In the aftermath of Tunisia’s successful uprising against its erstwhile President Ben Ali, one BBC News Cairo-based reporter wrote that Egyptian protestors faced “formidable obstacles” if a similar attempt was made to oust their authoritarian government. Following that, a surreal 18 days of protests overcame every one of these obstacles, wiping away decades of inertia and bringing about a seismic shift in Egyptian domestic politics. In the end, President Mubarak stepped down and the Egyptian Armed Forces took control of the country. Whether the Army can deliver the democracy demanded by the people remains to be seen, but either way it has been a monumental three weeks for the country.
Sixteen days after the first protests took place, the Armed Forces High Council read out a statement on Egyptian State Television, promising to “implement all necessary measures to protect the nation”. Furthermore, it was stated that the Defence Minister Field Marshall Mohamed Tantawi would “support the legitimate demands of the people and remain in continuous session” until the crisis was over.
This sparked rumours that Mubarak had lost the support of the army, and many commentators were discussing whether Mubarak would be forced to resign. The atmosphere in Tahrir Square reflected the crowd’s feelings, as chants of “Mubarak out” were shouted incessantly. However, in a speech shortly after the Army’s statement, Mubarak maintained that he would only resign after the September elections, and that the military would secure the country in the meantime. The protesters rejected this offered concession, with a massive roar of anger echoing around Tahrir Square as the speech ended. To the Army, who seemed eager for safety and stability to return to Egypt, the President’s words reeked of a desperate plea to disperse the protesters. However, Mubarak’s attempt to blame the protests on foreign pressure rang hollow, as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians from a cross section of society continued to protest, despite what Mubarak termed “the dangers around them”. This threat was not one the Army were willing to back up, and so after this last throw of the dice, Mubarak announced his resignation on the 11th February.
But what does this mean for the region, and for Egypt itself? The Egyptian Army has stood at the heart of Egyptian society for the last six decades, providing the stability and support Egypt’s leaders needed to maintain power; it is essentially seen by many Egyptians as a national institution. This image has been cultivated by the Army, which strives to give the impression that it stands alone above the political fray. It makes it quite unlikely that the Egyptian Army will risk its popular image by taking control permanently. Moreover, after Israel, Egypt is the second largest recipient of US aid having been provided with $1.3bn in military aid in 2010. This is estimated to be around 40-50% of the Egyptian Army’s total budget, giving the United States significant influence over its proceedings; Barack Obama has made it clear that he wants stability and democracy for Egypt. The Army itself has reflected this in the key words it has used: stability, safety and security and a rational change to democracy. Once the Army lifts the state of emergency, as it has promised to do, we can expect Egypt to have democratic elections to decide their next government.
The Egyptian protests have given a massive boost to opposition parties throughout the region. In Yemen, protests against their authoritarian government erupted at the beginning of February, with 20,000 turning out on the 3rd February for a “day of rage” in the capital Sanaa. In Algeria, hundreds of pro-democracy protesters turned out for an anti-government rally in the capital Algiers. Although it is too soon to predict what will happen in other countries in the region, the victories of the Egyptian and Tunisian protesters has inspired many others to follow suit. Is a 1989-esque fall of authoritarian regimes possible? Only time will tell, but with other countries in the region suffering from similar internal problems, now might be the time to get swept up in the calls for democracy and attempt to bring down the other authoritarian strongmen of North Africa. The obstacles will be as formidable as the ones Egyptians faced, but for the people of Yemen and Algeria, Egypt’s victory brings them hope.