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By Bruce K. Rutherford


The Montréal Review, March 2011


While the final outcome of the tumultuous events in Egypt is still unclear, two aspects of the uprising will reverberate for decades.

The first was captured most clearly on February 2nd, when the demonstrations had grown to unprecedented size and Hosni Mubarak scrambled to find a response. In an effort to disperse what he regarded as a group of wayward youth, Mubarak dispatched his vice president (Omar Suleiman) to convey an important message. Suleiman intoned on national television, in a scolding voice, that Mubarak is the "father of the nation. He is our natural leader, and deserves our respect and loyalty."

Egyptians immediately recognized this line of reasoning. Mubarak is the father and the people are children who owe him unswerving obedience and deference. This concept of citizenship - hierarchical, paternalistic, disdainful of public opinion - has deep roots in Egyptian culture that extend all the way to the Pharaohs. It was not surprising to see this idea invoked to disperse the crowds.

What was surprising was the popular response. On the following day, the largest crowds yet appeared on Tahrir square, and they would steadily increase until Mubarak's departure on February 11th. The message of the demonstrators was clear. They believed in a new concept of citizenship based on equality between ruler and ruled, respect for basic civil and political rights, and the accountability of government.

Their stand has repercussions well beyond politics. The concept of authority that Suleiman invoked underlies every institution in Egyptian society - from schools to businesses, NGOs, mosques, and churches. The rejection of this traditional view of authority by the protestors may not lead to immediate transformation of these institutions. But, the seed has been sown. As this new concept of authority gradually seeps beyond the political arena into other aspects of society, Egypt will become a different place. This process has already begun with myriad "mini-revolutions" occurring in the leadership of labor unions, newspapers, professional associations, and the Muslim Brotherhood.

The example set by Egypt has spread quickly to other countries of the region. Several aspects of the Egyptian experience strengthen its appeal. The first is the sheer size of the crowds and - perhaps equally important - their diversity. Support for this new concept of citizenship was not limited to the Westernized elite. It was advocated by rich and poor, pious and secular, men and women, Muslims and Copts. In addition, the demonstrators managed to achieve an unheard of goal: the removal of a long-serving leader who had been at the center of regional politics. The magnitude of their success gives this new view of citizenship even greater power and legitimacy. Finally, the relatively small amount of blood spilt during the uprising sends a powerful message about the possibilities for peaceful political and social transformation.

However, to fully understand the lack of bloodshed, we need to consider another actor: the military. The military leadership's decision not to fire on the protestors was pivotal, and was a surprise to many. The senior officer corps were all Mubarak's men - appointed by him and rewarded with relatively high salaries and an array of privileges. They owed their careers, status, and prosperity to him. Furthermore, they saw themselves as an integral part of the ruling elite. Yet, at the critical moment, they showed Mubarak door. We still do not know the complete story of why the generals made this decision. It may have been a purely pragmatic calculation of self-interest. Senior officers may have concluded that Mubarak had lost the support of the public and key international actors, particularly the U.S. The writing was on the wall: Mubarak's days were numbered, so the generals simply facilitated his departure as quickly as possible. The structure of Egypt's military may have also been a factor. Egypt has a conscript army drawn from every corner of the country. The demands made on Tahrir square - for more jobs, less corruption, better protection of rights - resonate at all levels of Egyptian society and led parts of the military to support the protestors. As a result of these sympathies, the generals may have feared that an order to fire on the protestors would have been ignored by some soldiers, leading to a paralyzing split in the military. Finally, there was growing disenchantment with the regime. As rumors of high-level corruption became common place over the past decade, some military men concluded that Mubarak was acting against the best interest of the country. There was particular criticism of the privatization process, which many believed was rigged to provide sweetheart deals to the president's family and friends. The secretive military rarely expressed these criticisms publicly, but they occasionally leaked out through statements and letters by retired officers. The cancer of corruption eroded the military's loyalty to the regime, even while some officers benefitted from it. Loyalty to Mubarak was replaced by a renewed sense of obligation to the interests of the country.

These calculations by Egypt's military are potentially very influential in the region. The Egyptian army is, by far, the largest in the Arab world and is relatively well-trained and equipped. Its conduct during the uprising was, undoubtedly, followed closely by generals throughout the region.

There is no question that the pressures for political change in the Middle East are growing. The new concept of citizenship put forward by the demonstrators on Tahrir square and elsewhere is infectious. Whether this change will be peaceful or not will be influenced decisively by the region's military leaders. Their decisions will, obviously, determine whether protestors face live fire and other brute force. But the generals also have the less-obvious effect of shaping the behavior of political leaders. If Ali Abdullah Saleh in Yemen, or Bashir al-Asad in Syria, or Abdelaziz Bouteflika in Algeria believe that their armies might disobey an order to fire on demonstrators, they will be reluctant to give such an order and run the risk of fracturing the military. This very uncertainty about the military's commitment may be enough to push these rulers toward peaceful change and make the inevitable process of political reform relatively bloodless. Thus, the future of democracy in the region lies in no small part in the hands of the military - ironically, one of the least democratic institutions in Middle Eastern society.


Bruce K. Rutherford is the author of "Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World" (Princeton, 2008). He is associate professor of political science at Colgate University.


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