Business Times - 09 Feb 2011
Egypt's fate yet to be sealed
By LEON HADAR
IT may be too early to conclude whether the protests in Egypt will amount to a revolution. And it remains to be seen if the 2011 Egyptian Revolution will go the way of the 1979 Iranian Revolution that led to the collapse of the pro-American Shah and to the rise of the Ayatollah's theocracy.
Iran then challenged the balance of power in the Middle East and that led to major political and economic developments, including the Iran-Iraq War and a global oil crisis.
Perhaps Egypt's continuing political unrest will eventually fizzle out and the demonstrations in Tahrir Square in Cairo will only bring about marginal reforms in the country's political and economic system.
Such an outcome will allow the military-based regime that has controlled that country since 1952 when a revolution did result in the downfall of the then British-backed monarchy - sans the 83-year-old Hosni Mubarak and with 'fresh' faces, say, retired generals in their 70s - to continue ruling the country and maintain the status quo, perhaps by less repressive means.
There is no doubt that the anti-government insurgencies in Egypt and earlier in Tunisia - and that seem to be spreading to other Middle Eastern countries - reflect the genuine sentiments of many economically depressed people in the Arab countries.
Miserable economic conditions - no jobs, no housing, no food to feed themselves and their families - have helped provoke other revolutions in the past.
Indeed, the dramatic rise in commodity and, subsequently, food prices may have been the catalyst for the political unrest in Egypt.
Some pundits who attribute the rise in commodity prices to global inflationary pressures that they blame on the loose monetary policies of the US Federal Reserve are proposing - half-jokingly - that the insurgency in Egypt be named the 'Bernanke's Revolution'.
That the 'have-nots' in the Arab world who are being economically squeezed are fuelling the current disturbances may explain why protests are taking place in the poor nations such as Egypt and Yemen and not in the rich oil-producing states such as Saudi Arabia where political freedom is actually much more constrained (especially when it comes to women's rights and religious freedoms and where there is not even a modicum of free elections) but where the standards of living are fairly high.
At the same time, it is also clear the protests in Egypt have been organised by political activists and intellectuals, including young bloggers, who belong to the educated and urban middle class - who were successful in exploiting the economic anxiety - and whose main demands have to do with politics and less with economics: that Mr Mubarak and the generals resign and that Egypt embraces a democratic form of government based on free elections, free press and so on.
These are the same kind of demands that were raised by pro-democracy and human rights activists who were the driving force behind the public protests that helped bring down Communist rule in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Eastern Germany in 1989.
While the Communist apparatchiks in Eastern Europe had lost their outside support from the then crumbling Soviet Union - and, in the end, seemed to lose their will to remain in power - the political realities in Egypt are quite different today.
Washington may be employing the rhetoric of change, but the US call for 'orderly transition of power' is an indication that this time, the outside power may not be ready to go along with a revolution that will probably re-orient Egypt's foreign policy away from the US.
Nor is there any sign that the generals in Egypt - or for that matter, the Saudi, the Hashemites of the Jordanian royal family or Syria's Assads and other military-backed regimes in the Arab world - have lost their will to maintain power.
Indeed, most of these monarchs, generals and soldiers have been trained in the Machiavelli School of Government and could be described as the world's ultimate political survivors who have outlasted quite a few US presidents and even the Soviet Union. They and their aides are probably studying now the causes for Egypt's unrest - making sure that that doesn't happen to them.
Moreover, while the pro-democracy movements in Eastern Europe had been led by respected political figures promoting coherent plans to govern their countries, much of the protests in Egypt have been leaderless and seem to lack any positive political or economic programme.
The protesters want to get rid of Mr Mubarak but fail to explain who and what will come after him. Hence the concerns in Washington that the Muslim Brotherhood - the only political movement whose leaders seem to know exactly who they are and what they want - could exert a lot of influence in post-Mubarak Egypt.
The Internet may be a great tool to help organise protests but it cannot serve as a substitute to building and sustaining a viable political movement with leaders and plans that could mobilise long-term national and international support.
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