(I intended to post this last week, but due to some issues with posting on WordPress, I was unable to do so until now. Other than there being a new Egyptian president, most of the post is still relevant.)
News outlets buzz with stories about the failing health of ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. Yet does it matter whether the former despot lives or dies? Even if he passes away in the next few days, the institution he used to govern the country – the military – retains their hold on power. The tens of thousands people returning to Tahrir Square, the main site of Egypt’s protests during the Arab Spring, are not coming back because of Mubarak. They are resuming the expression of their dissent because the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the generals currently ruling Egypt, has declared strict limitations upon the powers of the newly elected president. Who that newly elected president is, however, is unclear, as both the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Mohamed Morsi, and the candidate of the old regime, Ahmed Shafiq, have proclaimed victory. All this follows on the heels of the Supreme Constitutional Court, which is closely linked with the SCAF, dissolving Parliament and giving a seal of approval to Shafiq’s candidacy, despite his ties to the brutality of the Mubarak era. Egyptians are rightfully concerned that their new democracy is at death’s door, not Mubarak.
Is it fair to blame the Egyptian people for the dark prospects their revolution faces? After all, it is long-entrenched institutions have stymied and reversed democratic reform, not the people, who cannot be accused of a lack of enthusiasm for change. Nevertheless, one can fault them for the half-measures with which they have sought that change, enabling the generals and their judicial allies to undermine and reverse the gradual seizure of power away from the narrow elite. Two developments especially testify that the Egyptian revolution has been stillborn: the emergence of Ahmed Shafiq as a serious contender for the presidency, and the very fact that the SCAF rules the country in the first place.
Given that the ongoing narrative is that Egypt just went through a revolution, it is illogical that Ahmed Shafiq could potentially be the new president. It would be the equivalent of the French Jacobins electing a member of the royal family to head the National Assembly. The former prime minister who once described Mubarak as a “role model” does not stand for where people want the country to become in the future, but rather what it used to be. Who would want that? Those who benefited under Mubarak, of course. Mubarak ruled through the military, and army officers would be understandably reticent to see that end. Additionally, there are the millionaires who thrived despite the growing income disparity and rising poverty of Mubarak’s Egypt, along with crooked bureaucrats and other officials who enjoyed luxury thanks to nepotism and graft. Every revolution has its reactionary elements.
More worrying are those among the oppressed who nurture that which destroys them. Long-suffering Coptic Christians fear what will happen under an Islamist administration rather than a secular one. Liberals disenchanted with widespread support for the Muslim Brotherhood have decided to sit on the sidelines and sometimes even vocalized preference for a liberal dictatorship than a religious democracy. Then there are those who simply want stability for stability’s sake – for someone to fill the power vacuum, regardless of who they are or what they represent as long as they can bring order and a return to “normalcy.”
These people are buying into the very argument Mubarak attempted to use for his continued stay in power. He claimed that without him there would be anarchy. Of course, as my former professor Diane Singerman and the famed intellectual Slavoj Zizek have pointed out, Egypt is so unstable without a strongman government precisely because Mubarak crushed civil society and let it languish, ensuring that only those institutions groomed and developed by him – the military chief among them – could ever hope to impose themselves on the country. As Zizek put it, “The argument for Mubarak – it’s either him or chaos – is an argument against him.”
Mubarak is no longer relevant, but his military cronies remain. The assumption is that the SCAF will only fill the void, playing a transitional role before standing aside, giving up the control and influence it has enjoyed with near-exclusivity for around thirty years. We are expected to regard SCAF as Atlas from Greek mythology, holding up the heavens as a punishment, a begrudging but necessary responsibility, one that those belabored generals would only too happy to relinquish – especially to candidates of the Muslim Brotherhood, the very organization the Egyptian military has spent decades upon decades stamping out, the very “enemies of the state” they have been indoctrinated to despise. How naïve would someone have to be to accept this fiction? The SCAF will hold on to power, tooth and nail, and whether the acts of the last few weeks speak more to uncertainty and confusion than to a genuine stealth coup d’état ultimately matters little. The outcome will be the same: the dream of democracy in Egypt remaining just a dream, an experiment too dangerous for the public to actually realize.
Egyptians should take a lesson from history and know that when the state is weak and vulnerable it cannot be trusted to change for the better. It must be torn down and destroyed, then rebuilt on new terms, on new conditions, with the people overseeing the project by themselves. The generals of the SCAF should not be sitting behind desks making executive decisions but standing before a firing squad – or, at the very least, on planes to sit at the Hague, in the stead of Mubarak, their former boss.