How a revolution succeeds
Abdel Moneim Said, Tuesday 29 Mar 2011
For the Egyptian revolution to succeed, a hard look must be taken at the modern world and strategies formulated for how Egypt can catch up with others

I was not the only one to wonder about that anonymous spectre that seized control of the revolution several weeks ago. Countless others before and after me have also asked who it was that had boarded the bandwagon and rode the crest only to elbow aside the millions, seize the helm and hijack the revolution once the revolutionary youth had achieved the aims of their struggle and it came time for political and legal professionals to follow through. The questions arose, moreover, when the revolution was still in its infancy by global standards. Operationally speaking, that birth took 18 days, from 25 January until the president was overthrown and the prison doors were flung open to a faction of the ruling elite that was close to the president’s son and that mostly consisted of business magnates with some politicians and a mixture of both thrown in. At one point, people had the impression that the revolution was still unfolding, because the tradition of Friday demonstrations was continuing, though it seemed to make little difference whether it was the same millions as before out there, or whether these were sectoral and sectarian demonstrations mushrooming elsewhere.

The fact is; the revolution has lost its initial innocence. Its forces of young men and women received their first shock with the results of the referendum on the constitutional amendments, which revealed that those who sparked the revolution stood on one side while the rest of the people (or of those who voted in the referendum) stood on the another. Still, the referendum outcome did not represent a popular rejection of the revolution, especially given that only 41 per cent of the voting age population took part. However, it did cast to the fore that crucial and still unanswered question: Where do we go from here?

No revolution has ever succeeded on the basis of a fondness for condemning the old regime or a delight in effacing despised names and symbols from libraries, schools, metros, bridges and satellite cities, which ultimately does little more than reproduce that ancient pharaonic custom of defacing the statues and cartouches in the palaces and temples of preceding dynasties. Revolutions do not succeed by just overthrowing a regime but by building a new and better one; and not just by solving the problems the old regime bequeathed but also by opening new horizons for growth and progress, which the old regime had hampered by tyranny and violence or by deception and evasion. One fine woman summed up the situation very simply and succinctly when she said how happy the 25 January Revolution made her and then added, “But we’re still poor.”

There is no denying that the revolution made some great breakthroughs that will hopefully presage the future that awaits us. First, it established the presence of Egypt’s youth in the political and economic domains as serious and effective players. These are a far cry from the token images of youth power that used to be pulled out for patriotic advertisements during international football championships. The youth that produced the 25 January Revolution were enterprising, self-sacrificing and an inspiration not only to all Egyptians but to peoples beyond our borders from Moscow to Madison, Wisconsin. Gone are the days when only two players —the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood —monopolised the political domain and when the rest of the parties and movements were little more than details of shading and colour that were uplifting at times and depressing at others. Today, the revolution’s youth has asserted itself as the long-needed third force, a role that certain parties had claimed was theirs but failed to fulfil when put to the test.

Second, the revolution brought an end of the age of reform in small doses. Clearly, the approach is not commensurate to the many different and formidable challenges Egypt faces, not least of which is the annual population increase of some 1,800,000 people who need housing, food and jobs, at a time when the whole country is increasingly in need of better healthcare and a regionally and internationally competitive educational system.

Third, the revolution altered the status of the presidency. Although the majority of Egyptians will probably continue to show the proper respect due to our head of state, the long age of pharaoh-kings has reached an end. President Sadat once said that he would be the last pharaoh. But it was Egypt’s youth revolution that made Mubarak into the last pharaoh in actual fact.

The foregoing are major achievements. However, a revolution can only reach fulfilment by engineering the types of change that truly reshape the country. To begin with, we need to normalise our system of government by eliminating all those oddities and idiosyncrasies that make Egypt an anomaly in today’s world. For example, no other constitution across the length and breadth of the earth insists that workers and peasants should make up “at least” 50 per cent of elected assemblies, and nowhere else will you find “national” newspapers subordinated to a chamber of parliament (the Shura Council) and shackled to the whims of the majority party.

The revolution also needs to compel the various political forces to remedy their own ills, which contributed to creating the type of conditions that made such a mass revolution necessary. In my writings and discussions I have stressed over and over again that Egypt will not have a democracy until the NDP sheds the legacy it inherited from the Arab Socialist Union Party, until the Muslim Brotherhood overcomes its intrinsic and latent drive towards a theocratic state, and until the other opposition parties and movements turn their energies from screaming and shouting on satellite television programmes to the more painstaking jobs of working among the people and mobilising grassroots support in a more professional and effective way. Of course, this was before the revolution, so the bit about the NDP may no longer apply. Still, the youth who found that they could kindle a revolution through Facebook should explore other means to reach out to the people and transmit to them the ideas that were exchanged in a totally democratic fashion in hyperspace.

If the revolution is to be less of a raking up of the past and more of a march into the future, it needs to take a good look at the modern world and do what it takes to help Egypt catch up politically and economically. That requires some radical modernisation within a reasonable timeframe. We cannot expect the world to come to a standstill while we inch our way at our own leisurely pace toward changes that have swept the world and other Middle Eastern countries as well. Therefore, it is pointless to reinvent the wheel. This is not just because we already had the wheel thousands of years ago when we were the pioneers of modernisation, but also because every age has its own laws of progress. Today’s laws dictate, above all, that Egypt must make the transition from a permanently mobilised state to a developmental state that seeks to enhance its status among nations. Without going into excessive detail, in the first type of state, security concerns are the prime determinant of the political order. In the second, the prerequisites of development take the lead with the aim of producing a qualitative shift in the sources of economic power, which ultimately becomes the chief guarantor of national security.

However, Egypt simultaneously needs to be prepared to sustain the consequences of radical change. Political, social and economic revolutions are akin to major surgical intervention; they cut and slice and leave ugly scars that only really fade when revolutions succeed in becoming part of a noble history of change and reform. Perhaps the greatest hurdle we need to overcome in this regard is the task of creating a broad consensus over what exactly needs to be done. This involves more than agreeing on such general aims as uprooting corruption and realising democracy; it also entails developing the model of society we want to strive towards. Before the revolution, the Turkish and Malaysian systems were frequently cited as possible models to emulate. Why not subject them to closer analysis and put them to the political forces and the general public for discussion?

Finally, in order to move beyond inspiring demonstrations in Tahrir Square and to attain its ends, the revolution must come to terms with the conundrum of government bureaucracy, for this will ultimately make or break the revolution. Perhaps one of the worst features of the Egyptian experience over the past six decades was the cancerous growth of government. At the time of the 1952 Revolution, there were 350,000 civil servants. Within a decade, the figure doubled to 770,312 and by the time Abdel Nasser died they had become 1,290,538. Over the next decade, there were 2,474,459 people on the government payroll and they continued to multiply exponentially until they exceeded five million as we entered the third millennium. If we add to these public and security sector employees the figure tops 6.5 million, or nearly a third of the Egyptian labour force. They form the largest political party, the largest economic contingent and, with a per capita production as valued in dollars equivalent to a third of their Chinese counterparts, the least productive bureaucracy in the Third World.

So, the revolution has some big challenges ahead of it. But then what is a revolution if not the tackling of thorny tasks reformers failed to address; where the result was a country stagnant as the regime fought to sustain the status quo, however wretched. Will the revolution rise to these challenges and is it ready to wrestle with the complicated and thorny issues involved?