Despite all the fears about the future of the Egyptian uprising, the trouble now with Israel over the deaths of Egyptian soldiers highlights one of the major shifts that have taken place since January 25: the new power of the Arab street – which politicians and assorted experts abroad have for long long loved to rubbish – to influence government policy. You might think it’s normal for government agendas to reflect at least in broad outlines the will of the people. Not so round here, where Sadat singlehandedly took Egypt’s military out of the equation in the historic conflict with Israel over its displacement of the indigenous population according to terms of a new alliance with the United States involving peace-for-handouts.
The outbreak of the second Intifada in 2000 is an interesting example of how the Mubarak regime manipulated popular sentiment in order to do essentially nothing when it came to Israel. Public anger was huge, there was massive demonstrations in countries across the region. What did Mubarak do? At a press conference in late October, he talked of his disgust at the death on TV of Mohammed al-Durra, the young boy whose father was trying to shelter him from soldiers bullets, and then in the same breath announced he was calling an emergency Arab summit. Over the next year Mubarak’s regime tried to ride the wave of popular anger – state media promoted popstars with special rousing songs, state-funded TV soaps dealt lauded “resistance” and Mubarak was even asked directly by a particularly enthusiastic interviewer if Egypt would go to war with Israel again. But the aim of all this was not to charge the people with the spirit of action, it was to steer the tide of anger towards safer shores – the zombie world of Arab regime inaction. While at the level of rhetoric and mass media, Egypt supported the Intifada, students who tried to hold campus protests and taken them to the streets faced constant harrassment by his nasty security apparatus.
Look at the situation now: the ruling military council is running to catch up with public opinion and struggling to contain street mobilization. For now at least state security is a broken institution that can only operate in the shadows and the army cannot risk a confrontation with activists and ordinary Egyptians angered by the blatant infringements of sovereignty and international norms such as occurred in recent days. The removal of the Israeli flag after Flagman’s feat in scaling 13 floors to replace it with the Egyptian flag would have been unimaginable before the revolt. That’s to say that the army or security forces will not regain their balance at some point in the future and do what they can to limit brazen freelancing by the people like this, and it’s not even clear yet that the popular anger has had a clear effect on policy this week. There’s still some doubt over whether the ambassador has been recalled, and let’s not forget that recalling the ambassador was a manoeuvre last tried by Mubarak in response to the Intifada in 2000. The military receives annual funding from Washington and knows Egypt will get into hot water with the Americans if the country shifts its stances on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It has become clear that government rhetoric on easing border regulations with Gaza, for a start, has not been translated into reality yet. Even Egyptians of Palestinian fathers continue to be treated like shit by Mugamma officials when they visit to ask for their right to an Egyptian passport. But there is no question that the political environment has changed drastically from before and all is to play for: street action makes a difference.