Egyptian Civil Unrest Doesn’t Ensure Liberty or Democracy
By MATT GELLER
The revolution in Egypt that has raged for two weeks surprised the world community and shook the Arab world. The authoritarian rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is irrevocably altered.
While the West is left wondering what will come from the revolution, Egypt has been laboring to sharply define the goals of the revolution. How the future government will operate is of paramount concern.
Without a clear leader, there is high risk of instability, and the potential destruction of a country that is a key ally to the West as well as a very important country in the Arab world.
Currently, the revolution is a collection of loosely formed factions ranging from secular to Islamic. While they may not share the same ideologies, they are united, at least for now, by a unifying set of demands: the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, the dissolution of one-party rule, and amendments to the country’s constitution that allowed a dictator to rule for more than 30 years.
In an interview with National Public Radio, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described, “a debate within Egypt itself, and not just in the government, but among the people of Egypt” as to when Mubarak will step down, and what kind of government will form.
One of the largest and most powerful opposition groups is the Muslim Brotherhood.
It was banned in Egypt for most of its history but was legally recognized in 2005. Before the revolution it had about 88 seats within parliament. Today, it is estimated that if free elections were held, they would represent about 25 to 30 percent of the vote.
There is no doubt that they will be a driving force toward reform in Egypt. However, the goals of the group both domestically and abroad, remain unclear.
Conservative politicians John McCain and Mitt Romney have both expressed anxieties about the revolution in Egypt becoming similar to the 1979 Iranian revolution, where a revolt that began in the streets led to the overthrow of secular ally Shah Reza Pahlavi, in favor of a theocratic Islamic Republic.
While it is possible that this may happen, it seems unlikely. The strength of the revolution has been with the young and secular segment of Egyptian society. They have seen the results of a theocratic Iran, and for them this is unappealing.
Instead, the protestors have delegated negotiating duties to Mohamed ElBaradei, a secular law scholar, Nobel laureate, and critic of the Egyptian government. He has been working with the U.S. and Egyptian authorities to transition power away from Mubarak in an attempt to form a more democratic government.
However, his position that the transition of power should be gradual is very unpopular with the segment of the revolution calling for the immediate removal of Mubarak.
The U.S. supports a gradual transition in order to avoid an amendment in the Egyptian constitution that stipulates that elections would have to be held 60 days after Mubarak leaves office. A hasty exit could result in another inadequate vote and lead to more instability.
Currently, the situation is still manageable thanks mostly to the power and the popularity of the Egyptian military, but this may not bode well for the country’s democratic aspirations.
Fareed Zakaria of CNN believes that the real threat to a liberal democracy comes from the military, which has a huge budget and is afforded a great deal of autonomy.
Indeed, the few presidents that Egypt has had have all been military officers, and the military is involved in nearly every aspect of Egyptian society. This is a potent combination for turning Egypt into another sham democracy.
The U.S. government is trying to support efforts for a liberal and secular democracy, but it should be wary that brokering a deal that leads to another oppressive government will lead to another opposition group that could become more hard-line, resentful, and violent.
Unfortunately, historically that has often been the case.
George Ayittey, from the Free Africa Foundation writes, “…there’s one insidious aspect of despotism that is most infuriating and galling to me: the disturbing frequency with which many despots… began their careers as erstwhile freedom fighters who were supposed to have liberated their people.”
Egypt’s demand that Hosni Mubarak step down from office is justified. However, this is not a guarantee that their dream for a democracy won’t result in another nightmare.