Friday, February 11, 2011

The Fall of Husni Mubarak

What happened today in Egypt is a landmark, not only in Egyptian history, but that of the entire Arab world. Its relative wealth and high level of human development mean that Tunisia could be dismissed as an outlier. Its lesson, however, that the power of determined activists can undermine repressive regimes and even oust their top authorities, has now been confirmed in the Arab world's most populous nation and frequent cultural leader. The people of Egypt, long derided for political apathy and easy co-option, sent a signal that sends chills down the spine of autocrats the world over.

The story of this uprising is still gradually coming to light, and that process could easily take years. In the Wall Street Journal, Charles Levinson and Margaret Coker chronicle the origins of the January 25 protest that worked and got the ball rolling, a story of cooperation, skilled planning, and undoubtedly a little luck that is worth reading. Mohammed Bamyeh suggests that January 28 is the day the regime really fell:
"Though the regime struggled for two more weeks, practically little government existed during that period. All ministries and government offices have been closed, and almost all police headquarters were burned down on January 28. Except for the army, all security personnel disappeared, and a week after the uprising, only few police officers ventured out again. Popular committees have since taken over security in the neighborhoods. I saw patriotism expressed everywhere as collective pride in the realization that people who did not know each other could act together, intentionally and with a purpose. During the ensuing week and a half, millions converged on the streets almost everywhere in Egypt, and one could empirically see how noble ethics—community and solidarity, care for others, respect for the dignity of all, feeling of personal responsibility for everyone--emerge precisely out of the disappearance of government."

Perhaps, but I still remember watching on February 2 and 3 as youth protesters held Midan Tahrir against the brutal onslaught of Mubarak's thuggish mercenaries. I won't made definitive statements questioning those on the scene, but I suspect that will go down as the critical moment which secured the ground on which, last weekend, protesters held both Muslim Friday prayers and Christian Sunday prayer service that no one could touch. Also critical, however, are the neighborhood committees, which thus far are mentioned for security and local organization, but could easily evolve into something like the anjumans which were an ongoing source of public participation and pressure during Iran's Constitutional Revolution over 100 years ago.

Bamyeh eloquently continues:
"Undoubtedly this revolution, which is continuing to unfold, will be the formative event in the lives of the millions of youth who spearheaded it in Egypt, and perhaps also the many more millions of youth who followed it throughout the Arab world. It is clear that it is providing a new generation with a grand spectacle of the type that had shaped the political consciousness of every generation before them in modern Arab history. All those common formative experiences of past generations were also grand national moments: whether catastrophic defeats or triumphs against colonial powers or allies.

"This revolution, too, will leave traces deep in the social fabric and psyche for a long time, but in ways that go beyond the youth. While the youth were the driving force in the earlier days, the revolution quickly became national in every sense; over the days I saw an increasing demographic mix in demonstrations, where people from all age groups, social classes, men and women, Muslims and Christians, urban people and peasants—virtually all sectors of society, acting in large numbers and with a determination rarely seen before.

"Everyone I talked to echoed similar transformative themes: they highlighted a sense of wonder at how they discovered their neighbor again, how they never knew that they lived in 'society' or the meaning of the word, until this event, and how everyone who yesterday had appeared so distant is now so close. I saw peasant women giving protestors onions to help them recover from teargas attacks; young men dissuading others from acts of vandalism; the National Museum being protected by protestors’ human shield from looting and fire; protestors protecting captured baltagiyya who had been attacking them from being harmed by other protestors; and countless other incidents of generous civility amidst the prevailing destruction and chaos."

The future is unknown, and I'm still not convinced true democracy is the most likely outcome. The bargain among those with influence will now be renegotiated, a process that sometimes takes years after this kind of earthquake. With continued popular pressure, however, and probably with ongoing American back-channel pressure and cooperation with the Egyptian military, I see at least a reasonable chance for a system that is democratic aside from military-enforced red lines, much like Turkey was for decades. Compared to Egypt's recent past, that would be no small victory.

(Crossposted to American Footprints)



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