Contrary to venerable policy journals, the window for democracy in Egypt may just be opening

Foreign Affairs is currently running an article called "Egypt’s Democratic Mirage" which begins with the following statement: "Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s democratic window has probably already closed." The piece, by a professor named Joshua Stacher, then goes on to explain how the Cairo regime has ...

MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images.
MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images.

Foreign Affairs is currently running an article called "Egypt's Democratic Mirage" which begins with the following statement: "Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt's democratic window has probably already closed." The piece, by a professor named Joshua Stacher, then goes on to explain how the Cairo regime has maneuvered in ways likely to ensure its survival and the disappointment of the hopes of Egypt's protesters.

Nearing his conclusion, Stacher says, "When the uprising began in Egypt, many linked the events in Tunis and Cairo and declared that 2011 might be the Arab world's 1989. Instead, 2011 is showing just how durable and adaptable the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world truly are." He then punctuates his argument with the following: "In this latest rendering, with Suleiman at the helm, the state's objective of restoring a structure of rule by military managers is not even concealed. This sort of 'orderly transition' in post-Mubarak Egypt is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation."

While Stacher's analysis of the behind-the-scenes handling of the situation by Egypt's ruling elite raises important points, especially about the role of Vice President Omar Suleiman and some in the military, the piece suffers from a fatal defect. It is yet another effort to draw sweeping and concrete conclusions from too little data about a fluid and complex situation. Didn't any of the other analysts out there take those same standardized tests to which I was subjected as a student in which not infrequently the right answer was that there was insufficient information with which to answer the question? Or, in this particular case, did Professor Stacher's history textbooks begin with the year 1989?

Foreign Affairs is currently running an article called "Egypt’s Democratic Mirage" which begins with the following statement: "Despite the tenacity, optimism, and blood of the protesters massed in Tahrir Square, Egypt’s democratic window has probably already closed." The piece, by a professor named Joshua Stacher, then goes on to explain how the Cairo regime has maneuvered in ways likely to ensure its survival and the disappointment of the hopes of Egypt’s protesters.

Nearing his conclusion, Stacher says, "When the uprising began in Egypt, many linked the events in Tunis and Cairo and declared that 2011 might be the Arab world’s 1989. Instead, 2011 is showing just how durable and adaptable the authoritarian regimes of the Arab world truly are." He then punctuates his argument with the following: "In this latest rendering, with Suleiman at the helm, the state’s objective of restoring a structure of rule by military managers is not even concealed. This sort of ‘orderly transition’ in post-Mubarak Egypt is more likely to usher in a return to the repressive status quo than an era of widening popular participation."

While Stacher’s analysis of the behind-the-scenes handling of the situation by Egypt’s ruling elite raises important points, especially about the role of Vice President Omar Suleiman and some in the military, the piece suffers from a fatal defect. It is yet another effort to draw sweeping and concrete conclusions from too little data about a fluid and complex situation. Didn’t any of the other analysts out there take those same standardized tests to which I was subjected as a student in which not infrequently the right answer was that there was insufficient information with which to answer the question? Or, in this particular case, did Professor Stacher’s history textbooks begin with the year 1989?

To draw the conclusion that the window for democracy in Egypt has already closed is absurd and indefensible. Might the demonstrators be frustrated with the near-term outcomes their uprising produces? Yes. Might the current regime cling to power a while longer? Yes. Might it cling to power in some form or another for years and years? Yes, it might. But does any of that suggest that the window for democracy in Egypt is closing? No, indeed not. In fact, one could draw the conclusion it is just opening.

In fact, if Stacher had chosen to use a somewhat bigger slice of Eastern and Central European history for his analogy at the conclusion, he might have observed that while the revolutions of 1989 often concluded in meaningful change with breathtaking swiftness, it took them much, much longer to build up a head of steam. Indeed, 1989 was the culmination of decades of protests and uprisings against Soviet rule that saw open rebellion and challenges to the leadership on a regular basis. There was the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. There was the Prague Spring in 1968. Solidarity was founded in Poland in September 1980. Gorbachev did not embrace glasnost on a whim. Pressures within the Soviet Union itself had begun building in the wake not only of Afghanistan but of multiple courageous reform voices putting themselves at great risk by struggling for change.

To expect change in the Middle East to come about overnight is to fail to understand the nature or the history of change in the face of entrenched autocratic regimes. And therefore to make a sweeping suggestion that time has already run out for democracy in Egypt is as misguided as many other of Professor Stacher’s insights about the crafty game that is being played by Egypt’s regime are useful.

Pundits ought to remember that the only other group for which jumping to conclusions is part of the job description are the suicidal.

David Rothkopf is visiting professor at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His latest book is The Great Questions of Tomorrow. He has been a longtime contributor to Foreign Policy and was CEO and editor of the FP Group from 2012 to May 2017. Twitter: @djrothkopf

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