Hosni Mubarak’s address to the Egyptian people demonstrates that he has no intention of relinquishing his personal grip on power, although he has been quite willing to sacrifice his government. Given that protesters have made it clear that it is Mubarak himself as well as the regime that he has presided over that they wish to see removed, this move will not pacify the street.
How then, can Mubarak maintain his position? Much depends upon the loyalty of the Egyptian military and police forces. If they stand by Mubarak and he is willing to use unrestrained force, there is a chance that this current wave of protest could be broken. In the longer term however, the problems that underpin this mass discontent will only grow worse, and the likelihood of a bloodier denouement will increase. Unlike the Chinese Communist Party in the wake of Tiananmen Square, Mubarak will not be able to buy off discontent through the promise of a bright economic future, for Egypt is not enjoying China's double-digit economic growth. Instead it is faced with overpopulation, spiralling food prices and a water shortage. Taking into consideration the fact that the US has indicated that its support for Mubarak is wavering and conditional upon political reform and concessions to the protesters, Mubarak’s continuation in office for anything but a brief period seems unlikely.
By definition, the media relish events such as those that are unfolding in Egypt, for they provide good copy and thereby help attract readers, listeners and viewers. As there is also a general cultural tendency in our media to see ‘change’ in a positive light, it is prone to equating large-scale popular protest with ‘progress’, irrespective of the demands that the protesters may be articulating (a notable exception being media treatment of the EDL). The BBC talking heads appear to be especially susceptible to this line of reporting, seeing in any popular protest movement the values that they unconsciously (or at times, perhaps consciously) project onto it, i.e. those of a globalist, universalist liberalism. So it has been with respect to its treatment of events in Egypt, where it has striven to emphasise the role of the internet, Facebook and non-politically affiliated youth in the genesis of this outbreak of popular discontent.
There is of course a much older and well-established form of political organisation and opposition in Egypt which most certainly does not hold views and values which chime with liberalism, although it is globalist and universalist in aspiration: the Muslim Brotherhood. Founded in 1928, this organisation has been Islamist since its inception, and through its work with the Egyptian poor has established a broad base of support amongst sections of the population and has carved out a role for itself larger than that of a conventional political party. The BBC has been at great pains to emphasise that the Muslim Brotherhood is not at the forefront of the current protests, and that instead web-savvy, educated middle-class youth are leading the way. However, the chants of “Allahu akbar” by protesters leaving the mosque after Friday prayers indicate that far from all of those taking to the streets are liberal, secular democrats.
When Mubarak does fall, who or what will take over? There has been some speculation that the military might step into the void for at least a transitional period, but after that, what? If such a relatively peaceful transition can take place, there may then be elections in which the best-organised parties would presumably garner most of the seats. Do the web-savvy, middle-class youth possess the organisational skills, structures and coherent political programme(s) necessary to appeal to most Egyptians? I do not profess to know, but I suspect that as in any country they are a highly disparate bunch with widely differing views as to how Egypt should be governed and the values that it should embrace. The Muslim Brotherhood will be waiting with its well-organised network of activists and supporters and will do well whatever new system comes into play.
If the Muslim Brotherhood were to come to power either as a majority party or in coalition with another Islamist party, this would have highly negative implications for the future of Egypt and its people. The first to suffer under such an administration would be the Coptic Christian community, which estimates suggest as being anywhere between 5 and 15 million strong. Ever since Islam's arrival in Egypt, the Copts have been subject to discrimination and violence in an attempt to get them to convert, and the policies of an Islamist administration would surely continue in this tradition. Naturally, by definition a Muslim Brotherhood government would also be very bad news for women, homosexuals and freethinkers. Given Islam’s abhorrence of representational sculpture and art, Egypt’s great inheritance of art from its pharaonic and classical past would be under as much threat as the Bamiyan Buddhas. Vandalism against this priceless heritage would be a huge tragedy for the Egyptian people and civilisation more generally.
The geopolitical implications of Egypt going Islamist would also be considerable. As the most populous country in the Arab world which sits astride the Suez Canal, this would not bode well for Western interests. Events in Tunisia appear to have played a role in triggering protest in Egypt, and protest has also spread to Jordan. One can only hope that the populations of Egypt and Jordan look at the bloodshed and horror that Islamism has brought to Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan and recoil from the option of propelling Islamists to power. Whilst the BBC may be erring on the side of portraying these nascent revolutions as an Arab equivalent of 1989, we may in fact be witnessing an Arab version of 1979. Let us hope for the sake of all concerned that it proves to be the former rather than the latter, but on this score I am not optimistic.
UPDATE: Click here for summary of Mubarak's announcement to stand down.