The Five Stages of Egypt’s Revolution

It matters little who wins the presidency this weekend -- a much bloodier uprising is inevitable.


CAIRO – I was put on the spot by a wise old friend of mine in Washington several years ago. He wanted my pitch on Egypt in 30 seconds or less. "This is a town beset with attention deficit disorder," he said, "so what have you got?" I gulped and offered up the "three Ms of Egypt": the military, the mosque, and the masses.

Despite the popular revolt against Hosni Mubarak’s regime last year, it remains true that the only political contest that counts in Egypt has pitted its military generals against the mosque’s imams and leaders. Both want control over the masses — 85 million Egyptians. The recent elections highlighted these three Ms: However depressing for many reformers and activists, the culmination of nearly 18 months of mass protest now pits the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammad Morsi against Ahmed Shafiq, a retired military officer and former Mubarak prime minister.

Whether the military or the mosque wins the runoff this weekend, reformers and their supporters around the world need to consider some equally important potential futures scenarios. Their first step should be to dust off a copy of Crane Brinton’s An Anatomy of Revolution, a 1938 study that considers major revolutions in history, identifies the factors influencing them, and attempts to extrapolate certain "rules" for how such seismic political transitions play out. In the startling air of uncertainty pervading Egypt’s current impasse, it provides at least a framework — and often strangely accurate reference point — from which to contemplate events. And it serves as a guide, and a warning, to Egypt’s future. This week’s court ruling blessing Shafiq’s candidacy and dissolving parliament — reasserting the military’s grip on power and infuriating millions of Egyptians in the process — should only be taken as another sign that the center, hemorrhaging ever more legitimacy, ultimately cannot hold.

Brinton would tell you that in the long run, it actually doesn’t really matter who the next president of Egypt is. Morsi and Shafiq are doppelgangers: Both are ghosts of the past, circling each other, embedded in the old system that has defined and sustained them for decades. Of course, the man from the military and the man from the mosque each claim to be the true champion of the revolution. In truth, it’s likely that neither is — and that both will pass from the scene as the revolution’s pendulum swings inexorably to the extremes.

You may be asking: How can it not matter? While the mosque (in the form of the Muslim Brotherhood) and the military (in the form of the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces) stand triumphant, each risks losing its grip on political power. Both will inevitably be the victims of true political transformation and swept away, as Brinton would say, through the course of events.

There are signs now that this could happen and, not surprisingly, both Morsi and Shafiq know it. The Brotherhood’s initial reluctance to support last year’s revolution has been replaced by its enthusiastic participation in the democratic process, from elections to constitutional reform. The mosque is now seen as fully committed to regime change, and is quietly flirting with the more extreme revolutionaries, both secular and religious, on the margins of Egypt’s political environment — ranging from the revolutionary youth to the ultraconservative wings of his Salafist counterparts. But despite this tentative flirtation, Morsi and his co-leaders would far rather Shafiq and his military allies take the vote than turn the country over to Egypt’s true revolutionaries. For example, a deal struck between the SCAF and the Brotherhood’s leadership on the eve of last November’s parliamentary elections apparently benefited both camps more than the many thousands of protesters who had threatened to derail the election schedule. As the vote went ahead as planned, the Brotherhood won nearly half the seats, while allowing the SCAF to retain ultimate power — a deal that served the short-term interests of both sides.

 In the near future, however, the three Ms are far less significant than the big E: Egypt’s economy. Whoever the next president is, the economic challenges that confront him — ranging from chronic unemployment to ailing foreign credit — are urgent. In the last 18 months the country’s foreign currency reserves have plummeted by more than half, and foreign direct investment last year totaled only one-third of the 2010 figure. Tourism has cratered. Aside from the military establishment, the state’s resources and capacity are worn out and poorly functioning — when they function at all.

Finally, the relationships between the legislative assembly, the presidency, and the executive have yet to be defined. They limp along today in a dystopian setting, as Egypt’s political forces bicker over the makeup of the assembly to draft a new constitution. The parliament has historically been little more than a rubber stamp for regime policies and, even as Egyptians go to the polls to select a new president, it is a mystery what powers that figure will possess. A relatively emasculated presidency with little real capacity to enforce policy changes remains a distinct possibility.

It seems all too possible now that, to effect real political change, Egypt’s revolution will need to somehow devour both mosque and military. Genuine redistribution of political power will require a dramatic upheaval of these entrenched systems. As political theorist Gene Sharp warns in his 1993 treatise From Dictatorship to Democracy: "Nowhere … do I assume that defying dictators will be an easy or cost-free endeavor. All forms of struggle have complications and costs. … The fall of one regime does not bring in a utopia."

In Egypt, these casualties would not only include the hundreds of young men dead on the streets, but also the destruction of arrangements that favored certain sections of Egyptian society and provided the foundation for its political order. Once again, Brinton offers guidance for how to think of this process by conceiving of revolutions in terms of stages: In his model, Egypt has traversed the first stage — the collapse of the regime — and begun stage two, epitomized by an ineffective, moderate interim government that fails to deliver sufficient political change. Depending on how you apply this framework to the Egyptian setting, this second stage may equate to either the interim SCAF or some kind of "inclusive" — i.e. badly fudged — government that will be unpopular, and destined to fail. Again, whether this administration is led by Morsi or Shafiq makes little difference in the long run.

The failure of the moderates will bring about stage three: the wholesale disintegration of a measured transition process, leading to widespread political confusion, major clashes, and the beginnings of violence verging on anarchy. Stage four ushers in the radical, purging, period — terrifying for its uncompromising zeal and tyranny. This "fever," in Brinton’s terminology, breaks in the final stage, as the radical leadership burns itself out and is replaced by a more stable and long-term representative government.

It’s unclear who the "stage four" zealots will be in the Egyptian context, though some kind of militarized religious force seems probable. Indeed, the Salafists and other more extreme religious groups are conspicuously absent from the current clash of the mainstream factions — particularly considering their astonishing election performance that gave them 25 percent of parliament.. Their silence, like that of France’s Jacobins or Russia’s Bolsheviks, is telling. They are, quite obviously, patiently awaiting the weakening of the military and the mosque, which are just now in the process of weakening each other — as the contending moderate parties in revolutionary France and Russia weakened each other — paving the way for the extremists.

Of course, this kind of framework is often dismissed as the mindless wanderings of historical structuralists. Egypt is neither Russia nor France. Yet, in the context of Egypt’s current political dilemma, Brinton’s scenarios need to be taken seriously. What they suggest is what we already know to be true: The outcome of Egypt’s revolution will not be decided by a committee, it will not be managed, and it will not be moderated. It will be decided in the streets, as all revolutions are. Egypt’s revolution is not nearing an end, it’s only just beginning.

Charles Holmes is a professor of medicine at Georgetown University and a former deputy U.S. global AIDS coordinator.

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