Tarek Osman on The Strategic Direction of Egypt’s Revolution
As the events of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution continue with the no-longer-televised trial of deposed president Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, journalist Tarek Osman, author of the acclaimed and prescient Egypt on the Brink (January 2011), weighs in on the current state of the revolution’s course. An updated edition of his book, Egypt on the Brink: From the Rise of Nasser to the Fall of Mubarak will be available next month from Yale University Press.
Amidst the trial of President Mubarak, the first time an Arab ruler is held accountable by his own people, and the fluidity that Egyptian society currently confronts, there is a lot of speculation on the direction Egypt will take. Egypt’s huge demographics and its traditionally influential role in the Middle East and North Africa make its future the Arab Spring’s litmus test.
There is rising fear that the current fluidity is giving way to a descent into chaos. But all revolutions result in violence and polarisation and Egypt’s 2011 is no different. The economy is undergoing a contraction under serious pressures, but its fundamentals can sustain the country in this transitory period and its medium term prospects are encouraging. The critical question Egypt faces concerns the strategic direction of its internal politics.
Revolutions usually take one of two courses. In one, they succumb to populism, yield to the impulsive demands of angry publics, and give way to immediate economic wants. This route usually entails submitting to the vengefulness of angry masses that want to see disconnection from the past against which they revolted and severe punishment of those responsible for it.
In the other route, the leaders of the revolution graduate into social captains steering society towards a sustainable system – one that establishes and maintains equality, democracy, the rule of law, and a mature and balanced social mood. In this direction, society’s leaders grab hold of the decision making mechanisms, resist the urge to give in to populism, and in turn become founding fathers of a system that endures.
Egypt’s 2011 revolution lacks leaders. It evolved from a movement organised by a number of youths’ groups to express anger, to an uprising led by wide civil society forces especially within the professional syndicates and labour movement, to a revolution in which the young sections of Egypt’s political Islam played a critical role. The crucial factor behind the success of the revolution, however, was the legitimacy that Egypt’s huge middle class has endowed it with.
The momentum created by the coming together of these forces broke President Mubarak’s administration – but diluted the influence of any one group. Neither the youths groups that propelled the revolution, nor the civil society players, nor the Islamic movement can credibly claim sole ownership or leadership of the uprising.
There is a strong possibility that such lack of leadership would push Egypt towards the populist route. In this scenario, the country will undergo few years of turbulences, until the fluidity – and the interactions between the different political powers in the country – gives rise to new leaders who can guide society towards a sustainable system. If that happens, the Arab Spring will lose momentum and direction; a period of chaos and confusion would engulf the region.
Another scenario is that some leading figures in Egypt’s society, who despite not playing directing roles in the Egyptian revolution, but who had stood out as vociferous challengers of the Mubarak regime, would come together and gradually put forward the pillars of a sustainable system: the basics of a new constitution, a bill of rights, and a framework of checks and balances. But for that scenario to have a chance of success, these potential wise-heads must relinquish all political ambition; that group should also comprise liberals, Christians, and Islamists. The socio-political framework presented would be the backdrop against which Egypt’s parliamentary and presidential elections would take place.
Egypt’s middle class, and especially the young amongst this huge socio-demographic stratum, have shown remarkable maturity throughout the first few months of the 2011 revolution. If they manage to steer the society towards a sustainable direction, Egypt will once again emerge as the shining city on the hill in the region, and the Arab Spring will have a solid chance of ushering in a new promising phase in the Arab world’s history.
Tarek Osman’s writings appear in a number of publications in the United Kingdom, Europe, and the Middle East, and he has contributed to broadcast coverage of Egypt’s part in the Arab Spring for outlets like PRI, CNN, and Al Jazeera English. You can read a free chapter, “Young Egyptians”, from his book as part of Yale University Press’s “Crisis in the Arab World” Book Sampler.