Revolutions usually take one of two courses. In one, they succumb to populism, yield to the impulsive demands of angry publics, and give way to immediate socio-economic wants. In the other route, the leaders of the revolution graduate into social captains.
Amidst the trial of President Mubarak, the first time an Arab ruler is held accountable by his own people in a court of law, the deteriorating security situation in Egypt, and the uncertainty that Egyptian society currently confronts, there is a lot of speculation on the direction Egypt will take. Egypt’s huge demographics and its traditionally influential role in the Middle East and North Africa make its future the litmus test of the Arab awakening. There is rising fear that the current fluidity is giving way to a descent into chaos. But all revolutions result in polarisation, ambiguity, and Egypt’s 2011 is no different.
Revolutions usually take one of two courses. In one, they succumb to populism, yield to the impulsive demands of angry publics, and give way to immediate socio-economic wants. This route usually entails submitting to the vengefulness of angry masses that want to see disconnection from the past against which they revolted and severe punishment of those they see responsible for it. This route also entails an increasing level of political and social decentratlisation in which different local constituencies seek to achieve, what seems to be, immediate ‘quick wins’.
In the other route, the leaders of the revolution graduate into social captains. Gradually they rise above the the fluidity that follows the political transformation and steer society towards a sustainable system – one that establishes (and over time maintains) equality, plurality, the rule of law, and a mature and balanced social mood. In this direction, such leaders become founding fathers of a system that endures, and the society gradually reaches political and economic safety.
Egypt’s 2011 revolution lacks leaders. It evolved from an expression of anger organised by a number of youths’ groups, to an uprising led by wide social forces especially within the labour associations (and to a lesser extent, the professional syndicates), to an organised revolt in which the young sections of Egypt’s political Islam played a critical role, and at its critical moment, was on the verge of becoming a wide civil disobedience. The crucial factor behind the success of the revolution, however, was the legitimacy that Egypt’s huge middle class has endowed it with.
The crucial factor behind the success of the revolution, however, was the legitimacy that Egypt's huge middle class has endowed it with
The momentum created by the coming together of these forces broke President Mubarak’s administration – but diluted the influence of any one group. Neither the youths groups that propelled the revolution, nor the social players, nor the Islamic movement can credibly claim sole ownership or leadership of the uprising.
There is a serious possibility that such lack of leadership will push Egypt towards the chaos route. In this scenario, the country will undergo few years of turbulences, until the interactions between the different political powers in the country gives rise to new leaders who can guide society towards a sustainable system. In these circumstances, the momentum that has materialsied as a result of the revolution will mostly be wasted on turf-fights (economic as well as political). In Egypt, this might also stir up several difficulties – from lack of ownership over the immediate economic priorities to immature handling of extremely important exercises such as the drafting of the constitution, to possible sectarian flare-ups. Egypt has always been a highly centralsied state; such volatility (and potential precariousness) could severely weaken decision making (especially at key sovereign areas, internally and externally). If that happens, Egypt will not be the only loser; the entire Arab awakening will lose momentum and direction; a period of confusion would engulf the region.
Another scenario is that some leading figures in Egypt’s society, who command wide respect, who stood out as vociferous challengers of the Mubarak regime, and who come from different backgrounds, would come together and gradually put forward the pillars of a sustainable system: the basics of a new constitution, a bill of rights, and a framework of checks and balances that could credibly be the framework of the country’s route towards genuine plurality and democracy. But for that scenario to have a chance of success, these social luminaries must relinquish all political ambition and must be able to reach out to – and gain the trust of - wide constituencies (especially within the middle classes). That group should also represent different segments of the Egyptian society. It need not draw directly on the members of the parliament, but certainly gain substantive support from within their ranks.
The key deliverable would be a modern constitution that does not only correspond to the realities – and social mood - of today’s Egypt, but also takes into account the rich historical experience of this country since its embracing of modernity over two hundred years ago – and vitally keeps an eye on the flexibility inherent in a society in which circa forty-five million people are under thirty-five years old.
The inherent idea is that for an extremely young society with over 30% illiteracy rate, coming out of the shadows of a number of macro political failures, facing a difficult economic situation, and crucially still rediscovering its way (internally as well as in a highly turbulent region), dealing with an extremely fluid situation begets peril – not only economically, but perhaps more gravely, socially.
Egypt’s middle class, and especially the young amongst this huge socio-demographic stratum, have shown remarkable maturity throughout the first few months of 2011. If they manage to steer the society towards a sustainable direction, Egypt will once again (as it was in the first half of the twentieth century) emerge as the region’s centre of gravity, and the Arab awakening will have a solid chance of ushering in a new promising phase in the Arab world’s history.
Tarek Osman is the author of Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak (Yale University Press, 2011). His work appeared in numerous publications, including in The Financial Times, Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Economist, The Guardian and The Washington Post