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The Struggle for Egypt

From Nasser to Tahrir Square

Author: , Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies

The Struggle for Egypt - the-struggle-for-egypt
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Publisher A CFR Book. Oxford University Press

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Price $27.95 paper

424 pages
ISBN 978-0199795260

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Hassan was giddy, a word not often used to describe him. Not only was he relieved that Egypt's long nightmare had finally come to an end and the prospects of freedom were seemingly better than at any moment in the previous six decades, but Hassan must also have felt vindicated (though he is too polite to boast about it).

He was not among the organizers of the protests and his activism had not been as high profile as many others, but Hassan had worked tirelessly to raise awareness among his network of Egyptian and foreign contacts of the perfidy of the Mubarak regime. He was also entirely correct on another level, having little patience for the claim that Egypt's political system was stable and thus durable. Hassan argued quite the opposite; that it was a house of cards built only on a foundation of fear, which was meaningless once Egyptians could no longer be intimidated. He could not predict when that would happen, but he believed it was inevitable.

It did not take long, however, for Hassan's great hopes for the future to turn sour. Within thirty-six hours of Mubarak's flight to Sharm el Shaykh and ignominy, Hassan was back at the computer burning up his keyboard. His first dispatch was titled "Hoax" and mixed Hassan's typical bravado with painful and sudden disillusion:

"I believe a big conspiracy is being perpetrated against the people of Egypt.

Following almost three weeks of nationwide protests leading to the apparent downfall of a dictator, jubilation fills the streets of Egypt, in effect drugging the people into believing they have really become free. They are convinced their interim government will really keep its promises and steer them peacefully to the democracy everyone so valiantly fought for . . . Egypt will remain a military dictatorship indefinitely. How I wish I am wrong."

This message was surely a result of that "revolutionary hangover" that observers had expected. After all, uncertainty breeds fear. Yet in the weeks and months after Mubarak's departure, Hassan remained deeply concerned over the ebb and flow of events. Most of all, he was suspicious of the senior military commanders, whom he quite correctly tied directly to Mubarak.

They were, indeed, his officers and while they ultimately pushed the president from office, they were loyal to him to a fault. Mubarak had threatened their cherished order nine days before his departure when he released thugs on Tahrir Square, yet the military stood aside during the chaos and stuck with their dictator.

To be sure, there were bright moments for Hassan. For example, when the revolutionary groups forced the resignation of Mubarak's last prime minister and loyal servant, Ahmed Shafiq, on March 3, Hassan's outlook improved considerably. He was under no illusions, however; he never believed that Egypt's transition would be easy, but he was also well aware that remnants of the National Democratic Party, elements of the police, state security agents--even after the State Security Investigations was abolished on March 15--business interests, and the military would do whatever they could to salvage the old regime.

That is why he voted "no" in the March 19 referendum. Hassan, like the many others who rejected the amendments, feared that previously well-organized and well-funded groups would be in a better position to contest parliamentary elections in six months time than groups confronted with the job of transforming themselves from protest movements into political parties--no easy task. Indeed, there was nothing about the post-Mubarak order that would be easy, but many Egyptians firmly believed that whatever the outcome of their revolution it had to be better than the Mubarak era.

There is a tendency to believe that Egyptians rebelled against Hosni Mubarak in early 2011. That is true, but it is not entirely accurate. They revolted against a regime--a political order--that he led, but that Mubarak inherited from Sadat who had inherited it from Nasser.

It was a system that was founded in the ideological and power politics of the early 1950s, when the Free Officers discovered they could dispose of their opponents through nondemocratic laws, rules, regulations and decrees. Egyptians unexpectedly cracked open that regime and dislodged its caretaker--Mubarak--and for the first time in sixty years have an opportunity to define Egypt as they desire rather than as a line of now discredited military officers have defined it.

All the questions that Egyptians have been asking themselves: What is Egypt? What principles and values should guide Egypt at home and abroad? What is the role of religion and nationalism in the life of the country? What kind of foreign policy should Egypt pursue? Can Egypt be a regional leader again?

Suddenly Egyptians--through their own bravery and dignity--gave themselves an opportunity to provide their own answers to these questions. Without a compelling and coherent account of Egyptian society and politics in response, their extraordinary efforts could be for naught. Indeed, it is entirely possible that Egypt's elections, the seating of a new parliament, or the inauguration of an elected president may ultimately not matter much.

Although among the vast majority, there is great hope that Egyptians can construct a new political system and rebuild their society peacefully, that is unlikely as long as the underlying and antecedent debates about Egypt and what it stands for remain unresolved. There is no way of knowing how this process will unfold or how long it will take.

In the immediate post-revolutionary period it is clear that the contest over legitimacies is the first step in what will likely be a bruising battle to define Egypt. Consequently, it is extraordinarily difficult to determine how the country will end up. There are only hints, albeit mixed ones--positive developments about democratic change coinciding with ominous signs of authoritarianism. For now, one thing is clear: the struggle for Egypt continues.

Copyright © 2011 by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

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