Uprising will only become a revolution when demands of protesters are met


The revolt in Egypt may turn out to be the world’s first real people-power revolution, writes MICHAEL JANSENin Cairo

THE EGYPTIAN campaign to oust President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years in power and launch the country’s transformation from one-man rule to democracy could be the world’s first real people-power revolution.

While the Iranian and Filipino mass actions of 1979 and 1986 also toppled deeply unpopular authoritarian regimes, neither relied exclusively on people power to effect change. This happened only in Egypt.

Iran’s “Islamic Revolution” was a genuine revolution that not only toppled a ruler and transformed the country’s system of governance but also produced a radical ideology that shook the Middle East as a whole and continues to challenge western interests in the region.

Many actors staged this revolution: politicised elements in the Shia clerical hierarchy, bazaar merchants, white- and blue-collar workers, the intelligentsia, students and long-established parties repressed by the shah’s regime. The tide turned when the military intervened with force on the side of the uprising. While progressive party organisations and militias played key roles, the winner was ultimately exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, whose followers had plotted and prepared for years for the overthrow of the shah. He left Iran 32 years to the day before Mubarak’s removal.

The ousting of Filipino president Ferdinand Marcos was also the culmination of a prolonged campaign led originally by Benigno Aquino who was assassinated in 1983 – his wife Corazon then became the figurehead of the movement.

Pressure built up from all levels of society after Marcos was declared the winner of the February 6th (1986) presidential election, widely regarded as having being rigged in his favour. Popular demonstrations had the support of influential political and military figures while Cardinal Jaime Sin placed the powerful Catholic Church squarely on the side of the protesters. Demonstrations reached their zenith between February 22nd and 25th when two million people protested at Epifano de Los Santos Avenue in Quezon City, the equivalent of today’s Tahrir (Liberation) Square in Cairo.

While the Filipino rising was dubbed “the revolution that surprised the world” it was not a genuine revolution as its objective was to remove an autocrat and restore democracy rather than effect a total transformation of the country. Marcos’s ousting should not have surprised the world because the Philippines had been in a state of simmering rebellion for several years.

The Egyptian revolt against Mubarak not only surprised the world but also the Egyptian people. The uprising also shocked the powerful military establishment which compelled Mubarak to resign last Friday when it became clear he enjoyed the support of only the presidential guard and the air force, the president’s own service.

The Egyptian revolt is not yet a “revolution”. It remains a mass uprising against a military regime that has been in power since the monarchy was overthrown in 1952. The uprising will become a revolution only if and when the demands of the democracy movement are met. These include an end to military rule, lifting of the emergency laws imposed since 1981, and free and fair multiparty elections. If these objectives are attained, Egypt will have staged a real revolution and secured democracy for the first time in its 7,000 years of history.

The revolt was sparked and, to a certain extent, organised by thousands of educated young Egyptians who have access to the internet, Facebook and Twitter. They made contact online, raised awareness of the abuse of power by the Mubarak regime, and planned protests without knowing the response would be massive spontaneous demonstrations countrywide.

While members of long- established political parties – including the liberal Wafd and the Muslim Brotherhood – took part, their leaderships, which had collaborated with the Mubarak regime, were not involved in organising the demonstrations.

One organiser, Sherif Mackawi, an aircraft engineer, said: “Twenty days ago no one could imagine what would happen. When we were asked who would be our next president, we would say, Gamal Mubarak – son of the ousted president. Today we don’t know who’ll come. We broke all the rules.” He continued: “If anyone says he is a leader, he is lying. We are organisers only.”

The figure who has emerged as a sort of spokesman is Wael Ghonim, Google’s marketing manager in Egypt whose Facebook musings launched a million person uprising.

Mayy al-Sheikh, a human rights activist who took part in the protest movement, said everyone had their own reasons for joining, their “own set of demands”. They put all their different lists of demands together and, by January 28th, decided the regime had to go. The unity of the people was forged in the days that followed when the regime disrupted internet and mobile phone communications and used brute force against protesters. People took the view, “We are going to die here. People did die.” said Sheikh. “We felt fear, rage, intense excitement.” Then they started to believe. “We are able to do this for the first time. We are able to change things for ourselves. It was scary but we were very happy, even though threatened by a tyrant regime.”

The young people who took part in the movement were “born under Mubarak . . . everything is named for Mubarak [schools, hospitals, roads], now that he is gone we feel somehow empty”.

Sheikh is optimistic about the Egyptian uprising making the transition to revolution because the demonstrations “changed people . . . the people make all the difference”.