Egypt's Unfinished and Unfinishable Revolution: Three Scenarios

Co-authored by Elwi Captan

The current political situation in Egypt is a complex weave of shifting alliances, jostling for power, democratic aspirations, and fear -- fear of losing long-held privileges, of skeletons in closets, and of what tomorrow could bring. On one side are the forces of the old regime: the army, police, ex-president Hosni Mubarak's loyalists and the business community. For 60 years these groups have known no other system but one of privilege, authoritarian government and officially sanctioned graft. They will not give these things up without a fight. They are unused to having civilians and a pro-active judiciary rule over them. Egypt's corrupt bureaucracy numbering around two-three million and the cadres of the National Democratic Party grew fat under Mubarak; they have much to lose in any realignment of power. And the army has its hands in every aspect of the economy, from shops to real estate. Indeed, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, Egypt's interim government, is made up of about 20 wealthy generals. They will not surrender power easily. At the other extreme are the revolutionaries. These include the Facebook generation of upper-middleclass democratic idealists, Nasserites eager to recreate the socialist state of former president Gamal abdul Nasser, and assorted lower-class anarchists and opportunists. These groups have been delighted to air their views without fear of the secret police, and are thrilled at the sight of Mubarak, his two sons and others on trial for corruption and murder. Yet their protests at Tahrir Square, where the revolution began, were crushed by army and police forces, aided by the last players in Egypt's political mosaic: the Islamists. Chief among them are the four to six million-strong, mostly moderate Muslim Brothers, the best organized political force in Egypt. They are uneasily joined by ultra-puritan Salafists and other, more militant religious offshoots. These groups suffered torture, imprisonment and death under all of Egypt's modern rulers. Easily capable of putting tens of thousands of followers on the streets, some shouting "Islam is the solution!" the Brothers profess respect for women's rights and any future constitution. The majority of Egyptian liberals, however, fear their ultimate aim is to create an Islamic state. Given this richly volatile mix, three scenarios are likely to mould the future Egyptian state. For those looking for a Western-style democracy, this picture is not sanguine. The first scenario envisions the army continuing marshal law and cracking down on "troublemakers" -- revolutionaries, democrats and militant Islamists alike. This is already happening. Having never really trusted the support of even moderate Islamists, they will oppress them as in the past. The form of government to emerge after this cleansing would be a window-dressing democracy, with no international monitoring of elections, funding or human rights. More visionary is a scenario in which the revolutionaries stand firm to their democratic aspirations. By mobilizing public support under such internationally respected figures like presidential candidate and Nobel Peace Price laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, they sway the Egyptian people. The army, keeping high above the fray, distance themselves from Mubarak and his loyalists, tossing the ex-dictator to the wolves of justice, to save themselves. Ultimately, democratization would begin, much like in Turkey or ex-Communist Eastern Europe, a slow evolutionary process. While possible, this scenario would necessitate such major transformations in the vested interests of the military, bureaucratic and business establishments as to appear spectral indeed. The most cynical scenario, a return to the status quo, is perhaps the one most likely to come about because it plays upon a major theme in Egyptian history: meddling by foreign powers in the country's internal affairs. In this version, powerful Egyptian allies -- the USA, Israel, the European Union -- promote to power those most palatable to them, those who could ensure the reinstatement of the "good old" days of Egyptian stability and regional weakness: mildly reformist yet strong-arm army officers. These authoritarian leaders, perhaps with a civilian figurehead as "president," would be oppressive but not overly; corrupt but not overtly; democratic but not inordinately. This regime would gain popularity by restoring discipline, order and stability. Like previous governments it would exist to protect the interests of the army, the bureaucrats and big business. The dream ticket in their tightly controlled presidential elections would feature ElBaradei with a moderate Islamist, such as Dr. Abdul Moniem Abul Fotouh, as vice-president, all co-opted in a pseudo democracy. Of these three scenarios, the first is possible but brutal. The third is attractive because it maintains the equilibrium of both internal and international relations. The second is appealingly romantic yet fatally unrealistic because Egypt's revolution remains unfinished. Quickly and bloodlessly, the revolutionaries managed to sever the serpent's head; but the creature's vast coils continue to writhe with vitality, intent upon sprouting a new one once again.