Satur C. Ocampo | A Popular Uprising Rages in Egypt

At Ground Level | The Philippine Star
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The people’s uprising in Egypt seeking to oust President Hosni Mubarak provides interesting insights and aspects that I wish to share as concisely as our limited space allows.

First, the uprising (the protesters call it a “revolution”) could be the tipping point of the popular discontent buffeting US-backed regimes in North Africa; Egypt is the key US ally and the most populous Arab country.

The first to yield was Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled to Saudi Arabia on January 14. Yet protesters still besiege the interim government, demanding that all Ben Ali cabinet members be ousted. This initial victory of the Tunisians inspired the Egyptians.

Last week, Jordan’s King Abdullah II yielded to popular pressures by dismissing his Cabinet.

On Feb. 2, Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh, in power for 32 years, promised not to seek reelection in 2013 and that his son would not run for president.

Last Tuesday, Mubarak pledged to step down and hold elections in September, but ignored the call to leave Egypt. The protesters said “No! Just leave!”

The US government has been trying to get a hold on the events. To moderate the surge of the people’s rage, President Obama is pressing Mubarak to ensure that an “orderly transition must be meaningful, it must be peaceful, and it must begin now.”

Second, the causes of unrest are both economic and political.

The economic causes are high unemployment, rising prices, the growing gap between rich and poor, and dismal social conditions.

High unemployment (especially among the young people) together with rising prices are the strongest of these factors. (Incidentally, the 2009 US Counterinsurgency Guide cites “the pool of frustrated unemployed young men and women” as prime recruits for insurgency.) The current turmoil in Egypt is said to be “the largest display of popular dissatisfaction since 1977” when the public reacted violently to the withdrawal of subsidies for food and other basic needs.

On the other hand, the political causes are entrenched corruption, repression of rights and freedoms, police brutality, and undemocratic elections.

Third, it is the young men and women who started, and continue to propel and manage, the popular movement.

Through the Internet, they called for protests to begin on January 25. After the protests swelled, they asked a committee of elders to do the negotiating with the military. The committee is led by Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and former head of the International Atomic Energy Commission.

As rallying posts, the youth formed the April 6 Youth Movement (named after the date when the police brutally crushed a textile workers’ strike three years ago), and the We Are All Khalid Said Movement (named after a man who died due to police torture, whose photo was posted online).

In Alexandria, the second city beset by unrest, the youth formed a Popular Committee for the Protection of Properties and Organization of Traffic. Volunteer students and workers man the streets to prevent looting and destruction, and facilitate the flow of both protesters and supplies of water and food. Now they have four operating groups: for traffic, cleanup, protection, and emergency response.

In Cairo, neighborhoods organized Popular Defense Committees also to prevent looting and criminal activities. Young men armed with clubs, horsewhips, rubber hoses, machetes carry on 24-hour block-by-block street watch. After the police withdrew from patrol duty, the committees have coordinated with the Army, which has vowed not to use force and to respect the people’s right to air their demands peacefully.

Fourth, defying established social norms, two Egyptian young women have stepped forward to lead in the protests, one through the Internet, the other, in confronting the police on the street.

One week before the protests began, Asmaa Mahfouz, 26, videoed herself holding a sign saying she’d go out to try and bring down the Mubarak regime. “Don’t be afraid!” she called out. Posted online, the video emboldened dozens of people to join.

Asmaa is one of the founders of the April 6 Youth Movement: “Everyone used to say there is no hope, that no one will turn up on the street, that the people are passive.” But, she exulted, “the barrier of fear has been broken!”

Another intrepid woman is Mariam Soliman, 28, a school counselor. Surrounded by the anti-riot police, she led a group in marching down the street and chanting, “Down, down with Mubarak!” and even daring to call him names. “Women have to go down and participate and demand their rights,” she argued. “Or is it going to be the men who will fight for our rights?”

Fifth, the protesters are assailing the US for having supported the Mubarak regime over the last three decades and more. They point to the weapons used to intimidate and disperse them: F-18 jet fighters flying over central Cairo, and the tear gas canisters marked “Made in USA.”

Sen. John Kerry, Senate foreign relations committee chair, is now advising the US Congress and the Obama government to “consider providing civilian assistance that would generate jobs and improve social conditions in Egypt.”

A belated act of contrition? (

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