Historical events often seem impossible before they happen – and inevitable afterwards. President Hosni Mubarak’s eviction from office was not pre-determined, writes Egyptian political analyst Emad Shahin (left), who recently spent several days in Tahrir Square.
None of the organizers of the January 25thdemonstrations ever dreamt that their call for a day of protest would change the modern history of Egypt and the region. One of the organizers confided to me that he expected the call to attract only a few hundred and had planned to spend the day playing “Pictionary” with his protesting friends.
January 25th could have passed as a regular day had it not been for five mistakes that former President Hosni Mubarak’s regime made and contributed to the success of the revolution.
Mubarak did not want to repeat Ben Ali’s “mistake,” i.e., cut short and flee. As a former fighter pilot under attack, he thought he could dodge, outmaneuver and land his plane safely. His advisors, led by his son and interior minister, convinced him that the protesters were just a bunch of Facebook kids and would be suppressed and dispersed in a few days. The key was to buy as much time as possible. It took Mubarak four days before he appeared in public to address the nation and discuss the political measures he proposed to handle the situation. In the meantime, everyone else who had access to a TV screen—senior US and EU officials, human rights organizations, pundits, etc.–appealed to the Egyptian regime to take the right decision and respond meaningfully and quickly to the crisis. The slow political response enraged the protesters and made them more determined to continue challenging the regime and add more pressure.
Counting on repression, the regime applied diverse violent techniques, ranging from using “expired” tear gas, rubber and live bullets, and mowing down demonstrators with police trucks, to unleashing armed “thugs” with swords, knives and machetes against peaceful, unarmed protesters. The excessive use of violence and the medieval scenes of thugs on camels and horses sealed the fate of Mubarak’s regime and any chance for him to continue in power. With every fallen martyr from among the demonstrators, popular sympathy mounted and more people rushed to support the protestors. Some participants informed me that even “good thugs” from surrounding neighborhoods came to their rescue and helped overpower the bad thugs. All in all, continued and excessive violence backfired in the face of the regime.
Digital Iron Curtain
In preparation for a major crackdown against the demonstrators, Mubarak’s regime cut off the internet and cell phone services in Egypt for several days. This measure was another fatal mistake that turned to the benefit of the demonstrators. It affected the flow of communication between the security forces on the ground and their commanding officers in the headquarters of the ministry of interior. According to security officers, many lost their walkie-talkies in the violent clashes and were unable to use their disconnected cell phones, forcing them into a disorganized retreat. Unable to use cell phones to check on demonstrating relatives in Tahrir Square, families flocked in thousands to the square and stayed by their kin throughout the clashes with the security forces. Finally, the lack of cell phone and internet communication forced protest organizers to plan events ahead of time and devise an advance schedule. All Egypt took early notice of the invitation to participate in the planned massive demonstrations on Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday.
Targeting Foreign Media
The systematic targeting of foreign correspondents and some TV stations exposed the regime’s ugly face and turned western public opinion against Mubarak. This started with shutting down al- Jazeera and arresting its correspondents in Cairo. As it is almost impossible to block out the media, al-Jazeera continued its direct and live coverage of the events and aired through other satellite stations. Its coverage was broadcast live on big screens in the square and the protesters gave al-Jazeera the name of “The Voice of the Revolution.” The scenes of well-known correspondents being harassed and hit in the square by Mubarak’s thugs were incredibly repulsive. This was unprecedented cruelty against professional media crews that were simply trying to report the facts to the rest of the world. These scenes highlighted the true nature of Mubarak’s regime and stressed the need for his departure.
The slow political response to the crisis and the excessive violence were exacerbated byoffering too few concessions to the protesters. This created an incentive for the protesters to keep raising their ceiling of demands. If we recall, the demonstrators started on January 25 with the demand of freedom and ending police brutality. Then the ceiling of demands started to gradually rise with each of the regime’s disappointing responses that fell short of the protesters’ expectations. The list of demands began to escalate from “Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice” to “The People Want to Change the Regime,” to “The People Want to Try the President,” to the current demand – “The People Want to Clean up the State Institutions.”
Mubarak had at least three opportunities to offer an adequate political solution to the crisis and defuse the situation. He could have expressed understanding of the people’s demands early on and shuffled the entire cabinet to bring new credible faces to the government. Instead, he changed the cabinet while retaining 15 of his old, corrupt ministers. He also could have assured the people that he was not running for office for a sixth term or planning to transfer power to his son. Instead, he was ambiguous on both, which led many to question his credibility. And when the time came to admit that he finally understood the demonstrators’ grievances and was willing to change, the very next day he unleashed his thugs to attack and brutalize peaceful protesters. His intransigence shattered any hope that Mubarak would be able to cling on to power.
Emad Shahin is the Henry R. Luce Associate Professor of Religion, Conflict and Peacebuilding, Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame.
This piece was originally published in The Atlantic Monthly