By Barry Rubin
“The People Toppled the Government,” is al-Ahram’s headline, and the general interpretation of the Egyptian revolution around the world. That’s true but only partly true. Mubarak’s pedestal was shaken by the people but he was pushed off it by the army and the establishment.
Let’s remember something that nobody wants to hear right now. The revolution in Egypt succeeded because the army didn’t want President Husni Mubarak any more. When people say things like: The army wouldn’t shoot down its own people. Why? It has done so before.
In normal times the army would have been content to let Mubarak rule until he died, despite being very unhappy with his behavior. He had been declining as a leader due to his age; had refused to name a vice-president, step down, or prepare seriously for succession; and he was trying to foist his son, Gamal, on them who was not a military man and was inadequate for the job.
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When the demonstrations began and built up the army had a choice: do nothing or fight for Mubarak. Those with grievances–and everyone in Egypt has lots of grievances–seeing that nobody would stop them, poured into the streets. Hence, a people’s revolution. Something similar happened in Tunisia, though the civil society base for democracy–and chances for success–are far higher there.
Now, what happens in Algeria or Syria, for example? These other countries do not face this special situation like that in Egypt and the security forces do not hesitate to break up demonstrations. People do not want to be killed or beaten, so they don’t come into the streets.
Is that a jaundiced or cynical view? No, that’s how politics in authoritarian states works.
From this, we can draw conclusions:
First, it is possible that Arab politics have been transformed forever by people power. But it is equally or more possible that this is a matter of one uprising, one revolution, one time.
Second, conclusions that the usual rules of Middle East politics have disappeared is greatly exaggerated. If you think that democracy cannot lead to violent Islamists taking power, consider the Muslim-majority country in the region with the longest tradition of democracy: Lebanon, where Hizballah and its allies now run things. Consider Algeria, where free elections (you can blame it on the military if you want) led to a bloody civil war. Think about Turkey where, though the regime still operates basically by democratic norms, the noose is tightening (though there it may well not be irreversible).
Third, without stinting the courage and efforts of the urban, middle-class, young, Facebook crowd, the Muslim Brotherhood had more to do with this event than Western observers realize. It was in close touch with the Facebook crowd and knew what was going on at every moment. It was not caught by surprise but simply held back to avoid committing itself to a devastating defeat that would end in harsh repression. The first thing the government forces did when the events started was to round up the usual suspects, that is Brotherhood leaders.
Finally, history has not ended in the Middle East. The Muslim Brotherhood will continue to maneuver patiently for power. The military will set limits and implement them. All the radical dictatorships and movements that hate America,the West, Israel, and real democracy are still working all-out (and far more cleverly than their Western opponents) around the clock.
If one side is sophisticated and realistic while the other engages in fantasies, who do you expect to win? And those roles are precisely the opposite of what Western hubris thinks.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are Lebanon: Liberation, Conflict, and Crisis (Palgrave Macmillan), Conflict and Insurgency in the Contemporary Middle Eastand editor of the (seventh edition) (Viking-Penguin), The Israel-Arab Reader the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria(Palgrave-Macmillan), A Chronological History of Terrorism (Sharpe), and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).