Saturday, June 16, 2012

Why Egypt's Revolution Failed


George Orwell once said “all revolutions are failures but they are not all the same failure.” In the Arab world, Tunisia is struggling to keep its secular traditions while limping towards democracy. Libya is lawless and fully failed as a state with bleak future. In Egypt the army continues to control all aspects in the country and attempts to weaken its stranglehold have had the opposite effect and made the generals stronger. It’s fair to say this is in direct contradiction to the earlier rosy dreams of the Egyptian revolution. 

Orwell thought that revolutions fail because the end result is a change of tyrants and not of the regime. Egypt is a case in point. The Egyptian revolution was a radical repudiation of the status quo and the path the country was taking. The people of Egypt sought to challenge the status quo -- the notion that a person was going to be chosen by his father to inherit the country, not based on political skill or intelligence. Fueled by staggering corruption, economic inequality and human rights abuses the youth, equipped by social media, started a revolution.

It’s clear now the Egyptian revolution failed and instead the army managed to fix the “glitch in the matrix” and dictatorship is one manipulated presidential election away.  We have no constitution, parliament or president yet we have a judiciary in the back pocket of the generals, a state media that continues to spread army propaganda and a recently issued decree by Ministry of Justice that gives the army the right to arrest civilians.

In, Orwell's "Animal Farm," he describes a failed revolutionary cycle where the animals managed to rid themselves of their human master but failed to create a world in which all animals were equal. Why did we in Egypt fall victim to the same vicious cycle of failed revolutions?

I recall hearing that love is like a shark: Unless it moves forward, it dies. The same actually is true of revolutions. The Egyptian revolution instead of moving from one platform of clear demands and achievements to another lost its way and remained leaderless. Other factors helped stunt the revolution such as power hungry, shortsighted and distracted by shiny objects Islamists that managed to run one of the most dysfunctional parliaments in Egypt’s history, which is not an easy task (although this doesn't justify its arbitrary disbandment by a biased court). External influences made things more complicated as the U.S. was understandably ensuring its interests are protected – access to the Suez Canal, maintaining the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel – and Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and UAE supporting the army and Salafists to ensure the Muslim Brotherhood model doesn’t succeed.

The Egyptian revolution’s Achilles’ heel however was always the army. Many theorists, including Crane Brinton, have argued that the role of the army is the key factor in deciding whether a revolution succeeds or fails. In Egypt and Syria, the army generals are defending themselves in the face of the people's awakening; only the methods used are different due to the specific nature of the two countries. In Egypt the army abandoned Mubarak to (a) protect itself as using brutal force was not an option given Egypt’s relationship with the U.S., (b) neutralize Gamal Mubarak’s plans for the country where business men started to encroach on their economic empire  and (c) prevent divisions within the army. In Syria however, the army took another route to protect itself due to the absence of real U.S. pressure. In other words, having a U.S. ally (Egypt) kill its citizens by American made weapons will look really bad on CNN while having a rouge regime (Syria) kill its citizens with Russian weapons doesn’t put the U.S. Administration under pressure. The Egyptian army was aware of that and acted accordingly, in most cases.

Another sad reality is that the Egyptian army fully controlled the transition process despite being not supportive of Egypt’s democratization as they feared the rise of the Islamists and threats to their own economic empire and unchecked privileges.  Many repeated like parrots that the Muslim Brotherhood is the most organized in Egypt’s politics, which is wrong as it confused local with national politics that is fully controlled by the army and its matrix. Yet, the Islamists blinded by greed and ego decided to strike a deal with the army and throw the revolutionaries and seculars under the bus. A similar mistake to that committed by the revolutionaries in January 2011 when they decided to leave Tahrir Square and put their trust in the army.  

So do we get another chance to do it right? On one hand the people are mentally and physically exhausted. They would not go back to Tahrir to challenge the army and demand real democracy. Also  Tahrir lost the Christians who, like in Syria, see more stability and safety in army led regimes after the fiasco of Islamists in the parliament and seculars fragmentation. More importantly seculars and revolutionaries need to acknowledge their mistakes and adjust as needed, however all indicators show a lack of reflection on the past to develop a clear vision and agree on a strategy with clear implementation modalities.


Going forward, I expect the army to be in full control with the Muslim Brotherhood trying to forge a modest role (e.g., the current negotiations to have the PM under Shafik from the Brotherhood) and civil disobedience by groups like the Ultras and unions leading to violence and deaths that would alienate the public even more.

Saying that, Egyptian diplomat Tahsin Bashir once said "Egypt is the only nation-state in the Arab world; the rest are just tribes with flags." This should give us hope that our homogeneity and the army's fear of failing the people like the Islamists did over the past year will pressure the army to introduce incremental reforms, especially on the economic front, and it will invest in some form of secular infrastructures to counterbalance the power of the Islamists. However, it's naive to expect the army to do the right thing without being pressured. 


Milton Friedman, American economist, said “I do not believe that the solution to our problem is simply to elect the right people. The important thing is to establish a political climate of opinion, which will make it politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing. Unless it is politically profitable for the wrong people to do the right thing, the right people will not do the right thing either, or if they try, they will shortly be out of office.” Our task is clear, let’s work on establishing a political climate of opinion and a grassroot movement to have real presence in rural and urban Egypt that on the long run would have weight to influence the army and its matrix.