Some striking footage from the protests in Egypt: the headquarters of the ruling National Democratic Party have been set ablaze. Hosni Mubarak is reportedly set to speak any moment now.
Things are happening fast so let’s get a thread up. A 6 p.m. curfew has been imposed and, thus far, widely ignored. Tanks are starting to roll as I write this and there are reports on Twitter of “loud explosions” and live ammo being used in downtown Cairo.The Telegraph has a screencap from Al Jazeera showing Mubarak’s party headquarters in the city on fire; other party headquarters have been ransacked in Mansoura and Suez. The State Department says it’s deeply concerned and is calling on Mubarak to enact reforms and allow peaceful protests — although I think we’re past that point by now. Mubarak was supposed to speak at around 11 a.m. but nothing from him yet.
As stirring as the sight of protests against an autocratic regime may be, Lee Smith writes that this may not end up well:
it does seem to be the case that the protests erupting throughout Egypt’s major cities are less about President Hosni Mubarak’s 29-year-long reign than they are about the succession of the man who seems to be his chosen heir, his 47-year-old son Gamal....
If Gamal goes, the likely successor will be intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the man rumored to be the young Mubarak’s chief rival, or alternately, the future power behind Gamal’s throne. Gamal’s problem is that he has no military experience whatsoever, a liability for the prospective head of a regime whose coherence and internal legitimacy is based on nothing other than its symbiotic relationship with the military. Nonetheless, even if Gamal really were to leave for London and even if his father stepped down, or just decided not to run for president later this year, the Mubarak regime would not fall because in reality there is no Mubarak regime as such. Rather, it is a Free Officers regime, one that has lasted almost half a century, or dating back to the 1952 coup that deposed King Farouk. During that period, the regime has survived 3 wars with Israel and another in Yemen. And that’s not all: almost as bad as Gamal abd-el Nasser’s public humiliation after losing the six-day war in 1967 was the regional isolation imposed on Cairo after Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Jerusalem. But the regime survived both, as well as Sadat’s assassination and a subsequent civil war throughout the 1980s and 1990s with armed Islamists, many of whom went on to form the leadership of al Qaeda. A regime that has been tested under that kind of fire is unlikely to fold in the face of 50,000 protesters throwing rocks.
For all the excitement surrounding the demonstrations, it’s worth remembering that the nominally docile Egyptian masses take to the streets with some regularity, especially when it involves food prices and living wages. More to the point, it is an unfortunate fact of modern Egyptian history that its people are often susceptible to ideological politics. For instance, Nasser led the country to disaster and yet compared to Sadat the peacemaker or Mubarak the stolid pharaoh who has kept the country stable, if static, it is Nasser who owns the affections of the Egyptian masses. That is to say, we don’t know exactly what the protestors want. There are those who hate the regime because it jails and tortures bloggers and those who hate it because it won’t make war on Israel. No doubt some of the young are just fed up they have never known another Egyptian ruler in their lifetimes. Some of the youth are democrats and others are decidedly not.
It is not always a good thing when people go to the streets; indeed the history of revolutionary action shows that people go to the streets to shed blood more often than they do to demand democratic reforms. Perhaps it is an appetite for activist politics that explains why so many Western observers are now captured by the moment. Otherwise, it would be hard to explain why it seems as if no one had learned from the failures of the Bush administration’s freedom agenda—namely the Palestinian Authority elections that empowered Hamas—or could remember its successes. The Iraqis and Lebanese went to the streets, too, and our allies there are under pressure and ignored not only by the Obama administration, but also by a press corps and intelligentsia that mostly seems just fascinated by the spectacle of Arabs throwing themselves against a wall, regardless of the outcome.