Saving the Egyptian revolution

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By Shlomo Ben Ami

TEL AVIV: Revolutions throughout history have proven to devour their children. Their final outcomes are seldom congruent with their prime movers’ intentions. Too frequently, revolutions are hijacked by a second wave, either more conservative or more radical than what was first contemplated by the initiators of change.

What started in France in 1789 as an uprising of the middle classes in alliance with the sans culottes ended up with the return of the monarchy in the form of Napoleon’s dictatorship. More recently, the first wave of the Iranian revolution, under the presidency of Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, was by no means exclusively Islamist; the second wave, led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, was.

The question for Egypt is whether the agenda of a truly pluralistic democracy — proclaimed by the avant-garde young protesters at Tahrir Square, the admirably self-empowered Facebook and Twitter generation — can prevail against the resilient forces of the past. Indeed, according to a Pew Research Center poll, only 5.5 percent of people have access to Facebook, while 95 percent want Islam to play a major role in politics, 45 percent are practically illiterate, and 40 percent live on less than $2 a day.

Ideally, the new democratic order should be based on a common platform adopted by the forces of change, both secular and Islamic, and on a transition pact between these forces and those representing the old system, first and foremost the army. Indeed, one of the Egyptian revolution’s odd features is that it now operates under the exclusive trusteeship of a conservative army.

True revolutions occur only when the old repressive system is thoroughly dismantled and purged. But Egypt’s revolution is one whose initial stage ended with power fully in the hands of the old regime’s repressive apparatus. The risk is that the fraternal ties between the army — not exactly innocent of the Mubarak regime’s repressive practices — and the protesters might prove short-lived.

So far, the army has acceded to only one of the protesters’ central demands — getting rid of Mubarak. It has not endorsed the wide array of liberal demands voiced by the revolutionaries of Tahrir Square.

Arguably, the military concurred with the protesters’ demand for Mubarak’s removal as the best way to circumvent a move towards a dynastic republic under Mubarak’s son, Gamal. The masses called for a revolution, while the army conducted its own coup d’etat in the hope of saving what is essential in the system while sacrificing the man who embodied it.

The army’s temptation to limit change reflects the conservative profile of its hierarchy, the extraordinary privileges it enjoys, and the economic interests with which it has been tied. Egypt was ruled as a police state, and, with a gigantic and all-pervasive security apparatus, the army might be tempted to assume the role of guardian of order and stability if democracy proves too messy.

Fortunately, there are limits to the Egyptian military’s capacity to impede change. A Western-leaning army, funded and trained by the United States, it cannot allow itself the liberty of shooting peaceful protesters. Indeed, limiting the army’s political role will certainly be a fundamental condition for maintaining Egypt’s warm relations with the West. A free-trade agreement with the US and improved access to EU markets might be powerful incentives that the West can offer to Egypt’s young democracy.

So, no matter how conditioned the Egyptian army may be by its worldview and vested interests, it has no option but to facilitate the democratization process. It should have to accept, however, that no Arab democracy worthy of the name could refuse to open the electoral gates to political Islam.

Indeed, Egypt’s formidably historic task now is to refute the old paradigm according to which the Arab world’s only choice is between secular and repressive autocracy or obscurantist and repressive theocracy. But the regime that emerges is bound to be more attuned to local conditions, and thus to religion’s vital role in the social fabric.

A democracy that excludes religion from public life entirely, à la France, cannot work in Egypt. After all, such a democracy does not work in Israel, or even in the US, a country that G. K. Chesterton described as having “the soul of a church.” Building a modern secular state for a devout people is Egypt’s main challenge.

That said, a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood usurps the revolution does not seem plausible, if only because this might lead another strongman on horseback to take over. Although still inspired by staunchly anti-Western conservatives who believe that the “banner of Jihad” should not be abandoned, the Brotherhood today is not the same organization that the Mubarak regime’s portrayed to the West. It has long disavowed its violent past and has shown an interest in peaceful political participation.

The tense relationship between the incumbent Arab regimes and political Islam is not necessarily a zero-sum game. It is in this context that the abortive Palestinian “Mecca Agreement” between the religious (Hamas) and the secular (Fatah) to form a national-unity government for Palestine might have established a new paradigm for the future of regime change in the Arab world. Such compromises may be the only way to stem the slide to civil war, and possibly co-opt Islamists into a settlement with Israel and rapprochement with the West.

Shlomo Ben Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as the vice-president of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (




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