Democratic Middle East birth pangs may have legs enough to spread regionally, including in Occupied Palestine.
Officially launched in Cairo in 1959, the General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) offers hope, driven by a commitment for Palestinian liberation. With more than 100 chapters and over 100,000 members, it’s organized rallies, political debates, cultural programs, and other initiatives to spread truths about the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.
Perhaps inspired by events across the region, on January 27, its press release headlined, “Palestinian students claim right to participate in shaping our destiny,” saying:
“….(I)n order to reassert our inalienable rights, (we) claim our right to democratically participate in the shaping of our destiny. We begin a national initiative to campaign for direct elections to the Palestinian National Council (the PLO’s legislative body) on the clear understanding that only a reformed national representative institution, that includes all Palestinians, those struggling in the homeland and those struggling in exile, can create a representative Palestinian platform, and restore the PLO as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.”
If popular uprisings offer democratic hope in Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen and Egypt, why not Palestine freed from occupation!
Currently, Egypt is the epicenter of regional change, and since the 1978 Camp David Accords, the linchpin of US Middle East imperial policy. However, under Mubarak’s brutal dictatorship, perhaps its day of reckoning has arrived, Robert Fisk saying:
What’s wrong is visible and clear. “The filth and the slums, the open sewers and the corruption of every government official, the bulging prisons, the laughable elections, the whole vast, sclerotic edifice of power has at last brought Egyptians on to the streets….This is not an Islamic uprising – though it could become one – (it) is just one mass of Egyptians stifled by decades of failure and humiliation.”
Even New York Times writer Michael Slackman noticed, headlining his January 28 article, “Egyptians’ Fury Has Smoldered Beneath the Surface for Decades,” saying:
“The litany of complaints against Mr. Mubarak is well known….The police are brutal. Elections are rigged. Corruption is rampant. Life gets harder for the masses as the rich grow richer and the poor grow poorer. Even as Egypt’s economy (grew, so did) people living in poverty….”
Around half its 80 million people are impoverished, living on $2 a day or less. Unemployment is high, especially for youths. In contrast, “walled compounds spring up outside cities with green lawns and swimming pools.” It’s a nation “where those with money have built a parallel world of private schools and exclusive clubs, leaving the rundown cities to the poor.”
Wesleyan University Professor Anne Mariel Peters says “The whole system is seen as (Mubarak’s) fault. People do believe (he’s) the absolute dictator.”
They remember the hypocrisy of his 1981 inaugural address, saying:
“We will embark on our great path: not stopping or hesitating, building and not destroying, protecting and not threatening, preserving and not squandering.”
Instead, he solidified absolute power. According to American University Professor Diane Singerman:
“Once you hollow out civil society and repress the unions and you concentrate so much power around your hands, you are vulnerable and it becomes the flip side of stability. I think he is hated for good reason: the constant humiliation, the over-the-top sort of need to control everything, the excessive force.”
For three decades, absolute power, cronyism, corruption, and repression defined his rule, including its Emergency Law power to arrest anyone without charge and detain them indefinitely. According to the International Federation for Human Rights:
It grants “broad power to impose restrictions on the freedoms of assembly, movement or residence; the power to arrest and detain suspects or those deemed dangerous, and the power to search individuals and places without the need to follow the provisions of the Criminal Procedure Code.”
It’s how despotism works, violating “rights guaranteed by the Egyptian Constitution, which provides for personal freedom in article 41, the inviolability of private homes in article 44, (and) freedom of movement and residence in article 54.”
It also let Mubarak censor or shut down critical publications as well as try suspects in military tribunals convened to convict, not exonerate. As a result, many thousands of political opponents, activists and Islamists languish in prisons, many tortured, others killed.
Some compare his regime to the last days of Iran’s Shah, including mass poverty and unemployment, repression, cronyism and corruption, near universal contempt for Egypt’s ruling class, a capitalist dictatorship, a leadership with no legitimacy, anger for allying with Washington and Israel, and a profound sense of humiliation.
In 2005, the Egyptian Movement for Change (EMC – a coalition of leftists, Nasserists and Islamists) held a series of Cairo demonstrations, criticizing Mubarak publicly, including calling for him to step down. Since then, demands have grown for ending Emergency Law powers, letting judges supervise elections, raising wages, allowing independent unions, redistributing land to poor farmers, and other democratic reforms.
However, no broader movement for change emerged, and Mubarak neutralized dissent by allowing public criticism and privately owned opposition newspapers. According to one EMC member, however: “We were given a license to scream and vent, but what good did it do?”
Until now, most Egyptians remained quiet, largely because Mubarak’s intimidation includes the omnipresent state security in neighborhoods, on campuses and wherever opposition might emerge. In addition, the hated Interior Ministry has an army of informers, targeting leftists, human rights activists and Islamists. It’s one of Mubarak’s most powerful tools, along with the army supported by generous Washington aid.
After 30 despotic years, his day of reckoning has arrived, human rights activist Ghada Shabandar, saying:
“Egyptians are sick and tired of being corrupted and when you live on 300 pounds a month (about $51), you have one of two options: you either become a beggar or a thief. The people sent a message: ‘We are not beggars and we do not want to become thieves.’ “
Youth Movement co-counder Asmaa Mahfouz added: “We want to fight corruption. These are all things that we have agreed on” besides demanding Mubarak go.
Mass Protests Continue
On January 29, Al Jazeera headlined, “Thousands in Cairo defy curfew,” saying:
Anti-Mubarak protests include (t)ens of thousands of people” on Cairo streets, demanding he go. Defying the 4PM – 8AM curfew, soldiers haven’t intervened. Some, in fact, said that “the only way for peace to come to the streets of Cairo is for Mubarak to step down.”
Similar crowds again massed in Alexandria, Suez and other cities. At least three more killings were reported. “The Egyptian cabinet meanwhile has formally resigned, (and) Ahmed Ezz, a businessman and senior (ruling party) figure….also resigned (as) Planning and Budget Committee” chairman.
Protestors, however, want regime, not cabinet change. Reuters reported that police used live fire at protesters. A military officer said troops would “not fire a single bullet on Egyptians,” adding that the only solution is “for Mubarak to leave.”
Scores of deaths have been reported, including 22 in Cairo, 23 in Alexandria and 27 in Suez. Moreover, on Friday alone, over 1,000 were injured, and many hundreds have been arrested.
Under house arrest, Mohamed ElBaradei told Al Jazeera that protests would continue until Mubarak goes followed by systemic political changes. He also called his midnight speech “disappointing” and expressed similar sentiment about Washington’s response, while saying change must be internal.
Obama Expresses “Partnership” with Egypt’s Government and People
Obama, in fact, expressed hollow people support while allying strongly with Mubarak’s dictatorship, saying:
“(T)hose protesting in the streets have a responsibility to express themselves peacefully. Violence and destruction will not lead to the reforms that they seek. (The) United States has a close partnership with Egypt and we’ve cooperated on many issues, including working together to advance a more peaceful region.”
Washington, in fact, supplies nearly $2 billion in aid annually, mostly to repress dissent and assure Mubarak remains a reliable imperial ally. Obama also ignored decades of tyranny that fed up Egyptians demand end. Moreover, he expressed support for human rights on the same day WikiLeaks released cables disclosing US complicity in his use of torture and assassinations of political opponents.
At his January 28 briefing, White House press secretary was asked if Obama’s support for Mubarak is unchanged. His response:
“Well, we are – again, we’re monitoring a very fluid situation….this is not about picking a person or picking the people of a country.”
Then asked what’s next if legitimate grievances aren’t resolved, he said: “(T)his is a situation that will be solved by the people of Egypt.”
In other words, Washington unconditionally supports Mubarak. Egyptians must solve their own problems, America is complicit in causing.
Commenting on January 28, London Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall said “Washington needs a friendly regime in Cairo more than it needs a democratic government,” adding that backing authoritarian rule is “pragmatic” for the same reasons Saddam Hussein was supported in the 1980s and numerous other despots today.
He also called “the balancing act performed by (Obama) and (Secretary of State Clinton) excruciating to watch,” against “a backdrop of street battles, beatings, tear gas, flying bricks, mass detentions and attempts to shut information networks….”
An aroused Mohamed ElBaradei said:
“If you would like to know why the United States does not have credibility in the Middle East, that is precisely the answer.”
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Providing live updates, the Guardian quoted London School of Economics Professor Fawaz Geges calling events:
“the Arab world’s Berlin moment. The authoritarian wall has fallen – and that’s regardless of whether Mubarak survives or not. The barrier of fear has been removed. It is really the beginning of the end of the status quo in the region….Mubarak is deeply wounded. He is bleeding terribly. We are witnessing the beginning of a new era.”
Other regime changes are likely, while Mubarak clings momentarily to power. His likely successor may be spy chief Omar Suleiman, named vice president, a newly created post never tolerated during three decades of his rule. Foreign Policy magazine ranked him the region’s most powerful intelligence official, ahead of Mossad’s Meir Dagan.
Ahmed Shafiq, former civil aviation minister and air force commander, was named prime minister. Egyptians reject them, demanding clean sweep changes, removing all despotic vestiges.
On Saturday, Army vehicles protected wealthy compounds in Cairo suburbs, five-star hotels, and government ministries.
According to City University, London Professor Rosemary Hollis:
“I think it will take a couple of days to organize (Mubarak’s) departure if it happens. It’s going to be a messy process and there will probably be (more) bloodshed. I don’t think (you’ll see) a war with the army on one side and the people on the other. (It) has to decide” which side to back. “It’s one of those moments where….individual lieutenants and soldiers” choose which course to take. Splits in the ranks may occur. An interim government is likely. “The question is what replaces it.”
Maan News said:
“Palestinian officials in Ramallah offered no comment on the Friday events in Egypt. (In Gaza), Palestinians have been watching the unrest in Egypt attentively, and while civilians say they are pleased with the prospect for change, demonstrations in the north and southern Strip on Friday (focused on condemning) the PA and PLO for” leaked Palestine Papers revelations.
“Gaza’s Hamas-run government, like their compatriots in the West Bank, remained mum on the situation.” Gazans agree that regime change is positive.
On Friday, Israel’s daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth said a “revolution in Israel’s security doctrine” could follow, according to a defense ministry official.
On January 29, Haaretz writer Anshel Pfeffer headlined, “In Egypt, protesters and soldiers declare: The army and the people are one,” saying:
“(M)ilitary officers stationed in the area embraced the protesters, chanting” the above slogan “hand in hand.” Hoisted on protesters’ shoulders, they removed their helmets, chanting, singing, and saying we’ve already crossed the point of no return. “Game over,” read signs. Haaretz columnist Amos Harel called it an “intelligence chief’s nightmare.” Netanyahu instructed all ministers and officials to stay silent, a senior one saying:
“Israel is in no way interested in involving itself in Egypt’s affairs, and therefore we have received clear instructions to keep a low profile in the Egyptian matter.” Clearly, they’re concerned. According to Harel:
“(C)hanges could even lead to changes in the IDF and cast a dark cloud over the economy….If the Egyptian regime falls….the riots could easily spill over to Jordan and threaten the Hashemite regime. On Israel’s two long peaceful borders, there will then prevail a completely different reality.”
On January 30, in his first public comment, Netanyahu said:
“We are following with vigilance the events in Egypt and in our region….at this time we must show responsibility and restraint and maximum consideration….Our efforts have been intended to continue to preserve stability and security in our region. I remind you that peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted for over three decades,” adding that efforts will be made to “ensure that these relations will continue to exist.”
On January 29, an Amnesty International (AI) action alert said:
“Thirty years of repression is spilling onto the streets of Egypt in the forms of tear-gas, blood and bitter demonstrations. For four days, Egyptian protesters have suffered at the hand of (Mubarak’s) security forces.”
AI’s fellow Egyptian activists want “their voices heard at various Egyptian embassies and consulates. We intend to do all we can to make that happen….That is why we’re asking (support) to place an urgent call to” Egypt’s Washington embassy at 202-895-5400, then press 1 to speak to a real person on repressive conditions.
“(D)on’t take ‘no’ for an answer.” Demand respect for human rights. “Help us make (the) embassy’s phone ring off the hook” for democracy and justice!
Saturday evening, protesters again defied curfew orders. Soldiers aren’t intervening in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez or elsewhere. Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood leader, Hamman Saeed, warned the Egyptian unrest will spread, toppling other Arab regimes allied with America.
Conditions remain fluid. Millions demand change and intend getting it. Mubarak’s era has passed. Egyptian writer Mona Eltahawy spoke for many saying, “We’ve waited for this revolution for years. Other despots should quail. Change is sweeping through the Middle East….” It remains to be seen what follows. Follow-up articles will explain more.
Stephen Lendman lives in Chicago and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Also visit his blog site at sjlendman.blogspot.com and listen to cutting-edge discussions with distinguished guests on the Progressive Radio News Hour on the Progressive Radio Network Thursdays at 10AM US Central time and Saturdays and Sundays at noon. All programs are archived for easy listening.