“We prefer to be run over by tanks a hundred times than to live as slaves to Mubarak…I am not budging from here,” said a demonstrator who was about to lie down in front of an army tank in Tahrir on February 4, amid rumors that the army would storm the Square and end Egypt’s democracy movement. The rumors did not come from nowhere. President Hosni Mubarak’s regime has been dealing with the situation principally by repressive measures: violent attacks by the Central Security Forces, selected murders, kidnapping and torture by State Security Investigations, and deployment of thugs—plainclothes policemen and soldiers, ex-convicts, and hired toughs—a tactic commonly used in most elections. The army has alternately promised not to harm the demonstrators and has hinted at the possible use of force should they refuse to disband.
In recent days the regime has also offered carrots. In addition to Mubarak’s offer to step down in September and oversee reforms in the meantime, his regime has made vague promises about enlarged pensions, immediate raises, and better subsidized bread, and has sacked some of the most notorious figures in the regime. Habib al-Adly, the hated former interior minister, and three of his deputies (all major symbols of violent repression) were “arrested” according to state television, although independent reports suggest that al-Adly is free and living in a guarded villa he owns in the al-Maadi district south of Cairo. National Democratic Party icons Gamal Mubarak, Safwat al-Sharif, and Ahmad Ezz, all associated with corruption, lost their positions. Ministers associated with unpopular economic reforms were dismissed, and reports circulated that the assets of several billionaires were frozen.
Egyptians’ unwillingness to trust Mubarak is deeply rooted. First, there is Mubarak’s own unfulfilled promise to lift the state of emergency in 2005. Then there is the lesson Egyptians learned under a previous iteration of this military-based regime. Between July 1952 and October 1954, then-Major Gamal Abd al-Nasser initiated a structured process that destroyed Egypt’s democratic institutions and changed the system from a semi-democracy to a military dictatorship. He banned all political parties, dissolved the parliament, arrested and tortured political activists, opened fire on student demonstrations, and executed striking workers. But on February 28, 1954, almost one million Egyptians surrounded Nasser in Abdin Palace. They demanded the return to a civilian rule, the release of all political prisoners, reinstatement of the parliament, and the return of the army to its barracks.
Besieged, pressured, and outnumbered, Nasser promised reforms, swore that he would respect them, and declared that he would hold free elections in June 1954. Abd al-Qadir Audeh, a leading figure in the demonstration, asked the protesters to leave. That action cost Egypt 57 years without basic freedoms. Audeh was not a sell-out, just a naive politician. He was arrested by the military police the same night and executed with others, in January 1955.
There are now three decisive factors that can lead to the sort of real democratic change that was lost in 1954: the continuation of large peaceful protests in Tahrir Square and elsewhere throughout Egypt; international pressure; and the support, or at least the neutrality, of the army. Pressures have already been strong enough to lead Mubarak to retreat from his first speech on January 28 (belittling protesters and ignoring their demands) to his remarks several days later suggesting he was tired of being president. Still, Mubarak is clinging to power at any cost and therefore the pressures are not enough.
On the protesters’ side, organization at this point is critical. Their demands should stay cohesive, even though there is no united leadership. Concrete steps should be taken to form a parallel technocratic government, with the sole aim of setting the context for free and fair elections with international observation. Regarding outside support, the West has done its part in rhetoric but needs to turn words into actions—such as using the $1.3 billion U.S. military assistance as leverage.
The Obama administration also needs to understand that overwhelming majority of Egyptians do not want to move from one military dictator (Mubarak) to another (Vice President Suleiman). This protest is about creating a fully democratic system in Egypt and nothing less. In this regard, it is important that the West understand the regime’s divide-and-rule tactics. Negotiating with the Muslim Brotherhood while excluding Mohammed ElBaradei’s National Association for Change serves to frighten the West into abandoning its pro-democracy stance while sowing division between Egyptian liberals and Islamists.
The structured campaign of violence initiated by the Mubarak regime left hundreds of peaceful protesters dead and thousands wounded, along with an unknown number of political detainees (many of whom are at great risk). This must have legal consequences on the national and international levels. Civil society activists are doing their part to identify and prosecute the leading figures responsible for implementing those policies. But Western governments should now stress the legal consequences of such policies in order to stop further attempts at violent repression.
The final decisive factor is the stance of the army, which itself will be influenced by the size and steadfastness of the protests as well as the attitude of the international community. When overthrown in 1952, King Farouk (who now looks saintly compared to Mubarak) still refused to abdicate until an army officer, Col. Abd al-Mun’im Abd al-Ra’uf, turned the barrel of a tank’s gun towards Ras al-Tin Palace in Alexandria and politely asked Farouk to leave. The action was harsh, but it saved Egypt from a bloodbath. Change in 1952 cost Egypt only one fatality (a soldier shot by Captain Abd al-Hakim Amr, a Nasser aide).The quest for democracy in 2011 is costing Egypt many more lives because a despotic regime is desperately clinging to power. The sole responsibility for the lives lost lies with Mubarak and his regime, and they should know that they will be held legally accountable.
Omar Ashour is the Director of the Middle East Graduate Studies Program at the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies, University of Exeter (UK). He is the author of The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements (London, New York: Routledge, 2009).