Egypt and the recurring revolution

By Alex Bryan

For eighteen days in 2011, Egypt was the centre of the world. It’s people raged against an oppressive regime, releasing thirty years of anger in under three weeks. As part of the narrative of the Arab Spring, it seemed that Egypt, like Tunisia and Yemen, would become a success story, a nation bringing its own freedom about.

It is now fourteen months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign, and with the former President seemingly on the brink of death, so too is the revolution which ousted him. The army, which took over proceedings after Mubarak left, yesterday issued a statement amidst confusion over the election results claiming all legislative control for themselves. The election results, which had been a source of anger and contention, no longer seem relevant. Protests organised by the Muslim Brotherhood (which claims it’s candidate was victorious) have grown, with thousands expressing their dissatisfaction with what is essentially a military coup, and their desperation that the regime that they brought down against all odds last year not be reinstated under a new name.

Perhaps the optimistic mood surrounding North Africa as Mubarak left office disguised the difficulty of maintaining the revolution in the long term, bringing power to the people rather than a military elite. The immediate transition of power from Mubarak to the military was an early sign that the generals may not be willing to relinquish power.

The army cracked down on protest as soon as it took power, and yet retained Mubarak’s cabinet, thereby crushing the dissent whilst doing little to change the system. In a rule as highly personalised as Hosni Mubarak’s, it is tempting to think that to get rid of the leader will result in the whole structure falling. Yet, all leaders rely on their supporters and bureaucracy, and unless the system is dissolved in a radical way, there is still a possibility that normal service will resume.

We should not be surprised; if anything, this simply follows an all too familiar pattern for African revolutions. From one despot to another, with the help of the people, who settle for the new rule’s promises of stability and order due to their exhaustion with the glacial pace of political change.

So can anything be done to salvage the situation? Of course. However, it requires strong, quick movement from notoriously slow-moving pan-national organisations. The ongoing Syria conflict (as well as innumerable other cases) has exposed the UN as an inherently weak body when it comes to protecting democracy against internal threats. It is important that foreign leaders, as well as the UN, express their support for a truly democratic regime in Egypt in the strongest possible terms in an attempt to rally the Egyptian public.

What must not be allowed to happen is for the focus of media attention to shift from the seismic and catastrophic political movements by the Egyptian military to the near-death of Mubarak. Though he ruled for thirty years, he is no longer an active figure in Egyptian politics (though his rule still holds great sway among sections of the population and the army). What must be remembered is that Mubarak was not necessarily extraordinary in his seizing of power; he was simply an ambitious general who took his opportunities when they arose in an often chaotic atmosphere. There are many in the Egyptian military who will be wondering whether they can achieve the same thing.

It does seem however, that this will be seen as a failed revolution. To expect anything more from an Egyptian public which has already fought off one authoritarian regime in the past 18 months is to ask too much. The people are demoralised by the lack of progress and more importantly weary of political instability. It is this that the military will look to exploit, for it is what they can offer above all else. Stability will seem attractive to a country which has seen little but chaos for two years. The fact that the word is all too often used as a byword for despotism will be at most a nagging concern.

The UN must take a far more assertive role in similar cases in the future. As soon as Mubarak resigned, huge pressure should have been put on the government to hold open, legitimate elections within weeks. The fact that there was no established party system due to the peculiarities of Mubarak’s constitution should not have been used as an excuse to maintain the status quo – for one thing, the new constitution should only have been decided upon by elected officials, rather than those ruling by default.

The revolution is well and truly. It was a failure. A new order of rule has been established, as illegitimate and dangerous as the last. We must only hope that it will take fewer than thirty years for it to fall.

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