Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Ron Smith: Egyptian Revolution: where to from here

There has been some very optimistic, and, I think, rather na├»ve speculation about the likely consequences of recent events in the Middle East, and, notably, Egypt. Analogy with the ‘velvet revolution’ of 1989, is particularly misleading. Prospects for the emergence of secular, democratic (‘western-like’) states in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, etc., are vanishingly small, with a range of other possibilities being much more likely.

For present purposes, I am taking it that by ‘democracy’ we mean something more than occasional expressions of popular opinion. Rather, the permanent establishment of institutions which protect human and political rights, equally for men and women, and freely-elected representation.

A crucial factor in the North Africa/Middle East case is the dominating influence of Islam, which, in its traditional form, implies a coincidence between religion and politics and mandates Sharia Law. The extent to which this factor dominates will determine the character of the regime and the extent to which we might describe it as a democracy.

As matters stand, there seem to be three scenarios for Egypt, which might also apply (to a greater or lesser extent) to the other cases:

· Interim arrangements, mediated by the Army (with other remnants of the Mubarak regime in the background), result in free-elections from which a secular, representative government emerges.

· This process is ‘captured’ by Islamic fundamentalist interests (Muslim Brotherhood), which then establishes an Islamic state, perhaps through a manipulated process, as in Iran. A theocratic state could also arise, progressively or immediately, from the exercise of a free choice.

· The Army mediates a process which effectively continues the ‘martial law’ situation that has persisted in Egypt for the last thirty years. Protestors in the ‘square’ are divided and marginalised (by doing a deal with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood for more recognition of Sharia Law and by emphasising the mounting economic damage that continuing protest is doing)

Obviously, the security implications for Israel and the West are enormously different in each case. The appearance of a fundamentalist Egypt, dedicated (as Iran is) to the advancement of the universal caliphate and the destruction of Israel, would end any prospect of a settlement of the Palestinian problem, increase the threat of terrorism and threaten oil supplies from the Middle East. At the very least, it may be presumed that such a government in Egypt would abrogate the present peace treaty between that country and Israel and cease its cooperation with the Israeli authorities over ‘supplies’ to Gaza.

An end-point in which a military-backed, persistent ‘transitional’ government is established, may have some of the above Islamic flavour, depending on the extent to which it depends on Muslim Brotherhood support. On the other hand, such an administration may not be so different from what has gone before, if it is successful in improving security within the country and, particularly, if it improves economic and social conditions.

Clearly, the ‘democratic’ outcome envisaged in the first scenario above, would offer the least threat to Israel and the West and would attract the greatest support from those parties. It might also support a trend in this notoriously undemocratic part of the world towards greater respect for human rights, and, greater tolerance for difference and plurality.

But which is the more likely? Insofar as this will be driven by popular sentiment, there are some clues in the behaviour of the crowds in relation to foreign media, and in the results of such surveys of public opinion as have been undertaken in Egypt (and other Muslim countries). Notwithstanding pro-democracy sentiment and calls for freedom, differences in the crowds have been settled by violence, and journalists from UK and US have been beaten up, whilst the Army stood by, and then taken into custody for interrogation by the authorities. There is a lot of anti-western sentiment.

Again, opinion surveys seem to show that whilst there is support for ‘democracy’ and antagonism to ‘Islamic extremism’, there is also strong support in Egypt for a bigger role in government for Islam and, specifically, for traditional Islamic punishments, such as stoning for adultery, cutting off the hands of thieves, and for death for apostates. We might also notice here that the secular democracy of turkey (as established by Kamal Attaturk, a hundred years ago) is increasingly under threat from the election of Islamist parties.

It would clearly be good for the Egyptian people to have an opportunity to opt for and to sustain democracy, but it may be doubted whether the opportunity will be presented, or if it is, whether it will be taken. In the circumstances, the best we might hope for (for ourselves and the Egyptians) is some sort of continuation of the present authoritarian regime, which attempts to slowly increase public participation and improve the lives of Egyptian people, whilst resisting the encroachment of fundamentalism, and protecting a major part of the cultural history of the world.


Brian said...

Now Mubarak has gone what next? At the moment there is the Army, but how long before they become the villains? Or will a military dictatorship fill the vacuum with a suitable civilian figurehead?
As Dr Smith so rightly pointed out in the wings are the Islamic extremists, the anti western faction which has gained support under the regime of Mubarak, due in part to the support of Israel by Western Democracies.
There is a desire for democracy right now but with it all democracies a weakness when exposed to unstable political conditions. Unless the Army is able and willing to embrace to concept of a democratic government for Egypt and a much reduced role for itself then the future is bleak.
What is rife in Egypt now is a copy of what emerges after every revolution, an appeal to the hearts rather than to the head. In the eighteenth century it started with Rousseau...
“Man was born free and is everywhere in chains”
This North African upsurge makes one wonder if a new order might be on the cards, or is rather a repeat of previous revolutions, but we are far away from that “Age of Reason”. Unless one believes in Robert Burns heart warming lines...
“It’s coming yet, for a that
That man to man the warld o’er
Shall brothers be for a that.”
Revolutions are romantic idealism, but history tells us continually how this idealism comes rapidly to grief, the principals envisaged at the beginning fade away before the onslaught of practical political necessity (sometime sadism).
We can only wait in the wings, the question remains what do we do, if, or rather when, an Egyptian Islamic government takes control and both Israel and the Suez Canal become a flash point?
The expansion of modern day Islamic extremism rivals its past conquests; which took only 50 years in the 8th century to reach the gates of Paris.
But then that was in the Dark Ages!!! We now have the firepower..but do we have the Willpower to save ourselves??

Ian said...

To answer Brian's question: "At the moment there is the Army, but how long before they become the villains?" Not long

Egyptian military know that the US won't support them directly running the government in the long term, but equally the Egyptian military will want to maintain their independence from the civilian rule. So they will try to arrange a situation with civilian government that implements policies they are comfortable with. This may involve an accommodation with the Muslim Brotherhood, and more Egyptian focused rather than Israeli focused foreign policy, but won't involve breaking the peace treaty with Israel. That would be fatal to the US military aid and invite Israeli air attacks.

"The expansion of modern day Islamic extremism rivals its past conquests; which took only 50 years in the 8th century to reach the gates of Paris." Actually the expansion is going the other way: more Muslim countries are being occupied by non-Muslim countries than the other way around, more military bases for non-Muslim armies are being built in Muslim countries than the other way around, more Muslim governments are subservient to non-Muslim governments than the other way around.

" ourselves" - which country do you live in Brian?