The last two weeks have been incredible ones for Egypt. Massive, nationwide protests, which began on January 25, 2011, broke down fear of government authorities and security forces in a country that has used intimidation and violence to silence its population for decades. The protests also invalidated international stereotypes about, as well as internalized inferiority complexes held by, Egyptians, namely, that our political apathy and cynicism are overwhelming and that we will not rise up except when our food security is threatened, as in the 1977 Bread Riots.
The battle between the anti-government movement and the regime to win the support of the majority of Egyptians, who have not protested but have been holed up at home in front of their televisions, began the moment demonstrators began chanting “the people want to bring down the regime”. The president’s emotionally appealing speech on February 1, the nationwide withdrawal of the police and security forces, the over-hyped news of looting, the interruption of normal life by an unnecessarily early military curfew (3 PM), and the freezing of all banking transactions have all been engineered by the government to instill a deep craving for physical and financial security amongst the people. The state media – where most Egyptians obtain their news – has done much to make the regime seem reasonable in its concessions, open to dialogue with the opposition, and eager for a return to normalcy in the country. In reality, however, the regime has held the population hostage – cutting off cash, transportation, and communications networks – while attempting to convince the Egyptian people that it is, in fact, the protestors who have brought instability and chaos to their lives.
For the protesters, their strategy begins and ends with the act of protesting in and of itself. The demonstrations brought an overwhelming turnout of people in Cairo and other cities, offering proof that the call for regime change had been heard, that people were ready to join in. News networks across the globe have been reporting that the protests in Cairo on Friday February 4 were the largest yet. In order to maintain its widespread support, the anti-government movement has carefully avoided promoting a particular opposition group or platform, opting instead to focus on one goal with the power to resonate across Egyptian society – that the regime step down. Most activists have felt there is no need for a political plan, for an alternative to be offered when and if Mubarak steps aside. They have not aimed to put a particular person or party in power, but rather simply to remove the current President.
This strategy is no longer sustainable. As the population grows more tired of the disruptions to normal life and state media continues its barrage of lies and distortions, public opinion is clearly shifting away from the protesters. Many feel that the demonstrators lack a plan and have nothing to offer, while the government has presented concrete plans for resolving the stand off. With the country’s army, bureaucracy, media, and financial institutions in its pockets, the regime itself – Mubarak or no Mubarak – appears to be firmly in place. While heads seem to be flying – such as the loathed Habib el Adli, Egypt’s Minister of the Interior until his removal on January 31 as part of Mubarak’s cabinet reshuffle, and the corrupt Ahmed Ezz, a powerful Egyptian businessman whose bank accounts were frozen and whose right to leave the country was retracted shortly after the cabinet’s dissolution – these individuals have been replaced by nearby allies and confidants, stooges of the same system.
Should Mubarak give in to the protestors’ demand and step aside immediately, a result that is looking less and less likely, many Egyptians may in fact become more willing to give the government, sans Mubarak, time to implement the reforms it has promised. Ultimately, the demonstrators will have achieved little with this result, other than guaranteeing another septuagenarian, military leader – Omar Suleiman – and the continuation of the same power structures that existed during Mubarak’s rule. At the same time, should Mubarak remain in power in the short-term, the demonstrators will have unwittingly helped the government move one step closer to a succession plan that works in its favor, affording Suleiman eight months as Vice President and giving the United States plenty of time to accept and understand the advantages of this new reality before Suleiman “wins” the September Presidential elections.
As such, the protesters must develop a political plan that can be offered to the people and a voice and platform to represent their cause to the media. This presents an enormous challenge for several reasons. First, there are a number of obstacles to reaching agreement on details once a movement has already begun and been developed – there are more diverging interests, less common ground, amplified emotions, and more at stake. Secondly, many of the movement’s core supporters and organizers harbor a significant amount of distrust towards opposition figures and politicians, most of whom did not lend support to the demonstrations until after the movement surprised the world with its power. As such, the movement is unlikely to be interested in relying on already established organizational structures, which are themselves weak; the movement will, therefore, need to build an institutional and organizational framework from scratch.
Thirdly and, in my view, most importantly, the energy and type of strategic thinking required to develop a sophisticated political plan runs almost directly counter to the single-mindedness and incredible tenacity, which the protesters have had to adopt in order to continue demonstrations, hold on to Tahrir square night after night, and fight off regime thugs at the front lines. People in Tahrir grow more and more physically exhausted and, as time goes by, their focus has become centered on one thing only – the survival of the protests.
Since Mubarak’s January 28 cabinet reshuffle speech, the banners, slogans, and chants of the protesters have targeted the ageing president personally. I fear that, without a political alternative on the table and in the absence of public support, protesters, who will undoubtedly continue to demand the downfall of the regime should Mubarak (hypothetically) step aside, will be seen as unreasonable and as selfishly disregarding the suffering of the majority. More than that, they may fail to bring out the numbers and support they need in order to ensure the long-term survival of their cause.