Middle East
2:03 pm
Fri August 12, 2011

Egyptians See Their Revolution As Mideast Barometer

After Egyptians toppled President Hosni Mubarak in February, many thought that their revolution, driven by peaceful, mass demonstrations, would be duplicated elsewhere in the Middle East with the same powerful results.

All too soon, they saw on their TV screens that would not be the case, as uprisings in Libya and Syria brought bloodshed and slaughter. That led to uncertainty and fear in Egypt, because many agree with activist Hossam al-Hamalawy, who says that Egypt's revolution cannot fully succeed on its own.

"You cannot build a democracy in a country where you are surrounded by a sea or an ocean of dictatorships," he said.

In the meantime, many who brought about Egypt's revolution began to lose hope. They watched as the Supreme Military Council, which now holds power, cracked down on protesters and slowed down change, says Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

"There were many days and weeks in which many of us felt our transition is being blocked by the interim forces," he said.

Mubarak's Trial Captivates Middle East

But then Mubarak was put on trial, wheeled into the courtroom on a hospital bed, and put in a cage used for common criminals. It shocked Egypt and the wider Arab world, says Bahgat.

"Seeing Mubarak on trial will strengthen the popular demand for a democracy and dignity and full accountability," he said. And, he added, it could also "further terrify these autocrats and once again deliver the message that their days in power are numbered."

In Egypt, everyone believes that Syria's Bashar Assad and Libya's Moammar Gadhafi were watching as the charges against Mubarak were read out.

In the short run, seeing Mubarak behind bars and on trial might cause other Arab leaders to take an even tougher approach to uprisings. But many, like human-rights activist and publisher Hisham Kassem, are now confident about the ultimate outcome.

"I have no doubt where it's going," he said. "Yemen, Libya, Syria, the three regimes are going under."

A New Order

According to Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics, what is taking place across the Arab world is a genuine revolution.

"There is a new order in place. And I think there's a rupture," Gerges said. "The rupture that has to do with the mood and psychology of the Arab people. Citizens who are empowered, emboldened. They have rights as opposed to being subjects, ruled by their powerful leaders like Mubarak."

That was evident before Mubarak's trial, said Gerges. But it became especially clear once the trial began and could be seen on every television set throughout the Middle East.

"Having Mubarak in the courtroom has sent shock waves through the veins of the ruling elite in the Arab world, and has sent powerful messages to young Egyptians, old Egyptians, young and old Arabs," he said. "I think this is a new era."

There are certain to be more ups and downs before the process in Egypt is complete. The wider Arab world will be watching intently along with Egyptians, said Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S. and now dean of the School of Global Affairs at the American University of Cairo.

"If we succeed in taking it several stages forward politically here in Egypt, and you develop over the next eight to 12 months a political system that is accountable, transparent, participatory — in other words democratic — this will spread throughout the Middle East," he said.

But none of this is guaranteed, Fahmy notes.

"If we fail, it will be a tremendous setback for all those pushing for good governance in the Middle East peacefully," he added. "It will give an indication to the population and to those in government that the only way to change or to rebut change is the use of force."

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MICHELE NORRIS, host: With the violence in Syria, as well as Libya, the Arab Spring appears to many people inside the Arab world and beyond to have stalled. Even many Egyptians worry that their revolution has lost its momentum. Yes, protesters ousted longtime leader Hosni Mubarak but he was replaced by the Egyptian military, which has yet to enact many of the reforms protesters demanded.

Still, if the Arab Spring has stalled, Egyptians gave it a jumpstart last week with the courtroom appearance of Mubarak in a prisoner's cage.

NPR's Mike Shuster reports from Cairo.

MIKE SHUSTER: It's not that Egyptians want to export their revolution. They watched helplessly in horror as the revolt spread to Libya and Syria and brought bloodshed and slaughter. Many in Egypt at first thought their largely nonviolent revolution would be duplicated elsewhere in the Middle East with the same powerful results. All too soon, they saw on their TV screens that would not be the case.

With that came uncertainty and fear in Egypt, because many here agree with activist Hossam al-Hamalawy that Egypt's revolution cannot fully succeed on its own.

HOSSAM AL-HAMALAWY: You cannot build a democracy in a country where you are surrounded by a sea or an ocean of dictatorships.

SHUSTER: In the meantime, many who made Egypt's revolution in January and February began to lose hope, as they watched the supreme military council that holds political power here crack down on protesters and slow down change, says Hossam Bahgat, the director of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.

HOSSAM BAHGAT: There were many days and weeks in which many of us felt that our transition is being blocked by the interim forces.

SHUSTER: Then, the unbelievable happened - Mubarak was put on trial. They wheeled him into the courtroom on a hospital bed, and put him in a cage used for common criminals. It shocked Egypt and the wider Arab world, says Bahgat.

BAHGAT: Seeing Mubarak on trial will strengthen the popular demand for a democracy and dignity and full accountability. And will hopefully further terrify these autocrats and once again deliver the message that their days in power are numbered.

SHUSTER: There is no doubt in Egypt that Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Moammar Gadhafi in Libya watched, as the bill of indictment against Mubarak for murder and corruption was read out. In the short run, seeing him like this might cause other Arab leaders to be even tougher. But many like human rights activist and publisher Hisham Kassem are now confident about the ultimate outcome.

HISHAM KASSEM: I have no doubt where it's going. Yemen, Libya, Syria, the three regimes are going under.

SHUSTER: And that's because what is taking place across the Arab world is a genuine revolution, according to Fawaz Gerges, director of the Middle East Center at the London School of Economics.

FAWAZ GERGES: There's a new order in place. And I think there's a rupture, the rupture that has to do with the mood and psychology of the Arab people. Citizens feel empowered, emboldened, they have rights, as opposed to being subjects ruled by their powerful leaders like Mubarak.

SHUSTER: That was evident before Mubarak's trial, says Gerges, but it became especially clear once the trial began and could be seen on every television set throughout the Middle East.

GERGES: Having Mubarak in the courtroom has sent shockwaves through the veins of the ruling elite in the Arab world, and has sent powerful messages to young Egyptians, old Egyptians, young and old Arabs. And I think this is a new era.

SHUSTER: And for many young and old Egyptians, they believe they have seized the political initiative once again, says Hossam Bahgat.

BAHGAT: We all felt a great excitement and the return of the sense of victory and accomplishment we felt in February

SHUSTER: There are certain to be more ups and downs, incremental victories and defeats before the process in Egypt is complete. The wider Arab world will be watching intently along with Egyptians, says Nabil Fahmy, former Egyptian ambassador to the U.S., now dean of the School of Global Affairs at the American University of Cairo.

NABIL FAHMY: If we succeed in taking it several stages forward, politically here in Egypt, and you develop over the next eight to 12 months a political system that is accountable, transparent, participatory - in other words, democratic - this will spread throughout the Middle East without any exception at all.

SHUSTER: But accomplishing that is not guaranteed, as Fahmy points out.

FAHMY: If we fail, it will be a tremendous setback for all of those pushing for good governance in the Middle East peacefully. It will give an indication to the population and to those in government that the only way to change or to rebut change is the use of force.

SHUSTER: In the Egyptian view, nothing less than the future of the Middle East is at stake.

Mike Shuster, NPR News, Cairo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.