Friday, February 11, 2011

A Great Day for Egypt, But Heavy Lifting Still Ahead

News services, Twitter, you name it, are ablaze with news of Hosni Mubarak's hand-off of power to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces.  We can expect now (especially as the Sunday papers are prepared) a veritable deluge of analyses of what it all means - for Egypt, for Middle Eastern democracy, for the "war on terror," for the US's standing in the region, for Israel.

But let's not forget, even in this moment of jubilation, that a lot of the heavy lifting has yet to be done.  One of the protesters put it well:

Abdel-Rahman Samir, one of the youth organizers of the protests, said the protest movement would now open negotiations with the military over democratic reform but vowed protests would continue to ensure change is carried out.

"We still don't have any guarantees yet — if we end the whole situation now the it's like we haven't done anything," he said. "So we need to keep sitting in Tahrir until we get all our demands."

The generals are now in charge.  They have promised to heed the will of the people, but, as generals have always been wont to do, they undoubtedly will be feeling their duty to lead them.

A number of people have held up Turkey's current democracy - even led as it is by an Islamist party - as a model for Egypt.  From its founding, the Republic of Turkey was set up as a Western-style, secular republic, but governed as a one-party state under the essentially dictatorial control of Mustapha Kemal Ataturk.  The decades between Ataturk's time and the current democracy witnessed volatile episodes when governments were ousted by the highly respected Turkish military, which often executed and imprisoned political leaders who, in its view, had led the republic astray. (And even today, Turkey's generals are seen as anxiously eying the AKP-led government of Mr. Erdogan, although popular feeling by and large seems to support him.)

There's no law that says that Egypt now has to endure decades of volatility before a truly democratic system is in place.  But let's be realistic:
  •  the generals are in control,
  •  the Egyptian military has been the bedrock of the Egyptian state for almost 60 years
  • every Egyptian leader since 1952 - Muhammad Naguib, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat, Hosni Mubarak - was a high-ranking military officer.

The coming negotiations - indeed, to use a very popular word of late, the transition - are likely to be fractious; lots of chefs stirring the pot and wanting to add their own special ingredients. (Check out this chart posted at Arabist, and you may get a sense of the complexities that most MSM and bloggers' reports seldom got at.  It's not simply young seculars vs. Muslim Brothers in the opposition.)

In other words, the negotiations may be disorderly.  (And why not? This is something completely new in Egypt's experience.) Generals tend to hate that, and when disorder persists, they tend to impose order, according to their own rules.  And given its long service and earned respect (and ensuing sense of entitlement), the military is going to feel entitled to apply to (or withhold from) whatever gets cooked its imprimatur.

The protesters have won an incredible victory, one over which any of us who despise autocracy and corruption ought to exult.  Many have died to secure that victory; many more have been injured, some of them grievously or permanently,

But it may be fair to say that much of the hard work - and many pitfalls - lie ahead.

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