The Revolutionaries' Gamble on Egypt's Future

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Can the country's new order effectively challenge the old elite for power?

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The euphoria in Cairo already is already giving way to anxiety as Egyptians contemplate the terrifying task of dismantling Hosni Mubarak's police state and building an accountable Arab democracy in the image of Tahrir Square.

The old order has been decapitated, but still exerts an undeniable gravitational pull over the entire polity. Thousands or possibly millions of policemen, informants, and clients of Mubarak's state tremble at the prospect of transparency and, perhaps, retribution. If the protesters want to pursue reform, they will have to consider, and maybe even accommodate, those remnants of the old order.

On the morning before Mubarak resigned, I sat poolside with a group of retired generals at the Gezira Club, a members-only holdover of colonial times. A recently retired general from state security tried to interrogate me about the demonstrators; he was still convinced, against all evidence, that it was a Muslim Brotherhood uprising. The police, he was certain, would soon regain control of the nation. "How will the police regain public trust when they are so hated?" I asked. He couldn't fathom what I was saying. "The majority of people love the police," he shouted at me. "They will respect the police because they need the police."

Old Egypt was on display elsewhere as well, in the patronizing and impatient tone in which the prime minister addressed the public in his first press conference after Mubarak's downfall, in the capricious manner with which soldiers turned away some people at checkpoints while allowing others to pass, in the air of disgust with which some of Egypt's millionaires, talking to me over cocktails at the Bodega Bar the day after Mubarak's abrupt disappearance, dismissed the revolution as a failure that would usher in an anti-business government.

The revolutionaries, gambling as they have every step of the way, have gone for broke and demanded complete systemic reform: a new constitution written from scratch and an interim government purged of the Mubarak family and their Cardinal Richelieu, the spymaster and momentary Vice President Omar Suleiman. Perversely, though, the only way toward that goal was another, bigger, gamble: the revolutionaries have asked a military dictatorship to manage the transition in the hope that a committee of unelected generals who have spent a career defending Mubarak's order will now willingly write themselves out of power.

The prospect may sound crazy, naïve, even delusional - but then again, three weeks ago so did the possibility of millions of Egyptians embracing civil disobedience and successfully castrating the Mubarak regime.

The January 25 revolutionaries will have to sustain their distinctive mix of bare-knuckle brawling, tactical savvy, and class-crossing appeal over the coming year if they are to author a new Arab politics.

Most radical about them is their mindset; they are convinced they can design a new constitutional order written in an indigenous Arab idiom: Democracy as conceived by Egyptians, which, can in turn spread across the Arab world; not democracy as dictated by the White House or spread by military intervention or U.S.-funded civil society programs.

"Tomorrow belongs to us!" exulted Ziad al-Alaimy, the leader of Mohamed ElBaradei's reform campaign and one of the top strategists of the January 25 movement. Alaimy has already turned his attention to negotiating with the military and organizing enduring public pressure on the government.

The campaign's bedrock demands so far include: a paternalist state that provides for its people's needs; state security in service of the population, not the regime; and rule of law, enshrined in an inviolable constitution, truly independent judiciary, and fairly elected parliament.

"We didn't make resistance or violence, like Hezbollah," said Moaz Abdelkarim, a Muslim Brotherhood youth activist who left his own movement's leadership behind to join the organizers of January 25. "We made a revolution. We're not against anything. We're trying to build something."

The people for whom the activists speak are imagining a future wildly divergent from any template they have directly experienced in Egypt. They are mindful of the Arab world's last century, but unconstrained by the baggage of its recent history of misrule and autocracy.

Mohammed Ayman, a 20-year-old engineering student, said he felt for the first time that Egypt belonged to him. Already, he'd noticed a behavior change in security forces, who must now contend with a population that has shown it's not afraid to fight back.

"The policemen now speak more softly in the streets," Mohammed told me. "People are waking up. We know our rights."

For generations, Mubarak had treated Egyptians as helpless and mentally infirm; many people told me they had come to act as if they believed it. After the revolution, though, they believe the popular will can never return to its old, passive state.

Over the weekend I saw a woman in a niqab, the full-face covering garment worn by the most conservative and pious Muslims, enter a tent full of secular protest organizers, all of them men. Sitting in the tight circle, she told them that her policeman husband had ordered her to stay away from Tahrir Square. "I had to come see the revolution for myself," she said. "I was convinced I knew what was best, but then I came here and smelt freedom." Mubarak's state security reserved special punishment for the ultra-religious, and this woman -- who gave only her nickname, Umm Nada -- had been hauled before state security numerous times. She said she now wanted an Egyptian democracy free from police intimidation and religious persecution.

"We want more," she urged the revolutionaries. "What will you do next?"

The next steps depend as much on the forces of reaction, however. The old regime still holds many levers of power, and still looks with contempt on popular forces. Indifference to individual lives, especially those of the poor, was a signature of Mubarak's order, and that attitude permeates much of the elite.

Powerful forces of reaction are arrayed against the groundswell for change, and as it has been since the beginning, the revolutionaries labor against overwhelming odds. If anything is cause for optimism, however, it's the paradigm-shifting union of young and old, elite and working class, creative and reactionary that prompted a cascade of public resistance on January 25. The movement not only yoked a people's anger, it also summoned their yearning to invent a better compact between the governed and the state. That aspiration was evident as battalions of women in headscarves joined others in jeans and t-shirts to clean up the revolutionary mess in Tahrir Square. Unbidden, they fitted cobblestones briefly pressed into service as projectiles back into the street; they washed and squeegeed the pavement, and wiped their own freedom graffiti off walls and statues.

Their victory by no means is assured, but there's reason to hope these revolutionaries, young of mind and spirit, might yet inspire Egypt to imagine a new way forward for itself and the Arab world.

Egyptian soldiers remove the few remaining barricades in Cairo's Tahrir square on February 14, 2011, three days after the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. By Marco Longari/AFP/Getty


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Thanassis Cambanis, a columnist at The Boston Globe and a regular contributor to The New York Times, is writing a book about Egypt's revolutionaries. He is a fellow at The Century Foundation, teaches at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, and blogs at thanassiscambanis.com. He is also the author of A Privilege to Die: Inside Hezbollah's Legions and Their Endless War Against Israel.

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