Revolutions happen for a reason. In the case of Egypt, there are several reasons: more than 30 years of one-man rule; former Egyptian president 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, and 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.
Like these earlier technologies, social media are not decisive. They can be repressed by governments as well as employed by regimes 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. However, by the time he did say so, 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 government’s they face. 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. However, 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 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.