My hopes and fears for Egypt

Democracy is going to have a tough road in a country long controlled by military dictatorships, warns a Seattle journalist who once lived in Cairo. And America's standing is almost certain to suffer as Egypt embraces pluralism.

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Crowds protest against the Mubarak regime in Egypt.

Democracy is going to have a tough road in a country long controlled by military dictatorships, warns a Seattle journalist who once lived in Cairo. And America's standing is almost certain to suffer as Egypt embraces pluralism.

Egyptian democracy? I yield to no one in my hopes for a renaissance of just and participatory government in Cairo, where I have lived, and grown to love the country.  But history and recent events are at war with my hopes.

Egypt today is still controlled by a military dictatorship, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, as it has been since 1952, when the revolution led by Gamal Nasser overthrew King Farouk. The generals today have no more experience with democracy than the Egyptian public, and no experience with facilitating it.

Have things changed? Everyone was thrilled when the generals immediately pledged a return to civilian authority. Their first act was to suspend the hated constitution and dissolve both houses of the fraudulently elected parliament. The adoption of a new constitution by popular vote established multiple political parties and term limits. The National Democratic Party has been dissolved. Mubarak is being questioned by prosecutors, and his sons have been arrested. L'ancien regime is being dismantled, but what will replace it? The hard part is ahead.

Democracy is not just elections. Who will ever forget the night when Mubarak resigned (and then didn’t)? Or the sheer joy of Arabs finally free to express their rage at 30 years of tyranny? It was victory for people, but the story is not ended.

Will the army relinquish power to legitimate civilian authority? We are going on faith that today’s officers will be more progressive than Nasser’s colonels. Their willingness to throw Mubarak under the bus shows they are sensitive to the public mood, but that doesn’t make them reformers. Will they be defenders of the revolution, or the same old authoritarian clique?

Civil society requires trust. But trust is betrayed by the renewal of repressive tactics by the military. Two died as soldiers were used to clear Tahrir Square last weekend, where thousands were protesting the slowness of reform by the military. Nicholas Kristof reports in The New York Times that 1,000 of the dissidents arrested by the army since the revolt began are still in custody, and soldiers are submitting women protestors to “virginity tests.”  A blogger was arrested for criticizing the military. This strong-arm stuff casts a long shadow over prospects for a democratic revival.  

Each of the three eras of recent Egyptian history, led by soldiers Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak, has begun with high hopes for domestic revival and ended in bitter disappointment. All three ex-military figures kept domestic calm with withering authoritarianism, and focused on their foreign policy goals. Nasser promised an end to colonialism and the birth of Egyptian self-determination.  Sadat promised return of Arab self-respect after military humiliation by Israel. Mubarak offered stability, a curbing of Islamic extremism, and restoration of order and economic growth after the shattering blow of Sadat’s assassination. But none was a democrat.

The three Egyptian military leaders shared with Qaddafi their systematic elimination of any viable opposition. They went after Communism, Islamism, and free speech (under the infamous “Law of Shame”) — anything that might threaten a coup.  Sadat rounded up 1,600 dissidents in one grand sweep in 1981 — Islamists, Copts, political activists: no one was safe.  Forced domestic stability was necessary to his foreign policy. Sadat threw out the Soviets and lessened the shame inflicted on Arab militaries by attacking the Israelis occupying Sinai in 1973. But he maintained the apparatus of a dominant state to hold power. Mubarak strengthened the apparatus of repression, getting billions from the US for not upsetting the treaty with Israel, which is America’s greatest priority (more than a secure oil supply) in the Mideast.

You don’t have to dwell on this history to understand that a half-century of military control informs the current moment.

There was a remarkable Pew Poll released just before the events of Tahrir Square. The pollsters found that, “when asked which side they would take in a struggle between groups who want to modernize the country, and Islamic fundamentalism, 59 percent picked the fundamentalists, while 27 percent picked the modernizers.” There were other questions that showed Egyptians favor free speech and democracy and are concerned with the spread of Islamic extremism. Most ominously, 82 percent say their view of America is “unfavorable.” The poll revealed the fractures of opinion and direction in Egyptian society that will leave the army as the default authority.

The New York Times profiled the leadership of the Tahrir revolutionaries recently, and found they didn’t yet have an office, and were still debating what the name of their movement would be. These are people who hope to dismantle an authoritarian system and install a just a national political culture in short time. Major parties will undoubtedly emerge from the remnants of the Mubarak political machine, and have their candidate for president. Muslim Brothers have organization in place. Plus ca change

I don’t fear for the emergence of the worst-case scenarios, like an unfriendly Muslim state, abrogation of treaties, or attacks on Israel. But any pluralist Egyptian government of the future will pose threats for America. It will have an unpredictable Muslim component. It will have secular factions who would support a return to Mubarak-like regime. The deep Arab resentment of US aid for Israel will be no longer be taboo to utter.

For all these reasons, I fear that Egypt’s transition to democracy will be a bumpy ride.


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