Egypt’s Generals Leading The Country to Democracy?

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By Paolo von Schirach

February 11, 2011

WASHINGTON – Lat week the Egyptian protesters finally got the number one item on their wish list: the immediate resignation of President Hosni Mubarak. They deserve great praise for their courage in facing potential violence in their struggle and for their perseverance. This was a major victory. There is clearly a powerful symbolism in looking at this old strong man forced to capitulate in front of sustained mass demonstrations. The vast, protracted uprising that had spread to workers and professionals also showed that this was not just “a riot”. The well orchestrated unrest demonstrated that the appetite for change was and is both deep seated and genuine in Egypt.

Not just a riot

Will the old generals now in power please take good note of this? This is not just “an isolated episode”. This popular explosion is a real coming of age, a true watershed in the history of the country and possibly the whole region. People used to tyranny and subservience rose –and they did so in a responsible, non violent and mostly mature manner.

Generals leading reform?

Having said that, the way forward is a big mystery. It is a real leap of faith , if not a complete non sequitur, to demand the ouster of the old autocrat and then praise the –hopefully temporary an hopefully benign– ensuing dictatorship of the very same military that worked with the very same Mubarak and that in fact prospered under his regime.

We know the basic facts. The head and thus representative of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces –now the de facto ruler of Egypt– is the very same General Hussein Tantawi who had the job of Minister of Defense under Mubarak.

No revolution, so far

If this set up is your idea of a successful “revolution”, then you really aim low. If instead you believe that this is just the beginning of a revolution, then you better hold heavy tools in reserve to goad the generals, in case they lose enthusiasm for radical transformation along the way.

For the moment this is a variation on the old coup d’etat script, with the fundamental distinction that, while this was a coup engineered by a faction within a ruling oligarchy, the coup happened only because of the protracted national upheaval and as a way to appease the protesters. So the generals, probably with some reluctance, sacrificed their boss, so that they could keep things together, for the time being.

Old generals, new thinking?

Still, it requires a very strong faith in the civic spirit of these septuagenarian generals, many of them of Mubarak’s generation, to believe that now –because of the protests– we can trust these very same generals to lead the country into a genuine transition towards democracy. This would imply that they have unscrewed their old heads and changed them with brand new ones filled with new ideas about the goodness of democracy, participation and tolerance.

Once again, these are the very same people who run the old regime. On top of that, being old soldiers operating within an autocracy, they are used to a top down system based on loyalty and strict discipline. All the constitutional niceties about the primacy of civilian rule and the subservience of the military to elected leaders may be a bit foreign to them.

Some may really understand

Of course, we can make the case that at least some of them, unlike Hosni Mubarak, may have seen the light and decided to go along with the new program demanded by the passionate crowds, recognizing that this insurrection signals a real historic milestone.

But it is a fact that the army was one of the key pillars of the old regime. It is well known that the army controls parts of the economy. It runs businesses and thus it is deeply enmeshed with the ruling oligarchies, in terms of material gains as well as responsibility for whatever happened in the long thirty years of the “Pharaoh”. How much have they now understood? And how much are they ready to give up?

Change under the generals likely to be slow

Is it conceivable that this citadel of power and privilege will now engineer its own demise by fostering the birth of a genuinely pluralistic modern society in which the military will take as a back seat, agreeing to be accountable to freely elected civilian authorities? It is conceivable but not very likely. At least it is not likely that any institutional transformation occurring under their stewardship will be radical and that it will happen quickly.

Some may actually get it

Having said that, it is also hardly believable that the entire top military brass will be so obtuse to discount the historic significance of the unprecedented, massive participation in the popular uprising. While some may be as dumb as Mubarak, hopefully there will be others, may be the somewhat younger ones, who will understand the profound yearning for modern institutions and accountable government demonstrated by the Egyptian society in these incredible days of mostly peaceful upheaval.

Yearning for change, powerful but uneven

Of course, any keen observer will note that Egypt’s yearning for change, while intense, is by no means spread evenly. In this case, as in many others in history, there is a highly motivated fringe, a sizable but still small group of people who make things happen, and then there are all the others: the fence sitters, the agnostics and, in the case of Egypt, the millions of illiterate, poor people whose main concern is basic day to day survival and not parliamentary democracy.

Middle class leading the charge

And here we have it. Egypt is an illustration of an emerging, mostly backward country; but with a significant and now vocal and assertive new middle class. Much of Egypt is still prisoner of tradition and economic underachievement. And –beyond Mubarak’s personal role– until yesterday it was ruled by a small, yet all powerful, oligarchy that controlled almost everything. Now, in early 2011, the emerging middle class has come of age and is now the new force demanding change, so that Egypt can join modernity. Will the old ruling elites yield?

Hoping for the best

The real question going forward is whether the very same military which sustained the old order can actually be trusted to lead a genuine process of change. Under the generals’ watch are we really going to see the jelling of the protest into a new, organized political structure? Certainly it is touching to see the young Egyptians armed with brooms and plastic bags cleaning Tahrir Square after the days of protest and then revelry.

In these simple but important actions “of taking care of things” the young Egyptians demonstrate a practical understanding of what a “commonwealth” really is. Indeed it belongs to all of us and, as the need comes, we all chip in for its upkeep. This new sense of belonging and obligation to the commonwealth is a very good omen. But, while symbolically important, it is unfortunately not enough.

Can the young outsmart the old regime?

In the end, can these young protesters with little organization and no political experience outfox the old power structure? Was their show of force in the streets of Cairo and Alexandria enough to convince the old, decrepit and mostly corrupt oligarchies that, beyond Mubarak’s ousting, it is high time to put Egypt on a real path to modernity?

Poverty, not just lack of democracy

And, even assuming that the tipping point has come and that the path towards change has been established, and that nobody can turn the clock back, the real difficulty will be in finding ways to create economic opportunity for a poor society in which too many people are poor and uneducated and thus unable to claim a seat at the table; while even many of those who have an education cannot find a job because of the narrow base of an economy devised to benefit a lot very few with complete disdain for all the others.

Middle East, late to the party

More broadly, this is the reality of the whole Middle East. If you take out the exceptions represented by Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf States that benefit from the oil and gas rent, the Arab world has yet to join modernity, in terms of institutions, in terms of cultural awakening and in terms of unleashed economic ingenuity and progress. Getting rid of old autocrats may feel like a great victory. But finding a workable path towards progress will be the really hard part.

A new sense of possibility can be a powerful force

Luckily, as this Facebook and Twitter savvy generation has shown, coming late to the global society party does not mean that there are no more seats available. Societies that have a renewed faith in their possibilities, as the mighty Asian awakening featuring China, Vietnam, India, Indonesia and more has proven, can cover huge distances in a relatively short time.

The young Egyptians who enthusiastically waved their flags and who chanted to the dictator: “Leave, Leave, Leave” and who are now cleaning up Tahrir Square have made a long journey in nanoseconds. Hopefully they’ ll be able to keep the momentum going. As I said above, let’s hope that the old generals and all the other members of the ruling Egyptian oligarchy have taken all this in and that they understood that this is truly a historic watershed.

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