The Mubarak government’s political suppression has left Egypt with a mass uprising but few actual progressive organizations. Photo by Amr Nabil/ CP Photo
What's next in Egypt? As is always when revolutionary processes erupt, it's still too soon to tell. Things move slowly until a sudden tipping point, and then it's all too quick, too sudden to keep up.
The hundreds of thousands filling the streets, occupying Cairo's famed Tahrir Square, include not only the most impoverished urban slum-dwellers and rural farmers and peasants. They're also the educated, the middle classes, even many of the wealthy, all saying no to the paucity of dignity and freedom in their lives.
We have not seen the U.S. flag burning or crowds attacking the U.S. embassy. The protests were not even about Egypt's 30 years of collaboration with Israel's occupation, especially its role in maintaining the siege of Gaza - opposition to which is arguably the greatest point of political unity in the country.
People have been very clear about their outrage at how the U.S. has armed Hosni Mubarak with the very weapons killing protesters in the streets. But the demands of this mobilization are directed to domestic, internal issues. Foreign policy will come just a little bit later.
While Egypt's top military brass is closely linked to the Mubarak regime, the army itself is made up primarily of poor conscripts, who were simply not willing to turn their guns on fellow citizens. Despite the $1.5 billion or more in military aid Washington has provided every year since 1979, Mubarak's government has been unable to use the military against the revolt.
The protesters aren't primarily Islamists, although Egypt's powerful but always cautious Muslim Brotherhood joined the street protests on January 28. (The protests are not explicitly secular either). Young people adept at social media are playing a leadership role unusual in the region, reminiscent of the young activists of the first Palestinian Intifada of 1987. They have gained significant respect and authority from the older, more experienced leaders.
The Egyptian protests so far appear closer to the people-power ouster of Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1986 than any other international precedent. There are major differences between Egypt's upheaval and Iran's anti-shah mobilization of 1978-79. There, mass protests were composed primarily of numerous competing, contending and sometimes antagonistic social movements, all divided along political, sectarian and organizational lines.
At the Middle East regional level, there is somewhat of a parallel to the shifts of Latin America's southern cone in the late 1980s, as U.S.-backed dictatorships in Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay and others were brought down. The long struggles for democracy there were led by experienced political coalitions that cohered around broad progressive social movements.
Those social forces don't have exact counterparts in the Arab world, where years of suppression of social movements (other than in the mosques) left them relatively less organizationally unified. The Latin American example is perhaps the model movements of the Arab world are looking to emulate.
One of the big uncertainties is what the impact of the current transformation will be on the more than 30-year-old U.S.-orchestrated ties between Egypt and Israel. The 1979 Camp David peace treaty, the first signed by an Arab state with Israel, remains the centrepiece of Israel's security doctrine and at the core of the U.S.-Egypt relationship.
Israeli officials, not surprisingly, are terrified at the prospect of the Mubarak regime collapsing and tacitly acknowledge that the Israeli relationship with Egypt is possible only because there's no democratic accountability there. But it's unlikely that any new government, whether interim or permanent, will move toward a full-scale break with the U.S. and Israel, such as the "unsigning" the Camp David peace agreement.
Aside from everything else, the U.S. aid is grounded in the terms of Camp David. No new Egyptian government is likely to give that up, at least right away. What is a likely possibility is the immediate opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza, allowing the free flow of people and goods.
It would be a great move, ending Arab state support for Israel's occupation policies. A new Middle East without at least some of the U.S.- backed dictatorships means new possibilities for a just peace based on international law and human rights.
Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are stressing the need for an "orderly" transition. One can only wonder, do they really think the U.S. still has the power, let alone the right, to decide what's sufficiently "orderly"? 3
Phyllis Bennis is a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies. Her books include Understanding The Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer and most recently, Ending The Iraq War: A Primer.