Secular and Devout. Rich and Poor. They Marched Together with One Goal
Wednesday, 2 February 2011
It was a victory parade – without the victory. They came in their hundreds of thousands, joyful, singing, praying, a great packed mass of Egypt, suburb by suburb, village by village, waiting patiently to pass through the "people's security" checkpoints, draped in the Egyptian flag of red, white and black, its governess eagle a bright gold in the sunlight. Were there a million? Perhaps. Across the country there certainly were. It was, we all agreed, the largest political demonstration in the history of Egypt, the latest heave to rid this country of its least-loved dictator. Its only flaw was that by dusk – and who knew what the night would bring – Hosni Mubarak was still calling himself "President" of Egypt.
Mubarak ended the day as expected, appearing on television to announce that he will hang on until the next election – a promise that will not be accepted by the people he claims to love. The people of Egypt were originally told this was to be "the march of the million" to the Kuba Palace, Mubarak's official state pile, or to the man's own residence in Heliopolis. But so vast was the crowd that the organisers, around 24 opposition groups, decided the danger of attacks from the state security police were too great. They claimed later they had discovered a truck load of armed men close to Tahrir Square. All I could find were 30 Mubarak supporters shouting their love of Egypt outside the state radio headquarters under the guard of more than 40 soldiers.
The cries of loathing for Mubarak are becoming familiar, the posters ever more intriguing. "Neither Mubarak, nor Suleiman, and we don't need you Obama – but we don't dislike USA," one of them announced generously. "Out – all of you, including your slaves," announced another. I did actually find a decaying courtyard covered in rectangular sheets of white cloth where political scribes could spray-paint their own slogans for 40 pence a time. The tea-houses behind Talat Harb's statue were crammed with drinkers, discussing Egypt's new politics with the passion of one of Delacroix's orientalist paintings. You could soak this stuff up all day, revolution in the making. Or was this an uprising? Or an "explosion", as one Egyptian journalist described the demonstration to me?
There were several elements about this unprecedented political event that stood out. First was the secularism of the whole affair. Women in chadors and niqabs and scarves walked happily beside girls with long hair flowing over their shoulders, students next to imams and men with beards that would have made Bin Laden jealous. The poor in torn sandals and the rich in business suits, squeezed into this shouting mass, an amalgam of the real Egypt hitherto divided by class and regime-encouraged envy. They had done the impossible – or so they thought – and, in a way, they had already won their social revolution.
And then there was the absence of the "Islamism" that haunts the darkest corners of the West, encouraged – as usual – by America and Israel. As my mobile phone vibrated again and again, it was the same old story. Every radio anchor, every announcer, every newsroom wanted to know if the Muslim Brotherhood was behind this epic demonstration. Would the Brotherhood take over Egypt? I told the truth. It was rubbish. Why, they might get only 20 per cent at an election, 145,000 members out of a population of 80 million.
A crowd of English-speaking Egyptians crowded round me during one of the imperishable interviews and collapsed in laughter so loud that I had to bring the broadcast to an end. It made no difference, of course, when I explained on air that Israel's kindly and human Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman – who once said that "Mubarak can go to hell" – might at last get his way, politically at least. The people were overwhelmed, giddy at the speed of events.
So was I. There I was, back on the intersection behind the Egyptian Museum where only five days ago – it feels like five months – I choked on tear gas as Mubarak's police thugs, the baltigi, the drug addict ex-prisoner cops, were slipped through the lines of state security policemen to beat, bludgeon and smash the heads and faces of the unarmed demonstrators, who eventually threw them all out of Tahrir Square and made it the Egyptian uprising. Back then, we heard no Western support for these brave men and women. Nor did we hear it yesterday.
Amazingly, there was little evidence of hostility towards America although, given the verbal antics of Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton these past eight days, there might have well been. One almost felt sorry for Obama. Had he rallied to the kind of democracy he preached here in Cairo six months after his investiture, had he called for the departure of this third-rate dictator a few days ago, the crowds would have been carrying US as well as Egyptian flags, and Washington would have done the impossible: it would have transformed the now familiar hatred of America (Afghanistan, Iraq, the "war on terror", etc) into the more benign relationship which the US enjoyed in the balmy 1920s and 1930s and, indeed, despite its support for the creation of Israel, into the warmth that existed between Arab and American into the 1960s.
But no. All this was squandered in just seven days of weakness and cowardice in Washington – a gutlessness so at odds with the courage of the millions of Egyptians who tried to do what we in the West always demanded of them: to turn their dust-bowl dictatorships into democracies. They supported democracy. We supported "stability", "moderation", "restraint", "firm" leadership (Saddam Hussein-lite) soft "reform" and obedient Muslims.
This failure of moral leadership in the West – under the false fear of "Islamisation" – may prove to be one of the greatest tragedies of the modern Middle East. Egypt is not anti-Western. It is not even particularly anti-Israeli, though this could change. But one of the blights of history will now involve a US president who held out his hand to the Islamic world and then clenched his fist when it fought a dictatorship and demanded democracy.
This tragedy may continue in the coming days as the US and Europe give their support to Mubarak's chosen successor, the chief spy and Israeli negotiator, Vice-President Omar Suleiman. He has called, as we all knew he would, for talks with "all factions" – he even contrived to sound a bit like Obama. But everyone in Egypt knows that his administration will be another military junta which Egyptians will again be invited to trust to ensure the free and fair elections which Mubarak never gave them. Is it possible – is it conceivable – that Israel's favourite Egyptian is going to give these millions the freedom and democracy they demand?
Or that the army which so loyally guarded them today will give such uncritical support to that democracy when it receives $1.3bn a year from Washington? This military machine, which has not fought a war for almost 38 years, is under-trained and over-armed, with largely obsolete equipment – though its new M1A1 tanks were on display yesterday – and deeply embedded in the corporation of big business, hotels and housing complexes, all rewards to favourite generals by the Mubarak regime.
And what were the Americans doing? Rumour: US diplomats were on their way to Egypt to negotiate between a future President Suleiman and opposition groups. Rumour: extra Marines were being drafted into Egypt to defend the US embassy from attack. Fact: Obama finally told Mubarak to go. Fact: a further evacuation of US families from the Marriott Hotel in Cairo, escorted by Egyptian troops and cops, heading for the airport, fleeing from a people who could so easily be their friends.