The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Five January 25 gains that have (so far) survived the counter-revolution

As quite a few commentators have gloomily noted, an Egyptian counter-revolution appears to be in full swing. The Supreme Council for the Armed Forces has vowed to step up its use of Emergency Law and demonstrating a willingness to crack down on street protesters, strikers, critics of the military, NGOs who receive foreign funding, and anyone else who might trouble their hold over the country. Newspapers are again being censored. The Interior Ministry seems to have successfully resisted real reform, at least for the time being. Supporters of the revolution are trying to count the tangible achievements of the January uprising and coming up short, sober observers are reminding us that those who create a revolution rarely get to determine its outcome, and some Edmund Burkes are surveying the scene and declaring that they knew all along that the naive youth of Facebook could never seriously shape the course of Egypt's future, except as pawns.

I would agree that the vision of Egypt's future articulated by protesters in Tahrir is still far from being realized. However, they have already accomplished far more than many would give them credit for doing. Some examples:

1) Egypt's media and political political landscape has become vastly more pluralistic. SCAF has been cracking down on the media, but in a very piecemeal fashion, a few pebbles tossed against the torrent of licensings of newspapers and television channels licensed in the first months after Mubarak's departure. Every major political trend in the country has been allowed to form its own political party. This means, among other things that parties have more internal democracy: Islamists no longer have to huddle together under the semi-tolerated protective umbrella of the Muslim Brothers to avoid prosecution for illegal political activity, but have been free to split off into smaller groups that express their discontent with the parent organization.

2) Liberals have established themselves as a real force in Egyptian politics. Electorally, they may not be as organized as the Islamists, but the leftist/liberal secular-leaning youth are the acknowledged heroes of January. Groups like April 6 and the Revolutionary Youth Coalition now have major name recognition, and polls suggest that they are at the very least competitive with the Muslim Brothers. Prior to January, very few people would have mentioned the Islamists and the liberals even in the same breath as political forces of comparable power.

3) Egypt's political discourse has become increasingly liberal. The demands of the January uprising have hardened the consensus that Egypt needs to have a democratically elected government. And we're not talking about the "democratic transition" offered by Mubarak, where Egypt may be allowed to elect their 20 years down the road, if conditions are absolutely perfect -- pretty much everyone has agreed in principle that the next government must be fairly elected under the supervision of an independent judiciary. And with the exception of a few Salafis, pretty much every group insists that the government be "civil" -- ie, not an Islamic state. You may or may not believe that the Muslim Brothers would not establish a theocracy if given the chance. But in order to implement a radical agenda, a would-be radical vanguard party usually needs to pitch itself as offering a major alternative to the current order. Very few Egyptian politicians seem to have calculated that there is a market for religious radicalism.

The revolution also seems to have strengthened the consensus in favor of individual rights -- leading Islamists have acknowledged a right for Muslims to convert out of Islam, for example, while Coptic activists have become more vocal in demanding that the Church should no longer have the capacity to regulate their personal lives, in particular their right to divorce.

4) Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians have become politically active -- not just in the crowds in Tahrir, but in the workplace as well. Egypt was never quite as compliant as it was portrayed to be, and workers, government employees, professionals, tenants, and other aggrieved groups have always staged strikes and demonstrators to further interests. But under Mubarak, the regime was usually able to keep these groups focused on their specific needs and fairly easily appeased with small concessions. Now, workplace organizations are far more militant, and far more likely to mix their own parochial demands with pressure to keep up reforms at a national level. Also, Egyptian institutions from labor unions to al-Azhar have signalled that they will no longer tolerate their leadership being appointed by the state, and insist on autonomy.

5) The calculus of running the country has been changed. No future government can assume, as Mubarak's did, that it can violate its pledges or make an utter mockery of elections, and only a small handful of activists will turn out to protest, outnumbered by the Central Security forces which surround them. No future autocrat can quite as cocky about rigging elections, about promoting a family member as heir, or otherwise ignoring the desires of the Egyptian public.

None of these successes is irreversible. None are cast-iron guarantees of fair and democratic elections. But they are major obstacles in the path of any would-be strongman who wishes to reestablished an entrenched and lasting autocracy.