“Nobody saw it coming!” they say. Among others the White House, whose business it is to know who’s hot and who’s not among its Arab satellite regimes, found itself flabbergasted, not to mention discombobulated. “A complete surprise,” muttered many a well-paid analyst, often expounding their ignorance on national TV. “Told you so,” gloated a few -ahem- prescient observers. One might arguably pop the latter’s bubble by saying that if you predict enough things, some are bound to come true. Winning the lottery is difficult, but it happens nonetheless. And yet, while playing the lottery is purely a game of chance, history accords the astute observer quite a few threads to see what’s ahead. In that sense, it’s more like playing black-jack while a voluptuous blonde woman befuddles your opponent.
The Arab Spring, in other words, was always in the cards. Without delving too much into the past, Egypt under Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) was a police state run under emergency law instated after the previous president’s assassination at the purported hands of Islamist militants. While in the streets of Cairo and the sugar cane fields of the Nile valley and Delta a low-intensity war raged between Saudi-financed terror groups and brutal American-armed security forces, Egyptian society grew poorer, and evermore conservative. The nominally secular regime yielded the religious forum to the invisible (because illegal, yet non-violent) Muslim Brotherhood. I.e. certain conservative aspirations were met while the root of the Brotherhood’s success was left unaddressed; pervasive state corruption, cronyism, nepotism, and a lack of social services that the Brotherhood was more than happy to make up for.
Meanwhile the Egyptian middle-class, whose women in the Sixties and Seventies happily wore mini-skirts, bikinis and jeans, was all but decimated after the costly wars of ’67 and ’73, and the neoliberal “Opening” policy begun by Sadat just before the start of the Eighties. Egyptian cinema, a rich and artful platform to discuss social change, women’s rights and existential musings, withered. Although the incisive Egyptian sense of humor and keen observation is difficult if not impossible to suppress, the Eighties and Nineties were a time of ‘loud and camp’, and such finely chiseled imports as Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme. On the romantic side, perhaps no movie embodied the crux and end of that era better than “Titanic”. Among Egyptian, and indeed Arab youth, always dreaming of a better life, an American life, the message really sunk in. “Get rich, or die trying,” to paraphrase a Mr. Curtis Jackson, a.k.a. 50 Cent.
This American orientation, already badly wounded by US support for arch-enemy Israel, ended with the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of thousands of civilians died there. No weapons of mass destruction were found. Al-Qaeda followed the US army into Iraq, not the other way around, while democracy, hardly worthy of the name, stumbled. The Egyptian and other Arab regimes, by association, stood bare. Justice would not come from the West. John Rambo wasn’t going to set things straight. Egyptian cinema of the Nilties in turn took on a sharper tone. Movies like “Hasan and Marcos” discussed Christian-Muslim relations. The scandal flick “The Yacoubian Building” based on a novel by Alaa Al-Aswany set in an Art Deco building by the same name, offered a piercing review of Egyptian society. Even high-rolling action films like “Tito” and “Fatah Ainaik” (Open your Eyes) bathed in a political undercurrent, pitting young men against the political and economic 1%.
Already in 2004 a vocal political movement came to the fore. The Egyptian Movement for Change, or Kefaya (Enough) was born from solidarity committees with Palestinians’ 2000 Intifada against Israeli occupation, and from the huge protests against the US invasion of Iraq. Rumors that Mubarak’s son Gamal was being groomed for dynastic succession further galvanized the opposition. In December of 2004 between 500 and 1000 protestors surrounded by riot police demanded Mubarak step down. Cowed and beaten by pro-regime thugs, and failing to expand beyond an intellectual Cairo elite, the movement did manage to wrest some token reforms from the state. Moreover, one of the movement’s founders Hany Anan, declared: “We are showing Egyptians that we can challenge the ruler, we can tell him we don’t want you, that’s enough, you go, and we can do this in public and still go back to our homes, maybe with some wounds or some bruises, but we still go home.”
It would take another five years, and the inspiring Tunisian example, for the rest of Egyptians to pinch themselves and open their eyes to a startling possibility. ‘Wait a minute… You can do that?” The surprise, perhaps, was all theirs.