One Year Later, Egypt’s Multiple Revolutions Rage On: Roger Owen
Saturday marks the first anniversary of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s downfall, and it doesn’t look to be a happy one. Sure, there will be some celebrations in and around Tahrir Square by the battered, but still enthusiastic, remainder of the multitude of young people who launched the uprising itself on National Police Day: Jan. 25, 2011.
But this will be overshadowed by two dangerous divisions: between the army and the Egyptian people; and between the army and the Obama administration and Congress.
That Mubarak’s overthrow constituted a truly revolutionary event there can be no doubt. As with other revolutions, an initial spark -- the uprising in nearby Tunisia -- was followed by intense popular excitement leading to the collapse of the old regime and a timetable for creating a new system of government. Members of the Mubarak inner circle have been punished, and the deposed president himself remains on trial for the “premeditated murder” of unarmed demonstrators.
Presiding over the whole process, with the U.S.’s blessing, has been the new Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, which includes both the military high command, led by 76-year-old Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and top officials of the General Intelligence Services, often military men themselves and now the generals’ principal source of political advice. Subject to constant, often daily, pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, this secretive body is trying to manage the timetable for building the new constitutional order. At the same time, it is working to ensure its own protected position -- including its substantial budget and its large and corrupt economic empire.
Egyptian public opinion has grown increasingly divided between those who see the army as the last bastion of public order and those who fear it as a sinister, often incompetent force. (The army’s guilty secret is its incapacity to mount even the simplest of military maneuvers.) To make matters worse, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces is at once in charge of, and dependent on, a dangerously embittered police force, whose own actions, whether in trying to clear Tahrir Square or prevent violence at a Port Said soccer match, have come under well- justified suspicion.
Since the Muslim Brotherhood swept to political power in the recent national elections, the generals’ relationship with this party has also become a source of concern. Like it or not, the two groups have to deal with each other in the new constitutional order, with the brothers pushing for a version of the parliamentary system with a relatively weak presidency and the army wanting to be protected from political oversight and accountability.
Driving this uneasy marriage of convenience is, on both sides, worry about the parlous state of the economy and suspicion of lingering revolutionary enthusiasm from the young. Left on hold, meanwhile, is any real revolutionary agenda -- to end police brutality and arbitrary criminal justice, for instance, or to improve the country’s ramshackle system of education.
Now, on top of all this, comes the arrest of 19 Americans involved with various local nongovernmental organizations, some of them personally connected to members of the U.S. Congress. Why Tantawi and his colleagues on the Supreme Council have chosen this moment to take on America’s often-repeated threat to reconsider its $1.3 billion in annual military aid is unclear. Perhaps they are simply tired of being pushed around? Perhaps they still think they are indispensable protectors of order? Perhaps it is their folk memory of the moment in the early 1970s when President Anwar Sadat’s regime faced down the Soviet Union, then Egypt’s main supplier of arms.
Still, the close relationship between the U.S. and Egypt will probably continue, even if in diminished form. Egypt is an important American ally, because it borders Israel and the Gaza Strip, and because it can yet demonstrate to the rest of the Arab world a successful transition to democracy. For its part, the Egyptian army is obviously eager to escape the difficult business of governing, which has tarnished its image among Egyptians and eroded the legitimacy it once had as guardian of the revolution. Hence, no doubt, the Supreme Council’s hasty decision earlier this week to move up the date for presidential nominations by one month to March 10.
At the end of its first year, the Egyptian revolution provides a model for Libya -- which awaits elections leading to a new constitution -- and a counterexample for states such as Sudan, Yemen and, above all, Syria, whose rulers have fiercely resisted popular uprisings.
Three lessons stand out: First, as with the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, the Mubarak government, powerful and authoritarian though it was, couldn’t completely subdue civil society. There was considerable scope for workers to defend their rights and for young members of the middle class to build solidarity via the Internet and social media.
Second, when the time came for revolt, the Egyptian army declined to sweep the demonstrators away by force. The high command feared that many troops might simply disobey orders to fire. And though the Syrian regime of Bashar al- Assad has taken countermeasures to ensure the continued loyalty of at least a few army units, an increasing number of defectors are unwilling to shoot down their own countrymen.
Schedule for Revolution
Third, the Egyptian experience has much to say about the sequence and speed of the timetable that a successful revolution must follow. Elections for a constituent assembly must be followed by elections for a new president, and then the installation of a new government. In this process, the variety of interests involved makes it difficult to preserve the unity that came from fighting against the old regime. Creating and tolerating a system of pluralist politics demands patience.
A final thought concerns the proper punishment for those deposed dictators who manage to survive revolution. Although Mubarak is on trial for the obvious charges of murder and corruption, his “real” crime was to keep his fellow Egyptians in a condition of fear, hopelessness and self-dislike, from which they could be awakened only by revolution.
The hard fact of the matter is that revolutions are lengthy and unruly. Overthrowing the old government is the easy part. Creating an acceptable new political order takes many long years. Let’s hope the second anniversary of Mubarak’s fall will give the world something new to celebrate.
(Roger Owen is a professor of Middle East history at Harvard University. His books include “State, Power and Politics in the Making of the Modern Middle East” and the forthcoming “The Rise and Fall of Arab Presidents for Life.” The opinions expressed are his own.)
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