Friday, February 11, 2011

The Lightning Revolution

Whoa! Just 24 hours ago, the day of deliverance was postponed, and though it seemed the form of the finale was likely, I was not sure just how soon it would come. Though President Mubarak rained on the sunny hopes yesterday, the postponement was less than a day; today's events were a double-header's worth.

The whole thing took 17 days from the first protests, on Egypt's Police Day January 25, to Mubarak's resignation and departure (from his Presidential Palace to his beach house in Sharm al Sheikh, at least so far). Given the determination and persistence of the protest movement, the outcome lay in the hands of the army, and their signal, fairly early on, that they would not fire on the protesters meant that Mubarak's days as President were numbered. Just how small that number ended up being was certainly a surprise.

Where Do They Go From Here?
One claim I made earlier in this crisis was that prospective leaders lay hidden among the crowds at Tahrir Square. I still believe that is true, though none of the reports so far have identified those opposition leaders. On the one hand, analysts praise the well-developed civil society (unions, lawyers' guilds, professionals, academics, social organizations), on the other hand, there is a complete absence of credible political organizations--other than the long-standing, previously-banned, fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood.

The M.B. was not a leader of this nearly-spontaneous uprising, but they are probably the best poised to move forward. Their perspective (as outlined in a Times editorial published three days ago) is a combination of peaceful opposition, from a orthodox Muslim perspective. to the old fallen regime, and opposition to a new secular democracy. Their support is estimated at 20-30% of the population.

The vacuum of popular leaders untainted by involvement with Mubarak's party, or the phony opposition parties he ginned up, will be filled quickly. What type of leaders they will be is hard to read at this point, but I would expect that young professionals will become the equivalent of the "Young Turk" military officers of Turkey's revolution of the 1920's, the symbols of the new Egypt. There will be, in some form, a split over whether Egypt should be a "Muslim democracy" or a "secular democracy", something Turkey has struggled with for eight decades. The Turkish military was the guarantor of secular, modern governance--not of democracy--and it has taken this long for the military to allow a moderate Islamic party to take political control.

I expect that the Egyptian military may similarly block an Iranian-style takeover by any fundamentalist Muslim movement. There may be a triangle of forces, with a moderate Islamic party taking a lead role, the M.B. supporting their rise but not entering the government, and the military giving moral and physical support to ensure the survival of one or more secular opposition parties. Such a government would allow the headscarves and religious instruction that have been controversial in some predominantly Muslim countries (as well as some countries with significant Muslim minorities), but probably not go so far as Saudi Arabia's prohibitions on alcohol or women driving. There may be other cleavages that form over time (for example, how much tourism is optimal? To what degree will the Coptic Christian minority be tolerated, or protected?), but I expect all major parties to be nationalistic, supporting centralized authority: Egypt settled that question in their country about 5000 years ago with the unification of the kingdoms of the Upper and Lower Nile.

The old Constitution seems doomed, and a Constitutional convention will probably be necessary, but formation of a new government and a framework for elections can not wait so long. The work that needs to be done is comparable to that completed to go from the end of the American Revolution to the beginning of government under our Constitution--that took about eight years! I think it may be more of a top-down, fast-forward affair, with a Presidential election (with candidates vetted by the military) in six months, and new Parliamentary elections within a year. The military seems likely to want to ensure peace, get something started, then step out of the political battle (though they may reserve the right, Turkey-style, to re-enter the fray if it endangers the minimally acceptable conditions).

Contrary to what some say, I think the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency Mohammed el-Baradei (a Nobel prize-winner) would be a great choice to be the first elected President of the new Egypt, their George Washington. He is a bit above it all, but as a respected national figure of international stature, that's not so bad for the time being.

And What About The Rest Of Us?
This is not about the US--our President's balancing act was classic American foreign policy, with equal measures of standing up for our values, of backing the realpolitik objectives of our selfish interest and those of our allies, and of hypocrisy. As with other such episodes in American foreign policy history, it got bipartisan--nearly universal--support. What we did or didn't do had little effect on the outcome, which as I say was basically determined by the Egyptian military and their consideration of the moral force of the uprising. Our strongest potential threat was to cut off our $1 billion or so of annual military aid (about $12 per Egyptian); this might have had a significant effect on the quantity of governmental graft in the system, but was not determinative. We may be able to provide some economic assistance in the transition period, but I think the Egyptians will decline--either politely or not so politely--our political guidance, so we shouldn't even try.

This is not about Israel, either. I don't expect the military council, or the first elected government, to reject unilaterally the peace treaty Anwar Sadat (Mubarak's one-party predecessor) signed with Menachim Begin in the Carter Administration. I do think that there will be a lot more questioning of the relationship, strong support for the Palestinians in neighboring Gaza (and possibly the West Bank), and a higher level of tension with Israel if that government doesn't move to reduce Israeli-Palestinian tensions.

There may be an interesting phase in which Israel and Egypt compete for their shares of a shrinking American foreign aid pie. I see one possible repercussion being a fall of the current Israeli governing coalition, with the right-wing Avigdor Lieberman party leaving the governing coalition and the Kadima party (Ariel Sharon's creation, designed to fill the middle between Likud and Labour) going in--that would not require a change in leadership from Netanyahu, but would require him to show a bit more flexibility on issues such as Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

To a secondary extent, Egypt's change IS about the other Arab states, and about Iran's government. Taking the latter first, we saw two years ago that the difference there was the Iranian military's willingness to take on the insurgents and suppress them violently--at the crunch, there was no space between the Iranian military leadership and the internal police forces, whereas in Egypt that gap showed up very quickly. The best hope for change in Iran is probably generational change when the Supreme Leader dies and his successor boots Ahmadinejad (hardly a sure thing, but something to hope for).

As we saw with Iran, there are some states that should not try Egyptian-style uprisings, as they would simply precipitate massacres. Syria would be one of those, Libya probably another. In other states, we should fear such an uprising because what would follow would be worse than the present: Saudi Arabia, the Palestinian West Bank, Yemen. Jordan's King Abdullah saw the threat early and made timely concessions which may preserve his rule for a few more years (though the mix in that country is very unstable); Iraq's political classes have been tempered by years of intense flame and are probably not too susceptible to the popular fervent; Algeria's recent brutal history may provide them some insulation against explosive protest. Some of the other Arabian peninsula states may find their internal contradictions overwhelming (though they have more resources to placate their underclass). I wouldn't be too surprised to see major issues arise in Morocco. Lebanon, as always, is a powder keg that was already blowing up before Tunisia's uprising started this thing.

A World-Historical Event
In terms of global significance, these events probably rate as more important than the movement toward democracy in South America in recent decades, or even than the hugely inspirational victory over apartheid in South Africa. This is more comparable in its potential to the breaching and destruction of the Berlin Wall in Germany, followed by the collapse of the other Eastern European Communist nations and finally the disintegration of the Soviet Union. Do not forget that the latter event was preceded by an attempted military coup, which was successfully resisted by Boris Yeltsin and his supporters in the Russian state (which led to their replacing the Soviet Union as the dominant force in the region), and those events were contemporaneous with the disastrous student sit-in, the massacre in Tienanmen Square, and the subsequent repression of dissidents in China, so the events were not all in one direction.

Although I would agree with President Obama that "Egypt will never be the same," we should not expect the international sequence to ripple--or better, rip--in the same pattern as occurred at the end of the Cold War. The economic problems of the region are deeper still than the former Second World had in 1991 (and not all of those states have turned out so well); the Mideast populations lack such things as political sophistication, literacy, McDonald's. The potential for outside interference--whether Iran, Israel, the US, or other countries--is very strong; the prizes in Mideast oil may be very tempting.

There are also dangers that autocracy may re-establish itself in Egypt, as that has been the prevailing theme there for more generations than the number of years Mubarak has lived. I think of the Egyptian reign of Akhenaton (1380-1362 B.C.), who suddenly unified all their deities into a monotheistic sun worship. He unified the old order's priests against him, and they had him killed, then put his teenage son Tutankamun on the throne and put things back the way they were--and convinced whoever needed to be convinced that was the way they were supposed to be. There may be a very strong reaction at some point against the rise of the Young Egyptians, though Egypt--the oldest of countries--does have one of the youngest populations in the world. If the Egyptian military--the new high priests--do not like the trends, they may feel forced to find and install a new pharaoh.

1 comment:

J Nichols said...

Interesting piece in the NY Times online about the links between Tunisia and Egyptian groups the common thread of using non-violent tactics to effect change in repressive regimes.

To the extent that joblessness and poor economic conditions were a partial source of this very widespread discontent, I wonder how much of the economic problem is a result of the fiscal and debt crises on the northern side of the Mediterranean Sea?