Some of the challenges encountering Egypt’s revolution are clearer than others. Of the clearer ones is the necessity and priority of dismantling the power base of the ousted regime, while the means of dismantling remain problematic.
Mubarak’s regime rested on three institutions. First is the security institution, comprised of thousands of officers, over one million conscripts, a gigantic intelligence apparatus with long-reaching arms, and thousands of thugs operating under officer supervision. Over the 18 days of uprising that started Egypt’s revolution, the institution was temporarily paralysed, and partially disempowered.
The regime also relied heavily on its gigantic media institution. State-owned media (TV, radio and newspapers) was used as propaganda for the ousted president and his regime. Private media was (and remains) highly undemocratic, being controlled by a handful of business elites. Cosmetic changes have been introduced to state-owned media, replacing notorious leadership with a less unpopular one, while absolutely no structural changes have been introduced, to neither the private nor public sector media, and both retains its undemocratic structure.
The third pillar on which the regime rested was the National Democratic Party (NDP) —the party that ruled the country since the 1970s. But the NDP was never a real political party with a platform or support base. Rather, it was the conglomeration of the interests of senior statesmen close to Mubarak and businessmen close to his younger son Gamal. The top tier of these corrupt interest groups has been paralysed and, in some cases, imprisoned. Nonetheless, the power structure remains insufficiently challenged as a new political and business elite is now emerging, representing the very same orientations and interests of their predecessors, only with a revolutionary façade. Nonetheless, this institution was the one most harmed by the revolution, with the NDP and the municipal councils being officially dissolved.
The success of the revolution will be determined primarily by its ability to dismantle these institutions. Domestic and foreign policies that provoked Egyptians and led to the breakout of the revolution were only the outcome of this power structure. A change of faces or even a partial change of policy is therefore insufficient and unsustainable, and would eventually lead Egypt to where it was on 24 January 2011. Only a sweeping change of people and policy could lead to the emergence of the new independent Egypt the revolution has promised.
Gradual change is not exactly useful, particularly in revolutionary moments. The ousted regime’s interest groups were willing to take a few steps back and to be patient until the revolution loses a bit of momentum and then fight back viciously for their interests. The clashes of 28 June only prove that the institutions of oppression (the police and thugs) that had killed at least 800 Egyptians five months earlier still enjoyed enormous strength, and even more disrespect for the country’s citizens and political activists, despite all attempts to reorient the police and restructure the Ministry of Interior.
Revolutionists are increasingly complaining about the media, which has replaced one pharaoh with another, and is evidently biased to the interests of the country’s business cronies who criticise protests and strikes aiming at altering the economic power structure. Attempts to “radically” dismantle the ousted regime’s power structure (most significantly through dissolving municipal councils) were met by rather strong reactions, which the caretaker government —with its “reformist” soft outlook —failed to firmly contain. These incidents and others suggest that Egypt should capitalise on its revolutionary moment to bring radical change that dismantles this structure.
Ironically, however, Egypt’s largest organised revolutionary force is, by definition, non-revolutionary. For over 80 years, the Muslim Brotherhood has adopted a reformist stance, seeking gradual change that does not challenge the very foundations of the political system. This reformist outlook has prevented the radicalisation of many young Islamists, and led to the marginalisation of the terrorist Islamist threat in the 1980s and 1990s. It has provided the group with pragmatism and doctrinal flexibility that allowed for its survival under oppression for long decades. It has also, to a great extent, tamed the group, which became more willing to reach compromises and search for common ground. While these traits might be useful in politics, they are not what a revolution needs. Caution, patience and too much political calculation are harmful at moments when radical acute decisions are due. On the latter type of decisions, the Brotherhood is incapable of delivering.
So why did the Brotherhood participate in the 18 days of protests that started Egypt’s revolution? Because the protests were led and organised by other groups, and the demands, albeit radical, were clear and rational. Mobilising the Brotherhood requires more than developing a clear vision of what needs to be done. That is, they know what ought to be done, but could still use guidance on how to do it. During the earlier days of the revolution, the clear demand of ousting the regime was clear, and so was the means: protesting. Because the alternative was not exactly clear, the Muslim Brotherhood was willing to negotiate different ways out. The Brotherhood, and the vast majority of Egyptians, voted in favour of the proposed constitutional amendments because those who opposed it failed to present a clear, practical alternative that is not full of landmines.
Being the primary target of Mubarak’s regime, the Muslim Brotherhood was more harmed by crackdowns of the institutions of oppression than other opposition groups. It is therefore farfetched to assume that they don’t have a clear interest in dismantling this institution. Their adoption of a gradual approach of reforming the Ministry of Interior rather than a radical approach that calls for dismantling it is best explained as an outcome of the failure of other less popular yet more radical revolutionary groups to present a rational applicable scheme for change. Putting forward such a plan would facilitate the reintegration of the Brotherhood with revolutionists calling for dismantling the Ministry of Interior.
The success of Egypt’s revolution is highly dependent on the unity of revolutionists, because only then will they have enough power to challenge the long-existing institutions of the ousted regime. This, in turn, requires that different groups exert serious effort in understanding one another, and in capitalising on the strengths of each group through synchronising efforts and finding excuses instead of pointing fingers. Otherwise, the revolution will fail to dismantle these institutions, and Egypt will —for some time —suffer the consequences in terms of its security, economy and polity.
The writer is a freelance columnist, and a researcher focusing on Islamic movements and democratization.