The largest of businesses, local and multinational, are not normally prone to inactivity. They are the ones likely to move most quickly to stem a tide of red ink by agitating the government to suppress such a protest, hopefully yesterday. But the staggering size of even the early demonstrations, the face of a mobilizing civil society visibly shedding 30 years of passivity, proved stunning. The fiercely brave response to police attacks, in which repression was met by masses of new demonstrators pouring into the streets, made it clear that brutal suppression would not quickly silence these protests. Such acts were more likely to prolong the disruptions and possibly amplify the uprising.
Even if Washington was slow on the uptake, it didn't take long for the relentlessly repressive Egyptian ruling clique to grasp the fact that large-scale, violent suppression was an impossible-to-implement strategy. Once the demonstrations involved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egyptians, a huge and bloody suppression guaranteed long-term economic paralysis and ensured that the tourist trade wasn't going to rebound for months or longer.
The paralysis of the tourism industry was, in itself, an economic time bomb that threatened the viability of the core of the Egyptian capitalist class, as long as the demonstrations continued. 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 the government, the military, and the mainstream media. With so many fortunes at stake, the business classes, foreign and domestic, soon enough began entertaining the most obvious and least disruptive solution: Mubarak's departure.
Strangling the Mubarak Regime
The attack on tourism, however, was just the first blow in what rapidly became the protestors' true weapon of mass disruption, its increasing stranglehold on the economy. The crucial communications and transportation industries were quickly engulfed in chaos and disrupted by the demonstrations. The government at first shut down the Internet and mobile phone service in an effort to deny the protestors their means of communication and organization, including Facebook and Twitter. 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 sporadic, either because of government shutdowns aimed at crippling the protests or because the protests interfered with normal operations. And such disruptions quickly rippled outward to the many sectors of the economy, from banking to foreign trade, for which communication and/or transportation was crucial.
As the demonstrations grew, employees, customers, and suppliers of various businesses were ever more consumed with preparations for, participation in, or recovery from the latest protest, or protecting homes from looters and criminals 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 as the country immersed itself in the next big demonstration -- and then the one after.
As long as the protests were sustained, as long as each new crescendo matched or exceeded the last, the economy continued to die while business and political elites became ever more desperate for a solution to the crisis.
The Rats Leave the Sinking Ship of State
After each upsurge in protest, Mubarak and his cronies offered new concessions aimed at quieting the crowds. These, in turn, were taken as signs of weakness by the protestors, only convincing them of their strength, amplifying the movement, and driving it into the heart of the Egyptian working class and the various professional guilds. By the start of the third week of demonstrations, protests began to hit critical institutions directly.
On February 9th, reports of a widening wave of strikes in major industries around the country began pouring in, as lawyers, medical workers, and other professionals also took to the streets with their grievances. In a single day, tens of thousands of employees in textile factories, newspapers and other media companies, government agencies (including the post office), sanitation workers and bus drivers, and -- most significant of all -- workers at the Suez Canal began demanding economic concessions as well as the departure of Mubarak.
Since the Suez Canal is second only to tourism as a source of income for the country, 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 self-evident.
A shutdown of the canal would have been not just an Egyptian but a world calamity: a significant proportion of the globe's oil flows through that canal, especially critical for energy-starved Europe. A substantial shipping slowdown, no less a shutdown, threatened a possible renewal of the worldwide recession of 2008-2009, even as it would choke off the Egyptian government's major source of steady income.
As if this weren't enough, the demonstrators turned their attention 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, Mahalla, Mansoura, Ismailia, Port Said, and even Alexandria (the country's major Mediterranean port), were "free of the regime" -- purged of Mubarak officials, state-controlled communications, and the hated police and security forces. In Cairo, the national capital, demonstrators began to surround the parliament, the state TV building, and other centers critical to the national government. Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist and well known political blogger in Cairo, told Democracy Now that the crowd "could continue to escalate, either by claiming more places or by actually moving inside these buildings, if the need comes." With the economy choking to death, the demonstrators were now moving to put a hammerlock on the government apparatus itself.
At that point, a rats-leaving-a-sinking-ship-of-state phenomenon burst into public visibility as "several large companies took out adverts in local newspapers putting distance between themselves and the regime." Guardian reporter Jack Shenker affirmed this public display by quoting informed sources describing widespread "nervousness among the business community" about the viability of the regime, and that "a lot of people you might think are in bed with Mubarak have privately lost patience."
It was this tightening noose around the neck of the Mubarak regime that made the remarkable protests of these last weeks so different from those in Tiananmen Square. In China, the demonstrators had negligible economic and political leverage. In Egypt, the option of a brutal military attack, even if "successful" in driving them off the streets, seemed to all but guarantee the deepening of an already dire economic crisis, subjecting ever widening realms of the economy -- and so the wealth of the military -- to the risk of irreparable calamity.