Potentially good news from Egypt

What with all of my earlier warnings about the ways in which things could go catastrophically wrong in Egypt, it was good to wake up today and see a few signs that things may end up turning out better than expected. On top of the lack of looting, there have been a few really positive developments in the past day:

  • The army seems to have stayed on the sidelines. That’s generally a really good sign in revolutions; armies tend to either take advantage of revolutions to further separate themselves from the masses and basically take power, or to side with the people and stand by the sidelines. The army is typically much larger than the police force, and if it’s more grounded in the common people – rather than socially separated out – it can be a strong normalizing force in situations like these. (Compare e.g. the Russian army during the 1991 August Coup to the Burmese army)
  • The protesters seem to have fixed on Mohamed el-Baradei as their representative and spokesman. To quote a NYT piece:

“The Egyptian uprising, which emerged as a disparate and spontaneous grass-roots movement, began to coalesce Sunday, as the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, threw its support behind a leading secular opposition figure, Mohamed el-Baradei, to negotiate on behalf of the forces seeking the fall of President Hosni Mubarak.”

This is great news for a number of reasons, the first of which is that Mr. el-Baradei – while not an experienced political leader – is by all accounts an upright and honest man, and one who seems to really understand how democracies work and believe in them. If he is really pushed to the fore, and if he receives the support from all sides needed to pull everyone together (by which I mean, he won’t have all of the contacts and experience to do this himself) then he could be the Lech Walesa of Egypt. The support of the Muslim Brotherhood suggests that at this point, their commitment to ensuring a stable political future for Egypt may outweigh their commitment to establishing a particular sort of future. They may well be betting that, in a functioning democracy, they will have the votes to achieve their key aims without violence – and much more importantly, that to do so would be better than to do so by seizing control themselves.

  • Finally, we’ve got some magic words from the US Secretary of State: she called for “an orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people.” Parsing diplomatic-speak for a moment: the Secretary wouldn’t say anything in public unless it was fairly clear that there was going to be a transition, so it’s a pretty clear signal that the US has acknowledged that Mubarak is done with. “An orderly transition” is what you say when there’s a clear new government model in place (as opposed to outright anarchy) and you want to encourage this. It’s a signal that the US would back el-Baradei and help him with that support which he’s going to need.

Now, a note for those who have been wondering why the US didn’t declaim Mubarak more openly earlier on: I think the reason is pretty much that Mubarak was being considered as the lesser of several possible evils for a while, and the US knew that openly calling him out would simply sacrifice whatever leverage the US had with him in exchange for not very much at all. It wasn’t clear when his reign would end, or if it would end in a public revolution or a coup, or most importantly who would end up after him, and one thing that the US seems to finally be learning is that engineering coups to install “better” rulers is a recipe for disaster. And even now, with change in the offing, the US doesn’t want to be too loud about its support; being perceived as the US favorite wouldn’t do el-Baradei any favors. Even though I’d be willing to bet money that there’s a good deal of cheering going on right now in Foggy Bottom.

So this situation is nowhere near over yet, but I’d say that today showed some really positive signals for Egypt. If this manages to play out like it seems, we could have an actual democracy in the most populous Arab state; and the consequences of that for the rest of the Middle East could be fascinating.

Published in: on January 30, 2011 at 13:20  Comments (2)  


  1. That is potentially good news!

  2. […] is the companion post to the one from a few days ago on how things could go well in Egypt — given the changes of the past few days, it’s worth taking a look at how things could […]

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