Saturday, February 05, 2011

Change in Egypt, but no revolution

By Swapan Dasgupta

In the pursuit of analytical rigour, it often helps to put emotions in cold storage.

For more than 10 days the ferment—some chose to call it "revolution"—in Egypt has shaken and stirred the world. There have been emotional scenes from Tahrir Square as clutches of young people have re-enacted an oriental variant of Greenham Common and Woodstock. There has been a genuine upsurge of sentiment against authoritarian tyranny in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and Suez, not to mention the TV studios throughout the 'free' world. These in turn have led to a wider questioning of an ingrained stereotype: that the Arab world is inherently inimical to democracy.

The world was never the same after a mass upsurge led to the demolition of the Berlin Wall in 1989. It is entirely possible that what has been dubbed the Jasmine Revolution will have a similar cataclysmic effect and reshape the political contours of the territories that once made up the old Ottoman Empire.

For the moment, however, the optimism seems premature.

Despite initial expectations that Hosni Mubarak would emulate his fellow autocrat, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and flee Cairo with an aircraft full of personal treasure, the Egyptian regime has proved remarkably resilient. All the sustained pressure of the White House and the Pentagon have not been able to convince the Egyptian military that their Commander-in-Chief should step down immediately to facilitate an "orderly transition" to democracy. On the contrary, a combination of loyalist stubbornness and national pride appears to have convinced the nationalist army that Americans are naïve. To the beleaguered ruling establishment, the departure of Mubarak under crowd pressure will open the floodgates of anarchy and the eventual triumph of radical Islamists.

The issue is not so much who is right and who understands Egypt better. By drawing a Lakshman rekha on US intrusiveness the Egyptian establishment has sent two important signals. First, it has bolstered its nationalist credentials without, at the same time, being insensitive to the central message of change. Secondly, it has driven home the point that, all the billions of dollars of military aid notwithstanding, Egypt is not a client state of the US. It has its own mind.

The tremors from Tahrir Square may well have ensured that no future regime in Egypt can return to the comfort zone of illiberal authoritarianism. That is a huge achievement and should be a lesson to all neighbouring Arab monarchies and even Baathist Syria. But the composure with which the protests were handled, after the initial panic, suggests that what the Facebook revolutionaries are up against is a sophisticated establishment that is no pushover.

The Egyptian establishment, it would seem, has truly learnt from the hideous mistakes of the Shah of Iran. After the initial two days of panic, following the failure of the intelligence agencies to anticipate the magnitude of the protests, there was the wise decision to completely withdraw the hated police from any visible role in the preservation of law and order. Simultaneously, it was announced that the Egyptian army, that now patrolled the main streets of the towns, would not fire on its own people. This announcement and its faithful adherence by the army patrols ensured that the military retained its perceived role as the dispassionate, patriotic arbiter.

The deification of the armed forces may well be unwarranted. Since the ouster of the monarchy following a junior officer's coup led by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1952, the military has called the shots in Egypt. Like its counterpart in Pakistan, the Egyptian military also runs a state within a state, and its tentacles extend to the economy as well. Mubarak cannot in any way be separated from the military. Yet, paradoxically, common Egyptians, not least the majority of the anti-Mubarak protestors, have been loath to equate the military with the political dispensation in Egypt. The military has successfully maintained an autonomous status, at least in the realm of perception. Its passive and, occasionally, protective role in the past week has reinforced its role as the patriotic bulwark against chaos. The pro-Mubarak forces that attacked Tahrir Square and unleashed a reign of terror last Wednesday were not seen as enjoying the covert blessings of the armed forces.

Vice President Omar Suleiman, the man who is now seen as wielding the real power, took a calculated risk by allowing Friday's "Day of Departure" rallies to be held without any obvious hindrance. Had the protestors actually chosen to march on the Presidential Palace, as some of the hotheads wanted, Tahrir could indeed have turned to Tienanmen, with catastrophic consequences. Fortunately, this did not happen and the strategy of wearing down the protests paid dividends. With the armed forces now shown to be sympathetic but yet unrelenting on the issue of Mubarak's immediate removal, it is likely that the opposition will strive to negotiate the future rather the immediate present.

The campers in Tahrir Square may well linger but, barring provocations and unforeseen accidents, it is safe to assume that the limits of street politics have been reached. With the beleaguered middle classes yearning to clear the rubble and get back to normal work, the danger of Egypt going the Iran way has been averted. There is likely to be representative government in Egypt but democracy in the western sense is likely to remain elusive.

There will be change in Egypt but no revolution.

Sunday Pioneer, February 6, 2010

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