But before we get carried away with the mounting euphoria in Egypt it’s probably wise to rein in our enthusiasm and play out the likely consequences first.
With protests — revolutionary protests — gripping the streets from Tunisia to Egypt to Yemen, the Arab world is in unprecedented turmoil. From the point of view of those of us who support a widening of democracy and freedom, the outcomes could range from disastrous (creating the next Afghanistan or Lebanon) to the barely tolerable (creating a relatively stable but dictatorial situation, as Egypt has been), to something as close to good as it gets in that region (perhaps Jordan).
In July 1789, as everybody knows, the French people took to the streets in spontaneous revolt, scattering a tyrannical regime of centuries’ standing. But then, the people’s will was subverted by another group of people, who turned the cannons on the people themselves. Something vaguely similar happened in the North in the late 1960s: what appeared to be a new dawn turned into a reign of terror.
So when the crowds sprang up like lilies on the streets of Tunis, Cairo, Sana’a and Alexandria last week, our eyes lit up with undimmed optimism as we raptly observed the sovereignty of the people asserting itself, driving out dictatorships.
And yet we surely know, the success of crowds nearly always denotes the exhaustion of a regime, rather than the demonstrators’ strength. For more than half a century the Soviet Union never saw a single crowd, even though millions of Soviet citizens laboured to death in Siberian gulags. When the crowds finally emerged in the streets of Prague and Berlin and Budapest in 1989, this was the signal that the regimes had already lost hope. Their efforts at suppression were as half-hearted as those by President Hosni Mubarak’s petty dictatorship this week.
Experts and the news media seem to be overwhelmingly optimistic. The insurrections look like popular uprisings against endemic corruption and in search of freedom and democracy. But are they? Or are the protesters witting or unwitting tools of Islamists who want to turn more of the Middle East into safe havens for their own purposes?
Certainly, from St Petersburg to Havana, delirious crowds have greeted the ends of dictatorships for a century now, only to subside again into dazed quiescence and watch mutely as a new and even more terrible agency of rapine established itself out of the chaos. Yes, sad to say, for all his bloated self-importance and the political, intellectual and economic torpor he has presided over, there are worse things than Hosni Mubarak.
Everyone knows that Mubarak’s government, based on the regime that has been running Egypt since Gamal Abdul Nasser evicted King Faroukh in 1952, presides over a great deal of corruption and repression. But the situation today could not be more dangerous. Indeed, we could be on the verge of seeing the biggest disaster since the Iranian revolution three decades ago.
Back in 1978-1979, the same wishful thinking was propounded. Experts assured everyone that the revolution would be moderate, the Islamists couldn’t win, and even if they did, this new leadership could be dealt with. So either Ayatollah Khomeini couldn’t triumph — or he couldn’t possibly mean what he said. Well, we know what happened there.
There are two basic possibilities. The regime will either stabilise (with or without Mubarak) or power will be up for grabs. If the latter turns out to be the case, the regional precedents are not encouraging. Remember the Cedar Revolution when people poured out into the streets of Beirut to demand freedom? Hezbollah is now running Lebanon. Remember democracy in Algeria? Tens of thousands of people were killed in the ensuing civil war.
It is, of course, not entirely beyond the realm of possibility that the collapse of Mubarak’s regime could lead in time to a new Arab Spring, and the spread of liberal democracy and the rule of law. Nothing should make us happier.
But, let’s be honest: it requires a heroic optimism even to contemplate such a course of events. There have been only two popular ideologies of consequence in the Middle East since colonialism’s death in the 1950s: Ba’athist authoritarianism, with its specious liturgy of nationalism, and the grand nihilism of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, Hezbollah and the rest.
My pessimism is based on a major Pew survey of Egyptian attitudes last year. The truth is, Egyptians are not Poles or Estonians with some communal memory of democracy and an ancient enlightened history. Some 84% of Egyptians believe those leaving Islam should be subject to the death penalty. 82% want to see adulterers stoned.
So it’s hardly a surprise to learn that, given the choice between modernisers and Islamists, 59% would prefer the latter and just 27% the former. Frankly, to find consistent Egyptian liberal democratic voices is like finding needles in haystacks.
Indeed, Egypt is the only Arab country where many of the reformers have gone over to the Islamists believing that they could control the Islamists and dominate them once the alliance got into power. Again, the same thing happened in Iran. Khomeini led a coalition made up, not just of religious fanatics, but social democrats and communists as well.
SO Hillary Clinton might call for “an orderly transition” but a transition to what precisely? The thinking presumably is that if the revolution does win, it is more likely to be friendly to America if the United States shows in advance its support for change.
And, for sure, it is morally good to speak about freedom and seem to support the protesters but will it reap the gratitude of the Egyptian masses in the future? Will they support relative freedom leading to relative prosperity, or will they be co-opted by forces of primitive backwardness and tyranny?
The latter is more likely — a government that sustains itself through demagoguery, blaming America, the West and Israel for everything and proclaiming that Islam is the answer. That’s how it has been in the Middle East in too many places.
The next few months will show whether the Egyptian opposition has learned this bitter yet profound lesson — or whether it is doomed to repeat that familiar tragedy where the tyrant’s executioner turns tyrant in turn, and is compelled to erect an even grander and more messianic political fantasy in his wake.
As for Mohamed ElBaradei, he is an unknown quantity. We must hope that he has more success in organising a pro-democracy movement than he did at the IAEA where he couldn’t recognise an Iranian nuke if it stared him in the face.
The Egyptian elite wants to save itself and if they have to dump Mubarak to do so — as we saw in Tunisia — the armed forces and the rest will do so. But if the regime itself falls, creating a vacuum, that is going to be a very bad outcome. A populist and radical nationalist — much less an Islamist — government could reignite the Arab-Israel conflict and cost tens of thousands of lives.