Egypt One Year On: Stark Message for Arab Revolutionaries

This month’s first anniver­sary of the upris­ing that top­pled Mubarak con­tains a stark mes­sage for Egypt’s rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies. They are being mar­gin­alised as vest­ed inter­ests and tra­di­tion­al polit­i­cal forces expe­ri­enced in polit­i­cal horse trad­ing fill the vac­u­um of lead­er­ship. This mes­sage may well also be meant for oth­er rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the Arab world.


EGYPT’S MILITARY coun­cil, backed by Islamist and sec­u­lar polit­i­cal par­ties, has upstaged the 25 Jan­u­ary cel­e­bra­tions of the anniver­sary of the protests that oust­ed Pres­i­dent Hos­ni Mubarak even before the par­ty gets under­way. The mil­i­tary pre-empt­ed plans by the rev­o­lu­tion­ary youth and mil­i­tant soc­cer fan groups whose mass protests ear­ly last year forced Mubarak from office by announc­ing that they would organ­ise their own cel­e­bra­tion togeth­er with the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood on Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The military’s co-opt­ing of the cel­e­bra­tions is cer­tain to dash hopes of the pro­test­ers to exploit the anniver­sary to launch what they call a sec­ond rev­o­lu­tion that would force the armed forces to imme­di­ate­ly relin­quish pow­er. Instead, it is like­ly to seal their defeat in a coun­try that has grown tired of demon­stra­tions, still large­ly reveres the mil­i­tary despite its bru­tal response to anti-gov­ern­ment protests late last year and wants to see tan­gi­ble results of its revolt.

A stark mes­sage

The military’s move also sig­nals the pri­ma­cy of elec­toral over con­tentious pol­i­tics in post-auto­crat­ic tran­si­tion soci­eties with the back­ing of the Broth­er­hood, which emerged as Egypt’s fore­most polit­i­cal group­ing with some 40 per cent of the vote in the first post-Mubarak elec­tions. The Brotherhood’s back­ing of the mil­i­tary cel­e­bra­tion is sig­nif­i­cant giv­en its demon­strat­ed abil­i­ty to fill Tahrir Square and mobilise oppo­si­tion against the mil­i­tary if it want­ed to.

The mil­i­tary is send­ing a stark mes­sage not only to Egypt­ian youth and soc­cer fan groups that estab­lished polit­i­cal organ­i­sa­tions with well-oiled par­ty machines rather than new­ly emerg­ing polit­i­cal forces will shape the country’s future. The mes­sage is also to pro­test­ers else­where in the region that unless they can match their mobil­i­sa­tion and street skills with the art of elec­toral pol­i­tics and back­room horse trad­ing they too will be rel­e­gat­ed to the side­lines of his­to­ry.

Much of the youth and soc­cer groups’ crit­i­cism of the post-Mubarak tran­si­tion rings true even if does not res­onate with a major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion. They accuse the mil­i­tary of sub­vert­ing a promised tran­si­tion to real democ­ra­cy in a bid to pre­serve its polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic perks and inter­ests and employ­ing to do so the same if not worse repres­sive mea­sures than the Mubarak regime. Scores have been killed in protests since Mubarak’s down­fall, thou­sands injured and some 12,000 peo­ple, includ­ing activists, blog­gers and soc­cer fans dragged in front of mil­i­tary courts.

The one jok­er in the military’s plans to upstage the youth and soc­cer fan groups and give them the death knell is the spec­tre of vio­lent con­fronta­tion dur­ing the cel­e­bra­tions. Fear of a repeat of the bit­ter street bat­tles that took place between secu­ri­ty forces and soc­cer fans in Novem­ber and Decem­ber last year could per­suade many Egyp­tians to steer clear of Tahrir Square on 25 Jan­u­ary. Egypt’s mil­i­tary ruler, Field Mar­shall Mohamed Hus­sein Tanta­wi issued a thin­ly veiled warn­ing to the youth and soc­cer fan groups days before the 25 Jan­u­ary cel­e­bra­tions that Egypt faced unprece­dent­ed “grave dan­gers” but that the mil­i­tary would pro­tect it. The state­ment, echo­ing Mubarak’s tac­tic of dis­tract­ing atten­tion from domes­tic issues by invok­ing an alleged for­eign threat, was con­trived to ral­ly pub­lic opin­ion against the pro­test­ers.

Treach­er­ous ground

A fail­ure to ral­ly the mass­es would dent the military’s efforts to main­tain the high ground and would boost rev­o­lu­tion­ary moves to thwart its plans. Nonethe­less, the youth and soc­cer fan groups are on treach­er­ous ground. They have lost much of the pop­u­lar sup­port they enjoyed in the run-up to and imme­di­ate after­math of Mubarak’s oust­ing. Their refusal to sur­ren­der Tahrir Square in favour of tra­di­tion­al pol­i­tics has won them few brown­ie points with the pub­lic. Their mar­gin­al­i­sa­tion is com­pound­ed by the fact that men and women per­ceived to be hon­est and of faith have emerged vic­to­ri­ous in the elec­tion, rais­ing hopes that gov­ern­ment will be free of nepo­tism and cor­rup­tion.

Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in oth­er Mid­dle East­ern and North African soci­eties in tran­si­tion may well con­clude from the Egypt­ian expe­ri­ence that it is a fatal mis­take to sim­ply top­ple an auto­crat­ic leader and not to push for the ulti­mate uproot­ing of a failed sys­tem. It promis­es to make tran­si­tions even more con­tentious and could inspire the kind of resilience and deter­mi­na­tion dis­played by pro­test­ers in Syr­ia who have refused to give ground to a ten-month old bru­tal gov­ern­ment crack­down that has already cost some 5,000 lives.

Pro­test­ers across the Mid­dle East and North Africa like their coun­ter­parts in oth­er parts of the world have mas­tered the art of seem­ing­ly lead­er­less revolt and exploita­tion of new tech­nol­o­gy. How­ev­er, the les­son of Egypt is that they will also increas­ing­ly have to har­ness the skills of tra­di­tion­al pol­i­tics and face up to the real­i­ty of realpoli­tik to ensure that they not only win a bat­tle but also the war.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.