What a difference a day makes. Well, 18 days.
The pro-democracy demonstrations in Egypt have truly shown the power of the people when they speak with one voice and won’t take no for an answer. They demanded that President Hosni Mubarak leave and take with him his crushing boot of suppressive policies. Ignored at first, the wave of humanity that packed Cairo’s Tahrir Square 24/7 finally couldn’t be shrugged off.
Last Thursday President Hosni Mubarak, in a confusing speech, announced the transfer of some power to Vice President Omar Suleiman but stopped short of stepping down. The people, anticipating his resignation, were dumbfounded then furious. Mubarak finally took the hint and took off for his residence in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, handing over control to the high council of the armed forces.
Mubarak is a military man. Born in 1928 in the village of Kafr el-Moseilha, he trained as a fighter pilot and moved up the ranks of the Egyptian Air Force to become Air Chief Marshall after the Yom Kipper War with Israel in 1973. President Anwar Sadat chose him as his vice president in 1975 and, when Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Islamic militants, Mubarak assumed the presidency. Sadat’s shining moment was a peace agreement with Israel in 1979 and Mubarak has upheld that in the three decades since while at the same time receiving political and financial support from the U.S. But on the home front he ruled with an iron fist, quashing any uprising or protest with brute force.
Mubarak may be gone but the challenges facing Egypt, a powerhouse in the Middle East, are still there, alongside new ones. The military leaders have dissolved the country’s parliament and suspended the constitution. They said they would run the country for six months until the next election. But who will the next leader be? Who will form parliament? The military brass knows nothing about democracy and, besides, they are part of a regime with deep, entrenched self-interests which don’t allow for the transparency of democracy. Fair to say the protesters, while jubilant, are sober about mid and long term expectations.
Mubarak’s departure, coming on the heels of the ousted Tunisian leader, is a tectonic political shift. People power is sweeping the region in ways not seen since the days of the pharaohs. Ordinary folk are fed up with autocracy, corruption, unemployment, the staggering cost living and having a voice that is never listened to.
The Egyptian factor is making leaders of neighbouring states uneasy. Israel is understandably feeling some angst. While the Egyptian military said they would honour the peace deal, will it still be honoured by the new president? Regionally, leaders are wondering if their Sharm el-Sheikh moment is coming. Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh has promised anti-government protesters he won’t run for office again. Defying a ban on demonstrations, Algerians marched Saturday to push for democratic reform. Strikes and demonstrations have plagued Morocco. Syria lifted its ban on Facebook. Jordan’s King Abdullah II fired his government. Bahrain is giving $2,700 to every family.
Everyone, western leaders included, is trying to read between the lines. The military are holding the cards and they are putting out some reassuring words. But protesters have a right to be skeptical and look for action to back up the promises. Releasing imprisoned protesters would be a good place to start. A guarantee of a free and fair election would be another.
People are talking about change not just in Egypt but the entire Middle East. Just what those changes are, what challenges they bring and what they mean to the region and the world are still in the cards.