Headless, Bottom-Up Revolution

Now that Hosni Mubarak has finally ceded power and the demonstrators are filtering out of Tahrir Square (ready at an instant to return if they think the situation warrants it), there are more questions than answered about wht what happened occurred, and what all this means for the future of Egypt, and American interests in the Middle East. What happens now?

Anyone who thinks they can answer that question today with any certitude is kidding himself or herself. The quest for understanding what all this means for the future lies in the dynamics of what has just occurred, for at least two reasons. The first is that the underlying dynamics of the Egyptian uprising probably have within them somewhere the kernel of where the situation will head next. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure at this point. Second, the dynamics will also offer some as yet unknown guidance about how much the dynamics of Egypt are idiosyncratic or generalizble to other places. Still don’t know that either.

What is fairly clear (if not all that illuminating for either question) is that this was very much a bottom-up uprising that was started and proceeded without any obvious leadership. Its motive force was decidely populist–aimed at overthrowing an octogenarian dictator and replacing him with a people-run democracy. The first part of the goal was easy to articulate–it was a succinct, bumper-sticker kind of appeal. It was also a message of the kind and length that fits very well into the method by which it was spread, electronic social media. Moreover, its achievement was a discreet, measurable thing–the demonstrators stayed until Mubarak was gone. Game, set, but not yet match!

The problem, of course, is translating the bumper-sticker, “tweet” slogan of democracy into something meaningful. Doing so is immeasurably more difficult than the first part, for at least three reasons. One is that it is a goal not universally shared, within or outside Egypt. Does the ruling elite in Egypt really want democratization, given they benefited from and were associated with the autocracy? When the Egyptian prime minister went on state television today and said that restoring order was the first task, he was, of course, right in one sense, but is “order” a code word for returned repression? And can he be trusted, given that he was Mubarak’s prime minister? Even assuming the rank-and-file and younger officers of the Egyptian army support the popular movement, what about their leaders, who were, in many cases, cronies of the departed president? The Army is currently in charge, and they have not yet acted against the demonstrators. But can they be trusted to stay that way?

Outside Egypt, there is similar, if less overtly stated opposition. The Israelis in particular were comfortable with Mubarak because he was “the devil we know,” and they are almost certainly going to be less happy with whoever follows. The Army says it will honor the peace treaty, and there has been nothing that anyone within the “movement” has said that indicates that a democratic Egypt is violently anti-Israeli. At the same time, Israel and Mubarak are equated in many Egyptian minds. Similarly, the American government has also operated from the assumption that Mubarak was our stalwart in the region because he brought “stability.” It is not the first time we have backed a despot because of his commitment to a status quo with which we were happy; such support often turns sour, however, and we hope our long-time support for Mubarak will not translate into an anti-American successor. If it does, however, we will largely have no one to blame but ourselves.

The second reason is that since the revolution is headless, it is also in a sense mindless. What I mean by that is that there is no coherent philosophical base on which the demonstrators can base an orderly progression toward their generalized goal of democracy. The reason is, of course, the lack of revolutionary leadership, itself the large result of Mubarak’s systematic, 30-year suppression of anybody who opposed him. Somewhere out there is the next leadership, but it probably does not know who it is or what it will try to do, and neither do we. The hope is, of course, that it will be a leadership devoted to what we (and hopefully the Egyptians themselves) hope it is–movement toeard a secular democracy. But maybe it is not, which is the great fear for Egypt and its contagious potential. Third, fashioning and creating a new, democratic system is a lot more complicated and time-consuming than tearing the old one down. That takes leadership and intellectual coherence that has not yet popped to the surface.  

The Egyptian uprising stands on the cusp of Crane Brinton’s (Anatomy of Revolution) classic second step, “the reign of terror and virtue.” It is the unsettled period, when the most radical elements come out and in the struggle for power various groups emerge and vie for defining what is virtue. Every real revolution has such a period, which will eventually be followed by a cooling off period in which the winners consolidate the outcome (Brinton’s thermidor). The question is whether this stage becomes radicalized or not: in the American Revolution, it did not (although the British of the time would not have agreed); in Russia and France (two of Brinton’s other case studies) it did. Which way will Egypt go?

One can become too readily apocalytical about the prospects. Egypt is, happily, not Iran, which makes its headlessness a virtue of sorts: in radical fundamentalist Iran and its spokesman Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranians had a charismatic leader who defined virtue and commissioned the terror to implement it; Egypt does not. Whether the Egyptian movement will follow a path toward the kind of democracy–secular sounds nice to us, but probably not so much to Muslim Egyptians–that would be a beacon to the region is still an open question the answer which will depend on what Egyptians and outsiders (but especially Egyptians) do in the months that follow. Sitting and waiting for what happens next is hard for activist Americans to do, but it is probably the best we can do.


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