Events in Egypt have been moving at such a pace as to leave journalists and citizens alike battling to get up-to-the-minute reports and analysis into the public domain as quickly as possible. Mubarak’s resignation on Friday created euphoria amongst protestors on the streets and delighted supporters of democracy around the world, but uncertainty surrounds the question of what reconfiguration of power this will bring.
In The Guardian, Tariq Ali comments on the striking centrality of Tharir Square to the revolution – he writes that it is ‘as if to say, “we are showing our strength, we don’t want to test it because we are neither organised for that nor are we prepared, but if you mow us down remember the world is watching.”’ This is, he argues, ultimately a sign of the weakness of the movement: heavily reliant on symbolism and, thus far, achieving largely symbolic gains. The Egyptian regime, a dense web of shared elite interests, was ultimately about much more than just Mubarak. Who or what can ultimately carry the momentum of the protests forward to effect change that is more than cosmetic?
The lack of conventional political leadership on display has created hysteria in the west over the prospect of the Muslim Brotherhood seizing control of Egypt. They are the strongest organised political opposition to Mubarak. However, as Robert Dreyfuss explains in Mother Jones, the Brotherhood were Mubarak’s means of staying in power and garnering international support – likewise, they were the West’s means of justifying support for Mubarak’s regime. Their power and influence – while still considerable – has been exaggerated, as their sluggish response to recent events demonstrates. Though certain now to be a strongerl force in Egyptian politics, and one which amplifies anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, talk of the protests being co-opted by the Brotherhood are, Dreyfuss argues, unrealistic. The protests have remained secular in character, and it is unforeseeable that the youth and modernising middle classes which instigated the protests would tamely bow to a theocracy.
Amer el-Zant writes in the Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum of his experiences of one of the most remarkable features of the protests – the cooperative harmony between Islamists, secular youths and Christians:
In the terminology of political philosopher John Rawls, this is the sort of interaction that, if nurtured, could form the nucleus of an “overlapping consensus” concerning the future of Egypt’s factious society–a consensus that excludes political positions and practices that are completely unacceptable to some segments of society.
Islamism, he claims, will be best contained within a more open society: ‘[I]t’s the persistence of the status quo that is the more likely harbinger of theocracy.’ Should the regime continue to cling on, he suggests, the next uprisings could well be ‘led by those willing to pay the price of resistance in the form of martyrdom. And they will be unlikely to want to share power following an eventual victory.’
Power rests for now with the army’s generals – ‘men of the old order’, as Robert Fisk calls them in The Independent, a wealthy and privileged elite who have gained much from the Mubarak regime and a close relationship with the United States and Israel. They have promised free and fair elections, but have also told the protestors to ‘resume a normal way of life’ and have begun clearing them from the streets. Fisk’s question gets to the heart of the matter, ‘The army has decided to protect the people. But who will curb the power of the army?’
Certainly not the US and EU, who have praised the army’s handling of events, and labelled them ‘guardians’ of the transition. They will doubtless continue to supply the generals with copious amounts of military aid to serve their strategic interests in the region. Writing as the demonstrations were escalating Noam Chomsky pointed out,
There’s a kind of a standard routine—Marcos, Duvalier, Ceausescu, strongly supported by the United States and Britain, Suharto: keep supporting them as long as possible; then, when it becomes unsustainable—typically, say, if the army shifts sides—switch 180 degrees, claim to have been on the side of the people all along, erase the past, and then make whatever moves are possible to restore the old system under new names.
Glenn Kessler, ‘fact checker’ for The Washington Post, backs up this arguement by succinctly tracing the about-turn in US rhetoric with regards to Egypt. Gilbert Achar, from the London School of Oriental and African studies, meanwhile explains how powerful interest groups are now attempting to recuperate the revolution. For Achar, genuine democracy will hinge on the ability of protestors to keep fighting.
According to the Egyptian journalist Hossam El-Hamalawy there is a danger now emerging of the moderate elements of the protest movement – the middle class professionals that ultimately comprise the apparatus of the state – siding with the army in search of ‘order’. The result of the protest movement allowing the military to engineer the transition to a new government would result, he argues:
[in] a government that will guarantee the continuation of a system that will never touch the army’s privileges, keep the armed forces as the institution that will have the final say in politics [and] guarantee Egypt will continue to follow the US foreign policy.
In the long term, the potential for progressive change, he argues, lies with the Egyptian workers movement, which outside the attention of the world’s media has been becoming ever more politicized in recent years. The economic aspects of the revolution have been largely overlooked in favour of the political, but the deep inequalities and harsh poverty created by Egypt’s neoliberal policies were what brought people onto the streets in such large numbers. With Egypt’s new finance minister pledging not to change course as regards economic policy, this fault line will not disappear. It was the mass strikes which began three days before Mubarak’s resignation, El-Hamalawy asserts, that forced the army to topple Mubarak before the economy collapsed: ‘there lies the hope of changing the system.’
Though the revolution came to include people from all walks of Egyptian society, the role of young people in initiating the revolts is unmistakable. Sam Graham-Felsen writes in The Nation of how the wave of protests unleashed on January 25 were to a great extent planned by online activists in the preceding months who had been working hard to spread information, organize demonstrations and foster solidarity networks. Regarding what route the politicised youth of Egypt will take, sociologist Mohammed A. Bamyeh asserts:
Undoubtedly this revolution, which is continuing to unfold, will be the formative event in the lives of the millions of youth who spearheaded it in Egypt, and perhaps also the many more millions of youth who followed it throughout the Arab world. It is clear that it is providing a new generation with a grand spectacle of the type that had shaped the political consciousness of every generation before them in modern Arab history.
The apparent spontaneity of the protests (albeit planned spontaneity) reflects the fact that as yet this new emerging political consciousness has no formal manifestation. While this spontaneity was a key strength in outmaneuvering Mubarak’s forces, again it may also mean the transition to a new order will be controlled by pre-existing groups. Most protestors, Bamyeh says, ‘seemed less concerned about those details than with basic demands the fulfillment of which, it appeared, guaranteed the more just nature of any subsequent system.’ However, it is pessimistic indeed to believe that this concrete experience of collective empowerment would be forgotten so quickly as to allow a simple change of figureheads to pass unopposed, as Bamyeh describes:
[P]opular committees in the neighborhood, with their rudimentary weapons and total absence of illusions, represented what society had already become with this revolution: a real body, controlling its present with its own hands, and learning that it could likewise make a future itself, in the present and from below.
What is certain regarding Egypt is that the reverberations will be felt further afield, and not just in the Arab world – where authorities in Algeria, Yemen and Jordan are struggling to contain unrest. As Adar Primor notes in Haaretz, authorities in Russia and China are right to look nervously at recent events in Egypt – ‘people power has never been more exciting.’ A collapse in the economic growth based social contract in either country could have similar catalytic effects to the rising food prices in the Arab world.
Mary Kaldor on Open-democracy argues that the protests are completing the revolutions of 1989, reclaiming the values of Solidinarosc and the Czech Civil Forum from the neo-liberals who usurped them, alongside the idea of civil society as an exclusively western phenomenon. The need for a total rethinking of western security, foreign, and economic policies is clearer now than ever before. More than this though, the Egyptian uprisings are, as John Pilger puts it ‘our theatre of the possible’, writing:
In Washington and London, the regimes are fragile and barely democratic. Having long burned down societies abroad, they are now doing something similar at home, with lies and without a mandate. To their victims, the resistance in Liberation Square must seem an inspiration. Try kettling a million people in the centre of London, bent on civil disobedience and try imagining it could not happen.
#232: Rue Britannia ● The legacy of the British Empire ● An interview with Priyamvada Gopal ● The People’s Olympics ● An interview with Neville Southall ● Agribusiness in India ● Deliveroo’s disastrous IPO ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Sanhaja Akrouf explains how the fear that stopped Algerians from joining the uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa in 2011 has now been broken
Despite the carnage of contemporary Syria and Libya, and the ruinous stalemate of Yemen, the euphoric appeal of what was once described as the ‘Arab Spring’ continues to feed revolutionary processes across the region, argues Toufic Haddad
The uprisings against police brutality that swept across Nigeria must be contextualised within the country’s colonial history, argues Kehinde Alonge
The Algerian regime has offered its youth a future of poverty, humiliation and repression, now it must go writes Zakaria Chaabi from Constantine, Algeria
The final instalment in Dangarembga's trilogy is a provocative exploration of identity and race in modern Zimbabwe, writes Johanna Russell.
Phoebe Kisubi reflects on using participatory theatre as a tool for social and political activism among sex workers in Cape Town, South Africa
Want to try Red Pepper before you take out a subscription? Sign up to our newsletter and read Issue 231 for free.