Deeper than 1919; More Egalitarian than 1952; Different from 1979; Echoing 1989; Possibly Entering the Class of 1789

From our friend Shiko Behar:

As these words are written, worldwide observers anxiously await the third communiqué within less than 24 hours from the old guard leadership of the Egyptian armed forces. This follows last night’s insulting and detached address delivered by Egypt’s defunct autocrat, Hosni Mubarak. Can these tantalizing – yet still uncertain – developments permit a minimally thoughtful reading aimed at transcending the present?

To begin with, everyone should salute the exceptional persistence and bravery of the Egyptian masses who have exhibited an exemplary, highly-politicized spirit. During the last 18 days the world has witnessed an outstanding manifestation of collective action – one that neither scholars, nor even authors of prose, could have written in such a sublime, paradigmatic manner. Egypt’s masses have compellingly reminded all members of global civil society that the core values of liberation, freedom and democracy must not be regarded as clichés. In this respect, events unfolding in Egypt constitute a quintessential part of World History rather than merely being part of Egyptian, Arab or Middle Eastern history alone.

It is still possible that Mubarak’s speech – whether intentionally or unwittingly – will unleash violence. A risk now exists that the velvet revolution largely typifying the past three weeks will come to an end. The questions are painfully simple: with whom will the Egyptian army ally itself? Will the army sink deeper than it has thus far, ally itself with its present boss and then use force against the democratic masses? Will the army instead ally itself with the Egyptian masses that – to begin with – it is supposed to protect? Since 1936 Baghdad, the scenario of removing rulers by this or that military coup has repeated itself dozens of times in the modern history of the Middle East. My own gut feeling is that by the end of these long days – the authoritarian Mubarak will be firmly instructed by a group of his army officers to step down. For this scenario to amount to more than banal wishful thinking, a necessary prerequisite would be a steadfast continuation of the huge demonstrations.



Are the events we have now been witnessing like the 1919 Egyptian revolution? While my answer would largely be yes, it is clear that present events are considerably deeper than those of 1919. The revolt of 1919 was built from the bottom-up against a foreign British colonial power that had ruled Egypt (since 1882). While more Egyptians were killed in 1919 than thus far in 2011, and while a rudimentary system of parliamentary democracy was forced upon the British occupiers in Egypt – the revolt’s ultimate result did not deliver Egyptian national independence and self-rule. Nor did it deliver a functioning and egalitarian “democratic” elections as elections were consistently rigged by a collaboration between the monarchy and the colonial power against the leading Nationalist movement (the Wafd). Are the events we have now been witnessing similar to Egypt’s 1952 revolution? Here my answer would be no. Events in 1952 were led by young army officers (calling themselves the Free Officers). True, these events did manage to terminate the Egyptian monarchy, oust King Farouk and lead to the emergence of non-democratic military rule (self-described as republican). But the 1952 revolution was – paradigmatically – a revolution from above by armed forces. While the new military rulers did initiate a thorough Land Reform, their actions and deeds did not involve the mass, bottom-up mobilisation that we are witnessing in the Egypt of 2011. Furthermore, Mubarak’s very paternalistic, chauvinist and patronising attitude/tone vis-à-vis “his” people probably have their roots in the Free Officers’ attitude. Egypt in 2011 is not Iran in 1979 if only because Iran 1979 happened as it did! The social forces that produced the events of 2011 are younger, more liberal, more democratic and more global and international that the forces that operated in 1979 Iran. And yes, 2011 is reminiscent of Eastern Europe in 1989. When the Egyptian masses encircled the Presidential Place and the headquarters of Egypt’s National Television I almost thought that we are about to relive a Romanian moment where protestors took control of the Romanian television and later killed dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu.

Lastly, is 2011 Cairo in the league of 1789 Paris? I for one believe that it certainly can be. Both ends came into existence as a result of popular mobilization. There were moments earlier today that I thought that the Egyptian army's initial complicity with the regime may have necessitated an Egyptian mass call “To the Bastille!” Luckily for the Egyptians, 2011 Cairo involved less blood and violence that 1789 Paris. But 2011 Egypt has the potential to introduce popular democratic self-rule and sovereignty to an incredibly important part of the world that thus far escaped it.

Only the vile and the willingly-blind cannot see that the incredibly diverse peoples of the Middle East – particularly the young – crave for non-sectarian multi-faith democracies. Many today hope that the steadfast Egyptian masses – sparkled by the bravery of the Tunisian people – have opened for all of us the collective door to start the long sublime march towards a democratically inclusive political system – one that should embrace popular egalitarianism for women and men of all ethnic and religious affiliations.