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Dispatches From My Couch, Pt. III—From Irhal to Mabrouk via Tahrir

2011 February 11

On the anniversary, coincidentally, of both the Iranian Revolution and Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, after the eighteen most thrilling days of my life, Hosni Mubarak left the office of the Egyptian President and fled Cairo for Sharma El Sheikh. The Wikipedia article on Mubarak now says that he was the President of Egypt from 1981-2011, and my eyes can barely stay dry enough to do what I want: read it again and again.

Vice President Omar Suleiman (the CIA’s man in Egypt and the chief handler of Egypt’s torture and rendition programs on behalf of the United States) announced on state television that Mubarak had left instructions to turn the government over to the army, which is overseen by Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Let’s be clear about this: civilian leadership is crucial to Egypt’s democratic aspirations, Egypt’s military has been a corrupt and cruel arm of Mubarak’s repressive regime, and Tantawi has been an integral accomplice in the crimes of the last 20 years. However, the army has taken a noble stance since January 25, refusing to fire on protesters. Tantawi’s appearance in Tahrir Sqare to talk to people, who doubtless left him with the impression that no Mubarak affiliates would be able to consolidate power, suggests that the general likely knows what’s good for him, being more in touch that Mubarak.

And how spectacularly out of touch Mubarak was! Even as labor organized massive strikes around the country and protests grew in size—partly galvanized out of a brief period of revolution-fatigue by the rallying cry from the recently-released Google executive Wael Ghonim—Mubarak sought to make still more minor concessions. His first, to appoint a Vice President, his second, not to run for office in September, his third, to institute a dialogue with the Egyptians and his fourth, to insist that his son Gamal would not seek charge either, were all roundly rejected in Tahrir Square (by which I mean in protests across the country).

In his speech last night, he called for a “friendly atmosphere” without “enmity,” and called the Egyptian people his children, casting himself as the father of the nation. If you were wondering, “what could conceivably be farther out of touch than a rejected and hated dictator thinking of himself as the devoted father of a people he has tortured and repressed?” the answer is: “the idea that he could call for amity thereafter.” Indeed, even delegating some authority to Vice President Suleiman in that speech was laughably petty, since any objective observer could see: authority was no longer Mubarak’s to delegate.

Al Jazeera English, in a brilliant move, broadcast a split-screen featuring, on the left, Mubarak’s statement and, on the right, the booing that greeted it in Tahrir Square. The disconnect between the patronizing dunce on the one hand and the passionate revolutionaries on the other told everyone immediately: everything is about to change right now. As thousands of people marched on the Presidential Palace and decided to spend the night there in anticipation of the massive wave of protesters who’d arrive in the morning, I thought it would get violent.

To be clear: if it had, the fault would have been all Mubarak’s. The Egyptian people had been protesting peacefully for seventeen days and the only thing preventing “orderly transition” was the deaf ear turned to them by the man who called himself their father. It was he, and not they, who appeared to be rejecting peace, and riots breaking out would only have testified to the extent to which the Egyptians had exhausted all other means at their disposal. But, as usual, the Egyptian people showed me the way, retaining a peaceful protest and forcing Mubarak out of power.

President Obama, yesterday, made an attempt to get out in front of the story, by taking to the microphone in Michigan. This was a gutsy move, speaking before Mubarak did (at a time when rumors of resignation were flying around the blogosphere, leave alone Cairo), but when it came time to speak, the President disappointed by saying nothing new and no more clearly urging his Egyptian ally to step aside than he had before. As though taking a cue, Mubarak’s disappointingly un-novel speech showed the man merely following American suit, as he had so many times before.

Perhaps, as a means of actually getting out ahead—dare I call it “winning the future?”—America ought to sever ties with the remaining dictators in its alliance before the unrest blossoms. When the United States stands with repressive regimes until the last minute, it gets caught out on Front Street, harping about freedom and democracy while being seen all over to support their suppression—the situation inescapably echoed the CIA’s attempted coup against the democratically-elected Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, calling him a dictator while upholding and favoring its brutally oppressive neighboring government in Colombia.

Most of all, the American foreign policy establishment needs to take note: this is how the Middle East gets remade. Geopolitical experiments relying on America’s military hegemony are not the path to democracy, and the Egyptians have no one to greet as liberators but their brother and sister Egyptians. Even a cursory glance at the streets of Cairo an hour after Mubarak’s resignation leaves an obvious impression: celebrations in the streets when Saddam fell were nothing like this. I am only jealous that American Press Secretary Robert Gibbs gets to talk about this on his last day on the job.

Of course, the biggest work begins now. It is uncertain how Egypt’s legal institutions support the convening of a constitutional congress to re-imagine totally the political superstructure. (At this moment, I wish I knew what Mohammed ElBaradei had to say). Some things about the way forward, though, are clear as Egyptian daylight:

1)      Hosni Mubarak must go to prison. This is not just because his thugs have tortured so many Egyptian prisoners over the last three decades, but also because a society that has, as one Al Jazeera English commentator put it, had its smiles and happiness stolen can only move on by implementing justice. This will require opening up a massive investigation into murder, torture and theft over the last thirty years, one that is likely to implicate all the complicit ministries and institutions in Egypt.

2)      As my father immediately pointed out to me on the phone, this is the beginning of the end of Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which requires an Egyptian government complicit in the Israeli occupation for its enforcement.

3)      In America, we must remember this moment when commentating, as we do a nauseating amount, on the “Muslim World” or the “Arab Street:” we have just watched Muslims—yes, Muslims—peacefully—yes, peacefully—making revolution—yes, revolution— for more democracy—yes, democracy.

4)      This will not end with Egypt. There are a number of other autocracies in the region who have, as they say, it coming. Who will be next? Yemen? Algeria? Jordan? Mauritania? You had better believe that their rulers are all shaking in their shoes, watching the tyrant dominating the largest Muslim-majority country mocked and overthrown. (Dare I commend to your attention the streets of Riyadh?)

5)      This is how politics work: you chip away and chip away and chip away and chip away until, finally… there is victory. But! And this is a major “but:” that does not mean gradualism.

Congratulations, brothers and sisters of Egypt! Ever onward to victory!

My previous two pieces on Egypt can be found here: Part I and Part II.

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