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The bloody price of Mubarak’s stability

Op-Ed in the CNN on February 4, 2011

Editor’s note: Khaled Fahmy is the chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo. 

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) — The events of Wednesday offer a brutal example of President Hosni Mubarak’s disastrous security-driven policy. For nine days, pro-democracy demonstrators had taken to the streets asking for nothing less than a complete change of the regime.

On Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of people congregated on Tahrir Square at the center of the city asking Mubarak to leave and effectively saying that they had had enough of his bankrupt, soulless and dull leadership. Eventually, Mubarak appeared on TV on Tuesday night, offering not run for re-election in September.

But rather than allow this limited concession to have its course and for people to mull it over, he resorted to what he knows best: a heavy-handed, security-informed tactic. On Wednesday, I witnessed hundreds of men ranging in age from perhaps 20 to 40, being given directions as to where to meet and which routes to take to reach Tahrir Square.

This happened on Galaa Street to the north of the square. I also saw these men then being put on small trucks, which headed toward Tahrir Square. They were carrying placards and distributing leaflets that were obviously prepared. Their attitude was aggressive, and although some passers-by seemed to agree with the slogans being shouted, none joined these groups on their way to the square.

All in all, it was clear to me that these people had been organized — most probably by the ruling National Democratic Party — but not at all clear that they actually believed or understood the slogans that they were shouting. By midday, thousands of thugs had descended on the peacefully demonstrating pro-democracy crowd in Tahrir Square with whips, sticks and knives. A bloody confrontation ensued that reportedly resulted in five deaths and more than 800 wounded.

State-controlled media portrayed the tragic outcome as the result of confrontation between the forces of stability and chaos. This was vintage Mubarak policy: suspending political dialogue, resorting to violence and abrogating the basic rights of assembly, association and speech — all in the name of stability and security.

Indeed, for 30 years, Mubarak has presented himself to his own people as well as to the West as a pillar of stability in a turbulent region. During his five terms in office, he survived many assassination attempts, maintained close ties with the United States, upheld the peace treaty with Israel and kept the Islamist opposition under tight control.

Yet this has come at a high cost. The ongoing dramatic events in Egypt have clearly demonstrated that Mubarak has been ready to sacrifice not only basic constitutional, legal and human rights but also, and paradoxically, the vaunted stability of Egyptian society.

To ensure it, during his tenure he has repeatedly argued that the pace of political, economic and social reform needed to be slowed. He has argued that Egypt had to adopt a tight security policy to combat terrorism; that the forces of political Islam do not understand anything but the language of force and a strong government grip.

As a result, the security forces have been given a say in all aspects of Egyptian life. For example, university appointments have to be approved by state security forces; political parties and civil society institutions were tightly controlled and prevented from establishing grass-root connections lest they be “infiltrated” by Islamists; and parliamentary and presidential elections were repeatedly rigged to prevent the Islamist opposition from gaining control.

All of this, Mubarak argued, was a fair price that Egyptians have to pay to be secure.

However, the dramatic events that Egypt has been witnessing have proven the fallacy of this logic. For prioritizing security over all other concerns did nothing but undermine all major institutions upon which the modern Egyptian state has been built.

The policy has eroded Egyptian universities, parties, professional associations, the press and the judiciary. Furthermore, and in the most ironic twist, the Egyptian police itself have been undermined and de-professionalized by systematically resorting to torture and casting aside all constitutional, legal and moral considerations.

Wednesday’s events provided an ugly, bloody illustration of where this has all led.

These shortsighted tactics have thrown the country into an even deeper crisis. Whatever limited trust that remained between Mubarak and his people has now evaporated. If there were some who were willing to believe that he could be trusted to put in place a system that can guarantee free and fair elections in September, they have now been proven wrong by the tragic events Wednesday.

Egypt’s political crisis has many deep causes: a stagnant political system, rising unemployment, rampant corruption and a disenfranchised, youthful population.

Above all, however, the dangerous situation Egypt finds itself in is a direct result of 30 years of prioritizing stability and allowing security to trump all calls for reform.

Mubarak’s regime, its strong ties with the U.S. and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel all stand to suffer — paradoxically — from Mubarak’s unimaginative, cautious attitude — one that has forsaken the true aspirations of the Egyptian people and undermined the stability of Egyptian society.

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