Assessing Egypt’s revolutionary path
By : David Dumke
Egypt has now completed its second democratic election for president, which represents a notable accomplishment in an ongoing process to determine the future of the Arab world’s most populous nation. The transition from Hosni Mubarak has not been flawless nor without pain, but it has been an organic Egyptian process and offers the possibility for renewal in a country facing a number of pressing challenges that require a stable government and national leadership.
The Western think tank world has been quick to complain about most aspects of the transition from Mubarak to the Muslim Brotherhood to the election of Abdel Fattah El-Sisi. The list of grievances includes human rights violations, a lack of political inclusion, and the conduct of the ongoing war against terrorism. The standards applied, however, seem to fail to take into account the unique context under which change is unfolding. For Egypt, unlike the United States or United Kingdom, does not have a long, stable tradition of democratic change. Nor, for that matter, does it enjoy a relatively stable economy or clearly understood legal process – ingredients which help explain why the process is of such high importance and high stakes for Egyptian citizens.
Revolutions are rarely confined to single events, and Egypt is no exception. Unlike the collapse of the Iron Curtain in Eastern Europe, there has not been a single “tear down the wall” moment. Rather, Egypt’s ongoing process – for it is not yet complete – has been a series of chapters. Nor has the Egyptian revolution been spearheaded by identifiable, individual leaders such as Lech Walesa or Vaclav Havel. Rather, it has been a people-led movement which, at least until the eventual emergence of El-Sisi, lacked coherent leadership or ideological leaning. Indeed, the Egyptian revolution was based on a collective sense of discontent and unease about life today and tomorrow.
It is true that liberal and secular Egyptian activists, particularly the youth, have played a vanguard role throughout the process thus far. In urban areas in particular, they have been able to mobilize masses through social media and grassroots activism, encouraging demonstrations under the ill-defined banner of “bread, freedom, and social justice.”
Yet this generic demand has not yet crystallized into a political ideology or movement, but has remained a slogan for protest. And while no doubt disappointing to many activists, sloganism has not translated into the creation of the utopian liberal state many envisioned. Nor has the public agreed with this visionary state.
Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, only became part and parcel of the revolutionary process when they saw that change was possible. They correctly understood that their grassroots network, built up over decades, would translate into electoral victory. But upon winning both the parliamentary and presidential elections, they failed to understand why they had won. For the revolution was not Islamist, a point made clear after June 30, when – despite being continually overlooked by many Western analysts – Egyptian citizens rose up and expressed their displeasure with the Islamist agenda.
Much has been said about the role of the Egyptian military in the revolution, but most tend to ignore the traditional role of the army in society. The Egyptian military is the most respected and longstanding institution in Egypt. True, it is an army comprised of professional officers, but it is much more than that. All Egyptians are required to serve, thus it has long been a national institution that includes Egyptians of all stripes, giving it a direct connection to the people which is lacking today in many strictly professional armies.
Moreover, throughout history it has seen itself as the defender of Egypt both against foreign threats and, when need arises, domestic unrest. It has been involved in all revolutionary movements in Egypt, from Orabi to King Farouk to the present. When it has opted to enter the political fray, it has always done so with the support of the masses.
This is not to say Egyptians today want military rule. But they have demonstrated on multiple occasions that without viable political alternatives, at times of turmoil they place their trust with the armed forces and its leaders – the institution they most trust.
It is no surprise then, that El-Sisi was elected in a landslide. He represents stability, largely attributable to his career in the armed forces. As a political figure, it remains to be seen how long he will maintain this trust, for Egyptians will not forever see El-Sisi as a military man. Soon, he will be judged as a politician, and as such by how well he delivers for his people and is capable of addressing Egypt’s daunting challenges.
It is far too easy for Western analysts to conclude that the Egyptian revolution has come full circle and that El-Sisi’s election represents a return to the status quo. It is true that a former military man will again be president. It is also true that despite his popularity today, and his appealing messages to the public, that Egyptians did not elected him because of his political acumen. He was elected largely as a personality.
Yet it is far too early to conclude that El-Sisi stands for more of the same. Thus far, he has been measured in his campaign promises. But to his credit he has not ignored the considerable challenges the country faces.
Moreover, his nuanced answers about foreign policy show that he is far more realistic in his security assessments than many politicians; he has not used any foreign nation as a “straw man” responsible for Egypt’s problems, even though it would have been politically opportune to do so.
After being burned by its support of Mubarak and Mohamed Morsi, the United States, in particular, has been very reluctant to embrace El-Sisi. Some of these fears can be well understood, particularly for a nation which has rhetorically emphasized – for well or ill – that democratic standards and human rights are cornerstones of its international outlook. But it would be far too shortsighted to conclude that El-Sisi is a military dictator out of central casting. Should that prove to be the case over time, then Washington can determine whether shortcomings in Egypt’s internal politics and governance are worth scaling back ties with Cairo – and risking the national security implications that taking such a move would risk.
David Dumke is a veteran analyst on regional policy and American foreign policy.