Egypt After Mubarak: Talking About A Revolution?

The departure of President Hosni Mubarak from Cairo on 11 February, bound apparently for his villa at Sharm al-Sheikh on the Red Sea, unleashed a torrent of breathless media commentary about the “Egyptian Revolution”. It may be that change of a revolutionary magnitude is in store for Egypt, but to date the events in that country resemble something more akin to a popular uprising followed by a palace coup. The ruling regime and state apparatus remain largely intact.

The absence of a clearly defined  leadership cadre on the part of the rebels makes the assessment of about what has been achieved rather difficult. It is, however, possible to evaluate the current state of play against an inventory of demands issued by the “January 25″ movement  and translated in a recent ZNet article authored by Juan Cole. A preliminary check list, based upon  key demands and responses, follows:

* The setting aside of the present constitution and its amendments

Done – the current constitution was suspended 13 February.

* The formation of a working group to draft a new and democratic constitution that resembles the older of the democratic constitutions, on which the Egyptian people would vote in a referendum

Done – a new constitution is to be promulgated in 10 days, and made subject to a national referendum within two months.

* Dissolution of the federal parliament

Done, but control of the day to day operations of the Egyptian government remains in the hands of a cabinet headed by PM Ahmed Shafiq, a former chief of the air force and Mubarak supporter who has promised to appoint new ministers.

* Creation of a transitional, collective governing council

Done, but not likely as hoped for – ultimate decision-making power rests with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, a body chaired by Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi.

* Repeal of the state of emergency, which suspends constitutional protections for human rights, immediately

Not done, although reference to lifting the order has been made.

* The immediate release of all political prisoners

Not done, and little is known of the fate of those arrested or missing during the uprising.

* The formation of an interim government comprising independent nationalist trends, which would oversee free and fair elections

Not done, but elections have been promised within six months.

*Removal of any restriction on the free formation of political parties, on civil, democratic and peaceful bases.

Not done.

* Freedom of the press

Not formally done, although since the start of the uprising active censorship has decreased. The state-owned daily  Al-Ahram switched allegiances during the protests to become a “voice of the people”. TV Egypt and other media have since followed suit.

* Freedom to form unions and non-governmental organizations without government permission

Not done, but, in defiance of a military ban, many existing unions are now striking for improved pay and benefits.

* Abolition of all military courts and abrogation of their rulings with regard to civilian accused

Not done.

In short, Mubarak has stepped aside, but Egypt remains in a state of emergency aadministered by a clique of the former president’s fellow travellers and  appointees.  This deeply entrenched elite, many with strong ties to the West and possessed of an overriding economic and political interest in the status quo, has vowed to restore “normalcy”. That is not the aim of the resistance, and fears are beginning to be expressed that the military is “hijacking the revolution”.

However dramatic, the events of the past few weeks have not displayed the hallmarks of a Berlin Wall moment for Egypt. They are a far cry from the momentous transformations which occurred in Russia in 1917, in China in 1949, in Cuba in 1959, or in Iran in 1979. Of course, these are early days yet. And even if the impact has to date been more symbolic than substantial, Mubarak’s departure is hardly inconsequential. Several significant implications are already clear. These include:

The invisibility of radical political Islam. This purportedly enormous and abiding threat,  around which the entire Global War on Terror has been conjured and resourced, was nowhere in sight. Banners in Tahrir Square calling for Jihad, the abrogation of the peace treaty with Israel, or denouncing the Great Satan were notable for their absence. Even the long-established and relatively conservative Muslim Brotherhood seemed caught off guard and has for the most part remained on the sidelines.

The rebirth of Pan-Arabism. After a long period of dormancy, this potentially catalyzing phenomenon seems to be making a comeback. Today, however, the rallying cry is not anti-colonialism, but freedom, democracy and good governance. After starting in Tunisia and spreading to Egypt, the demonstration effect of “people power” has been felt in Yemen, Algeria,  Jordan, Bahrain, Libya – even in non-Arab Iran. Repression, corruption, authoritarianism and distributive injustice have been placed on notice throughout the region.

Another colossal intelligence failure. Despite hugely increased expenditures on expanded intelligence capabilities post 9/11, there are no indications that anyone saw this coming. Add Egypt’s volatile political awakening  to the long list of unforeseen events which could change the world but were missed by the experts.

Shifting power.  Remember unipolarity? Not only has that brief era ended, but Mubarak’s downfall illustrates that Washington’s influence, even in a critical client state like Egypt, is waning further. Especially in the early days of the uprising, US foreign policy seemed paralyzed, much like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights, unsure which way to turn. America’s vast and costly military arsenal proved of no use whatsoever. Nonetheless, through military assistance, training and institutional ties, the US enjoys some leverage with the generals now running Egypt. On another track, Secretary Clinton has recently championed the virtues of leading with civilian power through a combination of diplomacy and development cooperation.

How either, or both of these tools will be used remains to be seen.

The coming weeks and months may represent a defining test for President Obama’s foreign policy, which by many accounts has underperformed expectations by a wide margin. He can show, through action, real commitment to the values he expressed in Cairo not long after taking office. Alternatively, and in the tradition of his immediate predecessor, he can stick with the highly militarized approach and in so doing risk a further loss of credibility through entrapment in the ruinous say-do gap.

Bottom line? There is much at stake in terms of global security and world order, and these issues merit close and continuing attention. That said, it was a reaction to the combination of entrenched privilege, poverty, rising food prices and a growing cohort of disaffected youth that triggered the crisis. If, in advance of the demonstrations, the former president had simply resigned, say for reasons of poor health, the outcome could conceivably have been quite similar to what has been seen so far.

Under those circumstances, no one would have called it a revolution. That highly telegenic optic was created by the mass protests which engendered  saturation coverage.

Still, the genie is out of the bottle. Should the armed forces chose to stonewall in the face of unfulfilled popular demands, more profound changes may yet be in train.