All Writings
January 23, 2012

The Egyptian Revolution: A Year Later

Many observers and analysts of the Arab Spring have tended to draw quick conclusions about the successes or failures of the revolutionary upheavals that have swept the Middle East and North Africa based on what has thus far transpired on the ground. This is a common mistake. Every Arab country that has gone through the revolution remains immersed within the very early stages of the revolutionary process. To determine the real prospects for political and economic reforms in any of these countries, we have to look into the nature of the grass-root movement that precipitated the revolution, the core issues that the newly-emerging governments face and the choices they are likely to make. Looking at Egypt from this perspective reveals that, notwithstanding, the continuing political squabbles and the combined margins of victory of the Islamic parties in the new parliament, the country is on a path of real political recovery, however long this process may take.

There are two opposing views of the current situation in Egypt that appear to dominate the present discourse a year after the revolution that successfully toppled President Hosni Mubarak. The first, which I dub the “nothing changed” view, assesses that not much change has occurred in the country’s socio-political and economic landscape. For proponents of this view, the regime did not fall – only its head did – specifically because the military regime that has been ruling Egypt since Gamal Abdel Nasser’s coup in 1952 is still in charge, keeping the country’s power structure and institutions essentially intact. From the perspective of those who subscribed to the view of “Mubarak-or-chaos”, the survival of this regime has alienated the secular revolutionary forces while empowering political Islam. Moreover, it has also brought real chaos to the daily lives of the Egyptians, ranging from chronic crises in the provisions of basic goods, to high crime rates and uncertainty about the country’s transitional roadmap.  

The second view, the so-called “everything changed” view, is shared mostly by those who hold an anti-Islamist posture including a plethora of secular Arab groups, many conservative or reform-minded constituencies in the United States and Europe, the Israeli government and others and insists that Egypt has undergone an irreversible change towards religious extremism. For them, the advent of Islamic forces to power will allow the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) along with the ultra-extremist Salafist groups (who control over almost 70% of Egypt’s legislature) to draft the country’s constitution, which would likely adopt Sharia law. In addition, their sweeping popularity will also allow them to decide Egypt’s presidency. For the believers of such a view, Islamic forces are aggressive, anti-West, and anti-Israel. An MB-dominated government in Cairo is likely to reverse the strategic alliance with the United States, as well as the peace treaty with Israel, renew the domestic conflict, and join the region’s Iran-led extremist axis, along with Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas.

I cannot disagree more with these two views. They are misguided and the pessimism they share and convey is misleading and potentially dangerous. There are three major reasons for my optimism about Egypt’s revolution and its future.

First, the Egyptian military will remain a powerful player in Egyptian politics and will not yield its role as the guardian of Egypt’s national security interests. Though this might look as a validation of the “nothing changed” view, what constitutes a revolution if not the electoral victory of the oppressed opposition group under the old regime in the country’s fairest and free-est election in ages? What took place in Egypt is by all measures and political theories a revolution, but like any other revolution it cannot be perfect and produce immediate and comprehensive success. To enact the aims of the revolution, it needs an evolutionary process (which is currently going on); through which it will eventually finds its way. As the traditional Egyptian saying goes, el-Sabr Tayyeb – patience is sweet, especially for a country that is known for its stamina, wit and long, unbroken history.

The continuing involvement of the Egyptian military in the political process remains central to the future health of the country’s political development, and for good reason. As the sole institution that remained cohesive after the revolution, it has the ability to pave the road and secure a more peaceful state of affairs unlike the chaotic situation that prevailed in Iran in 1979 following the collapse of all government bodies. In addition, due to its vast economic empire and its vested interest in maintaining the peace with Israel and the flow of U.S. military and economic aid, the Egyptian military is in a perfect position to counter-balance any extremist, confrontational approach that might emerge, though unlikely, from the elected parliament that the Islamic parties dominate. In fact, the MB and the military have already reached an understanding that offers immunity for some of the military high brass and the preservation of the military’s privileges. The two sides have also agreed that the Parliament will choose a Prime Minister to run the country’s domestic affairs, including education, healthcare, and economic development and a President, to be elected by a popular vote to oversee foreign policy and national security matters.

Second, the MB is a rational and realistic actor, and several factors attest to this fact. The MB will continue its non-violent approach, which it had adopted several decades ago that brought them to this point. They have committed themselves to the preservation of the peace treaty with Israel while counseling Hamas to be less confrontational with the Jewish state. The MB leadership offered to share power with secular forces in the new parliament and signed a declaration that was put forward by Al-Azhar, the Center of Sunni Islamic learning that would protect theological dissent, freedom of religious observance, scientific inquiry and artistic expression.

It appears that the MB is fully cognizant and appreciative of the real sentiments of the people that brought them to this stage. Why then would they change course and lose everything they have gained? They have heard loud and clear the public grievances and outcries of those young men and women who yearn for dignity and freedom and gave them the political power to secure these basic rights. They want jobs, they want education, they want health care, they want an opportunity to live and prosper and they want freedom. They did not go to Tahrir Square demanding the destruction of Israel. They have heard and seen enough excuses from Arab countries that use Israel as the incarnation of the devil and blame it for all of their shortcomings while the people continue to suffer with disdain.

Third, the Egyptian revolution has certainly removed the Egyptian citizen’s psychological barrier of fearing the government and its internal security apparatus, which has existed for so long. In addition to the fact that millions made their way to their country’s fairest and freest elections in decades, the revolution has activated the power of young Egyptian men and women to be engaged in political activism, volunteer work, and business. As Ahmed Assam, a young Egyptian software engineer put it, “the Revolution created a feeling that people can change the world for the better.” Equally important is that the plethora of Egypt’s media outlets is replete with voices of criticism and sarcasm towards the country’s chronic problems as well as the policies of almost every single political actor. No party or institution has been immune from criticism and review, including the military council and its head Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, the government, the MB and all other parties.

Bloggers and social media members can easily mobilize demonstrations of millions in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt. It is this unprecedented ability of the Egyptian people to transform their country while maintaining its incredible sense of humor that will prevent whoever comes to power from reverting to dictatorship or imposing archaic Islamic laws and once again subjecting the people to a police state which trumps civil and political rights with impunity. The Egyptian youth now know where the real power rests and they have no intention of ever relinquishing what they have gained after decades of quiet desperation.

The United States and its allies, especially Israel, must accept the fact that in the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamic governments are likely to dominate the Arab political landscape. This does not suggest that these governments will follow Iran’s model and naturally commit themselves to hostility toward the West or seek Israel’s destruction. Without throwing their caution to the wind, the US and its allies will be wise to adopt a pro-active policy toward Egypt. They must demonstrate that they stand for democracy, in words and in deeds, and welcome any genuine democratic development in Egypt that leads to sustainable reforms and progress, however treacherous the road may be.