The fall of Hosni Mubarak: A story that will be told for generations

By Nathan Paulsen
May 24, 2011

“Even an army bristling with the most fearsome weapons is of no use to the general if all the soldiers desert, and mass desertion is always a physical possibility.” C. Douglas Lummis, Radical Democracy

With the fall of Hosni Mubarak a few short months ago, Egyptians authored a story of hope from despair that has inspired the imagination of oppressed people around the globe. In the matter of a few weeks, everyday folk who survived generations of widespread unemployment, entrenched poverty, low wages, and repression of democratic freedoms were thrown into political activity. A powerful combination of street demonstrations and labor strikes brought business as usual to a standstill - and the Mubarak regime to swift defeat.

Before the events of recent days, it would have been easy to understand had the Egyptian people succumbed to their despair. After all, Mr. Mubarak and his allies ruled the nation with an aura of invincibility for more than three decades. While a small layer of Egyptian elite hid billions of dollars of wealth in foreign bank accounts, working class Egyptians labored for an average of $2 a day.

Economic inequality and gross injustice does not occur naturally. In order to maintain a social order that lavished riches on a few and poverty on the many, the government used its security forces to intimidate opposition and quell dissent. Under a regime of perpetual "emergency law," dissenting speech was criminalized and activists faced the threat of indefinite detention, torture and disappearance for political organizing work. As little hope as there was of reform as long as Mr. Mubarak was in control of the Egyptian state, there was even less reason to believe his elite clique might voluntarily loosen their grip on the power they so jealously guarded. Under the Mubarak regime, Egypt suffered hardship that would have led the most courageous among us to doubt her ability to affect change.

Then, without warning, a crack in the political armor of the Mubarak regime appeared when nonviolent resistance toppled an unpopular government in neighboring Tunisia. The lesson was clear: Change is possible. Even the most unaccountable and brutal regimes cannot withstand the pressure of a mass movement unified around common aims.

Egyptians began to talk of protest, quietly at first, then with growing confidence as the chorus of voices for reform grew to a crescendo. To demonstrate their anguish and pain – and inspire the courage of fellow Egyptians - poor and unemployed persons lit themselves on fire, as Mohammed Bouazizi had done a month earlier in Tunisia. Just beneath the surface of dictatorial order, preexisting networks of political groups and social formations that had carried traditions of resistance through the period of repression became mobilized. By the time organizers made a united call for a nationwide “day of rage” the ground had been laid for open revolt.

A populist surge drew people from all walks of life into public places. Men and women, factory workers, disaffected youth, civil servants, students, intelligentsia, homemakers, cultural figures - all vowed to remain disobedient to the unjust laws of Mr. Mubarak until their demands were met. Protests quickly spread from public squares to the workplaces where Egyptians earned their meager livings and then deep into the rank and file of the Egyptian military itself. The emperor’s clothes had been removed. Mr. Mubarak was just one man in a great ocean of human beings. In the face of such an acute crisis of state legitimacy - when the people shed their internalized submission to unjust authority and begin to trust in one another to act on their best hopes - there was little that could be done to stop the democratic tide from advancing.

But it was not for lack of trying. Politicians warned of a radical Islamic takeover should the Mubarak regime collapse. In an attempt to derail the protests by feeding xenophobic sentiment, they blamed the unrest on foreign agents. Demonstrators were told to go home or they would plunge the country into chaos. None of the messages stuck. The sophisticated media tools of the National Democratic Party – the dominant political organization in Egypt - were no match for the determined will of an entire people in movement.

Egyptians simply ignored the direction of government officials and the fear mongering of an increasingly desperate Mubarak regime. Day after day, they continued to gather and march and make demands. The government shut down the internet. Cell phone communication was blocked. Curfews were imposed. Media outlets were barred. Journalists were attacked. Organizers were arrested. Reactionary mobs were loosed on demonstrators. Military forces were deployed. Still Egyptians assembled and spoke their truth in collective action.

The world was witness to a sublime dawn breaking in Egypt. The chaos Mr. Mubarak saw in the streets of Cairo was a taste of liberation to Egyptians who had been forced to endure years of corruption and painful economic inequalities. En masse, the Egyptian people had dispelled the dominant myth that social change was either dangerous or impossible or both. Freed from the psychological chains that bound them to an oppressive norm, Egyptians saw that no amount of wealth or military machinery could prevent their democratic aspirations from being realized. On February 11 – less than three weeks after the day of rage protest that set events on their course - Mr. Mubarak resigned his office. And the streets of Egypt were filled with jubilation.

Wherever this story is told it will dare oppressed people, marginalized people, forgotten people to dream once more of great things in our lives and the lives of our children and neighbors. And believe it can come true. And act boldly so it will.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

I have worked in human services for much of the past decade; during that time, I acquired an intimate viewpoint on the suffering that structural violence causes in the everyday life of our nation. In writing for War Times, I am particularly concerned with how the United States military machine – consuming hundreds of billions of tax-dollars on an annual basis to wage war and export death – has left us with fewer resources at home for health care, public education, affordable shelter, living wage jobs, domestic violence shelters, and other critical social needs.

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