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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Egypt One Year On: Stark Message for Arab Revolutionaries




RSIS presents the following commentary Egypt One Year On: Stark Message for Arab 
Revolutionaries by James M. Dorsey. It is also available online at this link. (To print 
it, click on this link.). Kindly forward any comments or feedback to the Editor RSIS 
Commentaries, at  RSISPublication@ntu.edu.sg



No. 018/2012 dated 25 January 2012

Egypt One Year On: 
Stark Message for Arab Revolutionaries

 By James M. Dorsey

      
Synopsis
This month's first anniversary of the uprising that toppled Mubarak contains a stark 
message for Egypt’s revolutionaries. They are being marginalised as vested interests 
and traditional political forces experienced in political horse trading fill the vacuum 
of leadership. This message may well also be meant for other revolutionaries in the Arab 
world.
        
EGYPT’S MILITARY council, backed by Islamist and secular political parties, has 
upstaged the 25 January celebrations of the anniversary of the protests that ousted 
President Hosni Mubarak even before the party gets underway. The military 
pre-empted plans by the revolutionary youth and militant soccer fan groups whose 
mass protests early last year forced Mubarak from office by announcing that they 
would organise their own celebration together with the Muslim Brotherhood on Cairo’s 
Tahrir Square.

The military’s co-opting of the celebrations is certain to dash hopes of the 
protesters to exploit the anniversary to launch what they call a second revolution that 
would force the armed forces to immediately relinquish power. Instead, it is likely to 
seal their defeat in a country that has grown tired of demonstrations, still largely 
reveres the military despite its brutal response to anti-government protests late last 
year and wants to see tangible results of its revolt.

A stark message
The military’s move also signals the primacy of electoral over contentious politics in 
post-autocratic transition societies with the backing of the Brotherhood, which emerged 
as Egypt’s foremost political grouping with some 40 per cent of the vote in the first 
post-Mubarak elections. The Brotherhood’s backing of the military celebration is 
significant given its demonstrated ability to fill Tahrir Square and mobilise opposition 
against the military if it wanted to.     

The military is sending a stark message not only to Egyptian youth and soccer fan 
groups that established political organisations with well-oiled party machines rather 
than newly emerging political forces will shape the country’s future. The message 
is also to protesters elsewhere in the region that unless they can match their 
mobilisation and street skills with the art of electoral politics and backroom horse 
trading they too will be relegated to the sidelines of history.

Much of the youth and soccer groups’ criticism of the post-Mubarak transition 
rings true even if does not resonate with a majority of the population. They accuse 
the military of subverting a promised transition to real democracy in a bid to 
preserve its political and economic perks and interests and employing to do so 
the same if not worse repressive measures than the Mubarak regime. Scores 
have been killed in protests since Mubarak’s downfall, thousands injured and some 
12,000 people, including activists, bloggers and soccer fans dragged in front of 
military courts.

The one joker in the military’s plans to upstage the youth and soccer fan groups 
and give them the death knell is the spectre of violent confrontation during the 
celebrations. Fear of a repeat of the bitter street battles that took place between 
security forces and soccer fans in November and December last year could 
persuade many Egyptians to steer clear of Tahrir Square on 25 January. Egypt’s 
military ruler, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi issued a thinly veiled 
warning to the youth and soccer fan groups days before the 25 January 
celebrations that Egypt faced unprecedented “grave dangers” but that the 
military would protect it. The statement, echoing Mubarak’s tactic of distracting 
attention from domestic issues by invoking an alleged foreign threat, was 
contrived to rally public opinion against the protesters.

Treacherous ground
         
A failure to rally the masses would dent the military’s efforts to maintain the 
high ground and would boost revolutionary moves to thwart its plans. Nonetheless, 
the youth and soccer fan groups are on treacherous ground. They have lost much 
of the popular support they enjoyed in the run-up to and immediate aftermath 
of Mubarak’s ousting. Their refusal to surrender Tahrir Square in favour of traditional 
politics has won them few brownie points with the public. Their marginalisation is 
compounded by the fact that men and women perceived to be honest and of faith 
have emerged victorious in the election, raising hopes that government will be free of 
nepotism and corruption.

Revolutionaries in other Middle Eastern and North African societies in transition may 
well conclude from the Egyptian experience that it is a fatal mistake to simply topple an 
autocratic leader and not to push for the ultimate uprooting of a failed system. It 
promises to make transitions even more contentious and could inspire the kind 
of resilience and determination displayed by protesters in Syria who have refused to 
give ground to a ten-month old brutal government crackdown that has already cost some 
5,000 lives.

Protesters across the Middle East and North Africa like their counterparts in other 
parts of the world have mastered the art of seemingly leaderless revolt and exploitation 
of new technology. However, the lesson of Egypt is that they will also increasingly have 
to harness the skills of traditional politics and face up to the reality of realpolitik to 
ensure that they not only win a battle but also the war.

   
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International 
Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. He has been a journalist covering 
the Middle East for over 30 years.                                             

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