What’s next in Egypt? It is the question that many are asking but I doubt anyone (including myself) is going to be very accurate in answering. There are precedents all over the place for the way things can go. It might go like Tunisia where the president empties his and the nations bank accounts and skips off to some villa on the Mediterranean leaving the Parliament to try to placate the protesters. It might go like Iran, where the pro-democracy protesters are slowly but surely ground down by the security apparatus or it could (and really this is the most likely) go in some uniquely Egyptian direction.
The protesters in Tahrir Square thought they had reached a tipping point on Friday, they had beaten off the attacks of the pro-Mubarak forces two nights in a row, the Army had moved in to separate the sides and there would be another enormous rally. They even named it the “Day of Departure” which I like better than the all too common “Day of Rage”, but when push came to shove they did not get what they wanted, President Hosni Mubarak had dug in his heels on their primary demand.
Which is not to say that the government is not talking the talk in terms of reform; they have made gestures towards the kind of things that anyone would want. They are claiming to start an investigation of three of the powerful ministers that were part of the cabinet which President Mubarak fired. They have frozen their bank accounts and banned them from travel outside Egypt.
This would be a lot more credible if the government was not also suspected of organizing the attacks on the protesters in Tahrir Square and elsewhere. The images of mounted men riding into the square and attacking protesters combined with the near military style cordoning off of the square by pro-Mubarak forces gives a lot of credence to this idea.
Protesters say they can’t trust Mubarak’s promises about reform. That as long as he is in power there is a strong chance that he will renege on his promises and nothing will change. This is a very real danger for the pro-democracy forces. If things cool down and return to something like normal, then where is the impetus for change?
Even today we see some move towards normalcy. The banks in Egypt are re-opening, shops and businesses that had basically been closed for the last two weeks are starting to open and traffic, a major fact of daily life in Cairo prior to the uprising, is once again starting to flow. If the rage and frustration of the people has been vented, can a upraising like this truly turn into a revolution? If there are not enough people in the street, if the Egyptian stock market opens and does not plummet, where is the revolutionary fever that will drive this to completion?
The inability to stay on the streets is what has stalled the opposition forces in Iran. There it was the raising cost in terms of life and liberty that shut them down, but a need to return to a more normal economic life might make this iteration of pro-democracy protests fizzle in Egypt.
But maybe that is not all bad. I want the people of Egypt to have what they want, a freer government where there is actual input form the population not a shame democracy where a President routinely wins 98% of the vote because he has imprisoned his opposition or banned their party from participating. But maybe the people of Egypt are not ready to go there yet. Sadly, as strained as things are, maybe they are not yet bad enough to get the middle class in Egypt (such as it is) to not just turn out in the streets a couple of times, but be ready to stay in the streets as long as it takes.
Part of what is hampering this movement is that it is so decentralized. If it is succeeds it would be the first crowd sourced revolution in the history of the world. But every revolution faces the question of what to do the day after they are successful. Folks like Mohammed El Barhadi have stepped forward to offer some leadership, but there really is no mechanism for the protesters to approve or disapprove a of leadership structure. They are just people who are a mad as hell and intend to have their say. They have not put forward a plan for Egypt other than Mubarak leaving. It is this lack of a positive message that I think is also holding them back.
The most organized group around is the Muslim Brotherhood. They have, at best, a checkered past that make many Egyptians nervous about them. Parts of that organization were doing things like killing foreign tourists as late as the late 1990’s. That kind of thing sticks in peoples minds, even when they don’t like the current corrupt government. The protesters have said that the people meeting with Vice President Suleiman do not speak for them, so even the one organized party is not really in charge. Everywhere in the world there is some version of the saying “better the devil you know than the one you don’t know”. This bit of folk wisdom can really slow the pace of change, especially when things are only just on the edge of being intolerable.
Without a clear plan that they can sell to the people of Egypt beyond the removal of Mubarak there is not a lot to hang the revolutions hat on. They face an uphill battle on propaganda, which the Mubarak regime is using to its fullest. They face a giant city that wants change but also sees the need to feed it’s kids and to keep the national economy going. They face a lot of pressure from other Arab autocracies who don’t want Egypt’s government to fall in popular protests, since that would endanger them as well.
All this leads to a very tough slog for the protesters. If they can not keep the pressure on and keep the support of the people behind them, in a few weeks this uprising will be history. But that does not necessarily mean the revolution will be over. The Egyptian economy is going to have taken a huge hit. The forces of inflation, unemployment and poverty that sparked this upraising will only increase. That combined with time to hammer out a actual program for what they want and how they want it to happen might allow them to bring the uprising back at a time where it (if it does) becomes clear again that the Mubarak government is not acting in good faith.
I am not proposing this is the best way, it just seems like the one that is most likely. Moving before a revolution is really ready is one of the most common failure modes. In some case brutal repression by the military keeps the fires burning and powers the uprising along. Without that in Egypt the timing for removing Mubarak may be later rather than sooner.
The good news in all of this is that a marker has been laid down. Many of Mubarak’s supporters in the West are walking away from him at one speed or another. The writing is on the wall, the Egyptian people want a change in government. The question is, where does it all go from here and how fast?
The floor is yours.