IMAGES on Al-Jazeera of Egypt’s National Democratic Party’s headquarters going up in flames were of a Cairo I’d never seen before. The buzzing crowds on the corniche, trying to tip a troop carrier into the river, were not taking in the air for fun.
For on most cool January winter evenings, the Nile waterfront is usually thronged with tourists dining at the overpriced houseboat restaurants, and the October 7 Bridge is bumper-to-bumper with traffic.
Empowered by the Tunisian uprising, and angered by a 30-year regime of corruption, nepotism, political oppression and economic hardship, Egypt’s 80 million people have finally said, “enough!”
And whether the arrogantly intractable 82 year-old Hosni Mubarak stays in power for long or not, the geo-politics of the Middle East will never be the same again.
From the times of the Islamic empire in the 7th century, Egypt has always been one of the most pivotal of Middle Eastern and African states – and when an Egyptian tyrant falls off his throne, the sound is heard a long way.
This is because since the Camp David Accord of 1979 with Israel, Egypt has managed to hold the centre together, even if by default. Mubarak has proved to be a faithful servant of the US, Israel and world monetary institutions, also providing diplomatic go-betweens for the dilapidated Palestinian peace process.
Then there is Egypt’s prominence in the Islamic world. An Egyptian president may preside over a secular government, but Egypt is one of Islam’s oldest strongholds. It is the epicentre of the Ikhwan (or Islamic Movement), an organisation founded in the 1920’s to counter the social effects of colonialism.
Cairo is also home of the influential 900 year-old Al Azhar University. This institution has been the unofficial centre of the Sunni world since the fall of the Turkish Caliphate. In a region plagued with religious extremism, the Al-Azhar has been a bulwark of moderation.
But in the post-colonial era, Egypt has suffered as much socio-political upheaval as it has faced religious challenges. There have been the abject failings of Pan Arabism after President Nasser’s death in 1970, and the three bruising conflicts of the 1956 Suez crisis, the Six Day Israeli War of 1967 and the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Gamal Abdul Nasser, the greatest Pyrrhic leader of modern times, might have been buried an Arab and African hero, but he did crush the Ikhwan and ruthlessly shut down his opposition after an assassination attempt. This is a tradition that has been devotedly followed by Mubarak.
So as with Tunisia, predicting the destiny of Egypt post-Mubarak is like looking into a fog. The systemic stamping-out of political dissent for over six decades has not exactly left the cupboard stocked with successors.
Whilst Israel’s silence is strategic, the US has made it quite clear behind nuanced statement that the wiser course is for Mubarak to step down. And if the committee of 10 headed by Mohamed El Baredei and Ayman Nour can make inroads towards interim government, the politics of the region will shift focus – whether sponsoring powers like it or not.
The ramifications for the Islamic world are huge. This is because the Islamic Movement, the bête noire of Ben Ali and Mubarak, is a willing partner in the North African democratic process. The drawing to the centre of the Islamic Movement will push out extremism and finally give voice to the conventional.
This also means that future Egyptian governments will not express the same aversion for Hamas as Mubarak did. Egypt will still honour the Camp David Accords with Israel. But for the preconditions of recognising Israel, Israeli diplomats will find Egypt demanding a more principled approach to the peace process, and the lifting of the Gaza siege.
But I’m sure that the US, which grants Egypt its second biggest aid package next to Israel, will still be wondering: what next? By any standards, the unravelling of Mubarak’s regime is a tectonic event.
Yet the Egyptian uprising is the one that surprises me the least. I first saw signs of it in Cairo in 2006 when I was on my way to Beirut during Israel’s summer war with Hezbollah.
In Cairo and other Arab capitals, Hezbollah leader Sayyid Nasrullah had become a hero. And with emotion ratcheted high, I heard Arab leaders being openly cursed in public for the first time. In 20 years of covering events in the Middle East I’d never heard such talk.
In 1987 if I’d shouted “Mubarak is a dog” in Tahrir Square, I would have been arrested within minutes.
In 2006 the Middle East was changing, and one could see that the yoke was becoming too heavy. That is why I believe it was Israel’s attack on Lebanon that became the proverbial straw. The Shi’ite Hezbollah – standing up to Israeli elite forces – had awoken the Sunnis, no matter how hollow the victory might have been for the rest of Lebanon.
Suddenly, nobody was scared of Israel any more. The downtrodden, dictator ridden Arab world with so little left to lose was now laughing at the Israelis, and giving the finger to its corrupt leaders.
That is why people right across the Arab world have spontaneously taken to the streets in such numbers. We are not dealing with uprisings inspired by identifiable personalities or campaigning ideologies; we are dealing with the most frightening thing for any ruler, a people’s revolt.
The hard fact is that Arabs are no longer afraid of the plain-clothes mukharabat, or the uniformed goons enforcing the brutal diktats of their senile despots. The curfews and clampdowns no longer have any effect.
I have already predicted that the Arab old-guard will not relinquish power to popular vote without obstructionism, or a fight. Mubarak, who has already survived six assassination attempts, is a ruthless, cunning and weathered campaigner.
Unlike Ben Ali of Tunisia, Mubarak is the Chief of Staff to 800,000 security forces. That is why his thugs can run amok in the streets, cut off the internet and ban Al-Jazeera. From them expect the worst.
Of course, it won’t be smooth sailing for the beleaguered leader. His 450,000-strong army of national service conscripts has been embraced by the street. It will prove difficult for them to turn on their own families, and their allegiance to Mubarak could be described as wavering at best.
This leaves him with his 22,000-strong Presidential guard and 350,000 security officials, many of whom melted away at the first signs of trouble last week. In the meantime, expect the horse-trading and the brinkmanship to continue. Mubarak has been through this before. In 2004 he fired his Cabinet and floated raft of promises.
But this time round, however, no decent Egyptian will buy the soiled product offered to him. And sitting in his Heliopolis compound, Mubarak must now be a lonely and isolated man, succession hopes for his son, Gamal Mubarak, literally gone up in the smoke of the National Democratic Party building.