Mubarak Resigns: YAH-YA MISR – “Long Live Egypt”

cairo riotsHosni Mubarak has finally resigned. The man who was a cautionary, pro-American caretaker for 30 years morphed into one of the most brutal and autocratic dictators on the planet. In the interim, he milked the U.S. State Department for $billions as a legacy of the Camp David accords, and hopefully closed the chapter on the American policy of supporting autocratic regimes, friendly to Western interests, at the expense of human rights and real liberalization. Until recently, a dictator could carefully control the information by shutting down newspapers, radio and TV stations. Thanks to the global information network, that tactic is now a sure backfire.

When I traveled through the Middle East in 1980, I began and ended my trip in Amman, Jordan, because that’s where I got the cheapest flight. After a few days in Amman, I boarded an Egypt Air flight for Cairo to study the impact of Camp David. I don’t think there was one woman on the plane. That was also a reflection of Arab street life at the time. The men were Egyptian laborers returning home.

As the plane landed, a spontaneous chant came out in unison from all the passengers – “YAH-YA MISR, YAH-YA MISR” “Long Live Egypt.” The happiness at returning to the country they loved was infectious, though I had yet to set foot there. Naturally, I joined in the clapping and chanting too.

One of the many remarkable elements of the recent demonstrations in Egypt is the presence of women on the street. My time in Cairo found very few women on the streets ever. This was a dynamic and function of a Muslim society.

Reports on the ground from (Medaan Tahrir) Tahrir Square have been truly awe-inspiring. This “awe” has been either 31 or 59 years in the making. The last formal Egyptian Revolution occurred in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nassar took control of the army to seize control from King Farouk. Egypt has had a military government since then, carrying out various forms of individual and political oppression. Reports of badly injured men and women returning to the front lines to throw rocks and challenge the police, illustrates the sense of desperation and intolerance that has been building throughout the lives of all participants. The prevalence of a carnival atmosphere amid the riots marks the truly Egyptian character of this event.

The army was loyal to President Anwar Sadat, who was party to the Camp David accords. His assassination by one of his officers in 1981 was just as shocking as the events of the past three weeks. Mubarak’s appointment at the time was unexpected, and he was promoted as a “compromise candidate,” whatever that meant in a one-party system.

My time in Cairo in 1980 was focused on completing my Master’s Thesis at Michigan on The Impact of Camp David on the Egyptian People. The verdict: not much. The initial $5 billion in American military and economic largesse never trickled down the sieve of baksheesh (gratuity) and corruption to make a difference in the price of bread. American good will and generosity did not demand any accountability. My interview at the time with U.S. Ambassador Alfred Atherton illustrated a fatalistic acceptance of this fact. This may be changing now. The peace with Israel was and is fragile, and the American priority was maintaining a regime friendly to American corporate and military interests.

This primary determinant of “US Foreign Policy 101” has been governing the counterproductive nature of American foreign police since World War II. This factor blinded us the need for balance when popular revolutions occurred in Iran, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Tunesia , Ireland and elsewhere. As a result, anti-American sentiments prevail in most of these countries. We supported brutal dictatorships who were friendly to our economic interests, and turned a blind eye to the consequences too often.
Until recent weeks, Egypt has been a compliant society living in twin fears – of the government and G-d. The government is represented by the omnipresence of the police and army; G-d is represented by the Muslim Brotherhood (Al-Akhwan al-Muslimun).

During the peaceful time of 1980, every street corner had at last one cop or soldier. Most street corners also had Egyptian soapbox preachers in the form of a Brotherhood member, shouting prayers through a bullhorn or megaphone, collecting money and giving out small sheets of paper with spiritual messages. But these fears do nothing to mitigate the culture of systemic corruption that is . . . 5,000 years old.

While various imperial occupiers have held sway in Egypt over the centuries, the culture of corruption has pervaded through all aspect of the economy, military and civil service. Much of the service economy is driven by the system of baksheesh (gratuity); so is the civilian and military economy. This is why Camp David was a qualified failure.

Camp David made NO difference in the lives of most Egyptians – they perceive they got NOTHING from the peace with Israel. The military and government officials all took their cuts, leaving nothing for agricultural subsidies or other real difference makers.

Riots erupted over the bread supply in January 1977 when Sadat had tried to remove the government subsidy on this most important of all Egyptian food staples. He restored the subsidy in response to the riots, leaving the Egyptian economy on shaky ground. The Egyptian Arabic word for bread is “aish”, which literally means “life.”

The current uprising was portended by another round of lesser bread riots in January of this year. In 2008, similar “non-political” uprisings occurred when the bread price went up 300% and deliveries were disrupted. Until recent weeks, bread was the only thing that had led to uprisings since the 1952 Revolution. NOW it’s political!

The strikes of civil servants and middle class workers was impossible 30 years ago. The Egyptian Revolution of 2011 is the most brazen expression of government dissatisfaction since the 1977 riots. For some, that time was seen as a high point in Egyptian political activism; today represents a new high point  800 people died as a result of Sadat trying to comply with draconian economic terms that were dictated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF).In the past, Egyptians would riot only over the bread supply. This time, they rioted demanding a new government. The question is what form it will take.

The immediate course is that the army is in charge. For the past 18 days, the army has been treading a thin line of acquiescence to authority, and support for the Revolution. The army has held most of the power since 1952, and especially since 1981, and may not easily cede their standing. But new elements have arisen to create a viable alternative. The pieces are not all in place for a smooth transition.

scott prosterman

The Muslim Brotherhood is the longest-standing, best organized political organization in Cairo. It is a radical fundamentalist organization with few elements of liberalization. The educated class is small, but anxious and ready for change. The recent general strike represents this, as does the full spectrum of Egyptian society, who participated in the demonstrations. The first task is for people to go back to work and rebuild the economy. Painful growing pains are yet to occur in Egypt, but the process has begun. Yah-Ya Misr.

H. Scott Prosterman

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Comments

  1. Elsayed Khallaf says

    It is a good article, but it misses four points,probably as most western analysts did. Demonstrators did not began to stone the police untill the police began its attack on Wednesday 1.30 a.m. by water guns, tear gass canisters, rubber and live bullets. At that time western media did not pay the attention to what’s going in Egypt. That occurred while the demonstrators faced the police saying ‘selmeyya..selmeyya’ -peaceful.. peaceful.
    The second point is that muslem brotherhood role is exaggerated,as it was the ‘monster’ that Mubarak Regime kept milking aid and help from the west because of. They don’t have that weight in the Egyptian society.
    A third point is that Egypt suffered corruption for 5000 years, while studying ancient Egyptian history will not support that. You may read John wilson’s:The Burden of Egypt to understand that. There were corruption periods, but many shinning eras of civilization that prevailed and radiated science,wisdom, theology, and ivilization all over the world.
    A fourth and final note is that the revolution of the 25th of January began as a small ignition flame that intiated the whole colors of people to revolt against ‘The Regime’ not the government. Since Mubarak and the National Democratic Party are one bbig oppressor, it was a necessity realized by the demonstrators.

  2. says

    My optimistic self concurs with Scott’s provisional hope; my realist self concurs with Jay’s precaution.

    One notably sad item within Scott’s report is this: “…most Egyptians … perceive they got NOTHING from the peace” with Israel.”

    Widespread existence and validity of this perspective, viewed as a sheerly personal-economic, is bad news enough, and unfortunately could arguably be said to be a widely valid perspective for the USA too: many Americans now could hardly point to any notable personal economic ‘peace’-dividend from ending of the Cold War, or for that matter from ending of various hot wars that have since occurred.

    But what is yet more disturbing is the prospect that masses of Egyptians now hold – or soon may come to hold or be forced to go along with – the jihadist perspective of the Moslem Brotherhood: that (unless you are being massively paid off personally, and maybe not even then) there is no inherent advantage to being at peace rather than at war (likely with your son a casualty): a suicidal perspective where the burden of proof is on peace rather than on war.

  3. Jay Levenberg,Esq. says

    Forgive me if I withhold my applause. Let’s look at the situation in six months to determine if the outcome is something to celebrate. I hope so but democracy does not happen overnight. The Muslim Brotherhood is nothing to trifle with-they collaborated with the Nazis in WW2 and they are the only political party of any strength. America will have to work behind the scenes to help the new government survive. It’s current President is equivalent to the head of our CIA–This was really a bloodless military takeover. What happens next is anyones guess.

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