After Egypt

Adam Shatz in the LRB:

After the battle for Tahrir Square, the conceptual grid that Western officials have used to divide the Islamic world into friends and enemies, moderates and radicals, good Muslims and bad Muslims has never looked more inadequate, or more irrelevant. A ‘moderate’ and ‘stable’ Arab government, a pillar of US strategy in the Middle East, has been overthrown by a nationwide protest movement demanding democratic reform, transparent governance, freedom of assembly, a more equitable distribution of the country’s resources and a foreign policy more reflective of popular opinion. It has sent other Arab governments into a panic while raising the hopes of their young, frustrated populations. If the revolution in Egypt succeeds, it will have swept away not only a corrupt and autocratic regime, but the vocabulary, and the patterns of thought, that have underpinned Western policy in the greater Middle East for more than a half century.

The fate of Egypt’s revolution – brought to a pause by the military’s seizure of power on 11 February, after Mubarak’s non-resignation address to his ‘children’ – remains uncertain. Mubarak is gone, but the streets have been mostly cleared of protesters and the army has filled the vacuum: chastened, yet still in power and with considerable resources at its disposal. Until elections are held in six months, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will be ruling by decree, without the façade of parliamentary government. The parliament, voted into office in rigged elections, has been dissolved, a move that won wide support, and a new constitution is being drafted, but it’s not clear how much of a hand the opposition will have in shaping it. More ominously, the Supreme Council has vowed to punish anyone it can accuse of spreading ‘chaos and disorder’. The blunt rhetoric of its communiqués may be refreshing after the speeches of Mubarak, his son Gamal and the industrialists who dominated the ruling National Democratic Party, with their formulaic promises of reform and their talk of the nobility of the Egyptian people but ten days ago in Tahrir Square the protesters said – maybe even believed – that the army and the people stood together. Today the council’s communiqués are instructions, not proposals to be debated, and it has notably failed to answer the protesters’ two most urgent demands: the repeal of the Emergency Law and the release of thousands of political prisoners.