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Egypt's revolution has just begun
The transition to civilian rule will not be easy - if the military are capable of delivering on their promises.
Last Modified: 14 Feb 2011 09:49
Egyptian soldiers form a barricade to stop pedestrians in Tahrir Square as 'normal life' resumes. But will the military also block the path to a civilian-led democracy? [GALLO/GETTY]

"Whatever happens, nothing will ever be the same again" – Tahrir Square demonstrator.

Mubarak has fallen. February 11, 2011, has inscribed itself on the page of world history. Now the struggle for the 'heart and soul' of the revolution begins. It's a testing time, and all will be tested.

Test 1: Procedural and institutional change – the establishment of legality

At what point will the uprising be sufficiently secure from counter-revolution to begin construction of a truly transformed democratic polity? What are the minimum security requirements for its immediate defence and subsequent extension? What structural changes will have to be demanded - and fought through to a successful conclusion – in order to neutralise and dis-articulate the still formidable powers of the Mubarak state and its - temporarily silenced - backers?

Test 2: The shape and boundaries of revolutionary democracy – the contours of freedom and the struggles surrounding inclusive or exclusive participation 

How will the emergent revolution realise itself, consecrate itself? What shall be its core tasks, boundaries and limits? Who is to be included, who excluded? And on what basis, what grounds? That is to say, how much scope will there turn out to be for accommodation of the previous regime's constitutive 'outsiders' or 'others' – the youth - and women, and organised workers - who have so decisively driven the process to its tipping point; but then, additionally, all those other 'subaltern' sectors and social-confessional groupings that the old regime of power more or less successfully froze as differentiated, isolated, mutually separated and antagonistic identities: Coptic Christians, ethnic minorities, peasant producers, 'tribal' communities, labour immigrants and, finally, those hitherto 'unmentionable deviants' – gays and lesbians – for which Cairo, at least, has always been famous.

The provisional shape that the revolution takes on in the coming months will be determined by emerging struggles and acute antagonisms reflecting the demands of a plurality of political forces and constituencies all seeking a place in the sun in the new democratic Egypt. While the 'naturalisation' of oppressively fixed differences evaporates in the moment of revolution, those tumultuous, heady moments of equal belonging and joyous mutual recognition do not, unfortunately, last forever. When the dust finally settles and Egyptians survey the new landscape of their own making, where will the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion have been drawn?

Let's begin by looking at the issues that define the likely outcomes of Test 1. First, the immediate struggle for survival – of the revolution on the one hand; of the 'Mubarak bloc' on the other. This is critical for obvious reasons: if that bloc cannot be swiftly and decisively defeated – politically isolated, ideologically disarticulated and institutionally broken – then the revolution remains in mortal danger. As things stand, on February 12, 2011, only the head of the regime was cut off. The tentacles remain. So any under-estimation of the capacity for recuperation of power remaining in that wounded octopus could yet prove fatal to the revolution.

Transition - and reconfiguration of the State

With everything now to play for, the transitional role of the army has to be situated in the context of an exhausted model of repression and exploitation fighting for its survival. Let us quickly look at these two dimensions of the transition in turn.

The army

Its role as democratic guarantor and 'neutral' public identity has probably already peaked. With the political burden for shaping the transition now firmly on its shoulders, strategic decisions will very soon have to be taken; and these will quickly reveal the extent to which the most senior officers in the Supreme Military Council have understood the dimensions of the earthquake they are facing. The omens are not good. Military Communique No.1 tersely promised that "all the people's demands will be met". Communique No.2 back-tracked, supporting Mubarak's surprise refusal to step down. Communique No.3 lamented his passing from the stage and praised his heroic contributions to the Egyptian nation.

In short, the current stance of the senior officer cadre reveals an anxious - but still defiantly 'Mubarakite' - resistance to the changes it is meant to be overseeing. The 30-year-old state of emergency remains in place. The generals appear to believe that it is still possible to subject Egypt's democratic masses to paternalist homilies enjoining them to 'leave everything to us'.

Given the impossibility of a violent crackdown - in the short term at least, they will no doubt give maximum tactical priority to the search for 'safe' interlocutors between the power elite and the democratic forces that now confront it head on. But within what longer term strategy of containment will the military leadership continue to act? Something will have to give, and give soon, because the time for a first reckoning up of accounts is just around the corner. Popular aspirations will likely crystallise around a number of key initial demands:

•    An immediate lifting of the state of emergency;
•    The establishment of a civilian-dominated Transitional Council and Constituent Assembly – to draw up a new constitution - with full participation of representatives put forward by the popular democratic forces;
•    All political parties to be legalised, all political prisoners released, labour unions fully recognised and labour legislation revised;
•    Mubarak to stand trial;
•    The state prosecution service to be purged and reorganised under uncompromising professional leadership;
•    The state's thugs – and, more importantly, those who organised their actions and let loose criminal elements from Cairo's jails – to be arrested, charged and convicted;
•    The Interior Ministry police force to be disbanded;
•    The regular police force to be purged at its most senior levels and reconfigured as a force for citizen protection, rather than repression;
•    The structure and operational practises of the intelligence services to be brought into the light of public scrutiny, the records of murder and torture to be revealed and those responsible arrested, charged and prosecuted;
•    State corruption and embezzlement to be subjected to immediate judicial investigation and followed by prosecutions;
•    Restructuring of the economic sphere and reorientation of economic policy towards at least some minimal variant of democratic developmentalism.

How many of these demands will the current army leadership – and the still unreconstructed wider state apparatus behind it - be able to accommodate? How many of them will it be able to sidestep, postpone or deflect? At what point will the temptation to fall back on all-out coercive force present itself as the only way of retaining an order that protects the compromised from popular justice?

The reconfiguration of state and 'people'

Merely to set out the potential scope of popular demands is to bring into full focus the revolutionary dimensions of the process that is already, inescapably, under way. The old structures, it is quite clear, can no longer contain the democratic energies that have been released from below. At the same time, those energies have already been shaped and disciplined by ordinary citizens' experience of having to organise defence mechanisms to combat the thugs and looters illegally unleashed by the old regime.

It is perfectly well understood that these very forces – and those that stand behind them – will be out for massive revenge if the democratic people meekly surrender the squares, streets and neighbourhoods so heroically protected for 18 days in the name of restoration of 'order and normality'.

In this context, the root-and-branch restructuring of the repressive apparatus is already inescapably on the agenda; a non-negotiable necessity for the protection of life and limb. If it is refused, it may well be the case that citizen militia will have to occupy the protective role that the state continues to deny to the people. In which case, Egypt will be entering the terrain of dual power, and the army will come under unbearable pressure, allowing for only two possible outcomes: unleash mass bloodshed – or split. Only then will the wider and deeper dynamic of the revolution begin to be released - and the questions of inclusion and exclusion presented earlier begin to be settled.

Finally: given Egypt's pivotal position in the geopolitical dynamic of the Middle East – with Iran and Israel-Palestine at its core, and a wider imperial 'arc of disaster' stretching from Afghanistan and Pakistan to Tunisia - it is not to be expected that the Egyptians will be allowed to settle their own future without massive external interference, subversion, and covert – or even open - intervention. The sustainability of an entire historic system is at stake; and no country is likely to be able to avoid the spill-overs from this Middle Eastern drama.

All those who consider themselves progressive will be called upon to find concrete, practical ways of supporting their Egyptian brothers and sisters – not just through expressions of solidarity, but by calling their own states fully to account when Washington and its allies attempt to enforce the next 'coalition of the willing'.

Adrian Crewe is the national director of Public Policy Partnership, based in Cape Town, South Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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