, is that Egypt seems to have no ready path to civilian rule. Of the two dominant forces in Egyptian society, the military are oblivious to the people’s desires for a new, self-governing Egypt, and the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, are only interested in how they themselves can gain from the upcoming elections. So the prospect of a new government representing all the people seems to be fading. Shadid blames this sad state of affairs on the Mubarak regime, which repressed civilian institutions, and he adds that other Arab/Muslim countries have the same problem:
But of course this is reversing true cause and effect, as conventional Western thinking about the Islamic world always does. In ruling by despotism and division, recent Arab rulers were not doing anything new, nor were they suppressing some marvelous Arab capacity for self-government which, in the absence of those despotic rulers, would have flourished. They were doing—with their own variations suitable to their own time and circumstances—what Muslim rulers
do. In a September 2
, “Why Islam can never develop decent and stable societies,” I wrote (expanding on an argument by Daniel Greenfield):
The modern West cannot face this truth about Islam, because it would mean that not all cultures, peoples, and religions are equally capable of self-government. And that discovery would mean in turn (a) that not all peoples and cultures are equal, period, and (b) that a universal liberal order embracing all mankind is not possible. And those two discoveries would in turn delegitimize the liberal global project, along with its variant, the neoconservative global project. Therefore Western intellectuals must go on telling themselves that the difficulties Muslim countries face in attaining self-government are due to some secondary factor, such as the tendency of recent Arab rulers to rule by co-opting and dividing their people, rather than to factors that are inherent in all Arab and Muslim societies.
November 22, 2011
The Old Order Stifles the Birth of a New Egypt
By ANTHONY SHADID
CAIRO—If the demonstrations that culminated in February were an uprising against President Hosni Mubarak, the revolt today is against his legacy.
“This is the real revolution,” said Mohammed Aitman, helping at a first-aid clinic in a turbulent, roiling and, at times, ecstatic Tahrir Square.
The vestiges of Mr. Mubarak’s order—the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, or fragmented liberals and leftists—seem ill prepared to navigate the transition from his rule. It is an altogether more difficult reckoning that has echoed in the Arab revolts in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain.
The strategy that for so long successfully repressed public anger and sapped people’s will to rebel was no longer working. As a result, it is not at all clear what path Egypt will find to go forward. The authorities hoped that the protesters would exhaust themselves and go home, but they have not. The military tried violence, but it has not worked. It has tried limited concessions, but they did not work. And it has blamed foreigners for inciting the violence, and that did not work.
This may foreshadow a dangerous and prolonged period of unrest in Egypt, as the spectacular show of discontent on Tuesday in Tahrir Square demonstrates that there is no existing institution to channel their frustrations.
The military appears largely oblivious to the scale of the protests, and Islamist parties are single-mindedly pursuing their political goals as they predict a healthy showing in the coming elections. No leader, of any ideological bent, has emerged to channel the discontent once again spilling into the streets.
“Today, it is a failure of the political class,” said Ibrahim el-Houdaiby, a political analyst at Dar al-Hikma, a research center in Cairo. “People feel betrayed.”
One of the lasting accomplishments of so many Arab autocrats, some of them still in power, was their ability to co-opt, eviscerate or abolish the institutions that could guide the transition in their absence, as they played on social divisions to prolong their rule.
Ferociously oppressed for so long, Syria’s opposition has struggled to articulate a vision that inspires confidence in the country’s minorities. Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s relentless destruction of Libyan institutions has left a country whose regions sometimes act like their own city-states and where tribe serves as the primary social structure. Bahrain’s monarchy stoked sectarian divisions so effectively that a once-cosmopolitan society may be too polarized to reconcile.
Egypt’s version of an autocrat’s legacy was on display Tuesday, as a military accustomed to decades of privilege refused to surrender real power, for now, and a political class cowed by years of authoritarianism—the Muslim Brotherhood being the most prominent example—seemed opportunistic, defensive or unimaginative.
To many in the square, politicians were either putting their parochial interests first or proving unable to deliver a vision that could stem the worst crisis facing Egypt since Mr. Mubarak was toppled on Feb. 11. The anger was so great that a Brotherhood politician was driven from a square by a crowd that, as in January, feels determined but leaderless.
“What we’re still dealing with is the system of Mubarak,” said Mustafa Tobgi, a 56-year-old government employee. “They’re all graduates of Mubarak’s school.”
Tahrir Square, a site iconic for the protests that overthrew Mr. Mubarak, was often a desperate tableau in past days, as youths battled with the police. Those fights became a sideshow on Tuesday to a far more jubilant and festive spectacle, whose numbers rivaled some of the biggest protests in the 18-day uprising against Mr. Mubarak.
“Leave,” people chanted Tuesday, as they did back then.
The breadth of the protesters’ demands—effectively an immediate end to military rule—and the military’s refusal, reiterated Tuesday, to surrender power until next year suggested that the discontent would persist. Suspicions ran so deep in the square on Tuesday that nothing short of a dramatic step seemed possible to stanch the protesters’ determination, or end the clashes that have left at least 29 people dead.
“The gap between the military and the protesters is so large now as to be almost impossible to close,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Doha Center, who is visiting Cairo. “That’s the problem. The maximum of what the military can offer doesn’t meet the minimum of what the protesters are demanding.”
It is remarkable how little the elections figured into conversations in the square. They are set for Monday, but no one was debating platforms, or candidates or parties.
But those elections appear paramount to the Brotherhood and other Islamists, who could secure their greatest electoral power in Egyptian history when the vote begins. Analysts say the group is haunted by the experience of elections in Algeria in 1991, when the military stepped in to forestall an almost certain Islamist victory. That led to a civil war that roiled Algeria for nearly a decade, killing as many as 200,000 people.
So far, the Brotherhood has effectively sided with the military, in an alliance of two of Egypt’s most venerable institutions. Though trying to hedge its bets, the Brotherhood has remained largely absent from Tahrir Square, insisting that most Egyptians are not behind the protests. Some analysts have drawn parallels to the Brotherhood’s decision to join the uprising in January only after it had reached a critical mass.
“They are again late to the show or absent completely,” said Michael Wahid Hanna, a fellow at the Century Foundation in New York.
In the square, the object of the crowd’s ire was not only the country’s de facto ruler—Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, the 76-year-old army chief who served as Mr. Mubarak’s defense minister for two decades—but also the entire military leadership that, by most accounts, has made a mess of a transition that it originally said would last six months.
“Stay steadfast!” protesters shouted. A banner nearby said: “Save Egypt from the military and thieves. Surrendering power to civilians is the demand of all Egyptians.”
“The revolution that happened in February, however beautiful it was, left us with a coup,” said Afifi Ahmed, a 52-year-old chemist, who joined the protest. “Tantawi was never persuaded there was a revolution. All he wants to do is renovate the old system.”
A popular Egyptian novel, “Utopia,” set in a future Cairo, quotes a character explaining an uprising. “As the saying goes, ‘The rock endured many blows, but only shattered at the 50th.’ It’s not the 50th blow that did that, but all the previous ones.” The sentiment was often pronounced in a square where the protesters’ numbers surged through the day.
The scenes were sometimes grim. Men on motorcycles careered through crowds, honking their horns, as they headed to the clashes with the police. Youths caught their breath on the curbs. Some were bandaged; the eyes of others were bloodshot from tear gas. “You’re a coward, Field Marshal,” protesters chanted. “We won’t leave the square.”
Asked if he was worried about the unrest, Ihab Hosni, a 27-year-old software engineer, wearing a surgical mask to fend off the tear gas, shook his head.
“I would be worried more if I didn’t see the people here,” he replied.
But some analysts suggested that streets filled with the discontented could prove a permanent feature, as politicians dwell on debates over Islamic law rather than popular concerns like security, the economy and corruption, and the military remains entrenched in a narrative less and less shared: that it is the savior of the revolution.
“If we have to go through another revolution and another revolution and another revolution, so be it,” Mr. Hosni said. “No one really knows how this will end.”
James R. writes:
James R. writes: