Tahrir: Shock and awe Mubarak style

Pro-Mubarak thugs weren’t enough to deter the calls of democracy from the crowds gathering in Tahrir square.

Pro-Mubarak activists clashed with pro-democracy supporters yesterday, with many in the pro-Mubarak camp accused of working for government ministries, including police forces [Getty]

Between the Monday of January 31 until Hosni Mubarak’s quaint speech late in the night night (1 February), the pro-democracy protest in Tahrir Square was the most diverse gathering that I have ever witnessed in Egypt.

In normal times, Cairo is devoid of socially porous spaces where people of all classes can mix comfortably. The crowds in Tahrir Square, larger each night since the ministry of interior’s security force was broken on January 28th, created a spontaneous Bohemia.

As befits the label given to the uprising – thaurat al-shabab (revolt of the youth) – there were plenty of mid-teens to early 30s men and women in the pro-democracy camp. But with them were children, the elderly, the ultra-pious and the slickest cosmopolitans, workers, farmers, professionals, intellectuals, artists, long-time activists, complete neophytes to political protest, and representatives of all political persuasions outside the National Democratic Party, whose headquarters were sacked and burned last Friday, and still emitting a faint ashy smell by Monday.

A well-adjusted mob

The behaviour of the crowd was impeccable. Volunteers manned all entry points to the Square, checking the identity cards of everyone who entered. Egyptian identity cards state the profession of their holders, hence anyone whose card indicated that he worked for the ministry of interior was barred from entering the Square.

The goal was to prevent government-sponsored incitement, ensuring that the atmosphere would remain purposeful and free of violence. That goal was entirely fulfilled up to the moment of Mubarak’s speech.

Until Mubarak offered his dubious “concessions”, the crowd was euphoric, but at the same time firmly grounded in its mission to effect deep-rooted changes to Egyptian political practise.

There is no doubt that Egyptians were substantially united in their conviction that the Mubarak regime must end; in the current environment, remaining support for Mubarak is motivated more by material interests than by conviction.

As the world knows very well, immediately after Mubarak’s speech his supporters began to attack the demonstration.

Releasing the hounds

The attacks were already underway by the early hours of Wednesday morning (February 1, 2011), and as all news sources – save Egyptian state media – have reported, attacks on the pro-democracy protesters have increased in intensity throughout Wednesday (2 February) and continuing on into Thursday.

The regime’s shock troops have certainly used “white weapons” – knives and other sharp objects, chains or other bits of metal that can maim – but there are also reports that they have used propane gas tanks, Molotov cocktails, tear gas and possibly even live ammunition.

What the army is doing is unclear, but there is no doubt that it has not protected the pro-democracy demonstrators.

It is true, as many news sources have reported, that the pro-Mubarak forces include an element of criminals that have long been employed by the regime to break up demonstrations and intimidate elections.

There is also no doubt that members of the defeated Central Security Forces were among the shock troops used by the regime in its counterattack against the pro-democracy movement.

But the waves of pro-Mubarak demonstrators marching through downtown Cairo toward Tahrir Square on Wednesday were not entirely devoid of ordinary Egyptian citizenry. It is likely that not all of these citizens are acting out of conviction. There are reports that government ministries have told public-sector employees that their jobs depend on supporting the regime.

Aside from these semi-coerced supporters of Mubarak, there are people who have always regarded the pro-democracy movement as troublemakers on the grounds that the order maintained by the regime’s security apparatus is more valuable than the cost paid in curtailed civil liberties.

It must be emphasised that the sum of all these elements of pro-Mubarak sentiment is remarkably more socially homogeneous than the pro-democracy movement.

Cunning and motives

Of course there are tacitly pro-regime supporters witnessing events from afar. But of those who are willing to put their bodies on the line – as the pro-democracy movement has done – the social profile is overwhelmingly male and lower to lower-middle class.

The bottom line is that while it may be true that support for the regime has a broader social base than the stereotype of “criminals and semi-coerced public sector employees” suggests, there is at the same time no political philosophy animating the pro-regime supporters.

If the rule of Mubarak and/or the National Democratic Party survives the pro-democracy uprising, it will be purely through force.

The motivations of the pro-democracy movement, by contrast, are undoubtedly more diverse than the euphoric atmosphere of Monday and Tuesday suggest.

The elephant in the room though is the Muslim Brotherhood. The MB has thus far played a skillful political game of supporting the pro-democracy movement without trying to lay claim to it – far more skillful, for example, than Mohamed ElBaradei’s relatively amateurish interventions.

In truth the driving force of the pro-democracy movement is emphatically not the Muslim Brotherhood. As everyone knows, the Muslim Brotherhood is a powerful force in Egyptian politics, but there are generational and social divisions within the movement which may in fact make a Muslim Brotherhood power grab unfeasible, assuming that it actually aspires to such a goal.

The pro-democracy uprising was propelled by a non-partisan coalition of young activists, who at long last tapped into a current of popular revulsion at the police-state techniques that the regime used to maintain its grip on power.

Whose public interest?

The opposition parties have a role to play in creating an alternative to Mubarak’s rule. They are not necessarily well prepared to play this role after decades of hopeless marginalisation by the ruling NDP.

In order to bring about structural change to Egyptian politics they will have to focus not on the social context that makes regime’s downfall possible (police state suppression, unemployment and poverty), but on Egypt’s laws and constitution.

An end to torture as a primary tactic for maintaining the regime’s power will require reforms in a legal system that combines powers of criminal prosecution with police investigation. These two functions are separate in the legal systems of Europe and the United States, but combined in Egypt and in many socialist countries.

The result in Egypt is that the office of public prosecutor (al-niyaba al-‘amma) has the authority to gather evidence in the criminal cases that it pursues. This would be considered an obvious conflict of interest in the United States.

In Egypt it means that a prosecutor who represents “the public interest” (aka the state) possesses powers of police investigation. This leads to systematic torture justified on grounds of it being “in the public interest”.

It is no coincidence that when the power of the state was broken on the “day of rage” (January 28th), the pro-democracy protesters attacked many police stations throughout the country.

Police stations, not just the ministry of interior’s Central Security Forces, were targeted because the Egyptian public has been subject to systematic torture by a police-judiciary nexus throughout the 30 years of Mubarak’s rule.

The minimum demands of the pro-democracy movement must include that the prosecution function be separated from the function of police investigation. The rule of law executed by an independent judiciary would be the best guarantor of civil liberties in Egypt.

Assembling a new future

After that, more obvious demands follow.

The current People’s Assembly (maglis al-sha’b) must be abolished on the grounds that its election was blatantly fraudulent; it cannot under any circumstances be allowed to direct the course of reform.

Mubarak’s speech on Tuesday in fact called for the “reform” of the constitution by the People’s Assembly. This is impossible while the People’s Assembly consists entirely of representatives “elected” in the hopelessly compromised elections held just a few weeks ago at the end of 2010.

The only feasible exit from the current confrontation between Mubarak’s thugs and the pro-democracy movement is the appointment of a national unity government constituted from a broad spectrum of the opposition parties, on the condition that articles 76 and 77 of the Egyptian constitution be reformed (specifically, the articles stipulating that the president can run for successive terms and narrowing the conditions under which a candidate can stand for the presidency to the point that almost nobody can mount a campaign against the party in power).

In practical terms, the current parliament must be dismissed, and the constitution must essentially be re-written.

The validity of the old constitution is in any case dubious in light of the experience of thirty years of living under the “emergency law” that was in force since the assassination of Anwar Sadat in 1981.

Egypt’s laws must be reconstituted from scratch. If, that is, the pro-democracy movement survives the regime’s crude attempts to snuff it out by force.

The next big demonstration by the pro-democracy forces is scheduled for Friday. The army could stop it if the regime orders it to and the soldiers obey their orders – I doubt the regime’s thugs are strong enough to do the job by themselves.

Dr. Walter Armbrust is Hourani Fellow and University Lecturer in Modern Middle East Studies at Oxford University. He is the author of Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt (Cambridge University Press, 1996).

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

More from Author
Most Read