Egypt's Revolutions in History
by Stephen Schwartz
Egypt has undergone two major revolutions since the withering of the Ottoman Empire in the 18th Century; it's already amidst a third. Unfortunately both previous revolutions failed to realize dreams of combining – what could be aptly termed – one of the world's most ancient cultures with ingenuity, entrepreneurship and prosperity to foster a stable democracy.
The first revolution was led by Mehmet Ali Pasha (1769-1849). He took to power in Egypt in 1805. An Albanian by origin, he was born in the Balkan town of Kavala and, therefore, was known in Turkish as Kavalali Mehmet Alipasha. His ascent to the governorship (wilayat) of Egypt came in the aftermath of the Napoleonic invasions of 1798-1801. Although the modernizing, rationalist French departed Egypt, they left behind the inspiration to change its society, which Mehmet Ali Pasha justly adopted. While he is credited by its citizens today as the "father of modern Egypt," Mehmet Ali Pasha's vision of social transformation is – unfortunately – yet to be achieved.
Nevertheless, Mehmet Ali Pasha performed one unforgettably worthwhile service for the Muslim ummah when he commanded armies to sweep the blight of Wahhabi fundamentalists and the corruption of the Saud family out of the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. For over a generation, the Wahhabi radicals and their Saudi accomplices were subdued.
The second Egyptian revolution, which began in 1952, was led by the Free Officers Movement rsulting in the strong military-backed regime which is in power till this day. Its dominant figure was Gamal Abdel Nasser (1918-70). Like Mehmet Ali Pasha, Nasser wanted to see Egypt as a modern country with an ability to lead the Arab world. Like his 19th century predecessor, he pursued this aim relentlessly. Like Mehmet Ali Pasha, Nasser acted as a hammer against radical Islam. The Free Officers coup was supported by the Muslim Brotherhood, which was already a powerful force. But Nasser, after a brief period of tolerance, repressed the Brotherhood vigorously – for good. It was Nasser's regime which hanged the most famous exponent of Brotherhood ideology, Sayyid Qutb (1906-66).
In the previous two attempts at the transformation of Egypt, the paragons of national renewal – Mehmet Ali Pasha and Nasser – had to prevail over varieties of Islamist fundamentalism. The main question facing Egypt, today, is: If an election for the presidency is held in September, could the authentic advocates of secular governance, gender equality, accountability, entrepreneurship, and popular sovereignty, in the brief time between now and then, stabilize a new political structure? To do so it's certain that, as in the past, a political confrontation must take place with religious extremism, once again visible in the Muslim Brotherhood.
History has taught us that there can be no secure democracy without first defeating the enemies of democracy. Revolutionary ideas typically began as a result of skirmishes between entrenched power and frustrated people, but the insurrectionary forces inevitably split between those favoring liberal ideals and expanded freedoms, and those seeking the power to force their ideology upon others. Democracy must win, before it can be won; it must be firmly victorious before its benefits may be enjoyed. In the months leading to Egypt's next election, the world will see whether, as so many of us hope, the country's social resources favoring real democracy can defeat the radicals in the Brotherhood, in the contest for political authority.
Among Islamic countries, theocratic Iran remains the great cautionary example of what may happen when a social revolution produces a power vacuum in which a determined, ideologically driven minority intervenes to gain and consolidate its influence. Before the uprising in Cairo in 2011, there was the tragedy of Tehran in 2009, when millions of Iranians marched – and some were killed by the mercenaries of the clerical regime – protesting the falsification of that year's presidential election. Iranians are watching Egypt closely, and a range of opinions has emerged from Persian-language media.
Iranians aligned with the ruling elite of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and "president" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad do not wish their ordinary fellow-citizens to seek inspiration from the Egyptians by reviving the opposition Green movement in the streets. Defenders of the Iranian order therefore attempt to equate the Egyptian democratic movement with the Khomeini revolution of 1979. Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, the ultra-retrograde secretary of Iran's Guardians' Council, declared "The current developments and events in Egypt have the same nature as the movement of the Iranian people against the Shah… Today we see the words of Imam Khomeini and the ideas of the Islamic Revolution successfully exported to other Muslim nations and peoples."
But Dr. Sadegh Zibakalam, Professor of Political Science at Tehran University, expressed a different view of the Egyptian events. He has noticed that "women and girls in Cairo, Muslim men in Tunis and Alexandria, in their protests against Mubarak, have not demanded an Islamic state, do not shout 'Death to America!,' do not burn the American or British flags, do not deface caricatures of American president Barack Obama and have not produced the other effects and symptoms typically displayed in Iran."
For his part, Mehdi Karroubi, an anti-Ahmadinejad presidential candidate in 2009, had challenged Iranian state's rhetoric by demanding the right of Iranians to publically demonstrate in support of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutionaries. Karroubi commented, "The uprising against autocracy in Egypt and Tunisia are an echo of the peaceful protests against the official results of the presidential election in Iran. The people's movement in Egypt and Tunisia has given new life to the Green movement." Karroubi was put under house arrest on February 10, lest he lead protestors on February 14, the 32nd anniversary of the Iranian Islamic revolution.
Numerous observers have remarked unfavorably on the policy of the US and the Obama administration toward Iran and Egypt alike – in both cases supporting "dialogue" with oppressive regimes rather than offering significant support to the democratic masses, and, again in both cases, appearing oblivious to the role of radical Islam in diverting legitimate reform movements.
Will Egypt by itself sustain its democratization? The first of the successful late 20th century "transitions to democracy" came in Spain after the death of Dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. The year before, neighboring Portugal experienced a revolution following the collapse of an authoritarian government. The Portuguese revolution included a near-coup by the country's Stalinist Communists, a period of temporary leftist military dominance, and threats to political and media freedoms. But Spain succeeded in moving from the legacy of Francoism to a stable democratic system with no such pains. The difference was simple: Portuguese civil society had been exhausted by the failed colonial wars of the 1960s and early 1970s, while Spanish civil society had been strengthened by the policies of Franco's colleagues, who understood that their form of authoritarian rule could not outlast the passing of the dictator.
All the really successful transitions that have taken place since the Spanish example – including those in the Philippines, South Korea, and Indonesia – repeated Spain's experience in that civil society, including the business class, media, and mainstream religious figures, fostered an environment in which the transition succeeded. While India did not have to suffer dictatorship (one cannot say if Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's "Emergency" could actually be called one), its development away from colonialism also benefited from strong civil society.
The "Spanish transition," in which I have been an observer and participant, embodied a set of principles that, if Egyptians are lucky, may be implanted in their country during the months preceding the next presidential election. They were outlined in 1989 by Spanish ambassador to then-Sandinista Nicaragua Alberto Aza Arias, and include the following "ten commandments":
Can Egypt, so ancient a society, burdened with corruption and despotism, satisfy these requirements for a democratic transition? With so many commentators convinced that the answer lies with the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the organization has become reminiscent, in global reporting, of the elephant in the famous Indian tale, described entirely differently by a group of blind men. Much has been written about the Brotherhood, but details are often garbled, and the general impression is vague: "a powerful fundamentalist Muslim movement."
The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood now claims to have adopted democratic political norms. It may have done so in view of the widely-admitted failures of violent Jihadism, the mass protests in Iran in 2009, and the increasing subversion of the Saudi Wahhabi "morals terror" by the anger of ordinary citizens. In this, the path of the MB would conform to that of "lawful Islamism" as practiced by the Turkish "soft fundamentalist" Justice and Development Party or AKP. The MB may have encountered so many obstacles in the form of a changing Egyptian reality that it has lost its original totalitarian impetus. It is widely commented, in a mode favorable to it, that the Brotherhood is at least willing to talk; but the Pakistani jihadist parties that command death squads and assist the Taliban run in elections. The democratizing rhetoric of the Brotherhood has been compared with "Eurocommunism" – the reformed movement that came among Western European Communists in the decade before the end of Soviet rule. But the path of the Eurocommunists would have been much more difficult without a senile Moscow. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has no such history of external incentives or restraints.
Would Saudi King Abdullah pressure the Brotherhood to accept a democratic transition in Egypt? So far, when the Brotherhood acts, it does so for its own reasons, and in its own interests. If the Brotherhood is responsible for the future of Egypt's third revolution, this latest leap toward a prosperous and stable order may also fall short.