|Political analysts weigh in on what this transition is and what it might mean for the future By Glen Johnson
|With events unfolding at breakneck speed, there was little time to assess what had happened on February 11 when Hosni Mubarak resigned as Egypt’s president. In the national euphoria over the end of a 30-year regime, the term ‘revolution’ has been used freely and frequently.Political scientists and regional analysts, however, say it is too soon to tell if it is a truly accurate description.
The 18 days between January 25 and February 11 were marked by mass demonstrations, the burning of the National Democratic Party (NDP) headquarters — a symbol of the regime — and the withdrawal of police from the streets. The military took to the streets, promising not to fire upon Egyptians, then stood aside while Mubarak supporters attacked anti-Mubarak protesters in Tahrir Square.
In the end, the protesters in Tahrir got what they called for — Mubarak’s resignation and the dissolution of Parliament, along with promises of constitutional amendments and free, transparent elections in the coming months.In the meantime, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is running the country, the Constitution is suspended and the nation is living under martial law.
Is this a revolution, where the government is overthrown by the governed? A military coup, where the leader is ousted by a small group within the system? Or has Egypt just introduced an entirely new type of political transition?
Palestinian scholar Mohammed Bamyeh, a professor of sociology at Pittsburgh University currently visiting Cairo, believes the events in Egypt are unprecedented but are “absolutely, definitely a revolution, without a question.A popular revolution.” Bamyeh, who specializes in civil society and non-state centered political life, says that there is no historical precedent for the events in Egypt and that a new form of revolution, where “leadership and organization are not central factors,” has emerged.
“It is unlike the Iranian Revolution — there is no Khomeini as a symbol or clergy serving a networking function,” he continues, “and it is unlike the Free Officers Revolution, which was really a coup supported by the people.”
Egyptian Hesham Sallam, an expert in Egyptian politics and co-editor of Jadaliyya, an independent e-zine produced by the Arab Studies Institute, says that Egypt is in the throes of an “incomplete revolution,” in which pressure from the street ousted Mubarak, but has yet to make an observable and permanent dent in the way politics runs in Egypt.
While Mubarak’s resignation “opens up the possibility for transformative change in Egypt,” Sallam, who is also a doctoral candidate in Georgetown University’s Department of Government, argues that building a transparent and accountable political system, where the rights of citizens are upheld, will take more than merely investigating corruption charges and preparing for presidential and legislative elections.
“Introducing substantive reforms to laws governing the licensing and activities of political parties and NGOs, election campaigns, finance, media-state relations, and oversight of the Ministry of Interior and security agencies are a few examples of the many important tasks that await the government to be elected in six months.”
Some analysts say it is too soon to judge. Joshua Landis, director of the the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Middle East Studies, believes the role that the military plays over the coming months will determine what kind of political transition Egypt is going through.
“We don’t know yet whether this is a real revolution. So far it looks like one,” says Landis. “The army was running to keep up with the people. If the army can master the people once again and save the old regime — and the position of the bulk of the crony capitalists of Mubarak’s regime — then it will be a coup.”
In other words, if the army preserves much of the old order, we will have seen a coup, rather than a radical departure from politics of old, i.e. a revolution.
Landis says that a revolutionary process not dissimilar to the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the Russian and French revolutions before it has occurred. However, he argues that the Egyptian revolution is distinguished by the fact that there was very little violence. “The people have overthrown the king. In those revolutions, the process was long and drawn out: Each layer of the regime required a mini-revolution to dislodge it,” he explains. “If we are seeing a real revolution in Egypt, this is the beginning.”
The role of the military during the protests was ambiguous, at times seeming to be a buttress of the regime by detaining and obstructing foreign journalists, at other times working to protect the people by refusing to use force to disperse the crowds.Landis points out that the Egyptian military’s high command is the backbone of Mubarak’s regime: “If the military hands over power without a fight, it will be a miracle of good behavior and self-sacrifice.”
Sallam agrees that Egypt’s military institutions are “not the biggest fans of unpredictability in politics” and are uneasy about the potential for genuine competitive politics.“[The military] is sending some favorable signals towards partisans of genuine political reform,” says Sallam, noting that the military has promised “free and fair elections in six months and committing to transferring power to an elected civilian government.
“However, rumors [are circulating] that Mubarak’s long-term aides, including his vice president, are still reporting to work […] and have been sending Mubarak reports on a regular basis.”
The fact that the Supreme Council of Armed Forces initially retained the Cabinet appointed by Mubarak prior to his resignation had raised concerns. “This makes many people worried that the ongoing political transition may leave too much room open for members of the old regime to regroup,” says Sallam, “creating an influential role for themselves in the new political order.”
In late February, however, a SCAF-approved Cabinet reshuffle ousted a number of NDP veterans and appointed new ministers from opposition parties.
The Egyptian affairs analyst also points to the military’s national security and economic interests long protected under Mubarak’s regime, noting, “there is concern that these interests may challenge military leaders’ democratic interests.”
“This is not to say that the military is not naturally predisposed to stunt the development of democratic institutions and processes in Egypt,” Sallam continues. “It simply means that advocates of democracy within the Egyptian opposition and inside the military will have a lot of hard work to do.”
Assuming the promised constitutional amendments and elections come to pass, the political landscape has dramatically changed for the political opposition.
Sallam believes that the origins of Egypt’s revolution lie not solely in the regime’s shortcomings, but also in the opposition’s failure to advance credible reform programs and to offer a channel that challenged Mubarak’s policies. The opening up of the political market is cause for concern, not only for the old regime, but also for the traditional opposition.
“It is important to keep in mind that for a long time formal opposition politics in Egypt have been locked in a state-controlled market, in which only a handful of privileged actors have been allowed to participate,” says Sallam. “The divide between the traditional, formal opposition and newcomers is something we need to keep an eye on in the next few months.”
Practicalities aside, the Egyptian example appears to be the harbinger of a new stage in Middle East history, and optimism abounds. Bamyeh says that people throughout the region are becoming more confident, forcing their governments to preempt other revolutions by granting concessions and challenging popular misconceptions about the Middle East. (See the bpx “Prospects of Regional Change” for an analysis of regional uprisings.)
“The [Egyptian] revolution has been largely secular, a definite rebuke to all those who insisted on understanding Middle East political sentiments only through the lens of religion,” says Bamyeh. “It will certainly transform the region, for the better.”Landis agrees with Bamyeh and suggests that Middle Eastern change was only a matter of time, as people throughout the region are hungry for dignity and a real role in the way their societies are administered.
“If the Egyptian people can carry through and establish a positive model of democracy in an Arab country, there will be no turning back,” Landis says. “George W. Bush promised he would make Iraq a model for the rest of the Arabs. He failed spectacularly. Perhaps the Egyptians can succeed where others have failed. That would be a magnificent contribution to the Arabs. It would place Egypt back at the center of the Arab world, where it belongs.”