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Reflections on the Revolution in Egypt

Author: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
February 13, 2011
Project Syndicate

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Revolutions happen for a reason. In the case of Egypt, there are several reasons: more than 30 years of one-man rule; Hosni Mubarak's plans to pass the presidency on to his son; widespread corruption, patronage, and nepotism; and economic reform that did not benefit most Egyptians, but that nonetheless contrasted sharply with the almost complete absence of political change.

The net result was that many Egyptians felt not just alienated, but also humiliated. Humiliation is a powerful motivator. Egypt was ripe for revolution; dramatic change would have come at some point in the next few years, even absent the spark of Tunisia or the existence of social media.

Indeed, social media are a significant factor, but their role has been exaggerated. It is hardly the first disruptive technology to come along: the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, and cassettes all posed challenges to the existing order of their day. And like these earlier technologies, social media are not decisive: they can be repressed by governments as well as employed by governments to motivate their supporters.

Timing counts for a lot in politics. Mubarak's announcement that he would not seek re-election would likely have averted a crisis had he issued it in December. But, by the time he did say it, the mood of the street had evolved to the point that he could no longer placate it.

The initial success of revolutions is determined less by the strength of the protesters than by the will and cohesion of the regime. Tunisia's collapse came quickly, because its president lost his nerve and the army was weak and unwilling to stand by him. Egypt's establishment and its military are demonstrating far greater resolve.

Mubarak's departure is a significant but not decisive development. To be sure, it closes a prolonged era of Egyptian politics. It also marks the end of the first phase of Egypt's revolution. But it is only the end of the beginning. What begins now is the struggle for Egypt's future.

The objective must be to slow the political clock. Egyptians need time to build a civil society and open a political spectrum that has been mostly closed for decades. A hybrid, caretaker government, including military and civilian elements, may be the best way forward.  To slow the clock is not to stop it, however. A genuine political transition needs to move ahead, albeit at a measured pace.

Early elections should be avoided, lest those (such as the Muslim Brotherhood) who have been able to organize over the years enjoy an unfair advantage. The Muslim Brotherhood should be allowed to participate in the political process so long as it accepts the legitimacy of that process, the rule of law, and the constitution. The history and political culture of Egypt suggest a natural limit to the Brotherhood's appeal if Egyptians can bridge their most important differences, maintain order, and restore economic growth.

Constitutional reform is critical. Egypt needs a constitution that enjoys broad support – and that includes checks and balances that make it difficult for minorities (even those who command the support of a plurality of voters) to rule majorities.

Revolutionary movements invariably split into factions. Their sole common objective is the ouster of the existing regime. As soon as this goal comes close to being achieved, elements of the opposition begin to position themselves for the second phase of the struggle and the coming competition for power. We are already beginning to see signs of this in Egypt and will see more in the days and weeks to come.

Some in Egypt will be satisfied only with full democracy; others (probably a majority) will care most about public order, greater official accountability, a degree of political participation, and economic improvement. It is never possible to satisfy the demands of all protesters, and regimes should not try.

Egypt will face enormous economic difficulties, exacerbated by recent events, which have frightened off tourists, deterred investment, and kept many from working. The challenges of a fast-growing population, inadequate education, insufficient jobs, corruption, bureaucracy, and rising global competition constitute the greatest threat to the country's future.

Outsiders have had and will have only limited influence over the course of events. Over the past 30 years, intermittent calls by the United States for limited political reform were largely rebuffed. Once the crisis began, the people in the streets, Mubarak himself, and above all the army have been the principal protagonists. Moving forward, it will again be Egyptians who will largely determine their own path.

In this vein, outsiders should be careful of intervening too much, especially in public. It is up to Egyptians to define for themselves how much and what kind of democracy is established. Outsiders can assist – for example, with ideas for constitutional reform or voting procedures – but this should be done privately and as suggestions, not demands.

Developments in Egypt will have uneven consequences in the region. Not every country will be affected equally. True monarchies, like Jordan, have a legitimacy and stability that the leaders of faux monarchies (Syria, Libya, and Yemen), as well as the Iranian regime, do not. Much will depend on what transpires and how.

Change in Iraq was imposed from the outside by force, whereas change in Egypt has come from within and has largely been accomplished by consent rather than coercion. But it is too soon to know whether change in Egypt will be far-reaching and lasting, much less positive, and thus too soon to assess its historic impact.

Richard N. Haass, formerly Director of Policy Planning in the US State Department, is President of The Council on Foreign Relations.

This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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