Breaking the Fear Barrier of Mubarak’s Regime

by Mohamed Elshahed

President Hosni Mubarak became president of Egypt the same year I was born, 1981. Living in Cairo, there is a thought that constantly comes to mind: there is so much potential in this place. It becomes painfully obvious everyday that the regime that controls Egypt is precisely what has come between Egypt and its full economic, social and ultimately democratic potential. In Tahrir Square—the urban focal point of Cairo and the symbolic center of all of Egypt—on the first of February, I experienced a new Egypt. On that day hundreds of thousands, some estimates say over a million, packed the square in a show of solidarity with fellow protesters and called for the regime of Mubarak to fall. Never before have I seen as diverse a representation of Egyptian society assembled in a single public space in Egypt as the crowd that gathered that day, demanding in unison their universal freedoms. Never before have I seen Egyptians of all walks of life—young and old, rich and poor, educated and illiterate, Muslim, Christian, atheist, members of the Muslim Brotherhood and gays and lesbians, veiled women and women in tank tops, Nubians and Alexandrians, and everyone else—they were all there. The atmosphere was peaceful, festive, and hopeful. There was no violence, no sexual harassment, no sectarian tensions, and no confrontations. This is the Egypt that I found inside the perimeter of Tahrir Square; it was a truly democratic Egypt inside of the still largely US-supported police state run by Mubarak’s regime.

Creating this liberated space in the heart of Cairo was not easy. Just two weeks earlier, when protesters in Tunisia managed to dethrone their president and send him into exile, Egyptians were reluctant to discuss those events freely. Egyptians have lived in a culture of fear for generations, where political discussions had limits or else one risked detention, police abuse, torture, or, at worst, disappearance. During his presidency, Mubarak created one of the world’s largest state security forces, equaling in size that of China. The regime cracked down on all opposition, including the longstanding Muslim Brotherhood. The corrupt security apparatus effectively did the dirty work for Mubarak’s ruling party, the National Democratic Party, and was largely in the service of the ruling elite rather than the people.

The police, secret police, detention centers in the desert, riot police, secret service, and many other branches of this security apparatus are what Egyptians deal with on a daily basis. These forces are so notorious for their abuses that the mere presence of a large police truck sends fear into the hearts of passers by. The corrupt security service functions outside the rule of law, where abuses, many of which have been recorded by undercover cameras and mobile phone cameras, go unpunished. The regime established its legitimacy on the basis of keeping political Islam under control. Doing so, the regime demonized the Muslim Brotherhood, a political and social services movement established in 1928. While demonizing the Brotherhood, the regime squashed or tightly controlled any other opposition groups and made the establishment of new ones merely impossible. Thus, any hopes for a truly democratic political process has been aborted.

Mubarak’s regime also failed to achieve true economic and social reform. Education has sharply deteriorated to the extent that employers generally reject applicants who received their college educations from state-run institutions. Mubarak’s state also tightly controlled the cultural and intellectual spheres, transforming them into highly bureaucratic and closely monitored spheres. The press, television, and radio were also controlled directly not only by the state but specifically by the security apparatus. Under Mubarak, Egypt, the former breadbasket for the Mediterranean, has become the world’s largest importer of wheat. This was a direct result of ill informed agricultural policy that favored the businesses of importers over the livelihoods of farmers. Villages and farming communities deteriorated and many farmers migrated to cities or urbanized their farmland as a way to create new forms of livelihood for their families. It is important to note that these and many other failures on the part of the state allowed the well-established Muslim Brotherhood to fill the vacuum and provide the large poor population, both Muslim and Christian, with basic medical services, better education, and career development. The most visible economic reforms of Mubarak’s regime have been to his own benefit and to the benefit of his close circle. The public sector was privatized and the Mubarak family demanded a stake in almost every business venture in the country. Mubarak, the son of farmer, now has an estimated wealth of around $70 billion.

Egypt’s Coptic Christians have not faired well under Mubarak either. While the state promotes itself as one of coexistence, internally, Mubarak’s regime has benefited greatly from sectarianism. The majority of Egypt’s Copts are among the 40% of the general population that lives under the poverty line. The regime has also cracked down on building new churches and most recently clashed with Christians over building permits for a church in Giza. At the same time, it is widely accepted in Egypt that the regime has sponsored acts of terrorism against Christians as a way of controlling the Christian population, strengthening Coptic support for the regime by promoting itself as their protector from fundamental Islam. In recent months there was a shooting incident in which a police officer shot four Copts aboard a train. Most recently, the bombing of one of Alexandria’s largest churches on January 1 during midnight mass is suspected to have government origins. The unusual absence of security forces, usually present, from the church during that incident and the narrative of events produced by the state make it highly suspicious. The regime used the incident to highlight the need for its suffocating security and intelligence and the threat from “Palestinian” elements and fundamentalist Islam. By now most Egyptians have become accustomed to such dirty tricks, but since the regime has total control of the security and the legal systems, there is no way for independent investigations to take place.

Egypt has been ruled since Mubarak’s presidency by emergency law, which gives the state the right to bypass Egypt’s constitution and to arrest any person regardless of whether or not they have committed a crime. This has been used extensively over the last 30 years and the number of Egyptians who have been detained, disappeared, and tortured is unknown. Such a lack of accountability has produced some of the most brutal police officers. One particular incident in June 2010 ignited a public outcry: the death, in police custody, of Khaled Saeed, a 28-year-old businessman from Alexandria. Saeed’s case caught public attention because he was arrested by two detectives in an Internet café and beaten to death in the doorway of another building without any explanation. The police later said they suspected Saeed had a sizeable amount of hashish on his person. This was a fabrication. Quickly Saeed became a symbol of the on going police abuses tolerated and even promoted by the regime. Protests in the name of Saeed were held in Alexandria and in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, where security forces quickly arrested thirty protestors and escorted them to a secret location where they were beaten.

An uprising was long coming in Egypt, but Egyptians couldn’t break the fear barrier created by the state. And then the Tunisian Revolution happened in January of 2011, to everyone’s surprise. The night of the Tunisian President’s ouster, a group of Egyptians gathered outside the Tunisian embassy in Cairo and cheered, “Mubarak, you’re next.” The Facebook group “we are all Khaled Said” called for a protest on January 25th, Police Day. Following a week of multiple self-immolation attempts, the January 25th protests marked the beginning of Egypt’s attempt at a popular revolution. All sectors of Egyptian society were represented, and no religious, political, or social group could claim dominance of the protest. This was a true popular uprising against all that I have listed above, and there was no leader at the helm of this movement. The first day was largely peaceful until security forces resorted to water canons and tear gas to disperse the crowd at Tahrir Square. A series of smaller protests in the subsequent days turned violent and police used bullets. The state’s use of excessive violence inevitably angered many more Egyptians nationwide, who naturally called for mass protests following Friday prayers on January 28. The state braced itself and attempted to create a media blackout, cutting off mobile phone service nationwide and, in an unprecedented move, cutting internet service nationwide, the first such act in history.

January 28th marked a major rupture in Egyptian history: it is the day Egyptians truly broke the fear barrier created by Mubarak’s regime. Massive numbers turned out and poured into the streets in a peaceful march towards Tahrir Square. Security forces confronted protesters with excessive force and fired dizzying amounts of American-made expired tear gas. Again, the regime’s tactics backfired, as the protests grew larger and protesters were determined to break through the regime’s tear gas, rubber bullets, and even live ammunition, resulting in many injuries and some deaths. By 4:00 pm, security forces retreated and the tens of thousands of riot police and security forces disappeared from Cairo’s streets, followed by one of the most chaotic nights in recent history. Prisoners were released, 90% of police stations were torched, and much damage was done countrywide. The following days saw attacks by men on camel and horseback on protesters in Tahrir Square. Immediately following Mubarak’s statement in the early hours of February 2, mobs of Mubarak supporters suddenly appeared on the streets and attacked and confronted anyone who was identified as pro-democracy or anti-regime. The regime and NDP businessmen who benefited from Mubarak’s policies orchestrated these events of violence and chaos. The regime was attempting to reinstate itself by proving to the world and to terrified Egyptians that they have only two choices: the regime as it is or total chaos. Mubarak said this week “If I leave now, there will be chaos in the streets.” There already has been chaos in the streets orchestrated by Mubarak and his Minister of Interior: what can be more chaotic than uniformed policemen shooting unarmed protestors?

The regime survived on another fabricated dichotomy: the regime as it is or the Muslim Brotherhood. While officially banning the Brotherhood, the regime allowed it to become its only visible alternative so that the majority of Egyptians fear that the instability of the regime may bring upon them a theocracy. The truth is that non-religiously affiliated opposition face much harsher crackdowns from Mubarak because they would have appealed to a wider audience. The Brotherhood does not have wide support, and it is important to note that there are many opposing and diverse views and political trends among members of the Brotherhood: they are not a unified single-ideology force. Think of America’s conservative, Republican, Christian groups: there are moderates and religious zealots. The difference between the Brotherhood and their American counterparts, surprisingly, is that there are actually more moderates than zealots. The focus on the Brotherhood in international media has given the group more clout then they have here on the ground. The Brotherhood refused to participate in protests until their fifth day and did not play a major role in the uprising. Certainly, members of the Brotherhood were vastly outnumbered by other segments of Egyptian society. Ironically, Omar Suleiman, US-trained former head of the secret service, who invited the Brotherhood to the negotiating table, made his career detaining, torturing, and kidnapping members of the Brotherhood who had committed no crime. In short, Egypt’s political spectrum offers many more options as alternatives to the Mubarak regime. Mubarak’s suppression of those political alternatives, while erecting the boogieman of the Brotherhood, is to blame for the collapsed political process at present.

Finally, there is the point about Israel and its concern for Mubarak’s departure. It is clear by now that Israel’s stability has been built on deals with a few men rather than with the people of the region. Arab democracy is understood by Israeli and American officials as a threat. Let us be clear, this too is an issue Mubarak manipulated: while maintaining relations with Israel, Mubarak and his government constantly used the boogieman of Zionist conspiracy internally to present itself as protecting Egyptians from dubious Israeli plans. Even when a shark attack happened recently in Sharm el Sheikh, a member of Mubarak’s government publicly blamed the attack on Israeli conspiracy. Anti-Semitism spiraled out of control under Mubarak. Yesterday in Tahrir Square, a bearded member of the Muslim brotherhood called on Egyptian Jews to return and to take part in this revolution. Such calls would have been unthinkable two weeks ago under Mubarak’s status quo and would have been faced with a serious crackdown.

Mubarak has been a ruthless dictator who has cracked down on everyone from secular political opposition and the Muslim Brotherhood to heavy metal fans and gays. All these groups who have been terrified to take to the streets are now standing together in Tahrir Square, ready to regain control of a country that has been brought to its knees by a ruling elite. They demand universal rights of freedom of expression, assembly, accountability, and political representation. Mubarak has used Western Orientalists’ notions that Arabs or majority Muslim societies are not capable of true democracy and that they need a heavy-handed watchful father figure. The people in Tahrir Square, of all walks of life, have disproved this myth, and they deserve your support as a fellow human being who dares to accept them as equals.




Born in Egypt, 2010 IDRF Fellow Mohamed Elshahed was in Cairo when mass protests erupted on January 28, 2011. Mohamed’s IDRF-sponsored research focuses on mid-twentieth century architectural and planning developments in Egypt under Nasser. As he argues in his dissertation, elites and the authoritarian revolutionary government manipulated architecture and urbanism as a form of “visible politics,” just as protesters are doing today in Tahrir Square and around the city. From the heart of Cairo, Mohamed offers an impassioned account of the protests and the injustices that occasion them.