Egypt and the Nonviolence Conundrum

An Egyptian protester shouts anti-Muslim brotherhood slogans during a demonstration marking the second anniversary of former
An Egyptian protester shouts anti-Muslim brotherhood slogans during a demonstration marking the second anniversary of former President Hosni Mubarak's resignation in Tahrir Square, Cairo, Egypt, Monday, Feb. 11, 2013. Egypt has witnessed a fresh cycle of violence over the past weeks since the second anniversary of the 2011 revolution that deposed longtime autocrat Hosni Mubarak, with clashes across the country having left scores dead and hundreds injured. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)

Co-authored with Mark Donig.

The two-year anniversary of Egypt's revolution has not been a happy one. Anti-government protests have once again swept through the country, and as activists have begun to resort to violence, President Mohamed Morsi has chosen to respond in kind. Cairo's economy is in shambles, its alliances with the West are in question, and its newly ratified constitution leaves secularists, women and minorities on the political sidelines for the foreseeable future. Simply put, those who predicted a rosy future for Egypt are left to scratch their heads, wondering how their prophecies could have turned out so wrong.

As the world witnesses Egypt's depressing slide two years on, now is an opportune time to re-examine the nonviolent protests that unintentionally paved the way for it. It may seem hard to believe today that the path to the current situation in Egypt was ushered in by an entirely nonviolent movement led by young, secular, liberal-minded Egyptians whose quest simply for dignity and freedom magnificently overrode their fear of a modern-day Pharaoh. In the revolution's immediate aftermath, Western pundits across the political spectrum ran wild with visions of those protesters rising to become leaders of a liberalized, democratized, enlightened Egypt at peace with its neighbors and the world. Instead, those revolutionaries have been sidelined, disenchanted and disillusioned with the outcome of the awakening they sought to forge.

To the Western mind, the nonviolent protest is our sacred cow. We are both naturally dispositioned and historically conditioned to believe in nonviolent movements, and for good reason. Innately, lovers of freedom cannot but be emotionally stirred by an oppressed group rising up against its oppressor in a quest for dignity. Historically, our collective memory of nonviolence settles on Gandhis and Kings, modern-day heroes whose just means were matched with equally just ends - freedom, equality, and self-determination.

But what happens when there is no single Gandhi or King? What happens the day after a leaderless nonviolent movement succeeds? Part of what made Egypt's protests so difficult for Mubarak to contain was the fact that, unlike those of India's Independence movement or America's Civil Rights movement, its organization was dispersed, its political ideology was unclear, and the protests themselves were largely leaderless. Ironically, this same lack of hierarchy, organization, and structure were among the very characteristics that doomed liberal parties on Egypt's election day.

Which leads us to the first uncomfortable lesson of nonviolent revolutions: the day after the ruling regime has been deposed, people's priorities shift. Disciplined and hierarchical organizations trump passionate and anarchical movements. The fact that no single Egyptian Gandhi or King personified the revolution, or a post-revolutionary vision, rendered the Egyptian protestors without a clear figurehead to complete the movement they began.

Thus, the Muslim Brotherhood - established in 1928, highly organized and hierarchical, and kept in power by a Mubarak regime in order to frame himself as a preferable alternative by comparison - was ready to capitalize, despite the fact that they neither instigated Mubarak's overthrow, nor represented the aspirations of those who did. When it became clear that the vanguards of the revolution lacked either an obvious luminary or a cogent philosophy to compete with the organized Islamic parties, the religious right easily seized the mantle of power in the Parliament and the Presidential Palace.

Which leads to a second, related uncomfortable lesson: in the 21st century, with both leaderless, diverse social media-driven movements and organized, disciplined Islamist groups on the rise, nonviolent revolutions - noble as their means and perceived ends may be - are far more likely than ever before to enable governments that not only defy the revolutionary's aims at home, but also are inherently at tension with Western values.

Indeed, with the explosion of social media forces such as Facebook and Twitter, the so-called "hyper-connected world" surely will have more leaderless, nonviolent movements in store. But until the 21st-century revolutionary devises the skill set to mobilize, coalesce, and lead a political party as effectively as he or she organized a Facebook group, the nonviolent protester will find him or herself still relegated to the passenger seat, and the Islamist behind the wheel.

As the Obama Administration begins its second term, the solution to the nonviolence conundrum that Egypt's revolution has revealed is anything but clear, yet its implications toward other countries are increasingly relevant. In 2013, another series of protests will brew in Jordan, Bahrain, the West Bank, and elsewhere, and the protesters will once again appeal to the West for support, much as their counterparts did in Egypt two years ago. Despite inevitable domestic and international pressure, policymakers would do well to maintain a healthy skepticism concerning the ability of these protests to bring about either increased appreciation of human rights or regional stability. With two years of lesson learning in Egypt behind us, the time has come to ask the most difficult question concerning nonviolent revolutions in the 21st century: will the people in the streets crying for freedom one day be in a position to preserve it the next?

For Egypt, at least, the answer has been decisive: Not at all.

Gabriel Kohan and Mark Donig have collectively written on Middle East affairs for publications including CNN, Foreign Policy, Forbes, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The views expressed in this piece are their own.