Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Wind of Change: Egypt Decides

The wind of change is blowing through this continent. Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.
-- British Prime Minister Harrold Macmillan on Decolonization, 3 February 1960, Cape Town, South Africa

As I watched the events unfold over the last few weeks, I wondered whether the demonstrations in Cairo would go the way of Berlin or Beijing.  I wondered whether the equally desperate and emotional cries for liberty of ordinary Egyptians, echoing their German and Chinese counterparts from 1989, would end in the revolutionary change that swept through Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Berlin Wall or whether they would be crushed and silenced, forced into a stalemate similar to that which resulted in China after the brutal Tiananmen Square Massacre.  Although it is still very early, one thing is certain; what occurred in Egypt was a revolution that will change things in that country forever, not just another suppressed demonstration in a country where the rule of law and individual liberty cease to exist unquestioned.  A couple of weeks ago when I wrote about "A Third Way," the outcome of these events was still very unclear.  Now that we know we have witnessed history, the question that remains is what kind of history will be made.

Mubarak’s Missed Opportunity
In the past there have been leaders of authoritarian regimes who were able to direct a progressive course for history, spearheading radical reforms in the systems in which they were an integral part. Both Mikhail Gorbachev in the Soviet Union and FW de Klerk in South Africa helped to successfully disintegrate from within the systems of communism and apartheid respectively that had strangled the freedoms of  their people for so long and, in the process, gained international admiration, each eventually winning Nobel Peace Prizes for their revolutionary reforms.  Due to signals of internal collapse within the Soviet economy and external pressure and economic sanctions against apartheid in South Africa, each realized that the days were numbered for the systems of government they had been appointed to lead.  In light of what they knew would eventually come to an end, and probably under their watch, they made the decision to work along with the transition rather than against it, and were therefore acknowledged as reformers and peacemakers in history.       

Over the last few weeks, watching his begrudging, defiant, and patronizing speeches, I have questioned whether Mubarak had a similar opportunity, himself perhaps realizing that the end of his despotic regime was inevitable in light of the momentous outcry against him.  The awkward truth is that Mubarak never faced the same economically debilitating pressures as the Soviet Union or apartheid and his hubris was always sustained by the unrelenting financial and political support provided by the United States in their interest at maintaining stability in the “region”.  In light of this, and with hindsight, it becomes clearer how he was able to remain so confidently stubborn and unapologetic all the way to the very end despite all the indicators that the support structures of his regime were collapsing around him from the mounting pressure of public and global repudiation.  Instead of pursuing a strategy of damage control and public image revisionism the legacy of his demise will reflect what he always was; an agent of an old world order, a strategic puppet, and a disgraced tyrant.  Now that he has fled to his seaside retreat in Sharm-el-Sheik and the fate of his own history has been determined, the efforts of the Egyptian people and outside observers should go towards understanding what the legacy of the Revolution of 2011 will be. 

The Military and the Muslim Brotherhood
The Supreme Council of Armed Forces, led by Mohamed Hussein Tantawi Soliman (“Tantawi”), is now the caretaker government and is meant to fulfill the mandate of the Egyptian people.  The Supreme Council will act as a ruling body alongside the Supreme Constitutional Court, the highest judiciary body in Egypt, over the next several months during the transition period to draft a new constitution and hold free and fair elections.  Of Nubian origin, Tantawi is a minority from the southern region of Egypt which borders Sudan and has a long history of military service in the country including the Sinai War of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, and the Yom Kippur War of 1973.  He also served in the first Gulf War against Iraq in 1990 and 1991 and has held various diplomatic and security posts since.  There are many indications that if Mubarak had been killed in the assassination attempt of June 1995 Tantawi would have succeeded him as president of Egypt, so he is certainly not a new player on the scene.  

As of today the military has so far dissolved parliament, suspended the constitution, and promised to hold control for six months or until an election is called.  What remains to be seen is why they have yet to or whether they will repeal the thirty year old state of emergency, one of the key demands of the protesters from the very beginning.  This may not necessarily signal a sinister intent, but the situation needs to be closely watched and followed-up on by the people of Egypt as any excuse for a delay or postponement of the drafting of a new constitution or elections can be justified through this existing state of emergency law.  History has shown that militaries often have a difficult time giving up power once they obtain it; Myanmar as a worst case example of what could go wrong.
The Egyptian Parliament was filled with Mubarak supporters, so its dissolution means a weeding out of old guard MPs whose allegiance lay with the Mubarak regime.  The fact that the constitution has been suspended means that a committee can be legally established to draft a new one, that any political party can participate in elections and that they can be held earlier than September.

In any case, there is reason to remain cautiously optimistic about the current military administration.  They played an important role and should be given credit for remaining neutral and keeping peace during the 18 days of protests, putting the security of the citizens first.  They have already made a couple of bold reforms to lay the foundation for a smooth transition, but the Egyptian people must keep their resolve and hold any government to account which does not meet their ultimate demands for full democracy. 

While the risks associated with a “temporary” administration and transition by the military are more obvious, it is impossible to know the true motivations of the Muslim Brotherhood in all of this.  So far and still they remain conspicuously quiet, but to assume that their ultimate objective is to replicate the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran is presumptuous.  Furthermore, three days after Mubarak’s resignation, they have already allowed too much time to lapse between the transitions of power to make an opportunistic strike.    

Direct comparisons fall short when we try to find an Egyptian equivalent to the cult of personality exhibited in Ayatollah Khomeini who, throughout his exile and with his supporters and offshoot groups in Iran, was vocal and active from the very beginning stages of the revolt.  Although initially working alongside other anti-Shah demonstrators including Marxists, liberals, and pro-democracy intellectuals, the Ayatollah’s presence and involvement was always more prominent than that of the closest Egyptian equivalent in the Muslim Brotherhood.  It may be that knowing the history of how Iran turned out, the Muslim Brotherhood sought to avoid any such link that could jeopardize the legitimacy of the movement and therefore purposely maintained a low profile until Mubarak stepped down.

However, it would be naive to assume that any player’s intentions are noble and selfless and that the Muslim Brotherhood has no self-interest in seeking influence within the framework of a new Egypt.  In all likelihood I see the Muslim Brotherhood aspiring to the same level as that of Hezbollah in Lebanon, but I do not see them achieving this.  First of all the two countries are drastically different so the Muslim Brotherhood’s level of penetration would likely not run as deep as Hezbollah in Lebanon.  Egypt, the largest country in the Arab world dwarfs tiny Lebanon in sheer population, geographic size, and diversity of groups and interests.  Furthermore, the Muslim Brotherhood lacks the magnitude of state sponsored support that Hezbollah enjoys from influential countries such as Iran.  Their ability to take administrative control of certain regions within Egypt or to infiltrate the government and economy on the scale and efficiency of that seen by Hezbollah in Lebanon is therefore much more unlikely to occur.  Instead, they will more likely maintain their role as the most influential Islamist voice in any political process and perhaps gain a decent level of representation within a new legislative body, either directly or through splinter sub-groups.

The ones to watch closely are therefore those who currently maintain and yield power in the country as they are the ones who will be required to give it up and transition Egypt to a functioning democracy.  While the intentions and actions of other groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood, must be scrutinized, all eyes must now remain on the military to ensure that they make the correct moves over the coming months. 

What Now?
When Mubarak finally stepped down after 18 days of an almost Pharaohnic-like arrogant resolve, the rest of the world watched and reacted from two main camps; with awe and inspiration at the resilience of the people or with hesitation and skepticism about what would happen next. 

Both are natural emotional responses to this monumental change and are required in order to balance pragmatism with idealism in reconciling the forthcoming reconstruction phases in Egypt.  Revolution, although a last resort in the pursuit of justice, can be an uncomfortable phenomenon because it shakes and dismantles the foundations on which the known and familiar rest, opening up the possibility for a number of failures or miscalculations where the process towards democratization could be derailed. 

The facts of this revolution might provide some indicators of how it could turn out.  The 18 days of demonstrations were peaceful and non-violent with the exception of the protesters who were murdered by “stability supporters”, the common street thugs hired by the Mubarak regime to spread terror against the movement.  The revolution included members of all social classes, students, business people, the elderly, the youth, merchants, farmers, clergy, Google executives, minorities, Christians, and Muslims, all united in the same cause.  The messages were secular, demanding fundamental human rights and the guarantee of individual liberty.  When the calls for prayer came Christians created human shields around their Muslim counterparts to protect them against harm from Mubarak’s police.  Muslims did the same when Christians held memorial Mass for those who died during the government’s crackdown.  In the absence of support from Mubarak’s police, communities created and organized self-governed security forces in neighborhoods throughout Egypt to keep the peace and ensure the safety of citizens and private property.   Aside from the legitimate concerns that arise from any revolution, the unity and pacifism demonstrated by the Egyptian people during these weeks of civil disobedience should serve as a positive indicator of how things might turn out.            

The Fragile Road Ahead
The questions that remain are numerous and varied and the discomfort with the uncertainty that they raise is natural.  But fear and hesitation of the unknown should not lead to the fatalistic conclusion that the only possible outcomes of revolution in the Middle East are either a secular dictatorship or an Islamist theocracy.  As I stated in my last post, "A Third Way," the world must sever itself from the preconceived and lazy notion that democracy is only fit for certain nations or traditions of people.  It is intellectual and moral cowardice, if not outright bigotry, to believe that a particular people are not capable of self-government and civic participation, especially if they have fought and died for it in the face of the most extreme adversity.  Such a mindset would have allowed fascism to flourish and brutalize the world unopposed, would have continued to deny African-Americans the most basic of human dignities, and would have deprived millions in the Indian subcontinent representation in their own lands.  The road to democracy is long and arduous, but to presume its ultimate failure because of paranoia and ignorance is what gives power and legitimacy to the iron fists of tyranny. 

As the Egyptian people begin their great experiment with democracy the lessons of political history may act as a guide, but at last they will determine their own destiny.  The history of the world is full of examples of how this could go wrong, but it is also full of examples how they can get it right.  Ultimately, the direction it takes is up to those who fought for this from the very first days of protest.  As people go back to work, return to normalcy, and resume their daily routines, the biggest mistake they could make now would be to lose the momentum that they built over the last few weeks, becoming complacent and assuming that a government, any government, would meet their needs unquestioned.  The Egyptians will get their first lesson in democracy very soon; that it takes perseverance, continued engagement, and an inherent distrust in authority to get things done.  Based on the 18 days of revolt, it looks like they have the resilience and determination that it takes to make it work.  Finally after thirty years, instead of Mubarak, it is now the people of Egypt who will be held to account for writing their history.  If they succeed then the wind of change may once again blow across the world, rejuvenating in some of us the lost belief that the will of the people can dictate the course of history.     

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