Although the outcome of the revolutionary uprising that is spreading across North Africa and the Middle East is still unclear, the simple fact that it is happening will likely alter the course of history. In coming to terms with the changed political landscape, U.S. policymakers first need to rethink the false dichotomy of stability/instability, upon which many U.S. foreign-policy decisions are based.
Governments — in particular authoritarian regimes such as Hosni Mubarak's 30-year dictatorship — are often described as representing "stability." The current uprising to topple this corrupt regime is generally perceived, even by its supporters, as a form of "instability." And yet, what I have seen unfolding with my own eyes over the past two weeks in Cairo belies this paradigm.
It is a remarkable feat, in and of itself, that millions of Egyptians have decided to attend public demonstrations on a daily basis that call for the overthrow of the Mubarak dictatorship — in spite of the fact that they know full well the degree of brutality this regime is capable of. On Jan. 28, Egypt's "Day of Rage," I saw peaceful demonstrators being subjected to water cannons and tear gas at short range; I saw them being dragged off into unmarked vehicles; and I even saw them being shot and killed by the police. Finally, I watched from an overlooking balcony as demonstrators captured Tahrir (Liberation) Square with nothing but their bare hands and sheer determination, routing the despised police force. To have done this during a communications blackout that lasted for almost a week is not only remarkable, but borders on the inexplicable.
A number of observers have marveled at the fact that this revolution is not only spontaneous but also leaderless. The vast majority of the demonstrators I have spoken to do not consider themselves "activists," nor are they organized in recognizable political parties or civic groups. However, this does not mean they are unorganized. On the contrary, one of the most underreported aspects of the current uprising in Egypt is the societal stability created through the self-organization of the people and, conversely, the attempts of the regime to sabotage these grass-roots initiatives.
For example, the opposition newspaper Al Masry Al Youm has reported how freed prisoners have disclosed that masked gunmen released them from jail, telling them to "leave and don't look back." By releasing common criminals from the jails, the regime cynically sought to engineer an increase in random violence and looting. By simultaneously ordering the police to disappear from the streets where they are typically omnipresent (many police stations had been torched), the regime expected that the chaos would become intolerable and that people would soon demand the police to return for their own safety.
This did not happen. Instead, ordinary Egyptians organized neighborhood watches. They set up barricades and checkpoints, demanding to see an ID for every person entering a neighborhood. Ordinary civilians set up security checkpoints around Tahrir Square, and inspected every bag or purse that was carried in. As soon as the clashes on Friday the 28th became violent, people volunteered to buy medical supplies from nearby pharmacies and delivered them — not to medical clinics staffed by paid doctors, but to mosques, where ad hoc clinics had been set up by volunteers to treat injured demonstrators. Once Tahrir was firmly in the hands of the demonstrators, food and water had to be brought in to feed the thousands of people who were camping out there, as nearby shops were all closed; blankets and tents also became necessities for those who refused to give up their vigil. These basic needs were met not by the paternalistic regime that has claimed for so long to protect the people from themselves, but by those calling for the resignation of the man who considers himself Egypt's "father."
For the first week of the protests, the atmosphere on and around Tahrir was festive and celebratory, and people from all walks of life — Muslim and Christian, secular and religious, young and old, male and female, including foreigners like me living in Egypt — were welcomed warmly. Then, on Feb. 2, the Mubarak regime revealed its ugliest face. In a brutal crackdown on the protests, at least 13 people were killed and more than 1,000 were wounded in a single day. (It is believed that more than 300 people have been killed across Egypt since the beginning of the uprising.) Thugs were ordered — some say paid — by the regime to attack the anti-government demonstrators. The state media began a viciously xenophobic campaign, claiming that the unrest was the result of "foreign instigators." Not only has this tactic made life unsafe for the tens of thousands of expatriates and their children who live and work in Egypt, but by openly inciting suspicion of foreigners, the regime is destabilizing the Egyptian economy that relies heavily on foreign tourism. It is estimated that losses are upward of $1 billion. The only foreigners flying into the country are journalists, and they are being harassed and detained.
Here again, it was clear that the regime was attempting to unleash instability and chaos. And it was the people of Egypt who were providing a semblance of security and stability.
The U.S. government provides Egypt $1.3 billion in aid every year, because it believes it buys us "stability" and a friendly government. It should be painfully obvious by now that this is a pig in a poke: The Mubarak regime has brutally suppressed the democratic uprising; terrorized its own population; and unleashed a xenophobic campaign that will perhaps irreparably damage the tourism sector and larger economy, if not its foreign alliances. We are witnessing not only a destabilization of the regime by the people, but an attempt by President Mubarak and his coercive apparatus to destroy the self-organization of Egyptian society.
The Mubarak regime is not a force of stability; the Egyptian people are.
Amy Eskendar is the pen name for an American academic and former Baltimore resident now living in Cairo. She is not using her real name because the Mubarak regime has threatened foreigners and regime critics with reprisals. Her e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.