Demonstrations against the Egyptian government are a common sight in the crowded streets of downtown Cairo. They come complete with the obligatory line of riot police prepared to use violence against the protesters should things get too out of hand. From rising food prices to unjustly jailed political activists, Egyptians always seem to have reason to voice discontent against President Hosni Mubarak, who is going on his 28th year in office.
Shortly after Israel’s military incursion into the Gaza Strip Dec. 27, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to denounce the attack and their government’s reaction to it. Despite the overwhelmingly anti-Israeli sentiments of the Egyptian populace, President Mubarak continued throughout the crisis to acquiesce to Israel’s requests to keep the border between Gaza and Egypt closed. Mubarak also blamed Gaza’s Hamas-led government for inciting the conflict.
In the aftermath of Gaza, questions linger about whether Mubarak’s unwavering support for Israel will help stir enough discontent in Egyptian society for real action against the dictatorship — in particular, when Mubarak, 80, passes the presidency to his son, Gamal, which is expected to take place in 2011.
“It certainly undermines the government’s popularity at home when it is seen to be standing aside when something like the Israeli operation in Gaza takes place,” said Michael Dunn, editor of The Middle East Journal, a publication of Washington-based Middle East Institute.
However, Dunn is skeptical whether antigovernment feelings will lead to revolution in Egypt.
“Egypt has a stable society. It’s not a terribly revolutionary place,” Dunn said. “If something catalytic happened such as Mubarak’s death, then the possibility of some kind of upheaval would be increased.”
A CLOSE U.S. ALLY
Egypt receives $2.1 billion per year in U.S. military and economic assistance, second only to Israel, and its leaders have much to gain by following Washington’s cue and maintaining a conciliatory relationship with Israel. Egypt was the first Arab nation to establish peaceful ties with Israel in 1979, and the formal truce has been maintained ever since. Days before the battle in Gaza erupted, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni traveled to Egypt and met with President Mubarak and other Egyptian leaders in Cairo.
“The Egyptian government completely and openly supported the Israeli invasion,” said Stanford University history professor Joel Beinin who served as the director of Middle East Studies at the American University in Cairo from 2006 to 2008.
Diplomatically for Egypt this support equates to “continued good relations with the United States,” Beinin explained.
Yet while there is peace between Egypt and Israel on paper, the relationship between Egypt and its Zionist neighbor is a major factor for Egyptians’ rising discontent against their corrupt government — a discontent that is expressed both through liberal calls for democratic reform and through a rise in the popularity of religious fundamentalism.
Egypt’s liberal political parties are fractious and poorly organized. However, supporting the Palestinian cause and anger at the Mubarak regime’s submissiveness regarding the issue is a common thread knitting pro-democracy groups like al-Ghad Party and the New Wafd Party together.
THE MUSLIM BROTHERHOOD
On a surface level, the ideology of the Muslim Brotherhood, the outlawed yet tolerated fundamentalist political party in Egypt, is not all that different from its liberal counterparts when it comes to the Palestinian issue. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has a particular stake in supporting Hamas in the Gaza Strip because the Palestinian movement was originally an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.
According to Beinin, the link between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas is another reason why the Egyptian government not only tolerated, but welcomed Israel launching attacks against Hamas in Gaza.
Islamic fundamentalism continues to increase in Egypt, a country with 40 percent of its population living beneath the poverty line. Liberal parties are seen as Western creations, while the Muslim Brotherhood is rooted in the religion of approximately 90 percent of Egypt’s population, making them a much more appealing option for expressing dissent against the Mubarak dictatorship.
The more the Egyptian government is viewed as a puppet of the West, the greater the opportunity the Muslim Brotherhood has to grow.
Additionally, the Mubarak regime’s dismal human rights record is another source of popular discontent. Emergency laws, which allow for the unlawful detaining of suspects and restriction of public gatherings, have been in place for more than 25 years. Members of the political opposition are tortured in prison while the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow.
In spring 2008, while Egypt’s economy was soaring and new foreign companies continued to open up shop along the Nile, deadly bread riots broke out in Cairo’s poorest neighborhoods due to the rise of food prices worldwide.
If any further political upheaval, whether liberal or conservative, does occur in the near future, Egypt’s relationship with Israel will be one of a myriad reasons Egyptians will have to rise up against their dictatorship.
Laura Kasinof worked as a Cairo-based freelance reporter for Daily News Egypt in 2008. You can read more of her articles at kasinofmedia.com.