Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Egypt's "Democracy": Can the Dream be Realized?

I've committed to sending off a book mss by end of this week, so I'm going to make this post brief.  I have to say that, after the euphoria of Mubarak's stepping down, I've begun to sober up - and have also begun to worry that Egyptians are going to have to deal with what may turn out to be a long and vicious hangover.

Why? Because even with all the happy-talk about impending democracy, the empowerment of the Egyptian people, etc., and the military's promises to hand over the reins to civilian rule after the constitution is amended . . . the fact of the matter is that the military is firmly in control, military leaders have controlled Egypt since 1952, and the military is not likely to subordinate itself to civilian authority in the foreseeable future.  I recommend two recent essays that make these very sobering points quite well: Prof. Mohammad Ayoob's recent essay at the Foreign Policy site, and (for an even more sober appraisal) George Friedman's at Stratfor. Friedman's essay is like a bucket of cold water over the head: in essence, he says, what Egypt experienced was a military coup in which the generals used the protesters to oust a former general - one of their own, as it were - who (to use an old expression) got too big for his britches when he tried to groom his son as his successor and, in the process, hoped to turn a military regime into a hereditary dictatorship.  So, Mubarak's gone, the people rejoice and talk of democracy, but the generals have gotten exactly what they wanted, and are in a position to call the shots for the foreseeable future.

None of this is lost on Leon Hadar, who foresees (at The American Conservative) that, after the bubbles have burst,
Once the current revolutionary fervor in the Middle East has subsided, it is quite likely that contrary to hopes (of liberal democracy) and fears (of rise of the Islamists), the final outcome will instead resemble the post-1848 scene in Europe. One should probably refrain from “shorting” the Arab autocrats who have proven to be the ultimate political survivors of our time: the Saudi royal family has been reigning for close to a century, while the military has ruled Egypt since 1954. Expect the Assads and Gaddafis and the rest of these characters to employ a blend of limited military force, co-option of resentful elites, and modest political and economic reforms to try to weaken the insurgencies. This form of Middle Eastern counter-revolution could prove to be quite effective for a time, providing the U.S. with breathing space to reassess its policies—as opposed to being humiliated at the sight of its clients being driven out of power.

That the US needs to reassess its policies should be, by now, a no-brainer. I'm sure that's happening in the White House and elsewhere inside the Beltway at this moment.  Whether that will bring real change to US policies is another question.
And, pondering recent events in Egypt, I'm remembering some observations in the wake of the summer 2009 elections in Iran, where it was alleged that Ahmadinejad was re-elected by an obviously rigged ballot.  That there were irregularities in the balloting process seems certain, but some observers noted that, with all the focus on the young, educated, techno-sophisticated, photogenic protesters in Tehran, the ruling party did indeed receive millions of votes, many of them from conservative rural citizens from remote areas to which news and camera crew coverage didn't reach.  What about the conservative rural citizens of Egypt, including those villages and towns in Upper (southern) Egypt - none of which (as opposed to Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez) got any real coverage in the Western media or an Al-Jazeera?  When it's crunch time, are they going to line up with secular democratizing reformers, or with the forces of "stability"?

George Friedman makes the point that in a real "revolution," even the military cannot withstand the power of the people.  So far, in Egypt, they haven't had to.  It still remains to be seen whether the power of the people can indeed prevail there, or in Yemen, or Jordan, or elsewhere among those Middle Eastern democracy dominoes that so many of hope to see fall.

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