Memo to President Obama: Your handling of the Egyptian uprising was incompetent. To prepare you for the next round of political upheavals, let me offer a primer on how power can be wielded by mass protest.
Remember the uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989? That was also a huge, peaceful protest for democracy, but it was crushed. Perhaps remembering that event, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced early that the Mubarak regime was “stable” and in “no danger of falling.”
But it fell, and you should have known that the Egyptian uprising’s prognosis was far better than the one that ended in the Tiananmen Square massacre; that it was likely to match the people power of Tunisia, where only weeks before another autocrat had been driven from power, or Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1989.
Let me offer you an explanation for why the Egyptian protesters were more successful in preventing violence than their Chinese compatriots. Why, simply by staying in the streets and adhering to nonviolence, were they were able to topple a tyrant with 30 years seniority and American backing?
One possible answer is that the Egyptian military, unlike its Chinese counterpart, decided not to crush the rebellion, and that this forbearance enabled the protest to succeed. However, this argument explains nothing unless we can answer two other intertwined questions.
The first is: Why was the military so restrained this time, when for 50 years, it had stood at the core of a repressive police state? The second is: Why couldn’t the government, even without a military ready to turn its guns on the demonstrators, endure a few more days, weeks, or months of protest, waiting for the uprising to exhaust itself and, as the BBC put it, “have the whole thing fizzle out.”
The answer to both questions lies in the remarkable impact that the protest had on the Egyptian economy. Mubarak and the military were alarmed that the protests were “having a huge impact on the creaking economy.” Two weeks into the uprising, Finance Minister Samir Radwin called the economic situation “very serious.”
The huge protests threatened the wealth that the Mubarak regime had acquired during their 30-year reign of terror and corruption. Surely the generals saw that the brutality necessary to suppress the uprising would threaten its vast economic interests. Either trying to outwait the revolutionaries or impose the Tiananmen solution jeopardized the economic empires of Egypt’s ruling groups.
From the beginning, the Egyptian uprising had the effect of a general strike. On the first day of the protest, tourism—the largest industry in the country, which had just begun its high season—went into free fall. After two weeks, it ground to a halt, leaving many of its two million workers with reduced wages or none at all, and the few remaining tourists catching the pyramids, if at all, on television.
Tourism alone may account for over 15 percent of Egypt’s cash flow. Revenue losses amounted to $310 million per day as Mubarak clung to office. After two weeks of this ticking time bomb, Crédit Agricole, the largest banking group in France, lowered its growth estimate for the country’s economy by 32 percent.
The losses in the tourist, hotel, and travel sectors of the Egyptian economy hit industries dominated by multinational corporations and major Egyptian business groups. When cash flow dies, loan payments must still be made, hotels heated, airline schedules kept, and many employees paid. Moreover, skittish travelers may not return until confident that no further disruptions will occur.
The largest businesses try to stop the flowing red ink by demanding that the government suppress the protest. But the huge early demonstrations mobilized civil society to shed thirty years of passivity. The police attacks faced masses of new demonstrators who proved that brutality would not silence their protests. Such acts prolonged the disruptions.
It didn’t take long for the Egyptian ruling clique to see that large-scale, violent suppression was impossible to implement. Once the demonstrations involved hundreds of thousands of Egyptians, a bloody suppression guaranteed that the tourist trade wouldn’t rebound for months.
Recovery could only begin after a “return to normal life,” a phrase that became synonymous with the end of the protests in the rhetoric of government, the military, and the mainstream media. With so many fortunes at stake, the business classes, foreign and domestic, began entertaining the least disruptive solution: Mubarak’s departure.
The attack on tourism was just the first aspect of the protestors’ increasing stranglehold on the economy. The demonstrations quickly disrupted the crucial communications and transportation industries. The government at first shut down the Internet and mobile phone service, including Facebook and Twitter, to deny the protestors their means of organization. When they were reopened, these services operated imperfectly, in part because of the increasingly rebellious behavior of their own employees.
Similar effects were seen in transportation, which became unreliable. And such disruptions spread to other sectors of the economy, from banking to foreign trade, for which communication and/or transportation was crucial.
As the demonstrations grew, businesses were consumed with the latest protest or protecting homes after the government called the police force off the streets. On Fridays especially, many people left work to join the protest during noon prayers, abandoning their offices for each big demonstration. As long as the protests were sustained the economy continued to die and the elites became more desperate.
After each upsurge in protest, Mubarak and his cronies offered new concessions. Protesters took these as signs of weakness, convincing them of their strength. By the third week of demonstrations, protests began to hit critical institutions directly.
On February 9th, strikes began in major industries around the country. Lawyers, medical workers, and other professionals took to the streets with their grievances. In a single day, tens of thousands of employees began demanding economic concessions and Mubarak’s departure.
Since the Suez Canal is second only to tourism as the country’s source of income, a sit-in there, involving up to 6,000 workers, was particularly ominous. Though the protestors made no effort to close the canal, the threat to its operation was evident.
A shutdown of the canal would have been a calamity. Much of the globe’s oil flows through it, especially for energy-starved Europe. A shipping slowdown threatened a possible renewal of the worldwide recession of 2008-2009 that would choke off the Egyptian government’s major source of steady income.
Next the demonstrators turned to various government institutions, attempting to render them nonfunctional. The day after the president’s third refusal to step down, protestors claimed that many regional capitals, including Suez, Mansoura, Port Said, and even Alexandria, were purged of Mubarak officials, state-controlled communications, and the hated security forces. In Cairo, demonstrators began to surround the parliament, the state TV building, and other centers critical to the government.
Now the rats began leaving the sinking ship. Several large companies took out ads in local newspapers distancing themselves from the regime. Guardian reporter Jack Shenker quoted informed descriptions of widespread “nervousness among the business community” about the viability of the regime, and said that “a lot of people you might think are in bed with Mubarak have privately lost patience.”
This tightening noose around the Mubarak regime distinguished the protests of these last weeks from those in Tiananmen Square. In China, the demonstrators had negligible economic and political leverage. In Egypt, a brutal military attack would have guaranteed a deepening of the dire economic crisis, subjecting the economy and the military’s wealth to the risk of calamity.
Perhaps Mubarak would have willingly sacrificed all this to stay in power. As it happened, the movers and shakers in the military, business, and foreign governments saw a far more appealing alternative solution.
Weil Ziada, head of research for a major Egyptian financial firm, spoke for the business and political class when he told Guardian reporter Jack Shenker on February 11th:
“Anti-government sentiment is not calming down, it is gaining momentum…This latest wave is putting a lot more pressure on not just the government but the entire regime; protesters have made their demands clear and there’s no rowing back now. Everything is going down one route. There are two or three scenarios, but all involve the same thing: Mubarak stepping down—and the business community is adjusting its expectations accordingly.”
The next day, President Hosni Mubarak resigned and left Cairo.
President Obama, remember this lesson: Nonviolent protest has the potential to strangle even the most brutal regime if it can threaten its core industries. A mass movement equipped with fearsome weapons of mass disruption can topple a tyrant equipped with fearsome weapons of mass destruction.
Michael Schwartz is a professor of sociology at Stony Brook University and the author of _War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket Press)._
© Copyright 2011 Michael Schwartz