Egypt's dictatorial president was slow to respond to protests -- and then too stubborn to save himself
Few of the organizers of Egypt's demonstrations ever dreamed that their call for a day of protest on January 25 would lead to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. One of the organizers had earlier confided to me that he expected the call to attract only a few hundred people. He said he planned to spend the day playing Pictionary with his protesting friends.
Only 18 days later, Mubarak resigned under pressure from hundreds of thousands of protesters and a military leadership that refused to continue supporting him. But the uprising would not have been so successful without the help of Mubarak himself. The president, in reacting to the protest movement, made five crucial mistakes that contributed to his own downfall.
1) Snail-Pace Response
Mubarak did not want to repeat Ben Ali's "mistake" -- cutting and running. As a former fighter pilot under attack, he appeared to believe he could dodge, outmaneuver, and land safely. His advisors, led by his son and interior minister, look to have convinced him that the protesters were just a bunch of Facebook kids who could be suppressed and dispersed in a few days. His strategy was to buy as much time as possible. It took Mubarak four days before he appeared in public to address the nation and discuss the political measures he proposed to appease demonstrators. In the meantime, everyone else who had access to a TV screen -- senior US and EU officials, human rights organizations, journalists, etc. -- appealed to the Egyptian regime to respond meaningfully and quickly to the crisis. The contrast between how the world urged Mubarak to respond and what he actually did only further highlighted, for the protesters, the insufficiency of his response. The slow political response enraged the protesters and made them more determined to continue challenging the regime and add more pressure.
2) Violence Against Civilians
Counting on repression, the regime applied diverse violent techniques: using "expired" tear gas, firing rubber and live bullets, mowing down demonstrators with police trucks, and unleashing armed "thugs" with swords, knives and machetes against peaceful, unarmed protesters. The excessive use of violence and the medieval scenes of thugs on camels and horses backfired. With every fallen martyr from among the demonstrators, popular sympathy mounted and more people rushed to support the protestors. Some participants informed me that even "good thugs" from surrounding neighborhoods came to their rescue and helped overpower the attackers.
3) Digital Iron Curtain
In preparation for a major crackdown against the demonstrators, Mubarak's regime cut off the internet and cell phone services in Egypt for several days. This measure was another fatal mistake that turned to the benefit of the demonstrators. It affected the flow of communication between the security forces on the ground and their commanding officers in the headquarters of the ministry of interior. According to security officers, many lost their walkie-talkies in the violent clashes and were unable to use their disconnected cell phones, forcing them into a disorganized retreat. Unable to use cell phones to check on demonstrating relatives in Tahrir Square, families flocked by the thousand to the square and stayed by their kin throughout the clashes with the security forces. The lack of cell phone and internet communication also forced protest organizers to plan events ahead of time and devise an advance schedule. All Egypt took early notice of the invitation to participate in the planned massive demonstrations on that Sunday, Tuesday, and Friday.
4) Targeting Foreign Media
The systematic targeting of foreign correspondents and some TV stations exposed the regime's ugly face and turned Western public opinion sharply against Mubarak. This began with the regime shutting down al- Jazeera and arresting its correspondents in Cairo. But al-Jazeera continued its direct and live coverage of the events, which it aired through other satellite stations. Its coverage was broadcast live on big screens in the square. Some protesters dubbed al-Jazeera "The Voice of the Revolution." The scenes of well-known international correspondents being harassed and hit by Mubarak's thugs repulsed Egyptians and Westerners alike.
The damage Mubarak did in his slow political response to and excessive violence was exacerbated by his failure to offer sufficient concessions to the protesters. This created an incentive for the protesters to keep raising their ceiling of demands. That list escalated from "Bread, Freedom, and Social Justice" to "The People Want to Change the Regime" to "The People Want to Try the President" to the current demand -- "The People Want to Clean up the State Institutions."
Mubarak had several opportunities to defuse the situation with a political compromise. He could have expressed understanding of the people's demands early on and shuffled the entire cabinet to bring new credible faces to the government. Instead, he retained 15 of his old, corrupt ministers. He could have assured the people that he was not running for office for a sixth term or planning to transfer power to his son. Instead, he was ambiguous on both, which led many to question his credibility. And when the time came to admit that he finally understood the demonstrators' grievances and was willing to change, the very next day he unleashed his thugs to attack and brutalize peaceful protesters. Mubarak's intransigence shattered any hope of him appeasing the protesters and holding on to power.
A version of this post appears also at Democracy Digest.