Since the fall of the Tunisian president there has been a euphoric sense of destiny among democrats who see the forces of popular unrest creating a string of small successes in achieving democracy in lands in which democracy has not been seen before. Each victory of the people and each capitulation by the forces in power are seen as a current pushing forward the democratic process. There is talk of ‘domino effects’ and the threats these uprisings pose to the entrenched oligarchies that make up the current power structures in the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.
These feelings are admirable. They confirm the possibility in peoples’ minds that change and progress can be made by protest movements and sacrifices in the name of ‘democracy’. These movements and their successes give hope to the powerless that their turn may come. The only problem is that the experience across the world of such revolutions is that they do not reach the idealistic goals they seek and fail to maintain the goals that they do achieve. They engage the popular conscience but eschew the political and economic realities.
The reality of the quest for power by the powerless is that there are very few mechanisms which will allow them to crystallise their seized power into some agreed structure. The revolutionaries who lead these struggles are usually quite unfit to lead governments of any complexity. The skills needed to make a revolution are not the skills needed to run a country. There is no revolutionary way to prepare national budgets, protect the currency, maintain school standards, monitor the firemen and policemen; etc.
One of the most important facts is that poor people do not have power and, in all likelihood, will never have power. Often they are destitute, living on pittances, frequently out of work, and bereft of hope. They are in the survival business and cannot afford to use their time for anything much more than survival. For most of the poor it doesn’t really matter who is in charge; there are few changes to their lives which are different if they are run by kings, despots or democrats. They are defined by their poverty, not by their political consciousness.
It is usually the lower middle-classes who make revolutions. They are no longer toiling for survival. They have hopes and ambitions. They are convinced that their struggle to achieve economic improvements in their lives and their investment in education should allow them to maintain their positions and have wider opportunities. They are the backers of ‘democracy’. One problem is that ‘democracy’ isn’t a definable or exportable policy. It means something different in every country, region, city or town. The ‘will of the people freely expressed’ is inevitably conditioned by the circumstances and the limitations of the community to which it is applied. There may be broad consensus on the goals but a wide disagreement in the method of achieving these goals.
One of the traditional heckles from the crowd listening to radical speakers is “All right comrade, we agree. Now tell us the nature of the transitional phase”. Agreeing on a goal and casting one’s moral vote is much easier than agreeing a scheduled program for achieving the goal. With the acquisition of power comes responsibility. This is often a brake on the process of seeking this power. This is what has been happening in Egypt.
There are some important constraints which shape the moves towards change in Egypt. If democracy is only allowing political parties to function without hindrance, ending arbitrary imprisonments and torture, or improving public health, education and opportunity this can be achieved by a range of political actors. However, there are important truths in the political sphere which have nothing much to do with democracy.
Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world. It imports nearly half its total food consumption. Half of Egyptians live on less than $2 a day and food comprises almost half the country's consumer price index. It accounts for about two-thirds of spending for the poorer half of the country. Prices for wheat are rising; not only because of the failure of the Russian crop, but because as prosperity reaches Asia its dietary patterns have changed and they have switched from rice to wheat. Moreover, they have the money to pay for this from their own earnings. The Egyptians do not. Prices are rising for wheat and similar commodities and the government has increasing difficulty in keeping up without substantial foreign aid.
Whoever takes over from Mubarak, if he goes, will have to deal with this staple commodity. The Muslim Brotherhood are taking a quiet backseat to this revolution. They are not making demands for political change which will put them in power. They are not stupid. They can remember what happened to Hamas when it was elected. All of a sudden the food for the Palestinians began to dry up. Hamas was challenged by the need to provide food which was being delayed or limited by the West. In June 2010 a delegation from the Muslim Brotherhood visited Gaza and harangued Hamas for buying Israeli foodstuffs. They know if they come to power in Egypt they, too, will have a serious problem feeding the nation. They wish to avoid this; hence the low key approach to popular democracy.
The other major problem which is not being addressed by the new ’democrats’ is the question of security. This issue was of far less importance in Tunisia but is a critical issue in Egypt. Egypt is a major force in the Middle East. It is well armed, well-led and generally approved of by the populace. Egypt is the major counterweight to Iran in the region as a military force. It will prove vital in the upcoming struggle in the region between Shia and Sunni muslims. This is why Egypt is so crucial to the interests of the West.
Egypt has a long tradition of Mamelukes. The Mamelukes were originally foreign slaves brought into Egypt to serve as a cohesive military unit. They developed, over three hundred years, into a close, hereditary military caste. They lived well off the land, grew immensely wealthy, and dominated the political system. The Ottomans grew to fear the Mameluke kings and plotted to remove them.
On March 1, 1811, Muhammad Ali invited all of the leading Mamlukes to his palace to celebrate the declaration of war against the Wahhabis in Arabia. Near the Al-Azab gates, in a narrow road down from Mukatam Hill, Muhammad Ali's forces ambushed and killed almost all in what came to be known as the Massacre of the Citadel. According to period reports, only one Mamluke survived. During the following week, hundreds of Mamlukes were killed throughout Egypt. 1 Nontheless the tradition of the Mamelukes endures. Egypt has been run for thirty-odd years by a new group of domestic Mamelukes; generals and officers who control the country; an entrenched military caste. This is not changing. Whoever seeks to take over control from Mubarak will have to deal with the new Mamelukes and leave them in charge.
So the protestors and the seekers of democracy will have to curb their appetites for full parliamentary democracy because this aim is not consonant with the needs of Egypt for food, stability and a strong military machine. It can curb the excesses, the corruption and the greed; install political parties which will attract a national constituency but, ultimately, it will have to compromise and accept slow progress instead of a revolutionary change. The unavoidable disappointment of revolutions is immutable. However the changes being made as a result of the protests are remarkable even without total victory.
(1) Andrew James McGregor, "A military history of modern Egypt: from the Ottoman Conquest to the Ramadan War", Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006 ISBN 0275986012