Egypt — contd: Will he stay or will he go now?

As I started to get up to speed on the story in Egypt, I realized that my previous post did not emphasize enough how significant a move it was for the 82-year old President Mubarak to name a vice-president.  Apparently, he’d been grooming his son to become the next leader, and had resisted pressure to appoint a VP for years.  His decision to name a VP is seen as a major concession, and he may be making it easier for his government to continue if he leaves office (and that’s the big question: will he leave??).

But the bigger question is: what constitutes “the government” in Egypt?  One of my astute students yesterday asked about Egypt’s government.  I explained that the president had a lot of power and that the elections — held every six years — were basically show elections. 

I just looked more into Mubarak’s entry on Wikipedia and I learned that Egypt has been run under an “Emergency Law Rule” since 1958:

Emergency Law rule

Egypt is a semi-presidential republic under Emergency Law (Law No. 162 of 1958)[23] and has been since 1967, except for an 18-month break in 1980s (which ended with the assassination of Sadat). Under the law, police powers are extended, constitutional rights suspended and censorship is legalized.[24] The law sharply circumscribes any non-governmental political activity: street demonstrations, non-approved political organizations, and unregistered financial donations are formally banned. Some 17,000 people are detained under the law, and estimates of political prisoners run as high as 30,000.[25] Under that “state of emergency”, the government has the right to imprison individuals for any period of time, and for virtually no reason, thus keeping them in prisons without trials for any period. The government continues the claim that opposition groups like the Muslim Brotherhood could come into power in Egypt if the current government did not forgo parliamentary elections, confiscate the group’s main financiers’ possessions, and detain group figureheads, actions which are virtually impossible without emergency law and judicial-system independence prevention.[26] Pro-democracy advocates in Egypt argue that this goes against the principles of democracy, which include a citizen’s right to a fair trial and their right to vote for whichever candidate and/or party they deem fit to run their country.

That helps explain why the people are feeling like they have no rights — they don’t have any.  At least not any that are guaranteed by the constitution. 

There are a few other aspects of this story also worth mentioning.  Let’s start the Muslim Brotherhood, mentioned in the excerpt above.  What’s that?

Well, here’s a start, again from Wikipedia (thanks Jimmy Wales, founder of Wikipedia):

The Society of the Muslim Brothers (often simply الإخوان Al-Ikhwān, The Brotherhood or MB) is an Islamist transnational movement and the largest political opposition organization in many Arab states.[1] The group is the world’s oldest and largest Islamic political group,[1] and the “world’s most influential Islamist movement.”[2] It was founded in 1928 in Egypt by the Islamic scholar and Sufi schoolteacher Hassan al-Banna.

The Brotherhood’s stated goal is to instill the Qur’an and Sunnah as the “sole reference point for … ordering the life of the Muslim family, individual, community … and state”.[3] Since its inception in 1928 the movement has officially opposed violent means to achieve its goals,[4][5] with some exceptions such as in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to overthrow secular Ba’athist rule in Syria (see Hama massacre). This position has been questioned, particularly by the Egyptian government, which accused the group of a campaign of killings in Egypt after World War II.[6]

The Muslim Brotherhood is banned in Egypt, and members have been arrested for their participation in it.[7] As a means of circumventing the ban, supporters run for office as independents.[8]

Outside Egypt, the group’s political activity has been described as evolving away from modernism and reformism towards a more traditional, “rightist conservative secular” stance.  The Brotherhood condemned terrorism and the 9/11 attacks,[9][10] but whether or not it has ties to terrorism is a matter of dispute.[11] Its position on violence has also caused disputes within the movement, with advocates of violence at times breaking away…

If the MB is a non-violent movement, I’m wondering why its symbol contains two swords:

In any case, the movement in the street does not seem to be run by the MB.  Nor does it seem to embrace ElBaradei (see my previous post for information about ElBaradei) or any other charismatic leaders, as reported in today’s Wsahington Post:

Here’s an excerpt from that story in today’s Post:

Protesters have already accomplished far more than anyone here thought possible, forcing Mubarak to call the army to the streets and focusing global attention on the president’s autocratic 30-year reign. But unlike other successful democratic uprisings, this one lacks charismatic personalities and any clear agenda beyond ousting Mubarak and holding elections to choose a successor.

Appearing on state-run television to discuss his new role, Vice President Omar Suleiman offered no details about the scope or timing of any talks. In an olive branch of its own, the military promised to guarantee “freedom of expression” during a march planned for Tuesday, saying it recognizes “the legitimacy of the people’s demands.”

Opposition leaders, including Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel Peace laureate and democracy advocate, have signaled that they are ready for such a dialogue. Demonstrators, however, say that the opposition leaders do not represent them and that they will be satisfied only with Mubarak’s ouster.

The movement that rose up seemingly out of nowhere last week to pose the greatest challenge yet to the 82-year-old president has no name, no symbols and no formal infrastructure. Although some students and others are involved in organizing its direction, they deny being its leaders.

Protesters say the absence of a specific platform or a single dynamic figure has been critical to their success, allowing them to tap into Egyptians’ widespread contempt for Mubarak without allowing the movement to become riven by factions.

As a former U.S. History teacher, the mention of factions makes me think of the Federalist Papers — specifically Federalist Number 10.  But that sort of debate will come later in Egypt.  Right now the question is what will happen in the next few days. 

The protestors intend to mass a million people today (it’s around 5 a.m. Tuesday as I write in Durham, NC — which means it’s around noon on Tuesday in Egypt — I love that Google can tell me what time it is all over the world)

So we’ll see what happens.  Mubarak seems unwilling to step down, and the protestors seem determined to make him step down.  Something will have to give.

Nick Kristof has a great column in today’s New York Times, arguing that the U.S. needs to take a stand with the protestors and come out against Mubarak.

Here’s the conclusion of his column (though I recommend you click the link above)

All of this presents the White House with a conundrum. It’s difficult to abandon a longtime ally like Mr. Mubarak, even if he has been corrupt and oppressive. But our messaging isn’t working, and many Egyptian pro-democracy advocates said they feel betrayed that Americans are obsessing on what might go wrong for the price of oil, for Israel, for the Suez Canal — instead of focusing on the prospect of freedom and democracy for the Egyptian people.

Maybe I’m too caught up in the giddiness of Tahrir Square, but I think the protesters have a point. Our equivocation isn’t working. It’s increasingly clear that stability will come to Egypt only after Mr. Mubarak steps down. It’s in our interest, as well as Egypt’s, that he resign and leave the country. And we also owe it to the brave men and women of Tahrir Square — and to our own history and values — to make one thing very clear: We stand with the peaceful throngs pleading for democracy, not with those who menace them.

Here’s a picture of Tahrir Square, so you can better picture the scene:

That picture comes from a great interactive feature from the New York Times that allows you to see where the protests are taking place in Cairo.  Click it.

By the way, when lots of people were trying to flee Egypt, Kristof flew into Cairo yesterday (Jan 31) and the account on his blog of how he got into the country gives a vivid picture of what it’s like to be on the ground in Egypt as history is being made.

Again, here’s an excerpt, but I recommend that you read his entire account.  He’s a Two-Time Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and I think he’s a fantastic writer.

… tanks block some streets, and local residents have set up roadblocks on every other intersection. Every 100 yards, my taxi was stopped by these local roadblocks, set up by shopkeepers with clubs, iron rods, bats, machetes or an occasional gun. At first I was worried that I’d be robbed by these armed vigilantes, but in fact they were polite and very welcoming of journalists. But they’re also scared and armed, and there are inevitably going to be some accidents.

These roadblocks are the result of mysterious looting and attacks in a number of neighborhoods. I checked with my network of friends in Cairo, and heard about shootings in almost every neighborhood. The assumption is that some attacks are by criminals and looters, but perhaps some as well are by Mubarak’s police forces trying to create chaos that will justify a crackdown. There’s no proof of that, but it seems to be a plausible guess.

We’ll see what happens today.  NPR reports that the military has pledged not to fire on the protestors — let’s hope that promise is kept:

One final thought as I conclude this post: I’d like to explore the role of women in Egypt — both in organizing this protest and in Egypt in general.  I was in Egypt for a few days back in 2000, and my impression was that it was very much a male-dominated society.  I wonder if modern Egypt could ever have a female political leader (ancient Egypt of course had Cleopatra and Hatshepsut)…

About Steve Goldberg

I teach students at Research Triangle High School (RTHS) about US History. RTHS is a public charter school in Durham, NC, whose mission is to incubate, prove and scale innovative models of teaching and learning. The blog posts here reflect my own personal views and not those of my employer.
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