Stephen M. Walt

Mubarak speaks! (people don’t listen)

Mubarak speaks! (people don’t listen)

There’s a part of me that would like to blog about something other than Egypt, but how can I? Events there are both too dramatic and of potentially great import, so I find it hard to wrench myself onto other topics. Apologies to any of you who’d like me to turn my attention elsewhere…

If history is any guide (and it is, albeit a rather fickle and ambiguous one), we are still in the early stages. The French revolution went through a series of distinct phases for more than a decade (accelerated, to be sure, by war), before Bonaparte’s seizure of power. The Russian Revolution began with the March 1917 uprisings, followed by the Bolshevik coup in October and then a civil war. The Islamic republic of Iran did not leap full-blown from the brow of the Ayatollah Khomeini, but took several years to assume its basic form. Even the United States was a work-in-progress for years after victory in the revolutionary war. (Remember the Articles of Confederation, and the debate over the Constitution?). 

In short, history cautions that we have no clear idea what form a post-Mubarak government in Egypt will take, and there’s a lot of contingency at work here. I have my hunches and hopes, but nobody can be really confident about their forecasts at this stage. (Heck, at first I didn’t think the upheaval in Tunisia would spread!) It will help a lot if the process of political contestation in Egypt avoids large-scale violence, because the onset of mass violence (whether by the regime and its supporters or by the anti-Mubarak groups), is going to fuel greater hatred and paranoia and tilt the process in more dangerous directions. For this reason, those who are urging a peaceful and orderly transition (including the Obama adminstration) are exactly right. And that’s why the reports I’m seeing about rising violence (a summary of which can be found on Andrew Sullivan’s The Daily Dish) is worrisome.

I watched Mubarak’s speech live yesterday afternoon, and I came away thinking that it is too bad he no longer has any credibility or legitimacy with the popular forces. In an ideal world, it would be good if Mubarak were able to remain the head of a caretaker government and allow for an extended period of preparation for a truly free and fair election. You can’t just stand up workable parties and a free media overnight, and figuring out how to create proper democratic institutions takes some time. To be sure, there are a variety of nascent political forces still left in Egypt, and some of them (including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wafd, etc.) have long histories of grass-roots mobilization and political organizing.  It’s also clear that the popular forces that have driven the current upheaval have an under-appreciated capacity to coordinate activities. But creating a stable and legitimate order isn’t something anyone can do in week or two, especially when the existing government has been marginalizing and suppressing political expression for a long time.  

Just look at how hard it has been and how long it has taken to restore some semblance of "normal" politics in Iraq. I’m not saying the two situations are identical; but the history of mass revolution reminds us that we are still in the early stages, and creating workable and legitimate institutions isn’t child’s play.

The problem, of course, is that nobody in Egypt would trust Mubarak not to have his thumb on the scale. Even if he has pledged not to run himself, everyone will worry that he’ll try to pick the winner and that genuine reform will be put off yet again. So the demonstrators haven’t been mollified a bit by yesterday’s speech, and there’s no good reason why they should have been. 

Lastly, if I were looking at one indicator to gauge my degree of optimism or pessimism, I’d be watching the Egyptian army. By most accounts it has held together as an institution, and it remains a respected element of society. By refraining from a violent crackdown, and by tacitly endorsing at least some of the aims of the protestors, it has preserved that position. Thus, the army may be able to serve as a unifying and stabilizing force through the transition period, especially if its members don’t simply to recreate Mubarakism with a different figurehead. But if the army splits, or goes over to full-scale repression, then things are going to get really ugly.