Just two weeks ago, the authoritarian regime of Hosni Mubarak seemed as firm and immovable as the great timeless pyramids that symbolise his country of Egypt.
Today, the whole world is watching in suspended disbelief as tens of thousands of Egyptians openly defy Mubarak’s security forces – ignoring curfews, braving tear gas shells and water cannons, and tearing down giant posters of the powerful dictator that ruled over them for 30 years.
In parts of Cairo, law enforcement has melted away before the protestors, and the army has been called in to wrest back government control as Mubarak faces the largest public uprising since the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952.
Meanwhile, a sudden clamour for freedom is also posing serious challenges to despotic regimes elsewhere in the Arab world.
This unlikely revolution began with a humble Tunisian fruit-seller, Muhammad Al Bouazizi who, in desperation after policemen took away his wooden cart, doused himself in petrol and struck a match that would ultimately set the whole Arab world ablaze.
In the ensuing outrage, citizens rose up in revolt in Tunisia leading to an ignominious end to the 23 year old autocratic regime of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.
The Tunisian president fled to Saudi Arabia with his family and close colleagues, where a Royal palace in Jeddah has reportedly been opened up to accommodate them.
A fascinating phenomena observed in this revolution is the manner in which a suppressed nation, long accustomed to arbitrary apprehensions and torture, could suddenly be overwhelmed by a single incident of tragedy – one moment of injustice that sent tremors throughout the population, leaving them seemingly immune to both pain and fear, as they took on a powerful, oppressive machinery.
The story is one that is intensely familiar to Maldivians. In 2003 the beating to death of Evan Naseem, an inmate of the Maafushi prison, sparked the first widespread riots in Male’.
As the unrest spread across the country, President Gayoom imposed a State of Emergency for the first time. However, it did little to bottle the popular grassroots revolution that successfully led to a new democratic constitution being adopted in 2008.
Egypt, on the other hand, has officially been in a State of Emergency since 1967, except for a brief 18-month period in 1980 and 1981; the Emergency was last extended by 2 years in May 2010.
Over 17,000 people are detained under the Emergency law in Egypt, and an estimated 30,000 political prisoners exist in the country. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most popular organised opposition party, has been branded a terrorist organization and remains banned in Egypt.
Surprisingly, even the Muslim Brotherhood appears to be struggling to catch up with the current mass protests that remain largely leaderless, but unabated in strength despite a death toll approaching 90.
For five whole days after the protests first started, no senior state official made a public appearance – an indication that the government was grappling with a response to the quickly unfolding revolution on the streets.
When Mubarak finally addressed the public in a pre-dawn speech aired on National television, it was with an air of hubris that characterises the 82 year old despot – he refused to budge, and sought to shift the blame to his nominal government cabinet, which he promised to replace by Saturday.
These actions are unlikely to satisfy the Egyptian protestors, and there might be more confrontation as Egypt prepares to flex its military muscle.
Another country living in a state of Emergency since 1992 is Tunisia’s giant neighbour, Algeria. In the aftermath of Tunisia’s successful revolution, protests have broken out all over Algeria – the largest uprising in two decades in a country that has witnessed a series of smaller protests in recent years.
Thousands of demonstrators have also poured out onto the streets of Sana’a in Yemen, the poorest of all Arab countries, where half the population lives under $2 a day, that nevertheless spends 40 percent of its state budget on maintaining its military force – the second largest in the Arabian peninsula after Saudi Arabia. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen has been in power for 32 years; he also controls and heads the powerful military.
Indeed, the military has often been referred to as the backbone of Middle Eastern dictatorships. It has been the final instrument of power for several despots – notably illustrated by the fact that all four Egyptian Presidents since the overthrow of the monarchy have been military figures.
Hosni Mubarak’s grip on power may now depend entirely on the loyalty of the Egyptian military – the tenth largest in the world – of which he is the Commander-in-Chief.
It would be a loyalty well-earned, for Mubarak has spent generously on his armed forces; of the $1.55 billion aid granted by the US in 2010, $1.3 billion was spent on the military. Egypt is the second largest recipient of US military aid after Israel.
A leaked cable from the US Embassy in Cairo, nevertheless, suggests that the Egyptian military has gotten weak and fractious over the years.
While many analysts had deemed it unlikely for the military to side with the protestors, it is noted that the military prevented police from firing on demonstrators on Saturday – and soldiers could be seen publicly fraternising with demonstrators at the Ramses square in Cairo. The decision of the military could indeed decide the course of events in Egypt.
A loyal armed force helped the Iranian government crush the largest mass demonstrations since the Islamic revolution, in 2009. The pro-democracy movement, also known as the Green movement, threw up some vivid images of protestors trampling over posters of Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Club-wielding basij, a volunteer militia owing allegiance to the Ayatollah and the Revolutionary Guard, raided University campuses and broke up crowds while armed forces shot civilians in the street. Eighteen months later, the Iranian resistance appears to have been overcome.
On the other hand, intervention from the military saved the Tunisian revolution. The military refused to obey President Ben Ali’s orders to fire upon protestors, and reportedly even deployed army helicopters to protect demonstrators from government snipers positioned on rooftops. General Rachid Ammar, the head of the Tunisian military, also declined to occupy the newly vacant seat of power.
Winds of change are already blowing through the streets of a jubilant Tunisia, as the caretaker government has released hundreds of political prisoners, and vowed to lift restrictions on Islamist and Communist parties that were banned under the former regime.
It might be premature to say if this marks the beginning of a domino effect reminiscent of the serial collapse of the Communist regimes in Eastern Europe. Tunisia might very well be the Arabia’s answer to Poland, whose example led to a series of revolutions across Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Bulgaria and Romania, ultimately leading to the collapse of a once mighty Soviet empire.
The shared nature of Arab grievances and their mutual solidarity was strongly visible. Thousands of protestors in Amman, the capital of Jordan, were heard chanting “Egyptian nation, our beloved, your redemption is near!”
Protestors in Cairo carried Tunisian flags, a symbol of hope for a region that has for decades been plagued by corrupt, autocratic and oppressive regimes propped up and armed by rich Western interests; a region where many citizens have never experienced political freedoms.
Speaking to BBC radio, an Egyptian blogger reiterated that “All they’re asking for is for their voices to be heard, for their dignity to be respected and to have a humane life, and to have political freedom.”
Egypt, being the region’s foremost cultural, intellectual and political hub, will likely set an example for people in other countries like neighboring Libya, whose citizens have been living under the dictatorial rule of Muammar Al-Gaddafi for 42 years.
In the words of Victor Hugo, ‘One can resist the invasion of armies, but one cannot withstand an idea who time has arrived’.
Clearly, the time for change has arrived for Tunisia, and hope exists that Egypt, Algeria, Yemen and other Middle Eastern dictatorships will be dismantled and see the power returned to the people.