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American Today


SPA Expert on Protests that Galvanized Egyptians

By Mike Unger


Professor Diane Singerman's research interests include Egyptian politics, and gender and politics in the Middle East.

The uprising in Egypt has shocked the world and signaled a sea change in the Middle East. As key events unfold day by day, the fate of one of the world's oldest peoples hangs in the balance. 

American Today asked School of Public Affairs professor Diane Singerman to bring some clarity to the murky situation. Her most recent edited books are Cairo Contested: Governance, Urban Space, and Global Modernity, and Cairo Cosmopolitan: Politics, Culture, and Urban Space in the New Globalized Middle East

AT: Now that Mubarack has stepped down, what's next?

Singerman: It’s obviously a historic moment. The uprising has succeeded in one of [its] key demands, and the president turned over power to the military. It’s very important now to see what kind of transition process and institutional arrangements the military sets up. There are indications to suggest that the military will include and reach out to the key leaders of the uprising to negotiate a transitional period, but that’s not clear. This is not a simple process.

AT: What were the key event(s) that led to these protests breaking out? After 30 years of Mubarak rule, why now?

Singerman: First, the success and 'demonstration effect' of the Tunisian uprising. 

The self-immolation of the young Tunisian fruit peddler Mohammed Bouazizi inspired and resonated with many Egyptians and others across the Arab world who have experienced security officials abusing and humiliating them as they tried to earn a living in difficult circumstances.

Second, the National Democratic Party's (NDP, the regime's party) rigging and manipulation of the last parliamentary elections in Egypt which ended in December 2010. In those elections, the opposition won fewer parliamentary seats than any other election since competitive elections began again in Egypt in 1976 under President Sadat's reign. Mubarak's son, Gamal Mubarak, was the leader and architect of this 'electoral authoritarianism,' and this election sent a message about the futile efforts of working within the system for many Egyptians. 
AT: Can you point to a tipping point when the protests turned from significant to historic?

Singerman: On 'National Police Day,' January 25, thousands of protesters transformed what was supposed to be a celebration of the police, into a public critique of their repressive practices.

Mubarak gave government employees this day off, to discourage Egyptians from attending the protest. It did not work, but gave an opportunity for thousands of Egyptians to amass on Tahrir Square in Cairo, and throughout cities across Egypt. The national dimension of protest was unprecedented in Egypt and the anger of the protesters as police attacked, shot, and arrested protesters did not scare them away, and despite great state violence, protesters kept returning to Tahrir Square and the heart of other cities in Egypt. 

On Friday, January 28, the attacks of the police against the peaceful protesters galvanized the opposition and protesters to dig in and not retreat. 

AT: What are the underlying issues behind these protests? How large a role is discontent over the economy playing?

Singerman: The most important critique of the protesters is the lack of political freedom and the overwhelming power that the Mubarak family and the NDP party (dominated by Mubarak and his supporters) have over collective life in Egypt. Economic problems, high youth unemployment and unemployment in general, recent high food prices, and the rising cost of living continue to fuel anger in Egypt, but these economic issues are not new in Egypt. The narrative of the protests was about the end of the Mubarak dynasty, political freedoms, and justice. There is tremendous wealth among some in Egypt yet growing inequality across classes and conspicuous consumption. The wealthy are increasingly fortifying themselves in enclaves of gated communities in the desert, and the government is directly and indirectly subsidizing these real estate ventures that are vastly beyond the reach of most Egyptians.  Corruption and "crony capitalism" has fueled discontent in Egypt and due to the protests the new government will begin prosecuting more corruption cases, but this has happened in the past as well and some of the businessmen who are targeted are those who have run afoul of the ruling elite. 

AT: I know it's early, but what are the ramifications for Egypt's neighbors, especially Israel?

Singerman: These protests are domestically centered; there are almost no slogans about foreign policy. People are demanding democracy and justice in Egypt. A more democratic government in Egypt will mean that the country will be able to deliberate about its own interests. Many protest movements or episodes of movement activity have been critical of Israel and U.S. foreign policy, but this uprising is squarely centered on changing the fundamental distribution of power in Egypt. It is an extremely normal and legitimate wish for a country to be able to decide its own foreign policy collectively.   

AT: What do you make of the American response? Is the Obama administration doing enough to encourage the democratic forces in Egypt?

Singerman: No, the American government is doing the least it can by supporting a new face for the Mubarak regime: the Omar Suleiman government. While President Obama talks about human rights, our policies have clearly supported the Mubarak regime, and the U.S. has supported a policy of 'stability' in the Middle East - a free market without freedoms, and a strategic alliance with Mubarak to supposedly promote U.S. interests in the region. It is playing catch up very quickly, but as of 7 February, despite the beginnings of negotiations between activists and the new Suleiman government, the U.S. still seems to want to largely keep the status quo. The U.S. government has long and deep ties with the Egyptian military and the Egyptian security forces, and Omar Suleiman was the head of the intelligence service. The U.S. needs to realize that the protesters in Tahrir Square (Liberation) are the real agents of this uprising and they should be leading the negotiations.

On the other hand, the U.S. has some limited options. If the U.S. is seen to embrace a particular political figure or movement, that support could backfire since Egyptians are understandably suspicious of foreign intervention. Yet, recently, the Egyptian government has tried to paint these protests as 'instigated' from outside and they reported that many foreigners were arrested in Tahrir Square, yet these kind of smear campaigns against the protesters are not believed by many Egyptians. 

AT: Regardless of how these protests conclude or what if any changes they produce, will Egypt ever be the same?

Singerman: These protests are historic in nature, and they have exposed to the world the repressive policies of the Mubarak government. They have galvanized Egyptians who never protested before and were not involved with movements, across Egypt. They have given opposition forces and new political actors an opportunity to forge change in Egypt.