A spontaneous revolt, but the regime holds on
Massimo Campanini 1 February 2011

Massimo Campanini is professor at the Oriental University in Naples

Those who thought the Egyptian people were temperamentally passive and would always bend to the will of an autocratic big-brother state have had to change their minds. Starting what should be considered a real revolution, in January 2011 the Egyptian masses took to the streets demanding the end of Hosni Mubarak’s thirty-year-long regime. Although it is premature to attempt to foresee in which direction the movement will evolve, one can, in the heat of the moment attempt to identify its bright aspects and its shadows.

Undoubtedly, one of the brighter aspects is the popular participation in a largely spontaneous and uncoordinated movement, which cuts across Egyptian society and sees mainly women and young people demonstrating. The difficult economic conditions in a country where painful pockets of poverty are widespread, the legacy of a number of years of social struggle – especially in the industrial sector – which has almost never assumed the form of political demand, even though it was a sign of deep unease, the exasperation experienced due to despotic governmental control over democratic expressions of participation and dissent, starting with elections (e.g. last November’s elections), marred by fraud and violence, the repudiation of corruption and political patronage, typical of Mubarak’s whole regime and his National Democratic Party, are all elements creating an explosive mix that one single spark would eventually have set off.

The protest against the regime had to become a mass movement, because even though there are many opposition parties, they appear to be elitist and far from voicing the people’s will. They are enmeshed in irreconcilable struggles affecting their overall functionality. Many observers have identified this weakness of the opposition as one of the reasons for the regime’s longevity and for Egypt’s political stagnation. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, potentially one of the most reliable political currents in conflict with the system, has often taken a defeatist attitude, not participating in social struggles during the last years, preferring to be persecuted by Mubarak’s police and security services, and to suffer election frauds (which have reduced their representation in Parliament from 88 to only one member!), rather than risk taking to the streets with their many supporters. It is true that today – after some uncertainty and ambiguity – the Muslim Brotherhood has welcomed the movement. It is true that they could interpret an apparently secular revolt in a religious sense. It is therefore true that the Muslim Brotherhood’s attitude could be an important variable for understanding the future course of events.

The situation is further complicated by the fact that Presidential election will take place in September 2011. The National Democratic Party in power and Hosni Mubarak’s family would have wanted the latter’s eldest son, Gamal to take over Egypt’s presidency. His block of moderate reformist technocrats and businessmen represent the ruling party’s “new guard.” But the January 2011 revolution has wiped out this possibility as well as any chances of a reelection of Mubarak himself, seen as the lesser of two evils and as a second best to ensure the continuity of the regime. The appointment of head of intelligence Omar Sulayman as vice-president, i.e. as Hosni Mubarak’s potential successor, seems to all intents and purposes a choice of continuity with the previous system, designed to save whatever possible. It is certainly true, as some men in the street said, that Mubarak wants to change everything “so that things stay as they are.” Yet Sulayman’s appointment removes all expectations Mubarak’s clan may have had, or at least it puts these expectations back into their correct perspective. It will have to be verified if other contenders for the Presidency, such as Nobel Peace Prize Muhammad al-Baradei, or the Secretary General of the Arab League Amr Musa, may have the ability – and the authority – to challenge the regime’s attempts to remain in the saddle. Much will depend on the intensity with which the crowd and the movements will impose their will to break with the past. Having spent many years abroad, committed to his work in international organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, Al-Baradei cannot be considered truly representative of Egypt’s popular will. Moreover, Al-Baradei cannot rely on the support of Parliament, which is responsible for the election of the President of the Republic (who is confirmed later on by a referendum). Parliament, which is 90% dominated by the National Democratic Party, should stand as an institutional bulwark in defense of the people’s revolt.

And here we touch on a sore point, one that makes the Egyptian situation different from the Tunisian. Will protests in Egypt have to be channeled into an institutional framework supported and guaranteed by a constitution that sets out precise rules, not only for the election of governing bodies, but also to ensure the appointed President a “master’s” control on all levers of power? Undoubtedly this is what the regime’s supporters will try to do, given that (for the time being) they appear to be more established and confident than their Tunisian counterparts. I believe one can say this because the army, which has always held the true balance of Egyptian political life, has spoken in favor of stability and control, or even of repressing the most exasperated and extreme features of the protest. Anyway, this is a decision the people too will have to make, if they want to keep the revolution on the track of efficiency. Since I do not believe in the spontaneity of grassroots movements and in their ability to achieve truly established goals on a basis of self-government and self-direction, I think it can be sensed right now (suffice it to consider the risk that the fight will turn into civil war or that groups of provocateurs will take advantage of it to throw the country into dangerous internal chaos) that there is a lack of an executive body of the revolution, a party in particular that could act as a hegemonic drive and one that is able to interpret the revolt in institutional terms.

The speed and depth with which the revolt spread owe very much to the power of modern technologies and means of mass communication, to the Internet and to social networks, from Facebook to Twitter. What has happened teaches us a great deal about how present and future political demonstrations will have to be managed. It is no coincidence that, when the uprising started to spread, the Egyptian government responded by quickly obscuring computers, networks, satellite TV and telephone communications.

Translated from the Italian by Nicola Missaglia