Confusion reigns in Egypt. The mass uprising that began on January 25 2011 overthrew president-for-life Hosni Mubarak and apparently shook his dictatorial regime. Optimism triumphed : the “Arab spring” had come, the “revolution” was advancing, the people had overcome the dictator and begun their long march toward liberty. More prudent voices, which warned that greater attention must be given to the national and regional political conjuncture, came under attack and were summarily disqualified. They were infected with pessimism, it was said, or promoting Western interests. Even more seriously, these same voices expressed doubt about the Arab peoples and their ability to free themselves from the double yoke of dictatorship and Great Power diktat. The Egyptians, like the Tunisians and the Yemenis, had liberated themselves without any outside assistance and had collectively taken their destinies in hand. To express any hesitation meant doubting oneself and the “Arab soul”, the arc of History itself : such doubt was, by its very nature, an expression of guilt. In my book Islam and the Arab Awakening I outlined several reservations about the origin and even the nature of the uprisings that shook the Middle East and North Africa. I was criticized in the West (for conspiracy theorizing) as well as in the Arab and Muslim majority countries (for the same reason and, above all, for my lack of confidence in the courage of the Arab peoples.) And yet…
The situation in Egypt obliges us to abandon the emotion-charged optimism of the earliest months and return to a more carefully considered, and more logical, examination of the facts and issues as they are. We cannot avoid the conclusion that, from the very beginning of the popular upheaval, the only institution not to have lost control of the situation was quite precisely the Armed Forces. After some hesitation (due essentially to tensions between the pro-Mubarak clan and a majority of officers anxious to discard a leader who had become an embarrassment while at the same time protecting their prerogatives and interests), the hierarchy made an initial decision not to intervene (following the Tunisian example) and to allow mass protest until the dictator had fallen. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) kept close watch over, and even directed, each stage in the revitalization of state institutions : parliamentary elections, the commission designated to draft the new constitution, the creation of political parties and the choice of their presidential candidates, the trial of the former president, etc. Never once did the military relinquish operational control, and at each step of the way forced the representatives of the political parties and of civil society to deal with it : the candidates themselves, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis were full participants, offered assurances (regarding eventual prosecution of ranking officers of the Armed Forces) and determined the terms of any possible agreement with the military institution. The military, in turn, does not simply represent “armed force” in Egypt, but is also a financial powerhouse with significant involvement in numerous sectors of the economy.
Developments have accelerated over the last two weeks. What was once perceptible only in the shadows has now emerged into the full light of day in the most opportune and perfectly calculated manner. The commission established to draft a new constitution was judged un-constitutional and halted. An old and dying Hosni Mubarak was condemned to life imprisonment and his young sons acquitted only a few days before the first round that saw a narrow win for the Muslim Brotherhood. It is impossible to judge the integrity of the electoral process. Between the two rounds, parliament itself was dissolved (because of irregularities) and the prerogatives of the future president were substantially reduced, with the real decision-making power now in the hands of the military. With both candidates proclaiming victory, announcement of the results was postponed ). Muhammad Morsi has been announced victorious of a « historical democratic election ». The effect of the rulings was to shatter the institutional and legal integrity of the presidential election. Military spokesmen hastened to add that the election itself was temporary and that a new ballot would be held when constitution and parliament were re-established, within six months. It is whispered that the Prime Minister position has been negotiated with a possible, and timely, coming back of Muhammad al-Baradei (on whom the American administration put some hope) (1). An election for nothing, in other words.
Unless of course the intention all along was to give the military time to reassert full control, while costing the country’s main political forces their credibility. The Muslim Brotherhood committed a series of strategic errors that cost them much of their popularity ; the Salafis proved a useful diversionary tactic (as in Tunisia), while the other political groups are disorganized or deeply divided. We must also remember the strong ties that for decades have bound the United States and the European Union to the Egyptian military hierarchy (contrary to over-rapid analyses that curiously overlooked the history of international relations in the region). The situation in Egypt is alarming, as it continues to be in Syria, in Libya, in Yemen, in Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, in Tunisia (it may well be that relative progress in Tunisia—even though nothing can be taken for granted in terms of true democracy—will prove to be a smoke screen masking the failures of all the other countries.)
What has become of the “Arab spring ?” The only genuine revolution to have taken place is an intellectual one : the region’s peoples have become aware that they can become masters of their destiny, and in a spirit of non-violence, overturn dictatorship. This is far from a negligible achievement ; it is also the condition for the social and political revolutions that we so whole-heartedly wish for. When the Great Powers appear to have agreed not to find a solution for Syria, when the former allies of the dictators pretend today to be the best friends of the people and of democracy, when nothing has yet been won in political terms, it is vital that the people remain mobilized, that they not retreat and—avoiding the trap of blind violence (which the Egyptian military may well encourage to justify a further crack-down)—agree on priorities for a democratic resistance. The strength of the mass movements came from their unshakable unity against the dictators ; their weakness is due to the lack of leadership in creating a shared vision of the future. National mobilizations must place themselves at the heart of regional dynamics, of new South-South economic relations, and draw strength from the new multipolar international balance of power. If the energy of the Arab uprisings is to be transformed into revolutionary power, the voices heard on Tahrir Square must call for more than the end of the regime, and determine with greater lucidity and clarity the national and regional dimensions of their resistance. Mass mobilization is necessary, but the revolutionary ideal remains to be defined ; the revolution has yet to come.
(1) See my book, The Arab Awakening, Islam and the New Middle East, Penguin, May 2012 , chap. 2