How revolutions unfold depends on many factors, including a country’s socio-economic structure, its particular historical traditions, and sometimes the role of foreign powers. So the Arab Spring was never expected to be a linear process, or a Middle Eastern version of Central Europe’s non-violent democratic revolutions of 1989. Egypt is a case in point.
The structure of revolutions in non-industrialized societies has almost invariably comprised a succession of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary waves. The toppling of the old regime under the weight of a popular upsurge is usually only the beginning of a struggle for control of the revolution’s direction.
The leaderless movement of angry young Egyptians that occupied Tahrir Square in February 2011 was motivated by two major grievances: decades of humiliation under autocratic rule, and a general impatience with the promise of a “democratic transition” based on a tortuous process of reform that never affected the underlying power structure.
Likewise, the renewed turmoil in Egypt’s major cities reflects popular indignation at the army’s hijacking of the revolution, and at the humiliating tutelary “transition” overseen by Egypt’s Military Council under Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi. The masses in Tahrir Square sought a revolution in February 2011, but it now seems clear that Egypt’s officers staged a coup d’état. They sacrificed former President Hosni Mubarak to safeguard the old power structure – of which the army was a central pillar.
Egypt’s ruling generals share Mubarak’s lack of trust in ordinary Egyptians’ capacity to produce a workable democracy, let alone one that would preserve their vested interests. The Military Council, therefore, made the transition period frustratingly long, and stipulated that the future constitution would not provide for any form of parliamentary control of the army, whose budget is to remain beyond the scope of democratic institutions.
But what is perhaps most significant is the generals’ longing to emulate the old Turkish model of the army as the secular constitutional order’s Praetorian Guard. The irony, of course, is that this model is now being discarded in Turkey.
The generals’ insistence that the constitution should vest them with power to define security threats – including political threats – is unacceptable to Egypt’s liberals, and is a message to the Muslim Brotherhood that the army could again use any pretext to define them as a public threat. If they get their way, Cairo’s “men on horseback” will turn Egypt into a tutelary democracy under the constant threat of a military coup.
Any Arab democracy worthy of the name is bound to respect social structures, and thus the role of religion in society. Fear of Islamists can no longer be used to dismiss demands for political freedom, as the West did in Algeria in the early 1990’s, when it backed a bloody military coup that denied the country’s Islamists a clear electoral victory. The price paid by Algeria for the interruption of the democratic process was a brutal civil war that killed hundreds of thousands of Algerians.
The task of reconciling a devout society with the values of secular democracy is certainly a difficult endeavor. But Turkey and, one hopes, Tunisia are examples worth following.
Moreover, it is not at all clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is destined to become Egypt’s dominant political force for years to come, as many fear. The Brothers’ current prominence stems from their halo as the only opposition force that survived Mubarak’s oppression – if only because mosques were the only “political” clubs that the regime could not close. In an open democracy, the Islamists’ power is bound to be diluted by competition with a wide variety of political and social formations.
The Egyptian generals’ decision in the revolution’s early phase to succumb to American pressure and sacrifice Mubarak proves that they do not operate in an international vacuum. True, the Obama administration declined the central role that former President George W. Bush had sought in promoting Arab democracy. It reacted to events; it did not shape them. But, in the early stages of both the Egyptian and the Tunisian revolutions, the United States proved to be vital in limiting the military’s freedom of action.
The Arab Spring is not only a revolt against Arab dictators; it is also a powerful act of defiance of the West’s complicity with the region’s tyrants. America’s performance so far has been woefully uneven. In Egypt and Tunisia, it played an important role at the decisive juncture – when the old regimes had to be toppled. Libya was rescued mostly by its European neighbors, and, throughout the Gulf and in Syria, America has practically abandoned the democratic protesters to their fate.
The brutal crackdown on demonstrators calling for an end to military rule in Egypt must animate the US to impress upon the army the urgency of returning to a transition path that leads to civilian rule. Allowing the military, of which the US is the main benefactor, to repress popular demands for freedom and dignity might doom the entire revolutionary process, and with it whatever remains of America’s fragile credibility among the Arab peoples.
Shlomo Ben Ami, a former Israeli foreign minister, is the vice-president of the Toledo International Center for Peace, and the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.