Many followed the dramatic scenes in Tunis and Cairo on their televisions, computers and smartphones. Newspapers in the Arab world have asked the question, “are we next?”
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were the first of their kind in the Middle East. Popular revolts in the past have invariably been either Islamist or nationalist—Egypt (1952), Iraq (1958), Iran (1979), and of course, the “intifadas” in the Palestinian territories. In Tunisia and Egypt, however, the protests focused on social issues, with unemployment and food inflation being the most prominent. Islamic groups lack large scale support in Tunisia, and while the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) enjoys wide popularity in Egypt, it chose to watch the uprising in Cairo from the sidelines.
Although the impetus to the movements was given by social media platforms like Twitter, protesters displayed a capacity to sustain them even after Internet services in Egypt were shut down. The movement brought Cairo’s youth out onto the streets, and with it came banners and signboards replete with “dot-com” paraphernalia. One banner cleverly represented each letter of the word “Egypt” with a symbol of the Internet era (for instance, “E” was represented by the Internet Explorer logo, “G” by Google, “Y” by Yahoo!, and so on). But the challenge for any government—democratic or otherwise—is to understand what the people’s fundamental demands are, and then translate them into actual policy to redress grievances. This is, of course, assuming that the people’s demands were essentially similar and didn’t change over the course of the uprising. We know that this may have not been the case—after all, what started out as a movement against the maligned police forces, morphed into a campaign to oust the state’s most visible figure, Hosni Mubarak.
In its enthusiasm to support the mass social movement in Egypt, the world failed to appreciate the history of post-colonial Egypt, the Mubarak regime and its support structure. Mr Mubarak, like his predecessors, Naguib, Nasser and Sadat, is a product of the military-security structure that has dominated post-colonial Egypt since 1952. Even as Mr Mubarak transitioned power to his vice president Umar Sulayman and deputy prime minister Muhammad Tantawi (as indeed General Naguib did, albeit under coercion, to General Nasser) the military-security apparatus’ hold over Egypt will likely remain. Indeed, the jubilation on the streets of Cairo after the army’s take-over indicates that democracy and freedom became lesser issues than the people’s desire to see the last of the man they blamed for Egypt’s social and economic ills.
In this regard, the United States erred in continuing to push for Mr Mubarak’s expeditious exit after he announced his decision to withdraw from the presidential elections in September 2011. With Mr Mubarak “gone,” and calm restored to the streets, the regime is unlikely to be under pressure to institute meaningful, time-bound democratic reform in Egypt. Mr Mubarak’s resignation was a nominal compromise, which many in the military-security structure hope will ebb domestic and international pressure (and with it, hopes for real democratic transformation). For Egypt’s youth, overthrowing the regime was the easy part. Sustaining that pressure over the long-term to ensure political and social change will be the challenge. As Vikram Sood, former chief of the Research & Analysis Wing and senior fellow at Takshashila, noted “social network sites may help bring down a government…but they cannot govern.”
It is hard to predict how Egypt’s political landscape will be transformed, post-Mubarak. Egypt’s opposition parties have been incapable of providing an alternative voice to the regime; they are badly organised and poorly financed. Opportunities for real “grass roots” movements existed during the 2005 presidential elections, but were not exploited. The result was a discombobulation of the opposition and a huge victory for Mr Mubarak. Mohammad ElBaradei, former director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency and now an Egyptian politician, may have the backing of both the MB and the United States but has low credibility among the Egyptian public. Many are not even aware of who Mr ElBaradei is—unsurprising, as he has spent the last 20 years living outside Egypt.
Whatever the results of the presidential elections in September, it is likely that the military-security apparatus that sustained Mr Mubarak will continue to wield influence over matters of the state. Field Marshal Tantawi himself is often derided for being a Mubarak loyalist. But while Mr Mubarak was able to provide a sense of stability to Egypt, his successors are likely to find this challenging. This would, in turn, require the military to assert itself more overtly in the political landscape, as its ultimate guarantor of order. In this regard, Egypt may go the route of Turkey, but will be a far more turbulent polity. This instability will negatively impact the West’s interests in the region. It is therefore conceivable that the United States may not be as forthcoming in support of future popular uprisings in allied Middle Eastern countries.
Proponents of democracy, though, need not lose hope. Reforming the political system from within is a model that has yielded results. This requires sustaining pressure on the region’s regimes to institute legislative reform, expand suffrage and ownership in decision-making. Undoubtedly, this is a slow, and perhaps frustrating process, but it is the only model that has shown signs of success—in Kuwait (where political contestation is now part of its participatory culture), Bahrain (where the monarchy’s power is balanced by an elected parliament), and Oman (where suffrage was extended to women in the advisory Shoura Council). The United States can continue to assist by maintain pressure on Arab states to democratise and reform. By the same token, Arab youth can play a far more constructive role by using social media platforms to disseminate information, raise public awareness and maintain pressure for social, economic and political reform in the long term.
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