After Mubarak, Egypt's Revolution Is Far From Over

The country's autocratic regime is far too entrenched simply to be gone within a week -- or maybe even a generation


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Updated 1/11, 11:09 a.m. EST

After two and half weeks of protests, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has resigned the presidency he'd held since 1981. According to a brief announcement from Vice President Omar Suleiman, the high council of Egypt's powerful military will take over the leadership of the country. Though the military issued a statement pledging Constitutional reforms, an end to the decades-long state of emergency, and a transfer to a free democracy, it's not clear how that will happen or when. Whatever happens next, Egypt appears to now be entering a new era. But it is not the first country to set out on the long and difficult path from autocracy to democracy.

On August 19, 1991, when recently elected Soviet Presidium Boris Yeltsin climbed one of the tanks occupying Red Square to diffuse an attempted coup by nationalist hardliners, as well as the pro-democracy protesters flooding the streets, it looked to many like the end of the much-despised Soviet regime. Twenty years later, the Russian democracy remains dominated by Soviet officials and all their bad habits, from low-level bureaucracies all the way to the office of the Prime Minister, which is held by a former officer with the KGB. Civil rights in Russia are scarce, with dissidents regularly arrested and journalists turning up dead. Transparency International ranks Russia as one of the most corrupt nations in the world, below Iran, Haiti, and Yemen.

With Mubarak's departure, the Soviet Union's dissolution provides an important lesson. Even with Mubarak gone, Mubarak's Egypt -- composed of countless bureaucracies, institutions, and officials -- is likely to remain for a generation or more. This one man's departure is an historic moment for Egypt and for the Middle Eastern struggle for democracy. But the arbitrary, corrupt, and violent regime that Mubarak has spent 29 years constructing will not disappear with him.

Mubarak's government was never as pervasive or corrupt as that of the Soviet Union, but his bureaucracies are likely too large and entrenched to dissolve overnight. Someone has to run Egypt. Someone also has to police it, which means that the vast and brutal internal security complex, responsible for everything from directing traffic to torturing dissidents, is probably sticking around. The "citizen checkpoints" regular Egyptians established to fill the police vacuum are not a long-term alternative to governance.

Whoever succeeds Mubarak, be it a military regime or a legitimately elected Parliament, will face the difficult task of rolling back Mubarak's autocratic legacy from the Egyptian government. Recent history provides two contrasting examples of how a revolutionary government can approach the problem of weeding out the old guard. On one end of the spectrum of options is post-Soviet Russia, where Yeltsin allowed much of the Soviet bureaucracy to remain in place. Russia, he reasoned, needed its technocrats and established institutions to keep running, and keeping Soviets on the payroll meant they were less likely to stage a counter-revolution. Yeltsin's years top-down reform certainly opened Russia somewhat, but many of the government's worst Soviet practices remained, as did the influence and reach of former Soviet officials. In the end, Yeltsin left office with a severe drinking problem and a successor, Putin, who would go on to restore the Soviet-era national anthem.

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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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