I make no claims to possessing prescient powers, but a February 19, 2011 article I wrote titled “Egypt’s Mubarak is Gone, So What?” prefigured much of the turmoil that has attended the overthrow of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. I recall that when the article was published, some people wrote to protest what they thought was my off-handed dismissal of the gallantry of Egyptian protesters who braved seemingly insurmountable odds to unseat a 30-year-old dictatorship.
Other people thought my cynical take on popular rebellions and revolutions undermined the restorative capacities of mass movements. But events in Egypt in the last few days have shown that my cynicism wasn’t groundless, after all. We now know that the series of mass protests that brought down Mubarak did not change the Egyptian power structure in any fundamental way. We also know that, after all is said and done, the Egyptian military is still the custodian of the real power in the country. That’s why the military would give a democratically elected president an ultimatum to come up with a power-sharing agreement with the opposition or risk a coup.
Of course, I am not by any means suggesting people should recoil in fatalistic resignation while their oppressors have a field day. Revolutionary tremors are good for every society every once in a while. But it helps to know the limitations of mass protests, especially leaderless mass protests that merely ruffle the feathers of the ruling class. See relevant excerpts of the article below:
“In the well-justified triumphalism that has greeted the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, we all seem to have deadened our historical consciousness to the consequences of popular revolutions. Almost without exception, the gains of revolutions are often too fleeting to be worthy of the emotional and intellectual energies invested in them.
“Let’s start from close home. Uthman Dan Fodiyo’s religious revolution in the 19th century was inspired, among other things, by the urge to purge northern Nigerian Islam of a decaying, oppressive monarchy and of the syncretism of idolatry and Islam that had defined public life at the time. But the precise conditions that Dan Fodio and his followers fought to uproot have returned in newer, more vicious forms.
“His successors have constituted themselves into a parasitic, profligate, patrimonial monarchy—in contravention of the spirit and letter of leadership in Islam where knowledge and consensus, and not heredity, are the bases of leadership. Were Dan Fodio to return today, he would certainly wage another revolution against his heirs.
“Similarly, the liberatory afterglow of the Russian Revolution lasted only a few years. From Josef Stalin onwards, Communist Russia was just as oppressive and as primitive in its cruelty as the Tsarist era it extirpated.
“And the emancipatory effects of the Iranian Revolution have all but evaporated now. It has been replaced by suffocating clerical despotism, repression, and a paranoid leadership. I have more than a dozen Iranian friends, one of whose fathers was, in fact, a leading light in the Revolution. They are all now thoroughly disillusioned. They complain that their country, like ours, is wracked by unspeakable corruption and cronyism and burdened with an insecure, insensitive, and out-of-touch leadership. Now, the youth of the country want another revolution to flush out the beneficiaries of the earlier revolution. A potentially explosive ferment is brewing there as I write this column.
“I can go on, but the point I want to make is that revolutions, historically, do no more than replace one set of oppressors with another. The emergent beneficiaries, of course, at first sound radical and refreshingly different and make the right noises and spout the noblest sentiments. They may even radically overhaul the system for a while and succeed in inspiring a renewed sense of purpose and direction in ordinary people. But shortly after, the reversal would set in: the revolutionaries become indistinguishable from the reactionaries they overthrow.
“In the case of Egypt, it’s an even worse scenario. What happened in Egypt wasn’t, properly speaking, a revolution. It was merely a rebellion. Like in Tunisia, disparate resentments quickly coalesced into a mass resistance, then blossomed into a protest, and culminated in a rebellion without ever achieving the status of a revolution. In a revolution, a vanguard takes ownership of the rebellion and uses it as a ladder to climb to substantive power. But all that the popular rebellion did in Egypt—and in Tunisia earlier—was to overthrow the public face of an oppressive power structure while leaving intact the power structure itself. The outcome, if you ask me, is hardly worth the effort.
“I know this is a very cynical take on a heroic and historic event that has captured the imagination of the whole world. But it doesn’t hurt to inject our mushy effusiveness over the ‘triumph’ of the Egyptian masses with a little dose of reality check. If even real revolutions—where a vanguard of fighters takes over power—are often customarily no more than a flash in the pan, why should we be overly optimistic over a rebellion that merely scratched the surface of an entrenched, well-coordinated power structure? Mubarak has only been replaced by the military which, in any case, has always been the power behind the throne. Nothing, really, has changed.”