Commentary Magazine


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What Drove the Pro-Government Forces into Cairo’s Streets

On the face of it, it makes no sense. For a week, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak allowed anti-government protesters to go unchallenged by his supporters, virtually taking over Cairo’s streets as his loyal army watched. Yesterday, Mubarak made a huge concession to his opponents by pledging not to “run” for re-election to Egypt’s presidency this fall, though that move did not appease his critics. Then this morning, the world awoke to the sight of a massive pro-Mubarak force moving into Cairo to challenge the anti-government forces. Why, many of us are asking, would Mubarak wait so long to unleash his backers? Why would he do so after already making it clear he wanted to avoid violence and had then promised to leave office?

While it is difficult to know exactly what is going on there, it may be that Mubarak’s announcement is exactly what set off this counter-demonstration.

While we tend to think of the Mubarak government as a matter of a small elite, it takes a great many people to run even an autocracy like Egypt. The president’s National Democratic Party may be neither national in scope nor even remotely democratic, but it is a very large entity, and the government bureaucracy that it controls is huge. While Egypt is a poor country with many millions living in abject poverty, and with even most university graduates lacking jobs, those who benefit from the ruling party’s largesse make up a considerable number of people.

Perhaps Mubarak is pulling the strings of these counter-protests, but it is by no means unlikely that those who run the governing party and its rank and file were panicked by his announcement yesterday and decided to act to pre-empt a change in government before it is too late. Though most Egyptians may be thrilled by the prospect of a regime change, the not inconsiderable minority that lives off that regime sees this as a threat to their livelihoods if not their lives. They may well prefer that blood run in the streets of their capital than be forced out of their government jobs. Mubarak and his family have the option of leaving the country and living in a comfortable exile; his supporters do not. So it is understandable, if regrettable, that they would resort to street violence rather than simply accept the likelihood that they will soon be out of a job and perhaps joining the hundreds of thousands of homeless living in Cairo’s cemeteries.