Egypt: Appearances Can be Deceiving

A recent Burlington Free Press article tells the story of the communication pipeline that some Middlebury College students have with what is going on in Egypt after being evacuated from there about two months ago.  Here is an excerpt from a transcript of a phone conversation between one of those students and a translator/teacher about the demonstrations:

“I’ve never seen anything like it, Andrew, not in 10 years of living here. It’s beyond what you could imagine. I’ve seen incredible, wonderful things happening. People having been coming and giving out things for free, today we had some of the garbage collectors come out and collect garbage for free. It’s an amazing sense of community, it’s like the government has been bringing out the worst in people for so, so, long, and this is finally bringing out the best in people. I mean, there’s no sexual harassment – NOTHING! Can you imagine that? I finally feel safe walking around the people I’ve been afraid of for most of my life. I’ve been walking in a crowd of men all day, and not a single person has touched me, or grabbed me.“

The rest of the quotes talk about the relationship between the democratic reformers and the Muslim Brotherhood and the tolerance needed on the part of both for reform to take hold.  There is a common theme that is being picked up by most media outlets.  The story is presented as one of a democratic people’s uprising toppling a dictatorship.  Some more skeptical observers see it as a case of a radical group like the Muslim Brotherhood using the protestors to topple Mubarak thereby paving the way for an eventual Islamic Republic.  They compare the situation to the 1979 Iranian Revolution that toppled the Shah.  The question is whether either perspective tells the whole story.

This is the question raised by George Friedman, the founder of Strategic Forecasters, in a February 14th article entitled: “Egypt: The Distance Between Enthusiasm and Reality“.  Friedman points out that Egypt las long been ruled by the military and still is.  He does not see much that has changed, nor does he think that what has changed was primarily due to pressure from the protestors:

“Certainly, there was a large crowd concentrated in a square in Cairo, and there were demonstrations in other cities. But the crowd was limited. It never got to be more than 300,000 people or so in Tahrir Square, and while that’s a lot of people, it is nothing like the crowds that turned out during the 1989 risings in Eastern Europe or the 1979 revolution in Iran. Those were massive social convulsions in which millions came out onto the streets. The crowd in Cairo never swelled to the point that it involved a substantial portion of the city.

In a genuine revolution, the police and military cannot contain the crowds. In Egypt, the military chose not to confront the demonstrators, not because the military itself was split, but because it agreed with the demonstrators’ core demand: getting rid of Mubarak. And since the military was the essence of the Egyptian regime, it is odd to consider this a revolution.”

Why would the military want one of their own toppled?  According to Friedman:

“The crowd in Cairo, as telegenic as it was, was the backdrop to the drama, not the main feature. The main drama began months ago when it became apparent that Mubarak intended to make his reform-minded 47-year-old son, Gamal, lacking in military service, president of Egypt. This represented a direct challenge to the regime. In a way, Mubarak was the one trying to overthrow the regime.

Mubarak’s decision to name his son represented a direct challenge to the Egyptian regime. Gamal Mubarak was not a career military officer, nor was he linked to the military’s high command, which had been the real power in the regime. Mubarak’s desire to have his son succeed him appalled and enraged the Egyptian military, the defender of the regime. If he were to be appointed, then the military regime would be replaced by, in essence, a hereditary monarchy — what had ruled Egypt before the military. Large segments of the military had been maneuvering to block Mubarak’s ambitions and, with increasing intensity, wanted to see Mubarak step down in order to pave the way for an orderly succession using the elections scheduled for September, elections designed to affirm the regime by selecting a figure acceptable to the senior military men. Mubarak’s insistence on Gamal and his unwillingness to step down created a crisis for the regime. The military feared the regime could not survive Mubarak’s ambitions.”

None of this precludes democratic reform from ultimately taking place, but it will depend on the military:

“What we see is that while Mubarak is gone, the military regime in which he served has dramatically increased its power. This isn’t incompatible with democratic reform. Organizing elections, political parties and candidates is not something that can be done quickly. If the military is sincere in its intentions, it will have to do these things. The problem is that if the military is insincere it will do exactly the same things. Six months is a long time, passions can subside and promises can be forgotten.”

Perhaps we should dig a little deeper into what is really going on before getting too excited.