Think Again: Egypt

From the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood to the Arab autocracy domino theory, five myths about Egypt's revolution.


"Facebook Defeated Mubarak."

"Facebook Defeated Mubarak."

No. There’s a joke that has been making the rounds in Egypt in recent weeks, and it goes something like this: Hosni Mubarak meets Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdel Nasser, two fellow Egyptian presidents, in the afterlife. Mubarak asks Nasser how he ended up there. "Poison," Nasser says. Mubarak then turns to Sadat. "How did you end up here?" he asks. "An assassin’s bullet," Sadat says. "What about you?" To which Mubarak replies: "Facebook."

There’s no question that social networking was a critical factor in Mubarak’s overthrow. Groups like the April 6 Youth Movement and the We Are All Khaled Said Facebook page, which first called for the Jan. 25 protests that sparked the uprising, played a daring, important role in breaking the barrier of fear that had kept Egyptians in their homes.

But the popular explosion that led to Mubarak’s overthrow was not simply a matter of calling for protests on Facebook; it was the product of years of pent-up rage and frustration at the corruption and abuse of power that had become the hallmarks of the Egyptian regime. The organizers carefully calibrated their messaging for mass appeal and chose a date — a state holiday meant to celebrate the widely hated police — that would resonate widely. Offline, they tapped into existing grassroots networks and built their own, such as the million strong who signed a petition calling for fundamental political change. Once the police fled the scene, the protesters were careful to show their respect for the military, forming human chains around Army vehicles to prevent any incident from undermining their refrain that "the Army and the people are one hand." And, as one key protest leader, Wael Ghonim, told 60 Minutes on Sunday, Feb. 13, they benefited greatly from the regime’s own "stupid[ity]" — its panic-driven shut-off of the Internet, its resort to tried-and-true tactics like hiring thugs to do its dirty work, and its failure to offer any meaningful alternative path to change.

"Obama Deserves Credit for the Revolution."

Yes, but only a little bit.

It’s true that in the early days of the revolution, the Obama team was slow to side fully with the protesters — beginning with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s assessment that Egypt was "stable" and continuing through Vice President Joseph Biden’s refusal to call Mubarak a "dictator" and the statements of Frank Wisner, the White House envoy — later disavowed — who said it was "critical" that the Egyptian leader stay in power.

When the Obama folks weren’t garbling their talking points, they were offering bad advice, such as when the State Department undercut the protesters by urging them to engage in "dialogue" with Mubarak’s newly installed vice president, Omar Suleiman. But Suleiman, a Mubarak hatchet man whom Clinton embraced as the improbable agent of democratic transformation, of course had no intention of carrying out genuine negotiations or dialogue. Instead, Suleiman hosted a one-way discussion with the loyal opposition — a collection of hapless parties with little to no support on the street — while refusing to deal with representatives of the youth movements in Tahrir Square. He then released a deeply disingenuous statement offering only token reforms and blaming "foreign elements" for the uprising; later, he said Egyptians lacked a "culture of democracy."

On the other hand, U.S. officials consistently, and with increasing impatience, condemned the use of force against protesters and urged the Egyptian military to do everything in its power to avoid bloodshed. At one point, the White House even intimated that the United States was reviewing its $1.3 billion military aid package. President Barack Obama, meanwhile, resisted heavy pressure from allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, which urged him to back Mubarak to the bitter end, while rejecting the advice of pundits who demanded that he call publicly and clearly for the dictator to step down — a move that would have played into the regime’s strategy of painting the protesters as foreign agents.

On the whole, the best we can say for the Obama team is that it didn’t screw up too badly. Until it became obvious to all that Mubarak was going down, the United States looked as if it was still trying to thread the needle, balancing its strategic ties to the regime with its genuine desire to see the Egyptian people’s aspirations fulfilled. In the end, those positions proved impossible to reconcile.

"The Muslim Brotherhood Will Rule Egypt."

No. While the Islamist movement is without question Egypt’s most organized opposition movement at the moment, it has said explicitly and repeatedly that it does not seek the presidency. For now, the Muslim Brotherhood has swung its support behind retired International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular liberal who played a key role in catalyzing the protests. It’s not clear whether ElBaradei seeks the presidency himself, though he has said he will run if asked.

As for the Muslim Brotherhood itself, it probably represents no more than 20 percent of the Egyptian population. And now that the mass public has been mobilized and energized by calls for freedom and good governance — not Islam — the movement is in danger of being pushed to the margins of political life. Egyptians are a religious people, but most evince little desire to be ruled by Quranic diktats.

To be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood can put a lot of bodies on the streets, especially in strongholds like Alexandria or in cities in the Nile Delta. But it’s worth noting that the group did not officially endorse the initial round of protests. (One Brotherhood leader, Essam el-Erian, even said, "On that day we should all be celebrating together" instead of protesting against the police.) Yes, its youth wing later played an important role in defending the barricades in Tahrir Square, while its networks outside the square were critical in bringing in supplies to sustain the protests. But it’s not clear how loyal they are to an older leadership that failed to squarely confront Mubarak for decades. A broad, secular youth coalition, branding itself as the true custodians of the revolution, would have enormous appeal at the ballot box, even for young Brotherhood supporters, many Egyptians told me.

"The Revolution Is Over."

Maybe. Most of the revolutionaries who occupied Tahrir Square for the last three weeks have gone home, and key political leaders — such as the liberal politician Ayman Nour — say their main demands have been met. Mubarak, his rigged parliament, and his anti-democratic constitution are gone, and Egypt seems to be blossoming under transitional military rule, as state media embraces the revolution and ordinary Egyptians begin discussing politics for the first time. The military has promised to hand over power to an elected, civilian government in six months’ time.

Yet the fall of Mubarak represents only the partial collapse of his regime. Many top figures have left the hated National Democratic Party, which saw its headquarters burned on Jan. 28, but its vast electoral machine still exists. Hundreds of mini-Mubaraks — heavy-handed provincial governors and corrupt local officials — control the provinces. The Interior Ministry, though much diminished, still operates, as does Mubarak’s feared state security apparatus. His final cabinet, led by a former Air Force general with close ties to Mubarak, has not been replaced, and it’s not clear what role Suleiman will play going forward.

So far, there are no guarantees that "Mubarakism without Mubarak" won’t make a comeback — all we have is the word of an unelected junta led by generals installed by Mubarak himself. The Egyptian military has moved to outlaw labor strikes, which have spread across the country in recent days as thousands of state workers — including, incredibly, police officers seeking higher wages — have seized the moment to press their own demands. If the strikes escalate, watch out: Egypt could be headed for a period of extended instability rather than democratic consolidation. What’s happening in Tunisia, where wave after wave of protests has led to a revolving door of high-level resignations and recriminations, might well follow in Egypt.

Another danger is that a failure to quickly improve the lives of Egypt’s poorest, some 40 percent of whom reportedly live on less than $2 a day, could lead to a backlash. The revolution may have succeeded, but it has deeply wounded Egypt’s economy, which relies heavily on tourism and is vulnerable to fluctuations in the price of basic commodities, such as wheat.

And let’s not forget that the protest organizers have called for weekly Friday rallies until all their demands — including the release of all political detainees and the installation of an interim government of national unity — are met. As one of them put it to me, "We know how to find Tahrir Square."

"Country X Is Next."

It’s too early to tell.

As demonstrations break out in Algeria, Bahrain, Jordan, Libya, and Yemen, it’s easy to imagine popular protests sweeping across the region and expelling autocrats from Rabat to Riyadh. Clearly what happened in Egypt, the beating heart of the Arab world, won’t stay in Egypt.

Yet the revolutionaries in Cairo had a few unique advantages. Alongside its massive state media apparatus, among the world’s largest, Egypt boasted independent newspapers and a robust, if embattled civil society that had learned much in its years of working against the regime (several key protest organizers, such as Ahmed Maher and Zyad el-Elaimy, were veterans of Kefaya, an early anti-government movement). Egyptian reporters and pundits were often hassled, but they could write what they wanted as long as they didn’t cross certain red lines, such as discussing the president’s health or delving too deeply into corrupt business deals. The Internet was monitored, but not censored outright. Hundreds of foreign reporters had experience and contacts in Egypt and could get the word out. And given the close ties between the Pentagon and the Egyptian military, the United States had leverage that may have helped prevent a far nastier crackdown. Other protest movements won’t be so lucky.

Opposition leaders in other Arab countries will have to find their own, locally rooted paths to victory; simply setting a date and calling for people to go to the streets won’t work. And they now face terrified rulers who see clearly that they need to adapt, though none will give up an iota of any real power. Some, like the monarchs in Bahrain and Kuwait, will attempt to defuse any "Tunisia effect" by doling out piles of cash, while others, such as Jordan’s King Abdullah II, are sacking their governments and once again vowing political reform. The worst of the bunch, like Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi and Syria’s Bashar Assad, will opt for deeper repression.

Change is finally coming to the Arab world. The only question is: How fast and how painful will it be?

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