Egyptian demonstrators have poured their anger against the symbols of their old hated dictator and his regime. Hosni Mubarak, 84, has been ruling Egypt with an iron fist since 1981. Demonstrators in Cairo, Alexandria, and other cities have clashed with the anti-riot forces, burnt police stations and headquarters of Mubarak's party, NDP. The crowd has a mélange of mostly young people, men and women, and even older ones. It seems that the uprising does not have a central figure or forces behind it, especially after the Mubarak government decided to shut down internet and telephone access in Egypt.
In spite of the fact that the regime has declared a curfew in Egypt and called on the army to intervene, demonstrations still persist. The winter of fury seems to be spreading throughout the region. Arab youth are demonstrating against their old authoritarian regimes in masses for the first time in recent history. Ben Ali ruled Tunisia for 23 years with an iron fist. Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, another dictator who came to power by a military coup more than 34 years ago, still rules Yemen and is rumored to be preparing his son to be the next president. Yemenis have been out in thousands calling for his ouster.
Several Arab young men have set themselves on fire in protest against unemployment, poverty and oppression, from Tunisia, Mauritania, Algeria, Egypt and even in Saudi Arabia. Riots have also erupted in Jordan. These regimes were long thought of as allies of the US and pillars of stability. The US State Dept. has been criticizing these regimes year after year for grave human rights abuses against their people, yet the Mubarak regime is the largest recipient of US foreign aid after the State of Israel. This has been giving the wrong message to the people of the region about our commitment to freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
Transparency International has ranked the Mubarak regime and several other Arab regimes at the bottom of its list of highly corrupt regimes. The personal wealth of the Mubarak family is estimated between $50-70 billion. It was reported two days ago that Gamal Mubarak, son of President Mubarak was heading to London with a big entourage and about 80 pieces of luggage along with his mother, Suzanne Mubarak, and high officials, though Egyptian sources dismiss the report as false.
The Angry Generation
The International Labor Office (ILO) annual World Employment Report 2004-2005 found out that the number of unemployed people in Egypt climbed to new heights in 2005. Young people aged 15 to 24 comprise almost half of the Egypt's unemployed and are more than three times as likely as adults to be out of work. The ILO called this figure troublesome. The Middle East and North Africa, MENA, stands out as the region with the highest rate of unemployment in the world. With an unemployment rate of 23.2 percent, the Middle East is ahead of sub-Saharan Africa, the poorest region in the world, which has the second highest rate of unemployment, 19.7 percent. The Council of Arab Economic Unity estimates unemployment in the Middle East (members of the Arab League only) at 20 percent. The number of unemployed people in MENA is particularly puzzling because the oil producing countries employ 7-8 million expatriate workers transmitting perhaps as much as $22 billion a year back to their home countries.
In spite of the construction boom in real estate since the oil boom in the 70s due to the earnings of Egyptian expatriates working in Arab Gulf States, apartments are only available through purchase in tens of thousands of dollars that most average citizens cannot afford. Nevertheless, five-star luxury complexes are being built for the super-rich and the well-to-do in the Egyptian society who can afford it; the five percenters! A sense of frustration and hopelessness seems to be haunting Egyptian youth and the older people as well, who are struggling to make ends meet. The result has impacted Egyptian society in terms of the high rate of drug and alcohol use, divorce, domestic violence, road rage, sex crimes, prostitution, human trafficking, and corruption. Egyptian sociologists refer these waves of uncommon behavior to political oppression. In spite of the fact that Egypt has a number of opposition parties and one ruling party, most officials serving in the government are handpicked by the president from his own party. The Arab world has no institutions evolved by common consent for common purposes, under guarantee of law, and consequently there is nothing that can be agreed upon as the general good, author David Pryce-Jones says.
A Challenge to Obama?
It is possible to find parallels in Egypt to pre-revolutionary Iran. Given the social ills engendered by extended unemployment, especially among the qualified young; aggravated social polarization in which ill-gained wealth, insolently displayed, stood out against the growing misery of the rural and urban population; and generalized corruption spreading right up to the highest levels of society and state. Indeed, many U.S. analysts acknowledge Egypt's instability. "It will rock the world," wrote Michele Dunne, a Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar. "Octogenarian Mubarak, will leave office, either by his own decision or that of providence." Instability in Egypt may become an international security concern. There is no clear chain of command or civil society base to facilitate the transfer of power to the next president.
Recurring sectarian conflict and economic malaise brew. Murmurs abound that Mubarak's regime is in its final throes, and repeatedly cracking down on protest are signs of the beginning of the end. Predictably, current events are compared to the combustible final years of Sadat's tenure, when the tussle between an increasingly irrational president and an angry, organized society ended so abruptly, violently, and dramatically. There is an equally compelling view that such predictions are possible. Predicting anything as complex as regime change must bear a lot of assumptions. And even if change occurs, there's no way to determine precisely how it would happen and why. This precisely adds to the anxiety of the Egyptian people about the nearing end of the Mubarak's regime and what lies ahead. Some speculators seem to think that the military would step in at the right moment to prevent a handover of power to Gamal, or to save Egypt from other nightmarish prospects.
May Kasem, political scientist at the American University in Cairo, says that:
Political stability, peace, and development in the Middle East, like anywhere else, can best be achieved through reform rather than revolution... Foreign support may protect and prolong the lifespan of an authoritarian regime, but it cannot maintain such a regime indefinitely. It is in the interest of all parties concerned, including authoritarian regimes and their international patrons, to opt for political reform rather than risk the imposed and unpredictable transformation of dissent. The U.S.... should recognize that it should pressure friends into genuine reforms.
Aladdin Elaasar is the author of The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Obama Age.