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February 23, 2011

Principles of revolution: Egypt

By Arthur Scott

For the last eighteen days an extraordinary event has unraveled in Middles East centering on Egypt leading to resignation of Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011. Though there is much jubilation in Cairo, Alexandria and in Suez the Egyptian revolution is only in its first phase. All modern revolutions, dated by American Revolution of 1776, go through three stages: moderate, radical, conservative. Each stage has different cluster of leaders with different agendas. First phase of revolution is one of democratic euphoria as the symbols of repression/tyranny fall and the people of Cairo and elsewhere celebrate in the streets.

The second phase however is more difficult as the country transitions to parliamentary system and as parties and individuals jockey for political position. At this time the Egyptian Military acts as caretaker dissolving the parliament, suspending the constitution and preparing the way for a new government to emerge. Phase Two historically has seen revolutions shift to the left as in the case of America as represented by Jefferson/Declaration, Reign of Terror of Robespierre in France, end of Samurai class in Japan under Okuba,  emergence of Lenin and Mao in Russia/China respectively and Khomeini in Iran.

Revolutions during radical phase tend to burn out because of violent excesses with greatest need being normalcy and security leading to either re-emergence of military rule, or a charismatic dictator or a ruling oligarch of wealth as represented by American constitution in 1787, by Directory/Napoleon in France, by military in Japan as embodied by Meiji constitution of 1889, or by Stalinist reign of terror and Mao’s cultural revolution and today’s Revolutionary Guard in Iran. What happens in Egypt as it enters into its second phase remains uncertain.

But if history is any guide, there is a strong possibility the revolution in the second phase will be radicalized laying the foundation for an ultimate swing to the Right in which the Military/Dictator once again will reassert its will dashing the democratic dreams of Egyptian millions who rallied at Tahrir Square during these past two weeks. Key factors in these scenarios are economics, rising expectations, disaffection of intelligentsia or opinion makers, growing incompetency of existing regime, technology and role of military.

Economics is always a significant crisis, trigger, immediate cause: in America it was “no taxation without representation”, in France the bankruptcy of the Crown, in Japan the costly privileges of the samurai class, in Russia World War I and in Iran polarization of oil wealth between the Shah and the vast majority of Iranians moving into cities from countryside. In Egypt the economy suffered from all of the above, but most of all young Egyptians suffered and became alienated unable to find gainful employment although reasonably educated. Complicating matters was gross diversion of billions by Mubarak and his cronies and the special economic privileges of the Military. Egypt has the tenth largest army in the world of 468,000 soldiers as reported by Mark Thompson in “Time”. America spends $3.5 million a day on military-industrial complex which has tremendous clout on the economy dominating key industries and considered to be Egypt’s Wall Street. In the bargain the Military appears insensitive to economics of average Egyptian who are struggling to buy food at local markets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez. See David D. Kirkpatrick’s NY Times, 2/17, article on military.

Rising expectations are always central to revolution. Most modern revolutions in the West were expressions of deep aspirations for freedom expressed by the emerging upper middle class who in the West were motivated by values of Enlightenment: equality, freedom, fraternity, and money. Called bourgeoisie they sought political power commensurate with their economic prowess and were determined to overthrow the old regime of Kings, Church and aristocrats. In Japan the new ruling elite is an amalgam of Choshu/Satsuma samurais in alliance with new industrial /corporate elite that establishes powerful economic monopolies known as Zaibatsus.

In Iran it’s the clerics led by Ayatollah Khomeini who dominate, but even they come from affluent Iranian backgrounds but unlike their western counterparts eschew secularism. Unfortunately the rising expectations of the first phase which are idealistic, romantic and principled often collide against the hard rock of Realpolitik, ego, power as individuals and groups jockey for position and control.

In Egypt, except for Military and Islamic Brotherhood, there is no single group that has either the political experience or charisma to step into the power vacuum. Wael Ghonim, a Google Executive, although triggering “Eighteen Day Revolution”, because of his efforts on Face Book in behalf of brutally beaten Khaled Said in Alexandria,  shows no interest in leading the way or becoming politically active.  Even Mohammed El Baradei, Nobel Prize winner, hardly showed up for the event? Recently a Sunni 84 year old cleric, Sheik Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has been exiled for years for his ambivalence on use of terrorism, returned to argue for democracy, pluralism and freedom by urging Copts/Muslims to pray together. New faces/players are beginning to emerge to shape the revolution.

In Egypt and throughout the Middle East beginning with Tunisia there has emerged a growing disaffection, especially among the young, toward the old authoritarian dictatorships, which have treated their respective countries as cash cows impoverishing the masses in the process. Mubarak’s wealth, placed at $40 billion, rightfully belongs to  the Egyptian People and his portfolios in stocks, bonds, real estate, and military hard ware should be frozen. Key players in making revolution of course are opinion makers and historically they run the gamut from Jefferson to Voltaire to Fukazawa Yukichi to Lenin to Khomeini. Generally they come from professional/educated classes including law, business, education, media and religion. They excel at articulating the revolutionary message. Wael Ghonim of Egypt is a classic representative who not only recognized the power of media,Face Book,  but also articulated the vision with the Tweet from prison that “Freedom is a bless that deserves fighting for it.”

The grave danger in Egypt, as history shows, is that these idealistic metaphors can be easily high jacked by others in the name of safety, security, and order. The other fascinating aspect of revolution is that revolution is rooted in the energy of the young. Most revolutionaries today are in their twenties or thirties who have become disgruntled with the status quo or old thinking of their parents. They are consumed by new possibilities, beliefs, and paradigms about creating a new future reality. Demographically most people in Middle East are in their twenties with great amounts of pent up energy and even training but without any employment opportunity to realize their dream of self worth/prosperity and in the process tiring of the corruption and incompetence of the old regime.

Another factor contributing to revolution consists of growing incompetence of these autocratic Middle East regimes. Mubarak is classic. Ruling for 30 years through the military he lost touch with what was happening in Egypt demographically, educationally, economically and technologically. The vast majority of Egyptians are young, part of a global world brought home to them by the internet. Face Book, Twitter and cell phones. They are bright, having access to lots of information/images, and they are aware that they are doing poorly as compared to the rest of the world and ask why.  Moreover, the Mubarak government,  after  the rigged 2005 election in which he ran pretty much unopposed and eliminated the Muslim Brotherhood from seating in parliament, become even more flagrant in its violation of civil liberties. (See, Fareed Zakaria, ”Time”, 2/14).

Critics were arbitrarily arrested; the judiciary system marginalized and civil liberties violated. You never know what event will spark revolution.  It was the death of Khaled Said in Alexandria that ultimately mobilizes the nation and brought Mubarak down through the new technologies of the Millennials. Similarly in Tunisia, according to Reuters, where the revolutionary storm came from, it was sparked by the efforts of a fruit stand seller “Mohsen Bouterfif who doused himself in gasoline and set himself on fire on Thursday after a meeting with the mayor of the small city of Boukhadra who was unable to provide him a job and a house …” According to Wael Ghonim in “Sixty Minutes Interview”, January 20, Mubarak’s attempt to block Face Book was the nail in the coffin leading more Egyptians to go to Tahrir Square in protest.

Technology too plays a major role in revolutionary movements. In colonial America, France, Japan, Russia, and Iran it was print media, radio, cassette tapes, and today television, computers, e-mail, web, cell phones, Face Book, Twitter. These technologies become major pathways by which revolutionary message or sayings are quickly distributed to galvanize people into action. In the French Revolution it was Marie Antoinette’s alleged infamous:”let them eat cake” that led to storming of the Bastille. In Egypt it was Wael Ghonim statement on “Sixty Minutes”: “oppressive regimes don’t understand politics that comes from the heart” that led to mass demonstrations in Egypt and are spreading rapidly throughout Middle East from Libya, to Bahrain, to Jordan, to Yemen.

In all of this turmoil “Al Jazzera” has played a significant force in reporting events “being a lightening rod” and keeping these events front and center for the Arab Street as editorialized by New York Times Robert F. Worth and David D. Kirkpatrick, 1/29/11.”Al Jazzera” has been quite critical of these authoritarian regimes as well as US backing of them for the geopolitical reasons of oil/terrorism. The new technology and its speed to report, and picture  repressive government actions against protesters  has undermined their ability to intimate, cow and threaten the “Street” as illustrated in Bahrain where the Monarchy finds itself fighting for its very life  even after firing upon Shiia demonstrators protesting in Pearl Square  whose rights have been ignored for generations. The old regimes really underestimated the people/organizing power of these social networks and find themselves  against the ropes because of their ignorance. No matter what they do it’s reported immediately in the Middle East and globally destroying their credibility.

Last, reaction of the Armed Forces to revolutionary dreams/hopes is crucial. In the case of Egypt the military has remained relatively neutral refusing to fire on the crowds that gathered on Tahrir Square. Historically the Military has been the dominant institution in Egypt since time of Nasser ascendancy following a secularist policy for Egypt. How deeply committed the Military is to democratic reform   remains to be seen. Members of Council of Officers which governs Egypt now are less sympathetic to privatization seeing in it a threat to military assets. The military however has dissolved the Parliament and suspended the constitution meeting the demands of pro-democratic forces.  In other countries like Iran with it Revolutionary Guards and in Libya under Muammar Gaddafi and in Bahrain military has been quite harsh on protesters firing and killing. Seif al- Islam, younger son of Gaddafi, warned that the government would use the Army to “eradicate the pockets of sedition”.

To conclude, the revolutionary storm gripping Egypt/Middle East will continue to spread and expand because of a synergy of forces: dated/corrupt authoritarian régimes, soaring food prices, rampant unemployment, widespread corruption, technology and restless youth. A new vision had gripped the “Internet Generation” calling for transparency, accountability and freedom. As Fadi Quran, a Palestinian, aptly put it in Time, 2/28: “The larger strategy is to use non-violence, more cooperation, civil disobedience. It has to include everyone and be truly nonviolent.” Egalitarianism of technology, as illustrated by Wikileaks, has undermined the centralization of information which was characteristic of past regimes. Politicians can no longer make deals behind closed doors. That era is gone.  Even America, whose shadow has loomed so large over the Middle East since World War II, will need to change its historical policy of shoring up autocratic regimes in the name of national security, oil, and terrorism. America, like the Arab world, must walk the talk of democracy or else face the loss of strategic and vital ties and the new generation of leaders who are emerging there.

Arthur Kane Scott is Professor of Humanities and Cultural Studies at the Dominican University of California and Fellow of American Institute of International Studies