Gwynne Dyer: The Egyptian revolution?

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      By 3 p.m. on Friday afternoon (January 28), the protesters in central Cairo were chanting: “Where is the army? Come and see what the police are doing to us. We want the army.” And that is the main question, really: where is the Egyptian army in all this?

      Like armies everywhere, even in dictatorships, the Egyptian army does not like to use violence against its own people. It would much rather leave that sort of thing to the police, who are generally quite willing to do it. But in Alexandria, by mid-afternoon on Friday, the police had stopped fighting the protesters and started talking to them. This is how regimes end.

      First of all the police realize that they face a genuine popular movement involving all classes and all walks of life, rather than the extremist agitators that the regime’s propaganda says they are fighting. They realize that it would be wrong—and also very unwise—to go on bashing heads in the service of a regime that is likely to disappear quite soon. Best change sides before it is too late.

      Then the army, seeing that the game is up, tells the dictator that it is time to get on the plane and go abroad to live with his money. Egypt’s ruler, Hosni Mubarak, was a general before he became president, and he has always made sure that the military were at the head of the queue for money and privileges, but there is no gratitude in politics. They won’t want to be dragged down with him.

      All this could happen quite fast, or it could spread out over the next several weeks, but it is probably going to happen. Even autocratic and repressive regimes must have some sort of popular consent, because you cannot hire enough police to compel everybody to obey. They extort that consent through fear: the ordinary citizens’ fear of losing their jobs, their freedom, even their lives. So when people lose their fear, the regime is toast.

      It would require a truly horrendous massacre to re-instill the fear in Egyptians now, and at this stage neither the police nor the army are likely to be willing to do that. So what happens once Mubarak leaves? Nobody knows, because nobody is in charge of this revolution.

      The first people out in the streets were young university graduates who face a lifetime of unemployment. Only days later, however, the demonstrations have swelled to include people of every social class and walk of life.

      They have no program, just a conviction that it is high time for a change—Kifaya! (“Enough is enough”), as the nickname of an Egyptian opposition party that flourished in the middle of the last decade put it. Two-thirds of the 80 million Egyptians have been born since Mubarak came to power, and they are not grateful for the poverty, corruption and repression that define and confine their lives. But who can fix it all?

      Washington and the other Western capitals that supported Mubarak for the past three decades are praying that the revolution will choose Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, as its leader. He flew back into Egypt last Thursday, and the regime even takes him seriously enough to put him under house arrest. But he is probably not the Chosen One.

      ElBaradei is a diplomat who has spent half of his life abroad and is seen by Western governments as a “safe pair of hands.” He would be at best a figurehead, but a figurehead for what?

      Since it would be the army that finally tells Mubarak to leave, the military would dominate the interim regime. They would not want to put yet another general out front, so they might decide that ElBaradei is the right candidate for interim leader, precisely because he has no independent power base. But there would then have to be elections, and ElBaradei would not even come close to winning.

      The likely winner of a genuinely free Egyptian election, according to most opinion polls, would be the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brothers are not particularly radical as Islamists go, but the first thing they have promised to do if they win power is to hold a referendum on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. And most Egyptians, according to the same polls, would vote to cancel it.

      That would end the flow of official U.S. aid and private foreign investment that currently keeps the Egyptian economy more or less afloat, even though it would probably not lead to an actual war. And there is no reason to believe that an Islamic government could make the Egyptian economy grow any faster, although it would distribute the poverty more fairly.

      These longer-term considerations, however, will have no impact on the events of the next few weeks, when Egypt’s example may ignite similar revolts against decrepit regimes elsewhere in the Arab world—or not, as the case may be. But it’s not just Tunisia any more. Egypt is the biggest Arab country by far, and culturally the most influential. What happens there really matters.



      Former Egyptian

      Jan 28, 2011 at 12:45pm

      Interesting article and very intelligently written. I don't think its that simple for the regime to fall, but very hopeful and the ray of light is greatly appreciated.

      talal salem

      Jan 28, 2011 at 1:18pm

      Tthe Egyptian revolution is a double edged sword as the Arabic saying goes.
      Egypt is like the head of the volcano in the Arab world.
      and if the lava starts flowing out of the top it will spill down to the bottom.
      this has been coming for a long time, it just needed an ignition fuse, and this looks like it.
      the Arab world is populated by highly honorable past with great scientific, and social achievements. this is romanticized by the Arab youth through life long education. the current decay is not acceptable , but has been controlled through fear and hypocritical support . now its dangerous times as it seems free for all. its a popular revolt without a true leader. there are 2 possible totally contrasting outcomes .
      the first is dangerous and may lead to many years or decades of regression, if the radicals take control.
      the second remote possibility is that a modern young intellegence takes control and promotes freedom of speech and multi party rule.
      this scenario needs serious international involvement through the united nations or a genuine acceptable multi national mediators. this needs hard work fast and must be communicated through social media and grass routes groups. American, Chinese European, Russian, Arab and Indian representation of mediators with a united nations support. its a big job if a good outcome is to be. this could be a good guideline for the rest of the more authoritarian Arab world. this is the double edge sword scenario. it can effect the whole world in many ways more than one least of which is the worlds fragile economy.
      its my view as an Arab who lives as an international minded Arab
      Talal Salem south Africa 28th January 2011.


      Jan 29, 2011 at 1:51pm

      Gwyn, why do the polls say that Egyptians want to cancel the peace agreement with Israel, when surely they must know that the stoppage of "official U.S. aid and private foreign investment that currently keeps the Egyptian economy more or less afloat" would have a significant effect on them?


      Jan 29, 2011 at 5:28pm

      If Hosni can see the opportunity to pack his bags, he could leave a 'king.' McCarthur didn't want to stop, none of 'em do, but Jimmy Carter did, because he left a humble man.

      Born Yesterday

      Jan 30, 2011 at 1:53pm

      If we are lucky, Egypt can turn out to be another Turkey: a country that is serious about having a strong economy and keeps its people mostly happy, although it shows its authoritarian strain every now and then.

      If we are unlucky, Egypt can turn into another Pakistan: a powerful but highly unstable country. And also poor.


      Jan 30, 2011 at 8:29pm

      I am not for dictatorship, but I am not for cancelling peace treaties or islamist governments (who have not shown anything worthwhile anywhere in the world). I think that Mubarak will play on both these "don't wants" to actually find a way to stay or leave while leaving another dictator in place. You cannot, at present, have free elections in Egypt that do not lead to islamist government.

      What has happened is that the price of basic commodities has tripled. If this happened in Canada (imagine milk at 15$ a bag; bread at 9$ a small loaf) we would be out in the streets too demanding change. Once these commodities become affordable again, the pressure will be reduced again.

      Eddie Scissorpaws

      Feb 2, 2011 at 8:59am

      Whether we like it or not the Egyptians deserve freedom. Our Prime Minister should speak independantly for once and as a Canadian instead of Bush's Chihuahua (I know he's out of office, and soon his doppelganger will be as well. No stinkin' jets, no supermax prisons, and an honourable and balanced policy on the middle east.) In 1956 Canada brought the compromise solution that spared a nasty war. Would be that we had such intelligence at the helm now. Alas.

      J Fyfe

      Feb 3, 2011 at 9:20pm

      I also am sick of wimpy Canadian politicians. I realize that the U.S. is our ally, but we have the ability to be ahead of events because our country is reasonably respected in the world, and we have no imperialist pretensions. Can't our leaders have some backbone and speak the truth once in a while? What is Harper afraid of? I notice that he will appear with Obama tomorrow in the U.S. I wonder if that is accident or design??