The people are in control: Egypt, revolution and the days ahead

Thousands of protesters defying curfew (image Al Jazeera)

Five days of protest. At least 100 dead. Thousands injured. One sacked government. A new Prime Minister and Vice President. An army, and a country, in the balance. And the rage continues…

We woke up this morning to find that hundreds of thousands remained on the street in the face of a renewed curfew and promises of violence for those who disobeyed it. Soldiers so far have either not been ordered to use force to subdue the populist movement, or have refused to do so.

On Al-Jazeera, talk has shifted from if to when President Hosni Mubarak will depart and U.S. rhetoric has ping ponged wildly as President Obama strives to pick the winning side, seemingly changing his mind by the hour yesterday.

Internet and cellular service remains down, a barn door closed long after the horses have fled. Wikileaks provides insight, courtesy of diplomatic cables, into the favourable U.S. view of new Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Mubarak appears on Egyptian TV to appoint a new Prime Minister

The overwhelming picture emerging from the scattered and disparate images of popular anger beaming to the rest of the world is that of a seismic shift. Nothing will ever be the same in Egypt, and Mubarak’s vain struggles to reverse the inevitable seem more comical by the hour. Fear has been the glue of his regime for thirty years, and now that grip of fear has been irreversibly broken. In a matter of days the iron fist of Egypt has turned into a caricature of himself.

And what of the chaos, the lawlessness, the inevitable disintegration of social order once the police had been driven from the streets?   There have indeed been cases of looting, reports from Cairo suggesting that many looters are released prisoners, and that looting is being supervised by plainclothes members of the police forces, trying to sow fear and division. But everywhere they were driven back by autonomously organized brigades of citizens.

At the famed Egyptian Museum in Cairo, citizens and soldiers joined together to fight the fire which threatened to spread from the torched HQ of Mubarak’s National Democratic Party. Hours later, groups of citizens fought off looters at the same museum.

The Cairo headquarters of Mubarak's party on fire (image Al Jazeera)

From rich neighbourhoods to poor, people have organized themselves into community defence militias. They are no longer afraid: of thugs, of police, of informers or of each other. The people have replaced the police across the nation and as one Cairo resident put it to Al-Jazeera, even in his rich neighbourhood every single resident is united in calling for the “old man” to leave.

Some army officers have stripped off their uniforms and joined the protests. The people in turn have greeted them as protectors and, so far, the army has done nothing to disabuse the people of their trust.

The people are in control of Egypt tonight. To have suggested as much even a week ago would have gotten one committed. And yet here we are. The people have seized control of their destiny and they have no intention of giving it back.

So now the question shifts. If the reign of Mubarak is indeed running out the clock on borrowed time, if it is indeed true that the military will not use force of arms to quell the protests and if the people continue to show no signs of yielding, then what comes next?

Many in the West fear the replacement of Mubarak, because the most well-known opposition force in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood, a fundamentalist Islamic movement.

But they will not rise to power now, not on the shoulders of this mass uprising of the Egyptian people. In fact, they come by their renown simply due to the fact that prior to this week’s events, few other Egyptians were willing to speak up. All of that has changed now and the Muslim Brotherhood, which refused to participate in the demonstrations until Friday, has been left in the dust of history.

Their support is confined to a small minority of the Egyptian people. The brave protesters who have found their voices on the streets of Cairo and Alexandria and Suez this week will not so soon have them subsumed by a theocratic dictatorship to replace that of the hated Mubarak.

The word on the street, if it is not always expressed as such, is pluralism. These newly awakened citizens will not stop until a new political system takes over, one that will have room for all Egypt’s citizens, from Islamists to Communists and everything in between.

A thirst has been awakened in the people, and nothing but complete and total change will sate it. We saw it in Tunisia and now we see it in Egypt. Protests have erupted in Jordan and Yemen as well, as the peoples of the Middle East have rediscovered their voices. How quickly people come together when they see that their actions can create real change.

In Washington, Obama speaks of “reforms” but refuses to use the word democracy. American presidents love to speak of democracy so long as there is no actual chance of it being implemented.   Once the prospect of real change looms, they forget how to pronounce the word.

But this time there will be no reprieve for America’s longstanding and erstwhile ally, no reforms or half-measures will save him. Now is the time for America to get behind the people of Egypt and stop protecting a dictator, not out of some real concern for democracy or the will of the people but out of the blind self-interest that drives almost all American actions.

Now that this fire has been set, not even the almighty U.S., whose money bought the weapons used on protestors this week, can put it out.

The only question that remains is whether the people will settle for slight improvements and a new leader, or push for real and wholesale change, truly revolutionary change.

I hope and dare to believe that it will be the latter, but only time will tell.

Al-Jazeera is a news source like no other, I’ve been watching their coverage virtually non-stop since yesterday morning on my computer and my phone, and it really is indispensible. watch their live stream of developments in Egypt at: http://english.aljazeera.net/watch_now/

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