End of summer

Mona Anis , Thursday 22 Sep 2011

In the absence of an alliance of radical forces, Egypt’s Revolution risks running into the sands

Now that autumn has officially begun, perhaps it's time to abandon the term "Arab Spring" when talking about the revolutionary tide sweeping across the Arab world. The term, which has not sat well with Arab analysts, some even claiming it is an Orientalist appellation, has more than overstayed its welcome as a description of a process which, beginning last winter, is likely to continue for many seasons.

Why, then, given the clumsiness of the seasonal metaphor, can we not call a revolution a revolution? Revolutions, as we all know, have a life span that does not correspond to the seasons. Most world revolutions began with an uprising that toppled an old regime, then went into a transitional phase where moderate forces, with some legal status inherited from the former regime, tried to steer the course, before more radical forces succeeded in winning the day – or losing it.

In his famous book The Anatomy of Revolution, a comparative study of four revolutions (the English Revolution of the 1640s, the American, the French and the Russian Revolutions), Crane Brinton says that three of the four revolutions he has studied (the American Revolution being the exception) began in "hope and moderation," reached a crisis in a reign of terror, and "ended up in something like dictatorship – Cromwell, Bonaparte, Stalin."

It is true that all this relates to the past, since the last of the four revolutions studied by Brinton took place almost a century ago. But a more recent and closer-to-home revolution, namely the Iranian Revolution in 1979, also conforms to the same basic tenets of Brinton's anatomy, at least as far as the first phase of moderation is concerned. This lasted for a few months between the departure of the Shah in January 1979 and the adoption of the new constitution that established Khomeini as the "Leader of the Revolution" by referendum in November 1979.
Indeed, even after Khomeini's rule was established, one could still talk about a continuation of this moderation, albeit less moderately, under Banisadra, elected on February 1980 as the first president of Iran.

As far as dates go, the last few months in Egypt bear some resemblance to the first few months of the Iranian Revolution. This resemblance, which incidentally corresponds to what Brinton says about other revolutions, is perhaps one reason why many foreign commentators have insisted on drawing comparisons between the Shia clerics of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, warning against the theocratic turn events could take here.

The comparison, I strongly believe, is a simplistic one: there are many differences between the two movements and the two societies, which extend far beyond the obvious divergence between Shias and Sunnis. One common feature that cannot be denied, however, is the central role played by the Islamists in both revolutions. If one were to use a French revolutionary metaphor, the Islamists are the Jacobins, as they are, in Brinton's words, the "better organized, better staffed, better obeyed."

The discovery that the Islamists in Egypt are the better organised and better obeyed force has led to some unexpected alliances between the radicals of many years ago – the socialists and communists – and the newly established liberal groupings led by business tycoons vying to block the ascendency of the Islamists. The moderates in power during this transitional period – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and their appointed cabinet – seem at a loss to know how to move between these two poles of the so-called civil forces and the Islamists.

This week, yet another round of meetings between the ruling SCAF and the different political forces has started. A meeting chaired by chief of staff Sami Anan and attended by the representatives of 47 political parties took place last Sunday with the aim of discussing the proposed electoral law. The meeting witnessed sharp divisions between the "civil" parties, on the one hand, and the Islamists, on the other. The former had argued for postponing the elections yet again and amending the law, while the latter insisted that the elections should take place as soon as possible.

Such divisions allow the SCAF to continue ruling the country for a much longer period than that stipulated in the constitutional declaration of 30 March. While this prospect seems not to worry some "civil" parties, it is vehemently opposed by both the revolutionary youth and the Islamists. The young feel that the Revolution they led is being hijacked, while the Islamists in general, and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular, are sure that parliamentary elections would enhance their representative power.
At the moment these two forces, the Islamists and the young, are not united. While the young have tried to exert pressure on the SCAF by organising demonstrations and sit-ins in Tahrir Square, the Islamists have been conspicuously absent from such activities over the past few weeks, which is one reason why the numbers of protestors in the Square has not been large enough to make the SCAF reconsider some of its unpopular decisions.

The present, fluid state of affairs, bordering on a stalemate, will alter dramatically if the Islamists are able to join forces with the radical youth and take to the streets. Unless they do that, restoring the unity of purpose that prevailed during the 18-day uprising of 25 January, the Revolution runs the risk of grinding to a halt.

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