Back to square one?

Revolutions break our hearts, whether they fail or succeed. Will Egypt’s revolution escape this grim destiny, or will it follow the all-too-human pattern of disappointment and betrayal that has followed the great majority of popular revolts? Cautious observers are anxiously waiting for Egypt to recover from its revolutionary hangover before attempting to answer a simple question: Have the Egyptian demonstrators accidentally push the restart button? Is this July 1952 all over again?

Pessimists are certainly justified in pointing out a few chilling similarities. To begin with, Egyptians are back again on the receiving end of military communiqués issued by a tight-knit group of officers they know so little about. Also, in a way reminiscent of 1952, vocal critics of the old regime were caught flat-footed when it finally gave way ; after driving the country to a precipice, opposition activists had neither the stomach nor the vision to make the leap from dissent to rule. Political power and the responsibilities that come with it ultimately fell in the hands of men in khaki uniforms. Liberals, leftists and Islamists are yet again making demands, and then waiting for the military junta to call the shots. Our suspicions have grown even more after discovering that high-ranking officers were the ones who finally nudged the president out of office (though in a less conspicuous way than in 1952).

Refusing to accept this unsettling analogy, optimists find recourse in one resounding difference between 1952 and the present: while the people wholeheartedly supported a military coup 60 years ago, the military today has been swept by the strong current of popular revolt. Is this enough to guarantee that the army will not get too comfortable in power? It may be too early to know, but there are at least two reasons to be hopeful.

First, the army ought to have learned from its own history (and that of Tunisia) that politically stifling military governance inevitably degenerates into authoritarian police rule, which not only drives a country to the brink of disaster but ultimately isolates the military. Second, one expects that Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces has also learned from the Turkish experience, where the emergence of a relatively autonomous civilian political space under the auspices of the Turkish armed forces has–despite many reversals and misgivings–produced a stronger and more vibrant state (and military).

Hope that the military will not overstep its boundaries is even more justified considering where the Egyptian people stand today. Egyptians did not receive Communiqué No. 1 during the early hours of another lazy summer day in July; nor did they unwittingly welcome top-down political change while sipping morning tea and getting ready for another dull day at work. The communiqué was broadcast on gigantic screens amidst millions of angry protesters who had successfully brought the country to a grinding halt. Egyptians have been irreversibly empowered by this uprising. For the first time, they have participated in a thoroughgoing popular revolution, not a “blessed movement” carried out from above.

A revealing indicator of this new sense of ownership is a text message that began circulating hours after the president was ousted with clear instructions: “Do not throw trash on the sidewalk! Do not cross a red light! Do not pay a bribe! This is now your country.” People from all walks of life have finally experienced what it’s like to be in control of their own destiny. Can an entire population that has thrust itself so decisively onto the center stage of its own history allow a bunch of officers to expel it again? It has happened before and may happen again, but thus far there is little reason to be cynical.

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