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Egypt's unfinished revolution

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Robin Lustig | 10:42 UK time, Friday, 25 November 2011

I don't suppose many people remember the thoughts of Chairman Mao any more. But there was, in my youth, one particular thought attributed to the Chinese Communist leader that was strangely popular among radical leftists who wanted to overthrow global capitalism.

It went like this: "A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery." (And yes, it was so long ago that I had to look it up to make sure I'd remembered it correctly.)

It's been in my mind this week as I've followed the latest chapter in the Egyptian revolution, played out in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and in many other towns and cities. Those who've been shot at, clubbed and tear gassed will not have needed reminding that they weren't at a dinner party, or painting a picture.

Some of them may also have recalled another of Mao's pensées: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." And they've proved him wrong on that, haven't they?

Mao was right about one thing, though: revolutions are about seizing power. And when a group without power tries to seize it from a group with power, then resistance is usually inevitable. (Some of the anti-Communist revolutions in Europe in 1989 were an exception to the rule, in that the power of the elites had atrophied to such an extent that they sometimes crumbled away offering virtually no resistance at all.)

Back in February, on the day that President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office, I asked: "Was it a victory for a popular revolution, or a military coup d'état?" And I answered: "Almost certainly, a bit of both."

Nine months on, I think the answer still stands. But to the tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere this week, a bit of both is no longer good enough.

In February, they believed - or chose to believe - that they and the generals were on the same side. But now they are demanding that the military give up the power they inherited from Hosni Mubarak without any further delay.

Egypt is a test case on which a great deal depends. It's true that so far, Tunisia, where this extraordinary year of Arab uprisings began, has set a pretty good example of how to manage a transition from autocracy to democracy. But Tunisia is a small and relatively insignificant Arab state. Egypt, on the other hand, is anything but.

So in Libya, and now in Yemen - and who knows, maybe one day soon in Syria as well - they are watching anxiously to see what happens next in Egypt. After all, removing a decades-old dictatorship does not automatically lead to the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy. (Somalia and Iraq are just two salutary examples of how it can all go horribly wrong.)

On Monday, barring any unexpected last-minute changes of mind, Egypt's lengthy, multi-stage election process will get under way. More than 6,000 candidates are standing for election to a People's Assembly, which is meant to act as a lower house of parliament and set in train a process to draw up a new constitution.

The elections are scheduled to roll on more or less non-stop until mid-January, and then - if the generals' latest promise is to be believed - in the summer, presidential elections will be held to choose the country's first elected post-Mubarak leader.

Do Egyptians have the patience to allow the process to proceed at this leisurely pace? Judging by the events of the past week, the answer would seem to be probably not.

But don't forget: the crowds in Tahrir Square may have looked huge - and they were - but there are plenty of people in Egypt who desperately want the violence and the protests to end, and for whom a much more urgent priority is to get the economy moving again.

If it's a choice between jobs and democracy, not everyone will necessarily choose democracy first.


  • Comment number 1.

    Chairman Mao's popular sayings amongst radical leftists who wanted to overthrow global capitalism. My favorite: "Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend." (Mao Tse-Tung) But your selection is probably more apt to the revolutionary process.
    What's been in my mind this week (actually since the first uprising) has been:"Arab Springs" may not have been as spontaneously sprung as the Western mainstream media would have us believe. I say this because there seems
    1. a touch of covert instigators from
    2. the Global Power Elite.
    It seemed odd to me that after decades of cold nothingness, starting in early 2011 millions upon millions of Arabs throughout North Africa & the Middle East started to spring, attempting to overthrow their governments, & what has become of this infertile spring: Libyans - managed to lose their country to a terrorist-infiltrated alliance of thugs (or was it CIA operatives & NATO bombers). Are the Libyans better off, having witnessed the assassination of their own exceptional leader, Muammar Gaddafi - live on global TV & U-Tube?
    Q. Was the Arab spring spontaneous?
    Q. Were these revolutions - thousands dead & injured - spontaneous?

  • Comment number 2.

    Maybe a little spontaniety, but for the most part I see an ominous shadow in the background, and looking more closely I see puppets subordinated to Monied-Power Elites: cartels, oil & mining companies, a wide array of war-mongers.
    Q. Why not just the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, Damascus or Benghazi, but also New York, London, Oakland, Madrid, Athens, Rome... Imagery: disgruntled, exasperated, impoverished protesters clashing with police & security forces: sad scenes of the poor fighting the poor... whilst one can imagine moguls looking down from their pent- houses, sipping fine whisky & nodding contentedly.
    "Arab Spring", or civil unrest purposely & menacingly planned & executed by trained, finance supported foreign & domestic agitators, who have vested interests in destabilizing countries to promote their own agendas - totally unrelated to the National Interest of the locals. They are likely aligned to the interests of specific foreign powers; I'm guessing US, UK, Israel, France - countries and their regional pawns in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Kuwait - anywhere the Global Power Elite is embedded.

  • Comment number 3.

    Military Coup - supports domestic military/civilian allies & traitors willing to support a foreign power against their own people. Latin America saw US-backed coups in the 60's and 70's in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina... Now we seem to be seeing this in Egypt, Yemen, Syria...
    Financial Coup - Banking cartels corner any government they please to. E.g. Argentina's 2001/2 collapse, preceded by Mexico (1997), Russia (1998), Brazil (1999). Today: Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Iceland... Instead of tanks, the weapons are IMF, WB - power & money, money & power.
    Political Coup - imposes unelected governments such as Trilateralists Mario Monti in Italy, and Lucas Papademos in Greece...
    Social Coup - PsyWar. support & arm domestic & foreign agitators, ensuring Western Media clearly tell the world who are springing and who are being sprung upon. Tomorrow, we'll likely see "Latin American Springs" or "South East Asian Springs..." or "Former Soviet Republics Springs..."
    Egypt's spring has yet to spring into success, but you can bet that it is serving some country(s) purpose. Some of them may also have recalled another of Mao's pensées: "Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun." And they've proved him wrong on that, haven't they? Mao was right about one thing: revolutions are about seizing power. And when a group without power tries to seize it from a group with power, then resistance is usually inevitable. Back in February, on the day that President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office, I wondered: "Is this a victory for a popular revolution, or a military coup d'état?" And my answer was: "A military coup d'etat." Nine months on, I think my answer still stands.
    Tunisia is the only flower of the Arab spring.
    Egypt's lengthy, drawn-out election process will get under way, to be followed by elections non-stop until mid-January, and then, in the summer, presidential elections will be held to choose the country's first elected post-Mubarak leader.
    All of this would require to patience of Job.
    "Passivity is fatal to us. Our goal is to make the enemy passive." (Mao Tse-Tung) By summer, EWgypt will be a lot more passive.
    "The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea." (Mao Tse-Tung), but in the case of Egypt I fear the guerrilla is western trained, fed and deadly. By next summer, where will Egypt be politically?

  • Comment number 4.

    The protesters were naive in believing that the Army were on their side. Since the February protests nothing much as changed - the army are pretty much in control like they have since 1952. What's happening now reminds me of the events in Europe during the 1848 revolutions - first, the protesters 'win' with the elite agreeing to their demands; then they delay the 'changes' or give piecemeal changes to divide the protesters; finally recover their position, withdraw their promises, and then attack the protestors (what's left of them). Maybe Mao was right after all!

  • Comment number 5.

    Violence is never the right way. Stop violence. Tell the egyptians to give women the rights they deserve. Try to learn something from people like Gandhi, or Luther King. Democracy means diversity which comprises men, women, young people and above all decency, discussion of ideas, freedom of mind.We should have evolved from Mao's time. Had we not human beings would be condemned to total failure.

  • Comment number 6.

    It is unrealistic to believe that centuries old politics will end in a couple of months or even a couple of years. The West ignores it's own history and the painful development of individual rights and opportunities. These are social as well as political processes and generational as well. The concern of the West for oil tends to anticipate miracles and offers frustration when the stability they want is not achieved immediately. Power is never given up, it is usually taken away. Patience is a virtue but in politics there is little virtue and little patience. The greedy need for oil in the West placed the military as an accepted alternative and as every corporate CEO will tell you..you can't let people decide how they run their own country...it is bad for business. Stability may be an easy short-term process but it instability is the working out of a democratic system. Look at the development of any Western democracy and one sees a very messy process and one that continues to this day. Have a mirror in hand when judging others.

  • Comment number 7.

    3 separate elections lay ahead for Egypt. The first round of voting begins on Monday, Nov. 28 & will continue into next year. First off, Egyptians will elect representatives for the People's Assembly (lower house of parliament), followed by elections for the Shura Council (upper house of parliament). Then presidential elections are expected to take place some time in 2012.
    For each house, first round of voting takes place on 3 different days, the dates determined by a voter's province. Then a run-off round of voting takes place one week after the first round.
    A few weeks after voting for the more significant People's Assembly is completed in early January, voters return to the polls starting January 29 to elect the Shura Council, which plays more of a consultative role. The council does, however, have a say on legislation that requires altering the constitution as well as on treaties with other countries. 2/3s of the members of both houses are elected by proportional representation based on party lists; the remaining third is chosen by a first-past-the-post system, similar to Canada. Voting take place on 12 days from November to March. Making for an even more complication, not everyone votes on the same days. Provinces are divided into 3 groups and each grouping votes on different days.
    The outcome, which is months away, remains hard to predict. The latest public opinion poll found that half the people who intend to vote had yet to make up their minds. According to the poll, conducted in October by the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies and the Danish-Egyptian Dialogue Institute, just two parties are backed by more than 10% of decided voters.
    In the lead, with 36% support, is the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), followed by Al Wafd, a centrist party, with 26%. Compared to the pollsters' previous survey, support is increasing for Al Wafd and falling for the Islamist FJP.

  • Comment number 8.

    One of the first priorities for the new parliament will be drafting a new constitution.
    Following the toppling of Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak in February, the military council was to play a caretaker role until an elected civilian government could take over.
    However, the military has not offered a transparent timetable for that transition, and has suggested it might delay the vote for president until perhaps 2013. It also appears to want the new parliament to assume a subordinate role similar to the situation under Mubarak. These assumptions, as well as continued human rights violations, will bring the protests back to Tahrir Square. Egypt's military council is seeming intent to preserve or even expand the military’s political role and economic prerogatives.
    The military continued to say, and possibly believe, that it still enjoyed the support of ordinary Egyptians. Council member Maj-Gen Mukhtar el-Mallah said at a news conference this week that relinquishing power would be "a betrayal of the trust placed in our hands by the people.
    However, Mohamed Abdelfattah, a freelance journalist and activist in Egypt and the winner of the 2011 International Press Freedom Award from the Canadian Journalists for Free Expression, told CBC Radio's Anna Maria Tremonti on Nov. 24 that the military council has mismanaged the transitional period and nothing has changed since Mubarak was ousted. The military appears to be resisting.
    As the protests in Cairo and other cities grew larger, the military-appointed civilian cabinet resigned on Nov. 21. The military then agreed to speed up the transition to civilian rule. The military then reached agreement with the Muslim Brotherhood to appoint a 'technocrat' cabinet but that didn't placate the protesters, either. They are demanding that the interim leader, Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi, resign.
    They are also demanding that the parliamentary elections be postponed. That is because they were not given a say in the secretive election-planning process.
    In a concession to protesters, the military council has now said presidential elections will be moved up to the first half of 2012. Once a new president is in office, the military is supposed to hand over executive power.
    About 45% of decided voters said they would vote for Moussa as President.
    This is going to be a long-fought, demonstration-laden fight to finish the Egyptian Revolution.

  • Comment number 9.

    Although the Egyptian Revolution looks dicey at this juncture, I am betting that it will continue to move forward and may very well succeed in the end. I base this judgment on two factors. First, unlike Libya, both Egypt and Tunisia were "self-liberated". It was an indigenous venture and effort. Having invested so much of their emotions, commitment, and courage in breaking free from the Mubarak dictatorship, they are motivated to see the revolution to the end. Second, unlike Libya the Egyptian nation and people despite their poverty have a long history of civilization and learning and some educational institutions of international repute as well as a culture and economy despite the poverty to support a relatively liberal and modern society. The major obstacle is of course the terrible legacy left by the Mubarak dictatorship of police corruption and brutality. And the military has also held uncontested power and authority through the Supreme Military Council that will prove to be a formidable roadblock to democratic rule in Egypt. In fact I would venture to state that if the Egyptian people do not succeed in creating a democracy, than no other Arab country is capable of doing it.

  • Comment number 10.

    Al Jazeera has an article entitled "Egypt's Revolution Will Not be Militarized" by Professor of Islamic Studies at Wayne State University Abdullah al-Arian which explains the historical reasons for the preponderance of military backed dictatorial rulers in the Middle East. The background of European invasion and colonization since the early 19th century has played a big role in this evolution. As Ottoman rule declined in the 19th century and imperialism increased the price paid by the nascent and struggling liberal civilian movements which were planted by European liberalistic parties became more and more difficult. The humiliation at the hands of European imperialistic forces and the suffocating rule of the old monarchies especially in Egypt favored the rise of authoritarian military governments such as that of Nasser. The liberal political movements were branded subversives and driven underground. After WW I, the governing military rulers found it convenient to ally themselves with the Muslim Brotherhood in order to continue suppression of the liberal political parties that had begun to emerge in this period. This pattern continued until the eruption of the Arab spring movement in 2011. It is this background that needs to be taken into consideration in making future judgments on where the Arab Middle East nations are going.


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