooks came together to get rid of Mubarak reflected both their strength and potential weakness. They represented a broad cross section of Egyptian society — the youth (men and women), Islamically-committed and totally secular, rich and poor, professors, doctors, engineers, workers, farmers and vendors and even retired military personnel. The Ikhwan al-Muslimoon (Muslim Brotherhood) also joined the movement after initial hesitation. It is interesting to note that Saudi-backed salafi groups denounced such protests as “bid‘ah” and continued to harangue people about the length of their beards and mode of dress on their generously-funded television programs that had mushroomed in Egypt while people faced the thugs in Tahrir Square. The salafis were led by the Egyptian and Saudi court ‘ulama denouncing protests against “legitimate” rulers. How did they conclude that Mubarak was a legitimate ruler? Their fatwas, however, did not carry much weight with the people whose movement had left behind such archaic thinking. Since Mubarak’s ouster, the salafis have come out demanding an “Islamic” government, perhaps patterned on the model of Saudi Arabia where another “royal” family, equally slave of the Americans, will take over in Egypt.
There are bigger challenges facing the movement than the salafis, who are little more than a nuisance. The movement’s divergent outlooks have already started to cause strains with accusations being traded by the emerging principals of the leading factions. These can be exploited by those with entrenched vested interests. Further, beneficiaries of the old regime are still ensconced in many departments of state bureaucracy and will attempt to subvert the movement. It has happened already with the release of thousands of criminals from prisons that were let loose on defenceless neighbourhoods. The soaring crime rate has alarmed many Egyptians.
The movement for dignity and freedom, however, faces its biggest threats from the Saudis and the Americans. Both have come with their check-books to co-opt the interim regime. The Saudis offered $4 billion to halt Mubarak’s proposed trial on charges of corruption. It is not difficult to see why; the Saudis fear that Mubarak’s trial would open the way for other dictators, like themselves, to be tried for crimes against the people. The Americans want to subvert the movement because their interests and that of their Zionist ally Israel, conflict with those of the Egyptian people. Washington prefers dictators to democrats. Soon after Mubarak’s ouster, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had gone to Cairo, wanting to meet the young leaders of the movement. The latter refused saying they did not want to meet officials of a country that had for decades supported the tyranny in Egypt and been complicit in the starvation and murder of the people of Gaza.
This shows political maturity on the part of the Egyptian youth. There are more tests ahead; they must be vigilant to prevent their movement from being subverted from the inside or sabotaged from abroad.
Zafar Bangash is Director of the Institute of Contemporary Islamic Thought