Argument

With Eyes Red from Rage

With Eyes Red from Rage

As we ran from Cairo’s Tahrir Square into the side streets, protesters smashed pavements and threw them at the black-clad security troopers in their ill-fitting helmets. I found myself next to a man in a turban and the long-flowing Egyptian gallabiya popular in the countryside. His eyes were literally red with rage. He had uprooted a metal barrier and was smashing it into the paving slabs. As huge sections of paving came free he picked them up with two hands, lifted them over his head, and hurled them, screaming, in the direction of the police. From among a small group of fellow protesters, a middle-aged woman in a headscarf approached him and tapped him on the shoulder. “Son, we didn’t come to harm our own country,” she said calmly. The man, sweating and grunting, stared at the woman, then picked up his last slab and lifted it high above his head, ready to smash it down on her. Three other protesters jumped on him. As they held him down his screams and grunts turned into sobs. The protesters gave him water and left him weeping on the curb.

Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where demonstrators have gathered to call for Hosni Mubarak’s ouster, is a place that knows protests. I came across the angry villager in 2000, at one of the first protests I attended as a journalist working in Cairo. Students had organized a rally to decry Israeli treatment of Palestinians during the uprising that started that year. But Mubarak has ruled Egypt by emergency decree for three decades, and demonstrations are technically banned. Before 2000, they were extremely rare. After the Israeli crackdown against the Palestinian uprising inflamed passions in Egypt, the authorities thought tightly controlled demonstrations could be a useful safety valve. Yet even though men like the angry villager turned up to protest against Israel, it wasn’t the only source of their anger.

At that point in 2000, Mubarak was the undisputed leader of Egypt. His relationship with the United States cemented Egypt’s position as a premier power in the Middle East. His impressive propaganda machine succeeded in making Egyptians feel any criticism of him was to flirt with treason. However, by Feb. 1, 2011, thousands were willing to come out into the street to call for his removal. From 2000 to 2011, Mubarak’s callous and brutal rule had generated great anger and frustration in Egypt. But during that time, foreign analysts, journalists, and government officials never thought it was enough to cause an uprising against him. Even many activists doubted they would ever actually succeed.

Despite the resentment, the consensus among observers was that Egyptians lacked the will to resist. Political parties were in disarray, with few members; the Muslim Brotherhood was happy to suffer repeated crackdowns without challenging the regime outright, and demonstrators rarely numbered above a few thousand. The regime’s vast police apparatus succeeded in disrupting people’s ability to organize and coordinate their actions. But, in reality, it hadn’t broken their spirit. As a journalist, I met many people who resisted in any way they could. However, when the consensus among international media and policy circles was that Egyptians would never rise up, then there was little incentive for journalists to dwell on their anger or the reasons behind it.

In all honesty, though I investigated and reported on many of the abuses of Mubarak’s regime I also never imagined his own people would rise against him. I believed him, and the elite circle of military and businessmen around him, to be just too powerful. I also believed that the only actor able to pressure Mubarak was the United States, and as long as Washington bought into his “it’s us or the extremists” argument, no one inside Egypt would be able to stand against him. However, having seen the despotism of his rule and the desperation of his people, I thought that once Mubarak died, the country would go into meltdown.

For the best part of a decade, I had the opportunity to see how Mubarak misruled and brutalized his people. In the fertile Nile Delta, where plants can grow so green they seem fluorescent, I visited a village where a local wealthy landowner had pushed small farmers off their land with the help of hired thugs. The villagers had appealed to the police, but the local officer had been bought off. The police reacted in the way they had grown accustomed to a system in which there was no accountability for their actions — they assaulted the most vulnerable. Police troopers raided the village, burned crops, and stole belongings. When they realized that most of the men had fled in fear of mass arrest, they beat the children. The senior officer and the landowner had hoped the villagers would be bullied into submission. When the villagers organized themselves and chose a representative to seek help in Cairo from the judiciary and human rights groups, the troopers returned to the village to track him down. When they failed, they found his wife, ripped off her clothes, and paraded her naked through the village — a warning to others who defied the powers that be.

The wider world didn’t avoid seeing Mubarak’s incompetence and brutality simply because the excesses happened out of sight in the countryside. The outrages were ignored when they happened in central Cairo, too. On May 25, 2005, state security decided to escalate its use of hired thugs as a method of crowd control. Hundreds of young, largely secular left-wing activists gathered in central Cairo to protest for democratic reform. State-security forces penned in the protesters and then sent in the hired goons. In the scuffles, one of the thugs was captured by the activists. I heard him tell a group of activists and journalists that he had been in a police cell the night before for pickpocketing, but was released on the condition that he help police “rough up” people they had told him were “traitors.” Police officials, he said, promised him and the other prisoners a Coke and a Kentucky Fried Chicken meal deal as a reward.  

The other thugs made straight for the female protesters and ripped off their clothes and sexually assaulted them as uniformed police officers watched from the sidelines. The fact that a U.S. ally was using sexual violence as a political weapon against secular “natural allies” of democracy a couple of days after the U.S. president’s wife visited the country and gave a speech on women’s rights was little reported abroad. The fact that the regime received little criticism for the tactic, probably convinced Mubarak that employing it was not only cheap but effective — which explains why his regime has resorted to it time and again.

As more Egyptians voiced their desire to see the end of Mubarak’s rule through the Kifaya! (Enough!) movement, the authorities reacted by ramping up the brutality. Activist Mohamad al-Sharqawi was tortured and raped with a broom by security officers in 2006. He was just one of many. But most observers still thought the anger would not radiate beyond a small core of activists. When I was covering the Kifaya! demonstrations, a senior colleague in London, herself an Arab, told me; “Amil, forget about the Egyptians. They have been broken by Mubarak.” She had the sound of someone who felt slightly embittered by the disappointment of her own faith in the Egyptian people.

But as shocking as these incidents were, they generated little contemplation about the nature of the Egyptian state. Political discussion points centered more on who would succeed Mubarak — his son Gamal, or his spy chief Omar Suleiman. Extremism and terrorism were a secondary concern, largely because a militant campaign by violent extremists had been violently but effectively suppressed in the 1990s. If armed extremists couldn’t topple Mubarak, the logic held, nobody could.

With no wider reason to care, most Western media outlets were uninterested in the gradual decline of the Egyptian state and the increasing resentment of its people. As a journalist for a wire service, I covered the rigged elections and the angry demonstrations. We made note of the first time protesters personally singled out Mubarak as part of the problem (2003, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq). But our stories hardly ever made it into major newspapers or onto television stations. When I later worked on documentaries in London, a senior foreign editor told me that Egypt was “one of the biggest non-stories there ever was.” The feeling was that Mubarak was pro-Western, which meant that he was a moderate; Egypt was a story about ancient artifacts and beaches, not politics. Perhaps the biggest hindrance to generating coverage was that editors thought the issues afflicting Egypt — economic stagnation, state brutality, and feelings of lost dignity — could not easily be conveyed to an audience with little interest in foreign affairs.

In the end, it wasn’t about spirit; it was about pride. Mubarak knew his regime had to give Egyptians something to be proud of if it wanted to survive. In 2000, when mobile and Internet technology and satellite television were less widespread, it was much easier for Mubarak’s regime to project a make-believe image because Egyptians were willing to believe their country was respected on the world stage. As time went on, it became harder to hide Egypt’s social and economic stagnation as well as its decreasing weight on the world stage from its citizens. And the more the regime used force to suppress dissent, the more it alienated itself from its people.

Finally, it was the popular revolt in Tunisia that made Egyptians feel that Mubarak would have to go for their pride to be restored. If little Tunisia could manage to remove a dictator, so could they.