by Sherifa Zuhur, Sociology of Islam and Muslim Societies, February 1, 2011

I find it very difficult to assemble emotions, memories and impressions to respond to the events in Tunisia and Egypt. I have been responding sharply to others who seized the moment to offer their analysis. Certain characterizations of Egyptians did not sit well with me. I also fear that specific arguments are easily manipulated — that the centers of power who have so deftly dominated the media, huge sums of money and many segments of national elites will thwart the resurgence of popular resistance and demonstration of public will. But since those consulted by Barry and Joe and their “teams” are hard at work, spreading fear of a future Egypt non-compliant with the terms of Camp David, conjuring up the Islamist bogeyman, and (one fears) holding Hosni’s hand, we too should speak.

A group of Tunisian friends joined my Facebook page and share their jubilation and updates with me. Their example has inspired Egypt, however, to attribute events in Egypt to Tunisia, or social media and the impact of al-Jazeera would be wrong. Underlying events are Egyptians’ own lengthy struggles and perceptions that transformation is possible. To some degree, fear of counter-revolution is what froze civil expression in Egypt when the communists, the workers and the Muslim Brotherhood were each treated as intolerable threats to the Nasser government. Student activism became possible again in Sadat’s era, but firm rules were established about the “forbidden topics” (the infitah, peace with Israel, corruption, Saudi Arabia etc.) People complied, or they suffered professional defeat, exile, or worse. Then, for many years, violent attacks – against government officials, against judges, policemen, continued up to the crescendo of the firebombing of buses in Tahrir square and the massacre of tourists at Luxor. When the truce with the Gama’at Islamiyya and then Gihad Islami (Islamic Jihad) were achieved, the detentions, torture, and suspension of civilian liberties could have been lifted, but they were not. This year, I spent some time studying instances of extrajudicial actions versus what is acknowledged as state terror. Perhaps they differ in volume, but not in effect. We are speaking of drowning in cold water, the use of dogs, hanging, beatings, electrocution, and threats to family members. These were the weapons of government and are responsible, at least to some degree for the emergence of figures like Ayman al-Zawahiri. In the 2000’s as new “terror” threats emerged, the Minister of the Interior and his employees arrested thousands in the Sinai and elsewhere, and these tactics continued as well as public beatings and confrontations with demonstrators. The emergency laws were extended again, and again.

In the 1990s, I recall my impatience with some of my Egyptian students, who, committed to the status quo, sometimes expressed open contempt for the poor. Poverty and developmental needs were given as reasons that society would not risk change, instead of being fundamental aspects of human rights as they are now conceived. They envisioned their own future as entrepreneurs, and “solidarity” meant little to them outside of the friendship circles they forged in schools. The failure of the system to provide economic justice and to advance human potential was excused away – the size of the bureaucracy, the need to satisfy the IMF and the World Bank’s dictates, and somehow the growing number of NGOs was supposed to handle the morass of poor planning and expansion which benefited some far more than others.

All the while, small but brave groups of Egyptian activists tried every angle imaginable to open their political system, invite electoral oversight, grant the judiciary the powers they should hold according to the Constitution, offer legal services to those who can’t afford them, and document violence (police and family generated). Others have been in exile for years. The government began to allow certain protests of foreign events (in Lebanon, or against the Palestinians, or in Iraq) but not domestic ones; and as prices, rents, and land rates rose and the privatization made inroads, workers protests and shutdowns once again occurred. But desperation breeds compromise. People needed jobs and couldn’t find them. Old friends had travele to the Gulf, or to Libya to work. Or they were out of work. Temporary marriage burgeoned as many young people couldn’t afford the normal, expensive arrangements. Islamists wielded different arguments about the government, including the incredible pace of corruption. The differences and convergences with these groups and others working for political rights and freedom of expression is really too complex for me to set forth in this hasty note, except to say that Samia Mehrez captures some of it in her book, and that it was deleterious in so many ways. Whether women’s, prisoner’s or political rights – the force of government power effectively fractured opposition and activists into many different cliques.

These demonstrations which began on the 25 January 2011 were named after Khalid Sa’id, an Alexandrian businessman, and activist for al-Ghad who had videoed police involvement in drugs. A thousand people turned out to protest Sa’id’s killing in June, but this did not ignite the nation at the time. The Tunisian uprising did inspire at least nine Egyptians to immolate themselves, bringing a swift condemnation of suicide by al-Azhar. When this happened, a friend asked me to write – and tired of the subject of suicidal Muslims/suicide attacks and jihad I declined. The message of self-sacrifice, was, however, commented on and present in the Egyptian public’s discussion of despair and self-sacrifice. Then, because Sa’id’s death was emblematic of the brazen brutality, and commitment to public lies of Mubarak’s regime, Police Day (25 Jan.) was chosen for protests. Once the protests began, the government’s determination to ignore them became very clear. The Mubarak government and the National Democratic Party have never respected the Egyptian people. Serour’s and Mubarak’s eventual admonishments to the “misguided youth” (demonstrators and activists) as if they were a horde of naughty children sugared up by foreign instigators, was true to form.

What we are learning as social scientists is that populism may not have been firmly extinguished with the fading of Arab nationalist promise and the defeat of ’67. The disaster that is Palestine, despite years and years of protests and organized campaigns has left another legacy of disappointment. What else has opened the gates of dawn besides years of Egyptian activism, and a Tunisian example? U.S. interventionism in the region and the opening of new media has likely played a role. If Saddam Hussein’s statue could be toppled, even via military power, rulers mocked in blogs and shoes thrown at Bush – all of this may have emboldened those never before active to tear down Mubarak’s gigantic photographs.

The crowds of this week are making simple requests – that Hosni Mubarak leave! Or be judged! That they want freedom and a new government. They want an end to emergency laws and open and free elections. Not a re-shuffling of old and familiar faces. As I write, 2 million people are massed in Midan Tahrir and thousands more in al-Arish, Alexandria, Damanhur, al-Mahalla, Mansura and elsewhere. Supplies are low, so civic-minded folks have brought what they had to share to Tahrir. Young people have organized to clean the streets, to defend buildings like the library in Alexandria and others against thugs thought to be Amn al-Dawla or in their pay.

National television stations continuously screen a view free of protestors, or a montage of Egyptian scenes filled with flags and proud music in between the scheduled soap operas. Egypt’s public figures are consulted — Adil Imam supports Mubarak; Omar Sharif says 30 years has been long enough. The beginning of a new era in Egypt is not a certainty. There are divisions among the demonstrators and between Egyptians. Far more than the estimated 1, 500,000 in the security services, special guards, active military and reserves are dependent on the military because it operates large numbers of industries. Other related industries such as weapons, radar, and warning systems could also be vulnerable to a political shift. Much will depend on the reasoning of the military leadership who will prefer Suleiman’s retention to an entirely new cast of characters brought in by the proposed National Salvation government. The people, however, are adamant that Mubarak should leave office.

There are many with greater influence over the U.S. government than we, the unmanageable and impractical scholars. Barry and Joe have sent Frank Wisner as a special envoy to Mubarak. Brookings, CSIS, Foreign Policy (with two exceptions) on the one side, and Heritage Foundation, Rand, other think tanks, the senior service colleges’ experts, and CENTCOM’s circle of “advisors” have argued for years that Mubarak and the NDP were preferable to elections which open the door to the Muslim Brothers. The Muslim Brotherhood have joined in with five other opposition groups and stated their commitment to a democratic government in a new Egypt. But they are not unaware of the repeated sentiments abroad against them.

The other oft-repeated wisdom is that a new Egyptian government might ignore the Camp David Accords, prompting various Israeli statements of support for Mubarak. These Accords were forged without a popular referendum. They were initially supported because Egypt had borne the brunt of three wars, but then opposed because of Sadat’s harsh suppression of opposition to these measures, and because of the Arab world’s response. In a democratic political system, Egyptians should have input into their own foreign policy. The U.S. is deeply embroiled in this scheme to bolster Israeli security, which was to be guaranteed through separate peace agreements. If new governments prevail, then there may be a stronger incentive to move towards some sort of comprehensive peace plan and Israel would have to relinquish more than it has signaled at present.

Quite a few are arguing that the Tunisian and Egyptian popular revolutions are not religious, or – quite specifically — are unlike Iran’s. It is important to understand that the West has historically opposed the various discourses of resistance in this region. The West (certainly the UK, U.S. and France) as well as Israel were extremely hostile to Nasser and Arab nationalism and to the Islamist awakening since the 1970s. Well let’s face it. The majority of Egyptians are deeply religious and there are many Islamists among them, and not only supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood. In the many years that Islamists were politically shut-out, various aspects of Islamization have taken place.

Islamism is not what has sparked the current anti-authoritarianism – no, that was the regime’s contempt for its own people. There is a common theme in the calls for justice. Islamists of the ‘70s continuously alluded to the ruler of Egypt as a Pharaoh. The Qur’an states that Moses and Aaron were told:

Go both of you, to Pharaoh

For he has indeed

Transgressed all bounds

But speak to him mildly

Perchance he may take

Warning or fear Allah (Ta Ha [20]: 43-44)

I hesitated to insert this quotation, but I think we all know that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and this is not exclusively an Islamist message. Neither mild reprimand, jihad, or any other form of opposition has been effective at curbing the Egyptian rulers’ extensive executive powers. As I send this off, Mubarak has signaled he will “offer a solution” soon and the Jordanian king has sacked his cabinet.

Thus far, the populations in other Arab, Muslim countries also reflect a mixture of liberal, religious but non-political, Islamist, and other views. The actors are who they are; not who or what Westerners would like them to be; and they aspire to be actual actors, and not invisible “masses” as under non-democratic rule. If other nations continue to see that protest effects change, then the winds of Tunisia and Egypt may indeed blow into Yemen, Algeria, Jordan and possibly further.