Is Permanent Revolution Egypt's Best Future?

Marc Champion writes editorials on international affairs. He was previously Istanbul bureau chief for the Wall Street Journal. He was also an editor at the Financial Times, the editor-in-chief of the Moscow Times and a correspondent for the Independent in Washington, the Balkans and Moscow. He is based in London.
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How do Egyptian revolutionaries square the lofty pro-democratic goals of the current protests with their outcome, which so far is military control and a resurgence of the old regime? One answer: permanent revolution.

"If Egypt had remained under the Muslim Brotherhood, it would be headed toward an authoritarian democracy," says Ahsraf El-Sherif, a lecturer in political science at the American University in Cairo.

Like many of the democracy advocates I talked to in the Egyptian capital today, he is extremely frustrated by the portrayal of what has happened as a coup d'etat. Rather, he says, it was a necessary corrective to ex-President Mohamed Mursi's theft of the 2011 Arab Spring and attempt to permanently entrench himself and the Brotherhood in power while paying lip service to democracy.

So are these revolutionaries naive? Do they not understand that, with the military again holding the reins of power and a Supreme Court justice appointed by ex-President Hosni Mubarak as interim president, they are no closer to a liberal democracy than they were under Mursi? On the contrary. "We don't like the military either, we saw what they were when they were in power for 18 months," El-Sharif says.

He's sceptical, too, that the military's planned redrawing of the constitution will improve things -- the military will remain untouchable; the president will remain overly powerful; Sharia will remain the basis of law; and individual liberties will be insufficiently protected, he says. But all this misses the point.

The critical mistake of the Muslim Brotherhood was to fail on the economy, says El-Sherif. As a result, the recent protests drew millions of people into the streets and squares of Egypt, rather than a few tens of thousands of middle-class urban liberals. Whoever runs the country now will fail economically, too, drawing further popular anger. This time the target of that anger will be the old regime (the old bureaucracy, judiciary, police and big businessmen backed by the military).

"This is good for the revolution," he tells me. "Eventually people will understand that the only way to create a stable, prosperous economy is to have a true transformation of the entire system."

Assuming that Egypt is doomed to some form of authoritarian distortion of democracy, Islamist or otherwise, is just another form of "orientalism," or Western prejudice about the East, he says. The process of creative destruction he envisions will take years. It will involve more episodes of mass protest substituting for the ordinary business of electoral politics. Maybe that's why in Cairo's Tahrir square the protest infrastructure has an air of semi-permanence about it, with banks of chairs, a stage and food stalls.

The protesters here say they'll stay, or keep coming back, for as long as it takes for pro-Mursi protesters to go home. Today, though, many of those Muslim Brotherhood supporters were across town, mourning the deaths yesterday of more than 50 of their own in a live-fire confrontation with the Army. They don't appear ready to fold.

I wish I shared the anti-Mursi protesters' faith in permanent revolution to break both the Islamists and the entrenched old regime, but I don't. A lengthy period of civilian rule curtailed by what the Turks used to call "military tutelage" seems more likely. I'd very much like to be proved wrong.

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