11 Feb 2011

Egypt: the road to Mubarak’s downfall

As Egypt enters the post-Mubarak era, Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Rugman looks back at the two weeks that brought his downfall.

A section of the c rowd in Tahrir Square (Reuters)

If you have spent any amount of time talking to demonstrators in Tahrir – or “Liberation” – Square, the news of the “stepping aside” of Hosni Mubarak should not have come as any surprise.

Since this crisis began with the “Day of Rage” on 25 January, this has always been a battle of wills between the protesters and their President of the last 30 years.

Mubarak is 82. His adversaries are in their hundreds of thousands, of all ages and from all walks of life, with the unshakeable belief that right is on their side. And this has been even more of an uneven contest because the army, caught in the middle, did not back their leader either.

The protesters have been consistently underestimated by many. But every march and demonstration they have mounted has surpassed every expectation, including their own. Amid the state violence directed against huge numbers of people on 28 January, I tweeted that this had stopped being an uprising and became a full blown revolution. And revolutions seek ultimate goals of renewal, not awkward accommodations with rulers they despise.

“Leave, leave,” they shouted even louder. A crowd which had lost its fear.

I was in Tahrir Square around midnight on 1 February, when Mubarak announced on a hastily-erected TV screen that he was not running for President again in September. Not long after that, his Vice President confirmed that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, would not be running either.

These concessions only emboldened the crowd. “Leave, leave,” they shouted even louder. A crowd which had lost its fear. A crowd which had been shot and tear gassed and come out the other side, believing that anything was possible.

And so it is proving. There could be no “negotiated solution” with the regime either because the protesters had no leaders with whom to negotiate. And the regime ultimately only had one leader: Mubarak.

The battle of wills has been won by the protesters from the very beginning, after a series of Biblical-style plagues meted out by Egypt’s President failed to make them disperse.

First he tried riot police. Then he brought down mobile phone networks and the internet. Then he sent the army in. Then he deployed thugs. Then Mubarak ran out of plagues, the Americans said “enough”, and the protests spread even further.

Sceptics and cynics said the protesters would get bored, get cold at night, go off and make money or simply go home. But when you are witnessing a rolling live event with the capacity to change history, you tend not to want to miss it.

The democracy genie is now well and truly out of the bottle in Egypt.

It is not the Americans who are forcing Mubarak from power. It is an old man’s humiliation in the eyes of his own people, a humiliation which is at the core of his undoing.

Nobody told the protesters to be careful for what they wish for. The risk, of course, is that they endure a period of military rule post-Mubarak, depending on what kind of transfer of power occurs. But the army has not, so far, proved the major villain in this story and may be seeking a transitional role for itself.

If the Generals listen to the thousands in Tahrir Square, they will know that the democracy genie is well and truly out of the bottle in Egypt – and neither force nor fear can put it back now.