Walter Russell Mead: The Egyptian revolution goes off-script

Water Russell Mead (see also his earlier entry here) blogs on Egypt:

The Egyptian government has survived the first crisis of the revolution and both the government and the protesters are moving to a new trial of strength.  Surviving the first blast of popular fury — and of international criticism — is an important milestone for the government.  The longer it can hold out, the more likely it is that the core power centers of the Egyptian regime — the ‘deep state’ as the Turks say — will survive the Mubarak era and dominate the country for some time to come.

I am not sure what to wish for.  The current Egyptian system in many ways has overstayed its welcome and the economic, political and social development of the country has been seriously affected.  Revolutions, though, however thoroughly justified, have their drawbacks.  Both the major revolutions of the English speaking world, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the American Revolution of 1776, ended unusually well.  Those revolutions, however, were the exception that proves the rule.  The outcome of other revolutions has been less unambiguously good.

The French Revolution, for example, quickly degenerated into the Reign of Terror and culminated in the military dictatorship of the “Emperor” Napoleon and a generation of brutal war.  The liberals of the February Revolution in Russia lost out to the mindlessly bloody and destructive Bolsheviks ten months later, and Russia plunged into an unspeakable civil war and the genocidal horrors of Leninist/Stalinist rule.  China’s revolutionary communists killed scores of millions of people through their grotesque mixture of brutality, fanaticism and incompetence.  The clergy of Iran turned on their allies, leading the country into the horrifying and pointless war with Iraq and establishing a regime worse than anything the Shah could have dreamed of.

I do not know what will happen in Egypt; no one does.  Most revolutions do not go on to the radical stage; they fail at an earlier era.  If the forces of order withstand the first dramatic assaults, they are often well positioned to grind their enemies down.  The Revolution of 1848 failed almost everywhere in Europe — except in France when it brought in another dictatorship and another Napoleon.

Tahrir Square, downtown Cairo – February 2, 2011 (twitpic/AJE Live)

But whether the Egyptian Revolution succeeds or fails, it does not seem headed for 1688 or 1776.  The liberal and enlightened forces in Egypt, real and inspiring though they are (and I’ve met many wonderful Egyptians), are too weak and too inexperienced to have much chance of holding onto power when and if the government crumbles away.  Egypt’s problems are too daunting, its militants too strong and too well organized, its civil society is too deeply divided between Islamists and liberals, and its civic and religious life has been too deeply wounded to make the emergence of moderate, forward-looking and constructive governance look likely right now.  There is nothing wrong with hoping that something better may come — and I do — but hope is not a plan.

It is generally difficult in revolutionary situations to interpret events clearly.  Through the smoke and noise, it appears at this point that while the personal power of President Mubarak has eroded, the heart of the military power structure in the country is still intact.  President Mubarak appears to be negotiating for a dignified exit (perhaps including some financial and legal guarantees) while all around him the Egyptian power structures are trying to ensure their own survival at a chaotic time.

At the moment there is a standoff.  Mubarak didn’t flee in a helicopter, the junior officers and the troops have so far remained loyal to the generals, and the police retreated but they have not disappeared.  The television and radio stations are firmly in government hands; the streets belong to the revolution.[…]

In revolution, momentum matters.  In a poor country like Egypt, mass demonstrations cannot continue indefinitely.  The middle class can stay in the streets, but the poorer people need to feed their families.  A few days’ pay is all that stands between many families in Egypt and hunger.  Beyond that, the kind of excitement that gives people the courage to defy authorities and risk death depends on an emotional surge that tends to fade as time drags on.

The Egyptian authorities needed to stall for time and slow down the clock.  That they seem to have done; if they can hold the line, the regime (though not the Mubarak family) has a reasonable prospect of riding out the storm or of forcing a longer term stalemate.

Stalled revolutions often produce temporary, halfway regimes in which elements of the old power structure and leaders of the popular protest movements — neither strong enough to rule without the other — try to govern together.  Both still hope to gain (or hold on to) total control, so they are rivals as much as they are partners in government.  These arrangements are extremely unstable; hard-liners in both camps are waiting for the opportunity to destroy their opponents and gain exclusive power.

There is no iron law about how this process works out.  Sometimes the old regime recovers; the unrest gradually dies down, the army stays loyal and the day comes when the pre-revolutionary regime (often the same forces with a new leader) reasserts itself.  This happened over much of Europe when the revolutions of 1848 fizzled out.  It happened again after World War One when communist attempts to seize power in countries like Germany and Hungary led to the return of conservative rule.

Sometimes the revolutionary momentum continues and ultimately the moderate and liberal elements of a coalition government lose power to the hard line revolutionary forces.  This is what happened when the October Revolution in Russia threw out the liberals and moderates and put the Bolsheviks in charge.  It is what happened in Cuba and Iran.  It happened in France when the moderates (like Lafayette) were defeated by the Jacobins and the Reign of Terror got underway.

In these situations, Americans almost always want the moderates to win.  Those are usually the people whose values are closest to our own, and with whom we can likely do business.  Unfortunately, moderates are usually too weak, too disorganized and frequently too idealistic to hold on to power in chaotic and violent times.  The hard liners — people on the ‘right’ like the Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran or like Lenin and his colleagues on the left — are often much tougher, more focused and can bring more effective forces into the field than the liberal social reformers like the Marquis de Lafayette.

Protest sign in Cairo (Twitpic/elihuh2001)

For many years now, there has been a quiet tug of war between the United States and the Mubarak government.  Americans wanted Mubarak to nurture and support moderate and liberal-minded leaders and groups so that when this moment of crisis finally and inevitably came, the moderate forces would be well equipped to offer the country constructive leadership.  The Egyptian government generally resisted; it felt that as long as the choice seemed to be Mubarak or the Muslim Brotherhood, the US would continue to back the government, however unhappy we were with it.  Despite that refusal, the US (and many European countries who have also engaged with Egyptian civil society) continued to do everything it could to encourage the rise of a liberal and modernizing movement in Egypt.  We are about to find out how successful this was.

One reason that revolutions fail is that the middle classes can ultimately become more frightened of the lower classes and of continued disorder than they are of the government.  This could happen in Egypt; small business needs order and municipal services.  Many of the liberal, secular Egyptians leading some of the early demonstrations could be spooked by signs of Iranian style Islamic militancy — or any kind of forcible redistribution of property and mob violence.

The Egyptian army has been the most important political force in the country since Egypt’s last big revolution drove out the odious King Farouk in 1952.  During all that time the army has seen the Muslim Brotherhood as a rival and an enemy.  Will these two ancient enemies now kiss and make up?  Will they enter a marriage of convenience in which each partner seeks to slip poison into the partner’s food?  Will either the army or the Brotherhood so dominate the street that one takes power alone?  Or, if power between them seems fairly equally balanced, will they vie for the support of Egypt’s small but wealthy and influential group of liberals — not to mention the country’s significant Christian minority, the Copts?

We can be sure that these scenarios and others are whirling in the minds of the leaders of Egypt’s political forces right now.  Nobody knows how it will all work out.  It could be hours, weeks or even months before we have a clear sense of Egypt’s new direction.  One more push from the demonstrators could break the military’s will to resist — or the wave could crest and the fever break.

An important factor in Egypt’s future will be the degree to which the country depends on a strong relationship with the outside world.  Egypt is not a major oil producer and its 85 million people need more than the waters of the Nile to live the good life.  Revenues from the Suez Canal, tourism and a continuing flow of foreign investment are all essential if Egypt’s economy is to provide hope for its people.  Egypt’s military does not want and cannot afford a major arms race with Israel — nor could any new Egyptian government manage the consequences of yet another war.  Egypt is no Libya, Iran or Venezuela: it cannot afford the kind of irresponsible foreign policy those countries indulge in — though no doubt there are some Egyptians who would like to give it a try.

The only thing in all this I am certain of is that the Egyptian Revolution, however it ends, will not be the only revolution in the 21st century.  We live in a revolutionary world and governments in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, parts of Europe and Latin America are out of touch with public opinion and overwhelmed by economic and social forces that they cannot manage.   Many heads of state and many army staffs are likely to go through what President Mubarak and the Egyptian military are going through this week.

Read the whole thing.

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