Not a Revolution; But Egypt Will Get its Reforms – Is Anybody Watching?

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“Those [Middle East leaders] who cling to the status quo may be able to hold back the full impact of their countries’ problems for a little while, but not forever. If leaders don’t offer a positive vision and give young people meaningful ways to contribute, others will fill the vacuum. Extremist elements, terrorist groups, and others who would prey on desperation and poverty are already out there, appealing for allegiance and competing for influence. So this is a critical moment, and this is a test of leadership for all of us”.

–Hillary Rodham Clinton, Secretary of State, Doha, Qatar, January 13, 2011

WASHINGTON – In a remarkably prescient and accurate way, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking only a few days ago in Doha, outlined the framework and the content of a predicament that she had no way of knowing would materialize so soon. Entrenched Middle East power structures, confronting a deep yearning for change may be headed for bigger trouble, unless they would get in front and lead a positive reform process that may otherwise get out of control and overtake them. This was in essence her speech.

As she said it….

And here you have it. A few days after her address in Doha, it all happened more or less as she predicted. Large numbers of young, urban protesters managed to kick out the Tunisian autocrat. And then it all spread to Egypt. But the hoped for “domino effect” whereby similar protests would cause Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, in power for 30 years, to let go and retire immediately did not materialize. He will go, but on his own schedule, In September, upon completion of his mandate. And his ability to hang on is mostly due to the resilience of the security apparatus that he relies upon. It is still possible that the army will throw him overboard, in order to maintain its prestige with the populace; but, so far, there is no sign of this happening.

Mubarak will not go under pressure

His official excuse for staying put? Well, his excuse is that if he leaves power this would cause anarchy, chaos, disarray and the take over by the Islamists. And, while entirely self-serving, this analysis may have some truth. And this also matches in part Clinton’s scenario. If things get really bad, uncontrollable upheavals may lead to chaos which in turn may give an unexpected opening to radicals and terrorists.

Disorganized opposition

And here we have the dilemmas caused by this situation precipitated by the sudden crisis that started in Tunisia and then spread to Egypt. There is a spontaneous uprising of people who want immediate change. And yet nobody plotted the path ahead. And unfortunately there is no legitimate institutional path that would permit a smooth transition from one party rule to functioning pluralism. Furthermore, clearly, this is not an organized opposition. This is a well meaning, courageous street movement. The people in Cairo are not part of a revolutionary force in the traditional sense of the word. They are people who are venting their deep frustrations and who demand basic political rights: real elections, freedom of expression, government accountability.

Justifications for repression

As we know, the Mubarak led government practiced repression under the (up to a point) credible excuse of protecting the country against reactionary Islamist radicals, the followers of the old Muslim Brotherhood. So, the Mubarak bargain was: “We rule with an iron fist, fellow Egyptians. But it is all for your own good”. Back in the 1980s, after the assassination of president Anwar Sadat by Islamic radicals, he had a valid point. But Mubarak used this excuse of the looming Islamic threat to construct a self-perpetuating autocracy that would not see any advantage in letting go of its monopoly on power.

Opportunity for rebellion

Fast forward to today. Energized by the events in Tunisia, the urban Egyptians thought their moment at last had come and they could force Mubarak to go through massive street demonstrations. But they could not, as the regime did not crumble. Mubarak may be shaken by the demonstrations; but he is unmoved. He says that it is all about security, stability and order. He says that if he is forced to leave before the end of his term it will be chaos.

Legitimate transition needs to be created

In part this is true, in as much as the regime prevented the creation of any legitimate path for an opposition to take over in a smooth way. Besides, as noted above, the opposition is leaderless and disorganized; even though, ironically, this is so largely as a consequence of decades of repression and intimidation by Mubarak’s very own government. So Mubarak’s regime has now the excuse of affirming that, (because of its own repressive measures), if it relinquishes power to no one in particular, there will a power vacuum and the whole state will crumble.

Will the Muslim Brotherhood take over?

Does Mubarak have a point about the danger of extremists taking over? So far we do not know. Still, the Muslim Brotherhood, while quiet and soft spoken at this time and certainly not leading these demonstrations, may very well have a different agenda going forward. Certainly a more open, tolerant future environment will create an unprecedented latitude for new radical propaganda and proselytism. If the growth of the Muslim Brotherhood would lead to a fundamentalist Islamist government in Cairo it is not a cheerful prospect for anybody.

Opening for al Qaeda?

And we can be sure that al Qaeda leaders, the real hard line revolutionaries, are now reassessing the situation in Egypt. They may very well see in this exceptional political turmoil unexpected opportunities that they could not even dream about when the effective Egyptian security apparatus checked on everybody.

Tough going ahead

So, the path ahead is not all as clear and simple as those who have sympathy for the courageous demonstrators would like it to be. Of course, common decency would require for Hosni Mubarak to be gone; perhaps mostly a symbolic gesture, but a change that would give the movement a real sense of vindication and victory.

Can Suleiman broker a faster Mubarak exit?

But would such victory signal the beginning of chaos in a leaderless country, as Mubarak himself and Vice President Omar Suleiman affirmed? Probably not. But who knows, exactly. And yet this is “the” sticking point, right now, that needs to be resolved in some fashion for the transition to effectively move forward. The protesters say” “No negotiations as long as Mubarak is in power”. Mubarak says he already begun the transition along the lines demanded by the opposition. But this statement lacks credibility because he is in charge of this process. The White House wants to have demonstrable evidence of a credible transition to democracy to be underway “now”. Does that include Mubarak’s immediate departure? This has not been said. But rumors indicate that Washington leans in favor of a more rapid departure for the old leader.

Is compromise possible?

Can anybody square this circle? Can anybody, perhaps the new Vice President, Omar Suleiman, broker a deal, whereby Mubarak leaves earlier than September, or is relegated to a more ceremonial position, while the government gives credible evidence of being truly engaged in a process that will lead to a new constitution and then real elections in the next few months? And, moving forward, can we have adequate, impartial, may be UN supervised, inspection of this electoral process? In other words can the demonstrations end with a sense of real accomplishment, as opposed to the feeling of being hoodwinked by the same old oligarchy with some vague promises of change?

Can Egypt handle “democracy”, all in one big gulp?

And, last but not least, is Egyptian society at large, all of its 80, mostly uneducated, million people, (as opposed to the more aware, more educated urban dwellers who created this protest), prepared for democracy? Who knows. And let us not forget that many of the grievances of the people are really economic. Huge youth unemployment is a worrisome fact in Egypt. Democracy, even if genuine, will not fix this problem any time soon.

Let a credible reform process begin

Be that as it may, as Secretary Clinton indicated in her Doha speech, the Middle East was a boiling pot well before these upheavals. She called upon leaders to get ahead the curve, to open up and become inclusive, lest they be overtaken by events. She was remarkably prescient. But it was already too late, as events proved.

Now, it is small consolation to say to the same myopic leaders: ”I told you so”. Now the US is trying to help steer a ship in the middle of a tempest. America wants rapid, visible change; but smooth, orderly and peaceful, avoiding at the same time the perils of extremism and chaos. Really hard to do all of this.

The way ahead in Cairo

In any event, here is how things look like in Cairo, as this process unfolds. Right now it appears that the Egyptian security apparatus, while shaken by the force of the demonstrations, is still pretty much intact. The national prestige of president Mubarak is gone; but not his authority where it matters: that is the army and security forces with guns. The demonstrators have a lot of courage and resilience; but they do not have any credible force other than their numbers and determination.

Not a “revolution”; but historic nonetheless

As I see it, the “revolution” did not happen, if by revolution we mean not just the resignation of president Mubarak, (yet to take place), but the actual dismantling of his regime. But something big nonetheless happened –and there is no going back to the same unchallenged autocracy. Indeed, this is a historic upheaval that may very well force real change in Egypt and beyond. Globalization created awareness in Egypt and elsewhere of how people in other countries can live good, normal lives under reasonably free institutions. Freedom does not mean disorder, (provided, of course, maturity within any given society). In the end, the idea that autocrats can fence this notion of freedom off forever, having determined that entire societies are not ready for accountable government, is clearly not working any more.

As Secretary Clinton indicated, better for leaders to be proactive and open up now than to be overtaken by events. Who knows if anybody in a position of authority will re-read her Doha speech and take notice of her advice. It is awfully late; but not too late for the region and, indeed, the rest of the world.

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