The Revolution Is Being Televised

By Fazila Farouk · 3 Feb 2011

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Picture: Dark Room Productions
Picture: Dark Room Productions

Forty years ago, musician and poet, Gil Scott-Heron wrote, “The revolution will not be televised,” as he encouraged an awakening of activism amongst disenfranchised African Americans whose sense of indignation had been dulled by that opiate of the masses, television.

In the four decades since those words were penned, they’ve assumed a global significance for the downtrodden and disenfranchised of our world, who, for too long have borne the burden of a jaded public sleepwalking its way through a world of human rights violations and global injustices. 

But idealists around the world have suddenly had their faith restored, first by the grassroots-driven regime change in Tunisia and now by the overwhelming and seamless show of solidarity amongst Egyptians, who, emboldened by the example of their Tunisian brothers and sisters, took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands demanding that the dictator Hosni Mubarak who has ruled over them for 30 years, steps down. 

Since the 25th of January 2011, protests in Egypt have shaken the country’s political establishment to the core and caught the rest of the world completely by surprise.

On the 24th of January 2011, Egypt News ran what appeared to be a run of the mill article, aimed at informing the public about a protest against the authoritarian regime. It wasn’t groundbreaking news by any stretch of the imagination. Protests against the regime have not been uncommon in Egypt, which has been witnessing an increase in political activism in recent years. 

“Egypt activists hope 25 January protest will be start of something big,” ran the headline of the article in a typically tantalising style, as it reported that 80,000 Facebook users had confirmed that they would join activists from a range of established political movements and organisations for a nation-wide protest to demand "the restoration of a fair minimum wage, the end of Emergency Law, and the limitation of the presidency to two terms." 

Nothing could have prepared that publication and the rest of the world for the prophesy of their headline, as the 25th of January did indeed usher in the “start of something big” in Egypt. Reports put the number of people who joined the protest on that fateful day at 50,000, heralding a defining moment in Egyptian anti-government activism, which had never before enjoyed such a show of public support.

Egyptians have since continued their public protests and in their hundreds of thousands have flocked to and occupied the aptly named Tahrir (liberty) Square in Cairo, which has become the key site for the struggle against Mubarak.

Every day since the 25th of January, Egyptians have defied a curfew to join in mass action against the authoritarian regime, braving brutal clashes with police that have left more than a hundred people dead. Simultaneously Egyptians heeded the call for a “million man march” on 1 February 2011, where more than a million people turned out in Tahrir Square and its surrounding area, reported the television network, Al Jazeera.

The protests have been a site to behold. No longer are the protestors merely made up of unemployed youth fed up with their bleak futures. In recent days, people from all walks of life have joined them. Men and women, young and old, rich and poor, are united in their call for Mubarak to step down.

It’s a revolution unlike any other we’ve witnessed in modern times. Egyptians have overcome social barriers, reaching out to each other across religious, socio-economic and other divides to form a united front against the dictator Mubarak. 

And this time, the revolution is being televised.

This time, the cameras haven't turn away from the Egyptian people for more than a week. This time, the world is marvelling at the dignity of a movement that has shown such strength in numbers and cohesion around a single demand. This time, we are all awestruck by the enduring courage of a people driven by compassion for each other’s shared destiny.

But the plight of the Egyptian people will not be resolved as easily as that of their Tunisian counterparts. It will require vigilance from the Egyptian people to ensure that a false solution does not present itself as the panacea for the nation’s problems. 

Given both real and feigned support from global powers for the plight of the Egyptian people, one wonders why Mubarak isn’t being whisked away in the middle of the night to a faraway country to live what’s left of his golden years in luxurious exile. 

Instead he is being left to fiddle with reshuffling and appointing a new cabinet, while his son who was being groomed for the presidency, has fled the country. 

America, which has enormous influence in the Middle East, is watching developments with trepidation. While pledging their support for the demand for a real democracy in Egypt, US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, have not gone far enough in demanding unequivocal regime change.

Instead there’s been a preoccupation with the narrative of regional stability. “Stability” has become the buzzword for describing any response to the situation in Egypt. This has had the effect of exposing the blatant hypocrisy of US foreign policy in the Middle East. 

Regional stability is apparently more important than Egypt deposing its dictator. There’s a reason behind this, as Egypt under Mubarak is the only Arab nation to have struck a peace treaty with Israel, making it a strategic partner of the Israel-America alliance in the geopolitics of the region.

To reward Egypt for its cooperation with Israel, America has been providing US$1.3bn dollars worth of aid to the country on an annual basis. However, this aid does not reach Egypt in the form of cash transfers, rather it arrives in the form of military aid, which some analysts argue, more aptly describes it as aid to America’s military industrial complex.

Regardless, what this has resulted in is a compliant partner with huge military capability that bends to the whims of the Israel-America alliance, while Israel continues to violate international laws in occupied Palestine, rubbishing any genuine attempts at reaching a peaceful accord with the Palestinians.

Egypt’s future is intimately tied to developments in Israel and occupied Palestine.

Mubarak is known to side with Western concerns for so-called regional stability as opposed to Arab concerns for human rights in Palestine, and has gone as far as closing Egypt’s Rafah border crossing with the Gaza strip and building a 30 meters deep/10 kilometres long underground steel wall to stop tunnel smuggling, which is one of the only ways to get goods into Gaza.

Israel, for its part has been nervously appraising the current situation in Egypt and is hugely concerned about any regime change that could potentially result in an Islamist government, which would surely signal the beginning of the end of the peace agreement between the two countries.

But Israel has little to fear, at least in light of Mubarak’s announced on 1 February 2011 that he plans to step down from the presidency later this year, and that neither he nor his son would stand for presidential elections scheduled for September, possibly sooner.  

Mubarak’s announcement has the hallmark of a diplomatic scramble behind it, as the strategic US-Egypt alliance buys more time to establish a new political dispensation that would still maintain Egypt’s foreign policy status quo. Given the US’ generous aid package, relations between the top brass in both the American and Egyptian militaries appear to be warm. For the Americans, it wouldn’t really matter who was running Egypt as long as this relationship remains intact.

But where do Mubarak’s latest announcements leave the anti-government protest movement? Its been reported that protestors in Tahrir Square rejected Mubarak’s announcement, still demanding his immediate resignation. Whether they maintain this position or withdraw from the streets in the days ahead remains to be seen. At the time of writing, protestors are reportedly still on Tahrir Square engaged in further demonstrations.

And what about the Egyptian opposition? Egypt’s opposition parties are weak not least because the tyrannical Mubarak smashed all opposition. That is, until the most recent ballot when opposition parties were allowed to contest elections, resulting in the Muslim Brotherhood securing just under 20% of the seats in Egypt’s lower house of parliament. Regardless of scaremongering in the Western media, the Muslim Brotherhood pose no real threat to toppling the incumbent regime nor of winning future elections given the strongly secular nature of Egyptian society. “Muslims, Christians, we are all Egyptians,” was a common slogan chanted during the protests.

Sensing the weakness of their position, the Muslim Brotherhood have entered into an alliance with Mohamed ElBaradei, who has been described as a credible outsider and may also have Washington’s backing. ElBaradei who retuned to Egypt after the protests started, spent many years in international diplomacy positions outside of the country. He is best known for challenging the Bush Administration, as head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on the question of nuclear weapons in Iran -- a stance that cost him a second term as head of the IAEA. ElBaradei is not well known by the people of Egypt and may struggle to garner their support if he has long-term political ambitions. For the moment, he seems to be tapped for a transitional role in Egyptian politics.

Much remains up in the air in the aftermath of Egypt’s million-man march. The revolutionary fervour of the Egyptian people will be tested in the days ahead. One thing is for sure; they have added to the scepticism surrounding America’s foreign policy in the Middle East and rocked the foundations of authoritarian rule in the Arab world. The world is watching.

Farouk is founder and executive director of The South African Civil Society Information Service.

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4 Feb

Exciting Times

These are exciting times. Tunisia, Egypt and, who knows, Yemen, maybe even Zimbabwe....

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Rory Short
4 Feb

The Need for World Government

The underhand role played by the USA in the politics of the Middle East is a sign to me that we need a democratically elected World Government. That the US government behaves as it does, does not surprise me because although the US government is democratically elected in matters of foreign affairs it behaves like the armed wing of corporate America. In matters of foreign affairs the US government serves the interests of corporate America pure and simple and these interests are highly unlikely to match those of ordinary citizens.

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