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Egypt Revolution Ends in Quiet Despair

The dissolution of Parliament by Egypt’s military rulers failed to ignite a major new round of demonstrations yesterday, and today Egyptians are trooping somewhat unenthusiastically to the polls in presidential elections.

The absence of major demonstrations last night was close to conclusive proof that the Egyptian revolution is over. The military could dismiss Parliament and Egyptians are too tired, too cynical, too hungry and too divided to resist.

As I write, Egyptians are voting, and the results have not yet come in. But it appears that the military has secured its power across the country and that whatever the result in the presidential elections, the military will have a president it can work with — and his powers will be more or less those that the military is willing to concede.

There seem to be three decisive factors at work. First, despite the usual factional rivalries and disputes, the military remained united and stuck to a coherent vision of what it wanted. The traditional role of the army in many Islamic states is more active than in the Christian world. Coming from traditions like the Mamelukes and the Janissaries, the idea of the military as the true servants of the state and the custodians of the general interests (against the selfish machinations of civilian families and officials), is deeply implanted not only among military officers, but among the people as a whole. A powerful military that ultimately arbitrates disputes between politicians doesn’t feel wrong to many Egyptians in the way that it does to people in countries with long traditions of strong civilian government. A military leadership in Egypt that is smart and knows what it wants remains likely to get its way.

Second, the revolutionaries were fatally split between liberals (many of whom come out of the Coptic Christian minority) and Islamists. In the end, the liberals in Egypt prefer the military to the mullahs, and the Muslim Brotherhood prefers the military to the liberals. Both the liberals and the Islamists made efforts to bridge this divide, but the gulf was too wide. This gap has been a feature of Egyptian politics for decades, and for decades it has helped to ensure the dominance of what I think of as Egypt’s military republic.

Third, the peasants and the urban poor in Egypt need stability to survive. Political upheaval keeps the tourists and foreign investors away, and scares Egyptian money out of the country. That means real privation, even hunger for millions of Egyptians who live on the edge. These people simply cannot stand a prolonged period of turmoil and as the political impasse and interregnum dragged on, their demand for stability and order has become a greater and greater factor in Egyptian politics. This is why the army’s preferred presidential candidate, Ahmed Shafik, a self-confessed Mubarak admirer, seems to be at least within what Texas politicians call “stealing distance” of an outright win. The peasants and the poor don’t just want the turmoil to stop.  They need for the turmoil to stop, need in the sense of needing to be able to feed their children.

Egypt appears set to remain the anchor of the Middle East: stability through inertia. This is not the happiest of imaginable arrangements, but it may, for now, be the best possible path for a country that is battered, divided and beaten down. Those in the west who want to help Egypt need to look at its educational system: making better education more widely available to the children of the poor, ensuring that more important books and magazines are translated into Arabic and made available online and in cheap print editions, improving the truly wretched state of the Egyptian university system. All these can someday help build a stronger, wiser and freer Egypt, but for now at least the revolution appears to have come to an end.

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  • Anthony

    “…too tired, too cynical, too hungry and too divided to resist” as well as governing arrangement since 1952 for all intents and purposes capsulize Egypt Revolution Ends in Quiet Despair.

  • Bart Hall (Kansas, USA)

    My familiarity is primarily with Latin America, and although I speak enough Arabic to be polite, the southern Arabs (Saudis, Egyptians, Yemenis, Sudanese, etc) have always confused me because they’re generally so uneducated and crude. The Maghreb and places like Lebanon and Iraq are a different world.

    That said, for many decades in South America people almost looked forward to a military coup on account of two factors — first, the military were usually the only folks with some basic love of country and (more importantly) the organisational ability actually to get something done … and second, they were usually overthrowing a bunch of ideological crazies whose militant incompetence was going to send the whole country down the [toilet].

    It seems to me, from afar, that an army coup in Egypt is the best possible outcome. We, and the Egyptians, can work with them, and they might actually stabilise things enough to get the tourists back.

    My old Egyptian statistics prof, Fanous, would probably approve. My former Iraqi lab-mates most definitively would do.

  • Rand Millar

    The English worked out the proper place for the military during the course of the 17th century. Congenial northern European societies readily adopted the same. Castilian culture developed in centuries of war against adherents of Muhammad was left with the same hierarchy of attitudes and institutions as their traditional foes to the south and quite different from those of the “heretics” far to the north. That Castilian culture has been the dominant force in societies south of the USA and so the place of their militaries in national life resembles that of Egypt, Pakistan etc.

  • Jim.

    Wait, wait, no, everyone likes looking at sexy American people, so our culture and will be ascendant over everything! Those who support it are unstoppable! Russians are crazy for thinking that any of that is organized, but they have a point when they say that it is inevitable, and no organization or alternative will ever appeal to anyone.

    The Liberal lowest common denominator is overwhelming and inevitable, so this article is obviously wrong.

  • Kris

    “Egyptians are too tired, too cynical, too hungry and too divided to resist.”

    Too old, too tired, too [gosh darn] blind.

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