Post-Mubarak revolutionary chances

Egypt’s revolutionaries must guard against the army, and the west, adding a veneer of democracy to a military regime.

Pyramids by night
While Egyptians’ demonstrations quickly gathered pace over the course of 18 turbulent days, they must still ride through the coming storm as its neighbours, near and far, attempt to influence its direction [GALLO/GETTY]

The Egyptian revolution has already achieved extraordinary results: after only eighteen intense days of dramatic protests. It brought an abrupt end to Mubarak’s cruelly dictatorial and obscenely corrupt regime that ruled the country for more than thirty years. It also gained a promise from Egyptian military leaders to run the country for no more than six months of transition – the minimum period needed for the establishment of independent political parties, free elections and some degree of economic restabilisation.

It is hoped that this transition would serve as the prelude to, and first institutional expression of, genuine democracy. Some informed observers, most notably Mohamed ElBaradei, worry that this may be too short a time to fill the political vacuum that exists in Egypt after the collapse of the authoritarian structures that used its suppressive energies to keep civil society weak – and to disallow governmental institutions, especially parliament and the judiciary – to function with any degree of independence. It is often overlooked that the flip side of authoritarianism is nominal constitutionalism.

In contrast, some of the activist leaders that found their voices in Tahrir Square are concerned that even six months may be too long – giving the military and outside forces sufficient time to restore the essence of the old order, while giving it enough of a new look to satisfy the majority of Egyptians.

Such a dismal prospect seems to be reinforced by reported US efforts to offer emergency economic assistance apparently designed to mollify the protesters, encourage popular belief that a rapid return to normalcy will provide this impoverished people – 40 per cent of whom live on less than $2 per day, facing rising food prices and high youth unemployment – with material gains.

A fresh start

The bravery, discipline and creativity of the Egyptian revolutionary movement is nothing short of a political miracle, deserving to be regarded as one of the seven political wonders of the modern world. To have achieved these results without violence, despite a series of bloody provocations – and persisting without an iconic leader – without even the clarifying benefit of a revolutionary manifesto, epitomises the originality and grandeur of the Egyptian revolution of 2011.

Such accomplishments shall always remain glories of the highest order that can never be taken away from the Egyptian people, regardless of what the future brings. And these glorious moments belong not just to those who gathered at Tahrir Square and at the other protest sites in Cairo – but belong to all those ignored by the world’s media, those who demonstrated at risk to and often at the cost of their life or physical wellbeing, day after day throughout the entire country in every major city.

Both the magnitude and intensity of this spontaneous national mobilisation was truly remarkable. The flames of an aroused opposition were fanned by brilliantly innovative, yet somewhat obscure, uses of social networking, while the fires were lit by the acutely discontented youth of Egypt – and kept ablaze by people of all class and educational backgrounds coming out into the street.

The inspirational spark for all that followed in Egypt and elsewhere in the region, let us not forget, was provided by the Tunisian revolution. What happened in Tunisia was astonishing in equal measure to the amazing happenings in Egypt – not only for being the initiating tremor – but also for reliance on nonviolent militancy to confront a ruthlessly oppressive regime so effectively that the supposed invincible dictator, Ben Ali, escaped quickly to Saudi Arabia for cover.

The significance of the Tunisian unfolding and its further developments should not be neglected or eclipsed during the months ahead. Without the Tunisian spark we might still be awaiting the Egyptian blaze.

The next step?

As is widely understood, after the fireworks and the impressive cleanup of the piles of debris and garbage by the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square – itself a brilliantly creative footnote to their main revolutionary message – there remains the extraordinarily difficult task of generating ex nihil a new governing process based on human rights, the will of the Egyptian people – and a mighty resolve to guard sovereign rights against the undoubted plots of canny external actors scared by and unhappy with the revolution, seeking to rollback the outcome – and seeking, by any means, the restoration of Mubarakism without Mubarak.

The plight of the Egyptian poor must be placed on the top of the new political agenda, which will require not only control of food and fuel prices – but the construction of an equitable economy that gives as much attention to the distribution of the benefits of growth as to GNP aggregate figures.

Unless the people benefit, economic growth is a subsidy for the rich, whether Egyptian or foreign.

Short of catastrophic imaginings, which, if interpreted as warnings may forestall their actual occurrence, there are immediate concerns: It seemed necessary to accept the primacy of the Egyptian military with the crucial task of overseeing the transition – but is it a trustworthy custodian of the hopes and aspirations of the revolution? Its leadership was deeply implicated in the corruption and the brutality of the Mubarak regime, kept in line over the decades by being willing accomplices of oppressive rule and major beneficiaries of its corrupting largess.

How much of this privileged role is the military elite ready to renounce voluntarily out of its claimed respect for and deference to the popular demand for an end to exploitative governance in a society languishing in mass poverty? Will the Egyptian military act responsibly to avoid the destructive effects of a second uprising against the established order?

The influence of the west

It should also not be forgotten that the Egyptian officer corps was mainly trained in the United States, and that coordination at the highest level between US military commanders and their Egyptian counterparts has already been resumed, especially with an eye toward maintaining “the cold peace” with Israel. These nefarious connections help explain why Mubarak was viewed for so long as a loyal ally and friend in Washington, Tel Aviv, and Riyadh – and why the inner counsels of these governments are reacting with concealed panic at the outburst of emancipatory politics throughout the region.

I would suppose that these old relationships are being approached with emergency zeal to ensure that however the transition to Egyptian democracy goes, it somehow exempts wider controversial regional issues from review and change that may reflect the values that animated the revolutionary risings in Tunisia and Egypt.

The impact on the Middle East

These values would suggest solidarity with movements throughout the Middle East to end autocratic governance, oppose interventions and the military presence of the United States, solve the Israel/Palestine conflict in accordance with international law – rather than “facts on the ground”, and seek to make the region – including Israel – a nuclear free zone, reinforced by a treaty framework establishing peaceful relations and procedures of mutual security. 

It does not require an expert to realise that such changes, consistent with the revolutionary perspectives that prevailed in Egypt and Tunisia, would send shivers down the collective spines of autocratic leaders throughout the region, as well as being deeply threatening to Israel and to the grand strategy of the United States – and, to a lesser extent, the European Union – determined to safeguard economic and political interests in the region by reliance on the military and paramilitary instruments of hard power.

What is at stake, if the revolutionary process continues, is Western access to Gulf oil reserves at prices and amounts that will not roil global markets – as well as the loss of lucrative markets for arms sales.

Also at risk is the security of Israel, so long as its government refuses to allow the Palestinians to have an independent and viable state within 1967 borders that accords with the two state solution long favoured by the international community – and long opposed by Israel.

Such a Palestinian state – existing with full sovereign rights on all territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 war – would mean an immediate lifting of the Gaza blockade, withdrawal of occupying Israeli forces from the West Bank, dismantling of the settlements – including those in East Jerusalem, allowing Palestinian refugees to exercise some right of return, and agreeing either to the joint administration of Jerusalem or a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem.

It should be understood that such a peace was already implicit in Security Council Resolution 242 that was unanimously adopted in 1967, proposed again by Arab governments in 2002 with a side offer to normalise relations with Israel – and already accepted by the Palestinian National Council back in 1988 and reaffirmed just a few years ago by Hamas as the basis for long-term peaceful coexistence.

It should be understood that this Palestinian state claims only 22 per cent of historic Palestine – and is a minimal redress of justice for an occupation that has lasted almost 44 years – recall that the 1947 UN partition plan gave the Palestinians 45 per cent and that seemed unfair at the time. We must also understand the expulsion that resulted in an outrageously prolonged refugee status for millions of Palestinians, deriving from the nakba of 1948.

But until now, even this minimal recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination has been unacceptable to Israel, as most recently evidenced in the Palestine Papers which provide evidence that even, when the Palestinian Authority agreed to extravagant Israeli demands for retention of most settlements, including in East Jerusalem – and abandonment of any provision for the return of Palestinian refugees, the Israelis were not interested, and walked away.

The question now is whether the revolutionary challenges posed by the outcome in Egypt will lead to a new realism in Tel Aviv, or more of the same – which would mean a maximal effort to rollback the revolutionary gains of the Egyptian people. If that proves impossible, then at least do whatever possible to contain the regional enactment of revolutionary values.

Grassroots amateurs

Does this seemingly amateur – in the best sense of the word – movement in Egypt have the sustaining energy, historical knowledge and political sophistication to ensure that the transition process fulfills revolutionary expectations? So many past revolutions, fulsome with promise, have faltered precisely at this moment of apparent victory.

Will the political and moral imagination of Egyptian militancy retain enough energy, perseverance and vision to fulfill these requirements of exceptional vigilance to keep the circling vultures at bay? In one sense, these revolutions must spread beyond Tunisia and Egypt – or these countries will be surrounded and exist in a hostile political neighborhood.

Some have spoken of the Turkish domestic model as helpfully providing an image of a democratising Egypt and Tunisia, but its foreign policy under AKP leadership is equally, if not more, suggestive of a foreign policy worthy of these revolutions and their aftermath – and essential for a post-colonial Middle East that finally achieves its “second liberation”. 

The first liberation was to end colonial rule. The second, initiated by the Iranian revolution in its first phase, seeks the end of geopolitical hegemony – and this struggle has barely begun.

Shaking the foundations of post-colonial rule

How dangerous would intervention – probably not overt, but in the form of maneuvers beneath the surface of public perception – really be? The foreign policy interests of these governments and allied corporate and financial forces are definitely at serious risk. If the Egyptian revolutionary process unfolds successfully in Egypt during the months ahead, it will have profound regional effects that will certainly shake the foundations of the old post-colonial regional setup – not necessarily producing revolutions elsewhere but changing the balance, in ways that enhance the wellbeing of the peoples and diminish the role of outsiders.

These effects are foreseeable by the adversely affected old elites, creating a strong – if not desperate – array of external incentives to derail the Egyptian revolution by relying on many varieties of counter-revolutionary obstructionism. It is already evident that these elites, with help from their many friends in the mainstream media, are already spreading falsehoods about the supposed extremism and ambitions of the Muslim Brotherhood seemingly intent on distracting public attention, discrediting the revolution -and building the basis for future interventionary moves, undertaken in the name of combating extremism, if not outrightly “justified” as counter-terrorism efforts.

It is correct that, historically, revolutions have swerved off course by succumbing to extremist takeovers. In different ways this happened to both the French and Russian revolutions – and more recently to the Iranian revolution. Extremism won out, disappointing the democratic hopes of the people, leading to either the restoration of the old elite or to new forms of violence, oppression, and exploitation.

Why? Each situation is unique and original, but there are recurrent patterns. During the revolutionary struggle, opposition to the old regime is deceptively unifying, obscuring real and hidden tensions that emerge later to fracture the spirit and substance of solidarity. Soon after the old order collapses – or as in Egypt – partially collapses, the spirit of unity is increasingly difficult to maintain. Some fear a betrayal of revolutionary goals by the untrustworthy managers of transition. Others fear that reactionary and unscrupulous elements from within the ranks of the revolution will come to dominate the democratising process. Still others fear all will be lost unless an all out struggle against internal and external counter-revolutionary plots – real and imagined – is launched immediately.

And often, in the confusing and contradictory aftermath of revolution, some or all of these concerns have a foundation in fact.

The revolution does need to be defended against its real enemies, which definitely exist – as well to avoid imagined enemies that produce tragic implosions of revolutionary processes. It is in this atmosphere of seeking to consolidate revolutionary gains that the purity of the movement is at risk, and is tested in a different manner than when masses of people were in the streets defying a violent crackdown.

The danger in Egypt is that the inspirational nonviolence that mobilised the opposition can, in the months ahead, either be superseded by a violent mentality or succumb to external and internal pressures by being too passive or overly trusting in misleading reassurances.

Perhaps, this post-revolutionary interval – between collapse of the old and consolidation of the new- poses the greatest challenge to yet face this exciting movement led by young leaders who are just now beginning to emerge from the shadows of anonymity. All persons of good will should bless their efforts to safeguard all that has been so far gained – and to move forward in solidarity toward a sustainably humane and just future for their society, their region, and their world.

Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has authored and edited numerous publications spanning a period of five decades, most recently editing the volume International Law and the Third World: Reshaping Justice (Routledge, 2008).

He is currently serving his third year of a six year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. 

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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