The tumultuous events of the last day have left everybody here reeling as much as they seem to have the outside world. Yesterday around this time it seemed as if the peaceful protests had succeeded in forcing Mubarak onto the defensive and that he would be on his way out. Now I don’t think it’s so clear. What I do think is that the future of Egypt for the next generation is going to be decided in the next few days but that it may be months before we truly come to see even the bare outlines of that decision. And with the future of Egypt comes a significant fraction of the future of the Arab world, not to mention the lives of hundreds of millions of people who really deserve more than they’ve gotten from the callous military regimes that have ruled most of the region for the last 60 years.
I had a couple of frantic calls from friends yesterday evening, at least some of whom spent the night more or less trapped in downtown while the pro-Mubarak thugs attacked peaceful protestors in Midan al-Tahrir. By the morning when I was able to contact them again they were safe, although evidently at least five people lost their lives and hundreds were wounded, many severely. I’m not going to discuss the violence and cruelty of the attacks; they’ve been documented and described and viewed and re-viewed. I want to make a couple of other points that are clear to everybody on the ground here but may not be quite so obvious outside Egypt. The first is that many of the pro-government demonstrators streamed into the square from the north across the 15th of May Bridge and down the Corniche which means they had to pass by extremely narrow checkpoints manned by the army. Even on the best days last week it was very difficult to move down the Nile Corniche because the tanks and concrete barriers often left gaps of only 18 inches or two feet through which to pass. So they could easily have been closed off at any moment had the troops been given orders. Other thugs probably came across the Sixth of October bridge, slightly to the south. This 8-lane bridge provides almost literally an artery into the heart of downtown Cairo and is essentially open event his afternoon. What there are, however, are another set of army checkpoints, reinforced with barbed wire, that could also have been employed to prevent any movement into the square as soon as the order was given. The very best construction you can put on the events is that the Egyptian army had no order to intervene; the more likely one is that it had explicit orders not to intervene. Indeed the local Arabic language press has reported anti-government demonstrators pleading with the soldiers to prevent the brutality and being asked if they were being requested to fire on Egyptians. So the claim that the army will not fire on Egyptians turns out, in the end, to have been something of a trick. The army didn’t fire on the demonstrators but neither did it prevent their armed tormentors from attacking them.
I walked down to the area above the Midan al-Tahrir this afternoon. I had heard stories that some of the government’s thugs were looking for foreigners so I walked slowly. I was surprised that there were no checkpoints on the approaches to the bridge or on the bridge itself especially given earlier reports that the army had cleared the bridge of government supporters and established itself there.
Looking down in the area just to the north of the Egyptian museum was a chaotic scene that was seemed like something out of Dante’s Inferno. Cars were parked on the bridge and adjacent freeway and more than a thousand people were watching the violence continuing to unfold beneath them. You could see people hitting each other, wrestling, and screaming. And not more than a hundred yards from the roiling bodies were enlisted men and their officers standing outside their armored personnel carriers with hardly a care in the world. Occasionally the crowd would seem to boil up over barriers and stairs and a few people would escape like errant molecules of steam. And then suddenly there was the loud “pop” of gunfire and echoes and then a dozen more shots while the spectators hurried away from the barrier at the edge of the bridge to the safety of the other side and slowly returned back. I had no camera and there was certainly no positive role I could play besides having witnessed what I saw. So I walked to the opposite side of the freeway and there I could see soldiers doing what they had evidently been ordered to do. They had stopped each of the four or five vehicles that had somehow made it into the area of the square while the searched each vehicle, its baggage, and its operator’s identity with exceptional care. What they had been ordered to ensure, I am guessing, is that no car bombs explode in the area; what they had not been ordered to do was to ensure otherwise the security of the Egyptian citizens. And they carried out their orders.
How this will all end is still anybody’s guess, but for what it’s worth let me set down mine. Much of the speculation about Mubarak’s own personality and his unwillingness to let go is probably accurate enough. It also seems increasingly clear that the government as a whole (and not just Mubarak) are wagering that with sufficient violence and instability they can convince Egyptians that a order is better than a vacuum.
But I think there are a few other points worth making. A few analogies have been widely deployed and discredited: Iran 1979, Iran 2009, Eastern Europe 1991. I think all of these analogies can be fruitful even if in some sense they’re all wrong. Egypt is Egypt but thinking about times and places can help us expand our sense of what’s going on. Too much time of too may pundits has been spent trying to be “right” and too little trying to be either thoughtful or helpful. I have a couple of other analogies all of which, I admit, betray my own somewhat doubtful sense at the moment.
The first analogy that strikes me as apposite is France 1968 when a huge student movement in Paris expressed a generation’s worth of social, economic and cultural change that the DeGaulle government tried to ignore and then repress. Repression and fear of change worked together to defeat the student movement on its own terms, and DeGaulle actually was returned to power with an even larger majority than he had previously had before the strike. Nevertheless within a year he was gone and within a bit more than a decade France had its first Socialist government since the 1930s. Nothing quite symbolizes, I think, the disconnect between the government and society than the decision to deploy troops in front of the television station last weekend. Control of the tv and radio were crucial to the success of military coups in the past, but this government was not confronting a military coup. It was confronting, albeit not for the first time in Egyptian history, massive spontaneous popular protest. So it may be that Mubarak will win in the short run without necessarily being able to prevent the transformation of the government over a somewhat longer period. That, at any rate, is one hopeful scenario.
Two other analogies are more deeply rooted in Egyptian history. Contemporary Egyptian historical narrative and the emergence of sense of shared citizenship (and citizenship was one of the key concepts of the last week) came from the massive, spontaneous and largely peaceful demonstrations of 1919 against British Occupation. There are many dimensions to this narrative, including that of the equality of Muslim and Copt in a single national community, that I hope to write about later. For the moment, however, there are two competing concepts of revolution in modern Egyptian history. One, rooted in 1919, is what we have seen in the past week: a spontaneous, largely non-violent, and massive protest against arbitrary political authority by the population. What the Facebook page, We Are All Khaled Said, provided (among others) to Egyptians in its exposure of the moral failures and repugnant actions of the regime, the massive petition campaign in favor of independence provided in 1918. It set the stage. The British arrest and deportation of the independence leaders in 1919 touched off the revolution just as the fake election and the example Tunisia set of the events of January 2011. Ultimately in 1919 the British gave way, although again, only after a protracted political struggle. This particular pattern of Egyptian history was repeated again in the 1935 student uprising, chronicled in part in the famous novel, Al-Ard or This Egyptian Land.
The limitations of the analogy show what may be a weakness today. In 1919 and 1936, Egypt possessed an active, aware, and capable political elite that was ready to enter the parliamentary system, the ministries, and other locations of power and to establish the institutions of governance. Egypt today has a political movement as broad and powerful as in the past. What it lacks today is not politically astute figures or people with an understanding of politics; what it lacks is a political elite with the stature and readiness of a Saad Zaghlul or even an Ismail Sidqi—that is, to use more familiar names, without a Nelson Mandela or aVaclav Havel.
The other meaning of revolution, closely connected with the Free Officers’ movement and Gamal Abdel Nasser is that of a military coup. This was no revolution: it took power away from an imperfectly elected semi-liberal government and placed it in the hands of army officers where it has, through a series of partial transformations, remained until today. In the process it destroyed many institutions and organizations rooted in society and replaced them with institutions controlled by the state—trade unions, business associations, women’s organizations, and so forth. Popular as this regime was for ending British rule and the monarchy, it also used the same kind of physical violence that we have seen in the streets today to attack opponents as diverse as the head of the highest administrative courts, the elderly attorney Abdel Razzak Sanhoury and workers who engaged in strikes.
What seems to me to be at stake is therefore not just power and not just the legitimacy of a person but indeed the legitimacy of an entire institutional legacy and the very notion of how the Egyptian people might control their own destiny and exercise sovereignty. One concept of revolution is that sovereignty not only emanates from the people but that they can and will exercise it themselves when necessary. The government must, in short, bend to their wishes. The other concept, rooted in the exigencies of military hierarchy, is that popular sovereignty is simply the narrative backdrop for the army’s control of the entire society. These two contradictory approaches have not been placed in such stark opposition before now. What seems to me therefore is that, for the moment, not only Mubarak but those around him are determined that the Egyptian people not be able to show that they have influenced, or indeed determined, the course of Egyptian history and the state. They want not only to punish the people for disobedience but to teach them a lesson about their impotence. What is happening in Midan al-Tahrir is designed to make the return of the army to its role as supreme arbitrator not only acceptable to the population but desirable.
Bringing the tanks into the street, including into the area in front of the television station is more than a reflex from the middle decades of the 20th century which is how I had thought of it earlier. It is an indication, I think, that what we are watching is not for the moment the end of Mubarak but the unfolding, very deliberately, of a military coup in slow motion. Some of the miscreants from the “old regime” are already being rounded up as are many of the old regime’s critics in the human rights movement. They will all be packed off and the army will, once more, assure stability in Egypt. And that, as long as they can, that Egyptians in their plurality and infinite difference have as little say as possible in deciding what its future will be.