"A Man's a Man for all that!" - Rabbie Burns
Feb 8, 2011
Last week, after the heroic fight against Mubarak's violent thugs, it seemed that the peoples revolution might have gained an unstoppable momentum that would lead to his swift departure. This outcome appeared more likely as the US government appeared to be further nuancing it's earlier stance and appeared to be signaling a desire to see Mubarak's swift departure.
As a new week dawned things started to look a little less certain however. This is the nature of revolutions - their course is only predictable with hindsight. The Mubarak regime dug in and adopted what at first sight appear to be contradictory actions. These actions however bought it some breathing space.
In the face of intense international criticism they called back their violent thugs and their crude attempt to create chaos and violent instability. At the same time they had unleashed a major assault on the media in an attempt to control the flow of news about the revolution. This was coupled with a mixture of soothing noises about change, suggestions that the revolution was narrowly supported and a mixture of threats and appeasement via the state controlled media. The regime was in effect trying to buy itself time and this strategy appears to have worked for now.
It is a strategy that also wrong footed the US. Towards the end of last week the US assessment was, no doubt, that events were spiralling and that the quick departure of Mubarak would lead to a less not a more volatile situation. As the regime has dug in though, the US stance of last week perhaps began to look to the US government like it might leave them on the wrong side of events. What if Mubarak and the regime managed to hang on in a situation where the US had apparently been calling for him to go? What then for their relationship with this regime? Such calculations have no doubt fuelled the slight softening of the stance of the US in recent days.
Whatever the position of the US though this revolution still belongs to the Egyptian people. Taking their protests at face value it seems clear that the position of all the groups involved - including the Muslim Brotherhood - is that they want to see a change to a democratic state - one in which there is freedom of association, freedom of the press, free speech and a freedom to take part on political activity.
The big question now for the protesters must be how best to achieve this overall aim. Is it possible that the slogan "Mubarak must go now" might actually compromise this larger and more significant aim?
I am beginning to conclude that it might. Mubarak is a stubborn and proud man and it looks unlikely that he will step down unless there is a sea change in the way the protests are being conducted. That could only mean entering a new period of revolutionary activity - trying to take over state institutions for example such as the State TV or occupying the Presidential palace or an all out strike. The problem with that strategy would be that this would play into the regimes hands. It seems unlikely the army would stand by and do nothing faced with events escalating in that way. This approach is an option for the protesters but if they were to choose that course then the end of last week was probably the flood tide for that too happen. They may not now have sufficient momentum to adopt that kind of strategy.
So what would I do in their place? I think at this stage their best course is not to call for Mubarak to actually go but rather to present a series of demands that in practice prevent the regime from conducting itself as a dictatorship during the period leading to free elections.
I think the protesters should begin to focus on changes to the way the system works which ensure that Egyptians can exercise free speech, free assembly and political activity from here on in. If they can achieve significant interim changes then they can in effect make Mubarak and the regime irrelevant and incapable of stopping change. Such demands would be legitimate and it would be very difficult for the regime to justify refusing such demands.
There is no doubt that Mubarak is going to leave power one way or another. The protesters arguably would now be better raising their sights and focusing on the bigger and longer game here. Mubarak is perhaps now a distraction.
The real issue is that Egyptians need their freedoms guaranteed and protected by the state and it is changes in this area that should be the priority. This may not have the symbolic value that Mubarak's departure would have but these types of changes will in the long run do much more to ensure that the Egyptian people achieve their aim of a free democracy.
The difficulty with this strategy of course is that it is much easier to rally people around simple slogans such as "Mubark must go now" than it is around more complex messages. Therein lies the condundrum for this revolution. A simple slogan more easily mobilises the people but may well not achieve the real aims of the revolution.
Update: The Egyptian regime appears to have offered some further concessions and "sweeteners" - Some reports suggest that Suleiman has said that there will be no attempt to track down and persecute the pro-democracy protestors ( get it in writing guys !). The regime is also trying bribery by announcing significant wage rises for public sector workers. On the other side the protestors are maintaining more mementum than some had feared might be the case this week - another very large rally underway in Tahir square today. Can they keep it up and outlast the regime?