Egypt: What next?
Abdel Moneim Said, Sunday 23 Jan 2011
Egyptian planners should not get het up about developments in Tunisia, but should stick to the path of reform and development calmly undertaken

I hadn’t been born yet at the time of the 1919 Revolution and I was still very young when the Free Officers launched what later became known as the July Revolution of 1952. However, as I grew older I watched many other revolutions with great interest. I remember the thrill I felt in 1958 at the revolution in Sudan led by General Aboud Arafat, and my subsequent disappointment when I learned that it was a military coup. At least there was a “real” revolution in Yemen in 1963, led by Abdullah Al-Salal who overthrew the reactionary imamate. Developments there led to Egyptian military intervention in the service of the Arab national and civilisational mission.

The 1950s and 1960s was, in fact, a stirring revolutionary epoch. The revolutions that virtually came on the heels of one another, mostly in the Levant, in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, resounded with heart-lifting slogans that had us chanting in support of these glorious events and their leaders. But as the euphoria passed and the intellect kicked in, the slogans lost their glitter. The Arab revolutionaries had become obsessed with something called “safeguarding the revolution” and then, after the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, with “eliminating the effects of the aggression”. So when the Libyan revolution erupted in 1969 it came as a relief. Against the backdrop of arrested change, it signalled that the Arab revolutionary spirit was still intact, that we still had powerful and dynamic individuals capable not only of overthrowing a monarchy but also of steering their countries through sweeping and radical change.

The times also taught us the difference between a coup and a revolution, the former being a mere change of faces at the top, the latter a total overhaul of society combined with the constant expectation that change would be change for the better. Not that the situation was always so clearly cut. But there were also those unique intellectuals who had an extraordinary capacity to differentiate between “real” revolutions and “counterfeit” ones, and who lamented constantly the lack of the former.

In all events, no one disputes that the Iranian revolution was a real one. I was a student in the US at the time (1979) and I was naturally acquainted with quite a few Iranian students who were fervently hoping for the overthrow of the Shah. Al-Khomeini had become the symbol of the revolution and on that great day when he reappeared in Tehran my Iranian colleagues were enraptured by the prospect of the birth of a new state in which tyranny would vanish and justice and freedom would prevail. I then had the opportunity to observe them engrossed in exciting and earnest discussions as the days passed and the revolutionaries executed Ghotbzadeh, the short-lived foreign minister who had been a close aide of Khomeini in exile and had accompanied him back to Iran, and then Abolhassan Banisadr, the first president of the newly proclaimed Iranian republic, was forced to flee to France. After reading his memoirs I realised there was nothing romantic about the revolution at all.

For decades, revolution and social change were among my foremost interests. As a secondary school student in 1964, in those days when students were expected to submit short reports and term papers, I was particularly drawn to the French Revolution. Like many, I was inspired by its drive towards freedom, brotherhood and equality and fascinated by how Napoleon turned the state into an empire whose armies swept across the whole of Europe. He had turned the revolution into an adventure that culminated in the restoration of the monarchy and in the end the emperor whose conquest of Egypt, incidentally, had been one of his greatest dreams.

But the reality of revolution struck me later in the course of my studies on political thought. I proved something of a surprise to my professor, Samaan Butros Faragallah, to whom an entire generation of students of international relations is indebted, when I submitted my dissertation, The Dictatorship of the Proletariat in Marxist-Leninist Thought. After discussing the theoretical roots of the Bolshevik Revolution in the works of Marx and Engels, it travelled forward in time to the tragic consequences of the application of theory in the hands of Lenin and Trotsky, until I arrived at the final face of the revolution under Stalin. Unfortunately, the study has vanished from my library, having been permanently borrowed by friends and colleagues of leftist outlooks. However, enough of its substance remained fresh in my mind to make comparative study with the American Revolution, which began as a revolt against colonialism and evolved into a project for the US and the world.

In the course of my studies of political science I became very familiar with the concepts of revolution, change, coup d’etat, transformation and reform as processes or states through which societies pass. Therefore, I did not experience that “astonishment” or “exultation” that many felt in response to the revolution-like tide that swept Tunisia and toppled its president, following numerous sacrifices, after which the revolutionaries stopped and looked around, at a loss over what to do next. Rather, I was more in the nature of a doctor who has seen dozens or hundreds of patients and who is therefore no longer shocked by what he sees and driven only by the duty of his professional calling, which compels him to diagnose, analyse and look for a cure.

What happened in Tunisia was not dissociated from the Egyptian context and it was only natural that people drew numerous comparisons and that various political forces tried to fit it into the narrative that opened with Mohamed ElBaradei’s statement last year that 2010 would not end without a change of the regime in Egypt. As we know, that prediction did not come true, not that anyone mentioned it. In fact, more or less the reverse happened: the mainstream opposition forces rejected the call to “boycott” the elections that the revolutionary fringe groups had pushed for. Then, in spite of disputes over the outcome of the polls, contact has not been severed between the government and the opposition, between the majority party and the minority parties. Dialogue continues, despite difficulties. Ultimately, it all boiled down to allot of politicking, as occurs in countries around the world, even if some marginal forces tried to ignite some sparks, fan some flames, or give the foreign and particularly the American press some substance to talk about.

Now, apparently, the idea is that the “Tunisian model” will spread to other Arab countries, and notably to Egypt. It rests on the notion that the snowballing of the Tunisian protest movement from the governorate of Bouzid through neighbouring governorates and then to the coastal cities and the capital will trigger of a regional “domino effect”, such as that which swept Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union or Latin America in the 1990s. However, comparing the Tunisian case with such waves of change cannot solely rest on proof of transmissibility. That would be tantamount to saying that the dawn rises because the cock has crowed. The logic is all the more flawed because it totally ignores what is happening in mainstream politics in Egypt, as suggested above.

In fact, there are many reasons why the Tunisian scenario cannot be repeated in Egypt. The first is demographic. Tunisia has 10 million people; Egypt has 84 million. A segment of this huge populace might harbour anger towards the regime, but the majority, for various reasons, feels it protects them from the types of foreign adventurism that certain opposition factions espouse. It also offers a reasonable balance between a development drive and policies to protect the more disadvantaged sectors of the population from the adverse affects of development, such as heavy subsidisation, subsidy cards and free education, which are not available in Tunisia or in many other Arab countries. The second reason is geographic. Egypt is many times larger than Tunisia, which affects the diversity in levels of support or opposition to the central government in the provinces proportional to the shares they receive from development gains. The third reason has its roots in a social factor. The uprising in Tunisia was a revolt against the president spearheaded by a middle class whose circumstances had deteriorated as the result of the global economic crisis. It was not a rebellion of the poor and starving, as the media has been wont to portray it. The Egyptian middle class, by contrast, constitutes about 62 per cent of the populace and remains the centre of gravity of Egyptian society. It thus does not have strong reasons to rebel against the regime.

The previous factor combines with political ones. For a quarter of a century, Tunisia had virtually no freedom of expression in the press, on the radio or television, or via satellite communications such as the Internet. So bad was the state of freedom of speech in Tunisia that, in its 2009 report, Journalists Without Borders ranked it as one of the most hostile countries to the Internet in the world. There was no outlet whatsoever for political or social movements, which is a major reason why the recent protests there erupted with such fury that they swept the head of the regime from power. The contrast with Egypt could not be more striking. The past seven years has seen numerous protest actions, some pushing political demands, others inspired by socioeconomic needs. In addition, Egypt enjoys considerable freedom of expression and of the press. The public has virtually unrestrained access to privately owned and run media, opposition newspapers, the electronic press and blogging sites. People are airing ideas and discussing issues that had been completely taboo until not so long ago. Meanwhile, the government keeps abreast of public opinion and has gradually moved in the direction of major trends, a lesson it learned from the experiences of Egyptian governments following the bread riots of 18 and 19 January 1977. The Tunisian government had a completely different style. It was abrupt and erratic, causing an even greater erosion of confidence between state and society.

Fifthly, the Egyptian people have first hand experience of revolution and change. From their observations and study of these processes they have gleaned the fundamental lesson that it is not so much revolution or dramatic change that counts, but what comes afterwards — the long- or short-term project that the revolution was meant to usher in. This is not to suggest that anyone in Egypt or elsewhere wants everything to remain still. But the most important question that people naturally ask themselves is how do we take the country from an unsatisfactory state to a more satisfactory one that opens better prospects for progress and prosperity. Now, given that the Egyptian government does have a project for change, one that entails raising economic growth rates to eight per cent, spreading national allocations across seven developmental zones and plans for political and economic reforms that are the subject of give-and-take between the various intellectual and political elites, then clearly change is in the works in Egypt. That was not the case in Tunisia.

Nevertheless, one cannot ignore revolutions and their fallout. It would be a complete illusion to imagine that all that press coverage of the Tunisian revolution would not have an impact here — which, in fact, it already has — and simultaneously underscore the differences between here and there. For one, the self-immolation bug spread, leading to several instances in Egypt, Algeria and Mauritania in which individuals sought to emulate Mohammed Bouazizi whose suicide in Tunisia sparked the unrest. However, in Egypt the acts, which were prompted by personal reasons, triggered nothing but sadness over the condition of the persons themselves. Yet events in Tunisia had another effect, which was to shake the confidence of a segment of public opinion, leading to a plunge in the indexes of the Egyptian stock exchange and to a drop in the value the Egyptian pound to its lowest level against the dollar in six years. Over the past week, foreigners have been their selling shares and stocks on the Egyptian exchange and buying dollars with their earnings, a trend that reflects the fear of a possible domino effect in the region. A third possible consequence of the events in Tunisia is a reduction in economic development efforts for fear that they may set off public anger. Yet, to put off reforms that should be done today will only exact a dearer price in the future.

Egyptian planners should not let such fallout from the Tunisian uprising needlessly complicate their task, which is to steer Egypt to change and to avoid the pitfalls of stagnation. If world history has taught us anything it is that two types of revolutions have proven successful. One is the type that ushered in a project for building change on the basis of modern values, the two prime examples of which are the American and the Chinese revolutions. The second is the type that overhauled the patterns of thought and infrastructure in order to better channel national assets and resources towards material and moral progress. This kind of revolution has changed many countries, the most recent being India, the countries of Southeast Asia, and the countries of South America. It is still too early to tell what will happen in Tunisia. However, Malaysia, Brazil, India, Turkey and the countries of Eastern Europe during the post-Cold War era furnish abundant proof of the fact that after taking the courageous decision to change there remains the need for an equal amount of courage to move forward on the paths chosen.

This will not happen until we remedy the adverse side effects of the uprising, most of which were the product of media sensationalism. Therefore, there will have to be serious discussion with the various media over how to handle news coverage, which should be based on accurate and properly corroborated information, facts and statistics, as opposed to wishful thinking and sloppiness. In like manner, it will be important to deal with the concrete political, economic and social realities in a particular country, instead of relying on generalisations. There will also be a need to seriously address the problem of those Western think tanks and study centres that have fallen prey to “group think” and the obsessions this mode of behaviour produces, of the sort that gives rise to those pernicious portraits that surface in the Egyptian press in particular of alleged chaos and an impending eruption of suppressed popular fury.