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Don't Call Egyptian Protests a Revolution ... Yet

The success of the Egyptian people’s demonstrations in persuading Hosni Mubarak to resign from the presidency is remarkable and unique in Egypt’s modern history.  But to call it a revolution is premature.

We historians of modern Egypt recall Cairo’s popular demonstrations that helped bring Muhammad Ali to power in 1805, the military and popular uprisings that we commonly ascribe to Col. Ahmad Urabi in 1881-82, the nationwide revolution led by Sa’d Zaghlul against the British protectorate in 1919, the July 1952 military coup that overthrew King Farouk, the nationwide demonstrations of support for Gamal Abdel Nasser when he offered to resign following Egypt’s defeat in the June 1967 War, the 1977 Food Riots protecting the removal of price subsidies on popular necessities such as bread and cooking oil, and the Central Security Force Riots of February 1986.  We question whether any of these events constituted a revolution, a structural change in the political, economic, social, or intellectual lives of the people.

The historic dependence of the Egyptians on Nile River irrigation necessitated a strong, central control to regulate distribution of the annual flood waters and to protect the fellahin from nomadic invaders.  Egypt’s strategic position between the Mediterranean and the Red Seas made it a prize for foreign powers seeking regional or worldwide dominance, especially since the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.  At no time between the Persian invasion in 525 BCE and King Farouk’s departure in 1952 was Egypt ruled by an Egyptian.

More significantly, Egypt’s social structure has always been a pyramid.  Not the stone structures that memorialize the ancient pharaohs and stand between the Nile Valley and the Western Desert, but the carefully demarcated class system that divides the wealthy, the powerful, and the well-connected from everyone else.  Until recently, the political, military, and landowning elite was mainly foreign.  As the old saying put it:  Fi bilad Misr khayruha li-ghayriha (“In the land of Egypt, what is good belongs to others”).  The military coup, usually called the 1952 Revolution, that brought General Muhammad Nagib and then Gamal Abdel Nasser to power also empowered many army officers stemming from lower and middle class Egyptian backgrounds.  But the class structure, like the Pyramids, has survived, even if members of the top echelon are increasingly ethnic Egyptians.  Since the decline of ”Arab socialism” in the 1970s, the gap between the rich minority and the poor majority has widened.  Corruption has spread, and President Mubarak is said to have amassed a fortune exceeding a billion dollars.

The demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Alexandria, Suez City, and many other Egyptian towns and villages were sparked by the Tunisian revolt against Zein al-Abdin ben Ali earlier in January, but fueled by resentment over Egypt’s rigged elections, economic inequality, high unemployment among educated young adults, abusive actions by State Security Police against Egyptian dissidents, and the Mubarak regime’s support of Israel against the Gaza Palestinians.  Many foreigners feared the inspiration of the eighty-year-old Muslim Brotherhood, but its members, cautious after many Egyptian government crackdowns, were slow to join the demonstrators.  It was easy to see that all were demonstrating against Mubarak.  It has been hard to tell what—or whom—they were demonstrating for.

In principle, the demonstrators want democracy.  Uneasy with the fact that the levers of state power will remain in the hands of army officers during an indefinite period of transition to democratic government, these idealistic young Egyptians have been slow to evacuate Tahrir Square as their country resumes its normal routine.  And no doubt a period of transition is essential to let a committee revise Egypt’s 1971 constitution, set up new elections for the Senate and the People’s Assembly, and of course to choose a new president.  Even if a new political structure can be designed for Egypt, it will take time for it to set about governing the country and starting to address its many problems.  It will take even longer for the economic and social structure to enable Egypt to revamp its schools, improve its health care system, and regain its leadership of Arab intellectual, cultural, and artistic life.

Meanwhile, Arabs in Algeria, Yemen, Jordan, and other countries have been inspired by the Egyptian demonstrators to demonstrate and possibly to rebel against their own unelected leaders.  The Israelis fear for their security if the revolutionaries prove to be Islamic radicals and denounce the peace treaties that Egypt and Jordan have signed with Israel.  Hamas in Gaza and Hizbullah, lately strengthened by Lebanon’s new cabinet, are rejoicing.  Formerly, Arab rulers could prop up their power and control the flow of information to their subjects by censoring periodicals and books, controlling radio and television stations, and relying on troops and secret police.  Then came transistor radios, tape cassettes, CDs, DVDs, satellite television, the Internet, Facebook, and Twitters to inform and empower defiant Arab citizens.

Many imponderables remain.  As Obama said on Friday, “Egypt will never be the same.”  Neither will the rest of the Middle East.

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