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The revolution is not over

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The demonstrations that have rocked Egypt for the last 18 days have turned into a nation-wide street party, and it is impossible not to be moved by the scenes of Egyptians celebrating their victory. The dictator who ruled Egypt for the last 30 years has been forced from office by non-violent, civil disobedience on a scale not seen since the 1979 revolution in Iran. And the principal agent of transformation – until today, when Mubarak stood down and the army took over – has been the Arab citizen, a striking change in a region where the romanticised figure of ‘resistance’ has been the soldier, the guerilla and, at times, the suicide bomber. At the White House press conference today, Obama and his press officer Robert Gibbs insisted that Egypt’s revolution was really just about Egypt, but they knew better: Washington’s policy during the crisis had been driven by fear of regional instability, and by the fears whispered into the administration’s ears by Israel and the Saudis, and shifted only when Mubarak became a clear liability to American interests.The success of the Egyptian revolutionary model will be studied closely, and its lessons applied. The realisation of the Egyptian dream is the nightmare of Arab despots, and of Binyamin Netanyahu.

But the revolution in Egypt is not over: in fact, it has only begun. Mubarak’s removal from power was only the first objective of Egypt’s demonstrators. It was not just Mubarak but the regime that they want to dislodge, and to replace with a democratic government based on the rule of law. One of the pillars of the regime is the institution that is now improbably cast as the national saviour: the army. The army is respected, even admired by most Egyptians for its role in defending the country’s borders, and for its success in the 1973 war. It has always kept – officially – a discreet distance from the day-to-day running of the country, but it has also acquired a deep investment in the status quo, particularly in the country’s economy: the army is involved in the production of everything from washing machines and heaters to clothing and pharmaceuticals, and is estimated to own about a third of the country’s assets. Nor does it have much incentive to make any changes in foreign policy that might affect the terms of US aid: $1.3 billion per year.

One of the least convincing slogans in Tahrir Square has been ‘the people and the army, standing together’. One can hardly blame the protesters for expressing this hope: it was, arguably, a necessary fiction, without which millions of people would not have dared to turn out to call for Mubarak to stand down. The army played its cards well. Under strong pressure from Robert Gates, it did not fire on demonstrators, and, after Mubarak’s non-resignation speech yesterday – a fantastic tribute to the powers of self-deception – it finally decided to wash its hands of him. But the army did not join the movement, either: a critical phase in classical revolutions. And the communiqués issued by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt have been ambiguous at best, full of vague promises and calls for people to return home. Certainly they indicate no conversion to the principle of civilian rule. The supreme council, now at the helm of power, was chosen and shaped by Mubarak; its chairman is the defence minister, Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, described in a 2008 WikiLeaks cables as ‘aged and change-resistant’. It is not a description that inspires confidence.

Comments on “The revolution is not over”

  1. Joe Morison says:

    The BBC reported yesterday that twice the order was given to open fire on the demonstrators but that the junior offices refused to so command their men. The upper echelons of the army might have been heavily invested in the old regime but if the junior officers and ordinary soldiers support the demands for a modern secular and democratic state, there is nothing the generals can do – they will be acutely aware that it was junior officers who overthrew the monarchy in ’53.

  2. Geoff Roberts says:

    I hope that the Egyptian people carry on with the task of clearing up the debris left by the Mubarak regime, just as they have set about binning the trash of 18 days of squatting. Let’s also hope that the consequences are not followed by a reign of terror, a civil war or a purging of the old regime. What was that phrase of Marx’ about history repeating itself? I hope that we find out that Marx was not always right.

  3. Stephen Cahaly says:

    Adam Shatz writing in the 27 May 2010 issue, regarding the middle-class exodus due to the 1952 revolution: “Another symptom of this retreat into nostalgia is the growing curiosity about the ethnic minorities – Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Italians – who once helped run Egypt’s economy, and made Cairo and Alexandria remarkably cosmopolitan cities, before they were put under pressure to leave in the mid-1950s. At the time, their exodus, like Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal, was seen as a great coup: evidence of Egypt’s triumph over foreign hegemony. Now it’s seen as the beginning of its economic and cultural decline.”

    With the seemingly odd ambiguity of the army, is there anything to be said now about the nostalgia for the long lost middle class and the ambitions of today’s Egyptian young? Are the concerns more immediate – work, freedom of speech, etc. – or is there something powerfully persuasive to this cosmopolitan nostalgia in air? Can Egyptians everywhere aid Egyptians within? Or is this all moot – you’re now saying – in the face of the army? If Adam, or anyone else here could address this further, it would be greatly appreciated. Thank you.

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