A casual observer would be forgiven for thinking that the protests sweeping Egypt were inevitable. But they weren’t. In the 30 years that President Mubarak has ruled Egypt with an iron fist, the situation for many has become desperate: more than 40% of the population live on just $2 a day, largely abandoned to their fate by a regime that has regularly exerted its authority, rigging elections and brutally crushing dissent. The past fortnight has seen growing comparisons between the fate of the Tunisian regime and that of Mubarak, but until now, such parallels have seemed relatively weak. Key dynamics in the fall of President Ben Ali have not been present in the Egyptian context: where Tunisia’s military was largely apolitical and sided with the protesters relatively early, the Egyptian military remains a powerful political force with a strong interest in maintaining their dominant position in society. Furthermore, the trade union movement that was so crucial in bringing thousands onto the Tunisian streets has been difficult to replicate in Egypt where civil society organisations have faced increasing repression and marginalisation over the past three decades.
But in the face of overwhelming obstacles, Egypt is tonight in the throes of revolution. Thousands have taken to the streets in a cry of collective anguish, standing their ground against a police force that is using tear gas and water cannons with impunity. The tales of heroism have spread across Twitter and Facebook like wildfire. Few can fail to have been moved by the bravery of those who have spent the day engaged in running battles with the police, scattering and then regrouping repeatedly. As it stands, official figures suggest that 850 people have been arrested. In reality, the number is likely to be much greater and the plight of those detained must now be monitored closely by those who are observing the situation closely.
In the face of such heroism, the weakness of the international response has been thrown into sharp relief. Diplomacy being what it is, one could not have hoped to see the United States support the demonstrators outright. Egypt is an important regional ally that is often credited for its vital cooperation on a wide range of issues from military operations to the Arab-Israeli peace process. As a result, Hillary Clinton last night came down firmly on the side of the regime, claiming: ‘Our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.’ So far, so predictable. But a look back to Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech, hailed by many as a new beginning for the relationship between America and the Arab world, and the gulf between rhetoric and reality will become plainly apparent. ‘There are some’, he said, ‘who advocate for democracy only when they are out of power; once in power, they are ruthless in suppressing the rights of others. No matter where it takes hold, government of the people and by the people sets a single standard for all who hold power: you must maintain your power through consent, not coercion; you must respect the rights of minorities, and participate with a spirit of tolerance and compromise.’
Despite continued pronouncements over the need for Egypt to protect human rights and continue on the path to political reform, it is clear that Washingtonʼs key concern remains stability and continued relations with the country’s political elite. But set against the backdrop of tonight’s protests, the American commitment to ‘tolerance and compromise’ seem directly at odds with the regime they are now supporting. It is impossible to predict the outcome of this Egyptian intifada, but one thing is now clear: Egypt is no longer the ‘stable’ ally that the US once treasured. In light of the ongoing unrest, President Obama would do well to look back at his fine words in Cairo two years ago and think carefully about the values he wishes to promote in the Middle East. If the US continues to support brutal repression of those who have come to embody the message of hope against fear upon which Obama built his reputation, the people of Egypt will not forget their betrayal easily.
Edit: Talking of bravery, here’s an amazing recording from The Guardian correspondant, Jack Shenker, last night. After being beaten and arrested by police, he recorded his experience as he was driven out into the desert with a truckload of detainees.