Why Mubarak shouldn’t stay until September

If Mubarak’s security apparatus tightens its grip on power, Egypt will turn into a North Korean-styl

The recent apocalypse-like incidents in Egypt will cast a shadow on the Egyptian people for years to come. The psychological impact of this state of anarchy and lawlessness will change Egyptian identity for ever. The Egypt that existed before 25 January has changed irrevocably.

For the thousands standing in Tahrir Square, the last ten days were a mixture of peaceful expression, optimism, frustration and fear, of both turning back and what will happen to the country if they give up. Desperate to hold on to nine more months of power, President Hosni Mubarak's regime showed the world his dark, ruthless capabilities – a brutality long familiar to the Egyptian population – which left behind 300 dead and 5,000 injured in less than two weeks, according to Egyptian ministry of health figures.

The important question now is what Egypt would be like if Mubarak succeeds in tightening his grip on power again, after the most serious challenge to his rule since he took power in 1981.

During his 30 years in power, Mubarak has been known as a benign dictator who has given his people a margin of freedom and expected them in return to be grateful, and careful about misusing it to speak out against him.

In contrast to his fellow dictators in nearby Libya, Syria and Sudan, the president was respected by world leaders for keeping peace with Egypt's historical enemy, Israel, and sometimes going the extra mile to defend Israel's interests with even more passion than Israel would show in protecting her own interests. This made him a good friend of the United States. US support of Egypt has, however, been criticised. The US was constantly accused of backing up dictatorships as long as they applied a World Bank economic agenda and were kind to Israel.

This made Mubarak a soft dictator compared to his Arab nationalist, socialist and anti-western friends in Libya and Syria. His partnership with the US, as well as Egypt's increasingly integrated economy, based on a World Bank agenda, forced the regime to carry out some (mostly cosmetic) reforms. Within the narrow margin of liberty allowed by the regime, however, political dissidence grew and voices calling for change and democracy became louder each year. As Mubarak's promises of reform proved empty, pressure on the US by the Congress and pro-democracy activists increased to stop funding one of the world's 20 worst dictators.

Political pressure on Washington peaked in the aftermath of the events of 25 January, when President Barack Obama started actively calling for Mubarak to step down. Mubarak's need for Washington's support is a major reason why his regime was relatively gentle to his internal opponents or criticism. Now that Cairo and Washington are not the best friends they used to be, there is little incentive to halt the violence and censorship that security forces imposed during the past week. The first sign of this was the regime's crackdown on foreign journalists, for long believed to be untouchable by the Mubarak regime. The attack on them took place immediately after Obama's request for Mubarak to step down.

Now Egypt is at an important crossroads. If the revolution succeeds in overthrowing Mubarak, the people of Egypt will be able to orchestrate a peaceful and smooth transformation to a truly democratic political system, including a new civil constitution and locally and internationally monitored free and fair elections. The country will experience the end of emergency rule, and the arrival of a civil, non-theocratic and non-military political system. Of course there will be some hurdles along the way, but Egyptians paid too huge a price in their struggle for democracy, enduring previously unmatched horror for almost two weeks, to give up on it easily. Their new and hard-won democracy will be protected vigilantly by the people to ensure it does not slip into a military or a religious dictatorship.

But if Egyptians fail to remove the Mubarak regime, which seems an increasingly unlikely scenario, it is possible that a North Korean-type dictatorship – or worse – will take hold if the president manages to tighten his grip on power again. This fear is why many protesters do not not trust his promise to step down in September, especially coming from a man who is known to have left a long trail of empty promises behind him.

Always one to learn from his mistakes, Mubarak, it is likely, will disperse even the smallest protests in the future, rooting out any dissent. The operation of foreign media is likely to become tightly controlled by the state. New social media – one of the catalysts for the revolution – will be subject to larger scrutiny, and probably more activists will end up in prison. In short, the ruthlessness of the regime will increase as it stops chasing American approval and financial aid.

This is why many of the brave protesters continue to gather by the millions around Tahrir Square at the heart of the Egyptian capital: the impending so-called chaos that Mubarak warns of if he leaves office is far less harrowing than the restrictions and brutality that await Egyptians if he does not. Unluckily for Mubarak, many of the demonstrators see it as a choice between freedom and the leader rather than chaos and the leader.

The recent developments will affect the country's collective identity for decades to come. A new Egypt is born, but its features are still undefined. The next few days will decide what Egypt and the region will be like decades from now. Until then, all fingers remain crossed and all eyes remain on Tahrir Square.

Osama Diab is an Egyptian-British journalist and blogger.

Photo: Getty
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Corbyn is personally fireproof, but his manifesto could be torched by the Brexit blaze

There is no evidence that EU migration has depressed wages – but most Labour MPs believe it has.

News, like gas, expands to fill the space available to it. That’s why the summer recess can so often be a time of political discomfort for one party or another. Without the daily grind of life at Westminster, difficult moments can linger. Minor rows become front-page news.

There are many reasons why Theresa May is spending three weeks hiking in northern Italy and Switzerland, and one of them is that it is hard to have a leadership crisis if your leader is elsewhere. That makes the summer particularly dangerous for Labour. The danger is heightened as the majority of the press is unsympathetic to the party and the remainder is simply bored. Even a minor crisis could turn into a catastrophe.

Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show on 23 July, therefore, carried the same risks as juggling lit matches in a dry forest. The Labour leader ruled out continuing participation in the single market after Britain leaves the political structures of the European Union. For good measure, he added that the “wholesale importation” of people from eastern and central Europe had been used to undermine pay and conditions for British workers. Both statements only aggravate the stress fractures in the Labour movement and in its electoral coalition.

The good news for the Labour leader is that he is fireproof. Only God or Corbyn himself can prevent him from leading the party into the next election, whenever it comes, and no one will be foolish enough to try to remove him, even if they had the inclination. Also, while the question of what flavour of Brexit to pursue divides Labour in the country, it doesn’t divide Labour at Westminster. Most Labour MPs nodded along in agreement with Corbyn during the Marr interview. They believe – as the shadow international trade secretary, Barry Gardiner, outlined a day later – that remaining in the customs union and the single market would be a betrayal of the wishes of Leave voters, who want full control over Britain’s borders and laws.

There is no evidence that migration from the eastern bloc has depressed wages. But most Labour MPs believe that it has. “I am convinced,” one formerly pro-European MP told me, “that no matter what the studies say, immigration has reduced wages.”

Most of the Labour people who are willing to kick up a fuss about “hard” Brexit are outside parliament. These include the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, who wants Britain to remain in the single market; the general secretary of the TSSA union, Manuel Cortes, who recently used the New Statesman website to urge the party to keep all of its options open, including a second referendum to keep Britain in the EU; and the rapper Akala, who lambasted Corbyn’s interview on Twitter. While a large minority of Labour MPs back a softer version of Brexit, they are a minority, and not a large enough one to combine with Tory dissidents to make a Commons majority, even when the votes of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP Caroline Lucas are taken into account.

This increases the party’s dependence on Jeremy Corbyn. As the leader’s aides observe, even among the quarter of the country that believes the government should simply overturn the referendum result, only a quarter of that quarter do so because they have a particular affection for the institutions of the European Union.

For the majority of hard Remainers, Brexit is a significant battleground in a larger culture war, one in which Corbyn is otherwise in perfect alignment with their values. His electoral appeal to Labour MPs is that he is someone who can say the same things on Brexit and migration as Yvette Cooper or Stephen Kinnock previously did, but without losing votes in England’s great cities.

The electoral threat to Labour from backing a harder form of exit is, in any case, often overstated. The first-past-the-post system makes the Liberal Democrats an inadequate refuge for anguished Remainers in England, while the SNP’s support for Scottish independence makes it an unsuitable home for Labour refugees in Scotland. Team Corbyn feels that Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, will struggle to convince Labour voters that he can be trusted because of the role he played in designing the new system of tuition fees (having previously pledged to vote against them). In any case, the risk of letting in a Conservative prime minister – probably one committed to a version of Brexit even harder than Labour’s – further locks Remainers in Labour’s corner.

That leaves Labour in Westminster free to pursue a version of Brexit that meets the needs of both the leadership, which relishes the freedom to pursue a more radical economic policy unconstrained by the European Union, and Labour MPs, particularly those with seats in Yorkshire and the Midlands, who are concerned about opposition to immigration in their constituencies. This has the happy side effect of forcing the Conservatives to take the blame for delivering any Brexit deal that falls short of the promises made by Vote Leave during the referendum and in the high-blown rhetoric used by Theresa May during the election campaign.

However, all is not rosy. What most Labour MPs seem to have forgotten is that Brexit is not simply a political battleground – something to be leveraged to reduce the number of complaints about migration and to hasten the Tory government into an early grave. There is a political victory to be had by using the Brexit process to clobber the government. But there is also a far bigger defeat in store for the left if leaving the EU makes Britain poorer and more vulnerable to the caprice of international finance. That Jeremy Corbyn is personally fireproof doesn’t mean that his manifesto can’t be torched by the Brexit blaze. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue