In The Moment: Revolutions end when the flags go down, and then what?


An unruly crowd demanding changes, policemen lounging about, somewhat disinterested—this could be a scene in any number of countries in the world. But what was remarkable about this crowd of disaffected workers was that it was in Egypt. Only a few short months ago, this relatively garden-variety wage protest could have invited a crushing response from the state security apparatus.

These laborers worked at a hotel near the Cairo airport, and they were actively utilizing their newfound rights of association to protest what they alleged to be unfair labor practices. It was apparent at the onset that instead of provoking an immediate deployment of black uniformed, truncheon wielding security officers, the group attracted relatively little attention from onlookers.

This lack of incongruity in the minds of pedestrians is a positive development in Egypt’s (often) tumultuous evolution towards democracy. Democracy is messy, often it is ugly, but it is the best system available to address the needs of the populace, and Egyptians have embraced it wholesale.

Political mobilization is obviously nothing new in Egypt nor in the Arab world; however, there is a new awareness in Egypt that mobilization to express political and economic grievances is not only viable, it is laudable. But if we trace the trajectory of Egyptian political mobilization, the origin could perhaps be discovered in the rule of the late Egyptian President, Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Even though Nasser nursed an extreme antipathy toward any type of political mobilization outside of his purview, the fact that he brought millions of ordinary Egyptians into the political process through his rallies, referendums and political speeches, was a precipitating factor behind the mass rallies of the Egyptian revolution. Nasser encouraged many Egyptians to feel that they were his partners in his quest to confront the colonial system and refashion the borders of the modern Middle East. Nasser was so confident that his will was aligned with the people’s that he termed what was essentially a coup d'état against King Farouk, a national revolution.

The social contract that Nasser constructed when he came to power was based on the dual pillars of anti-Zionism and government subsidies. Nasser’s regime implicitly pledged that if the people muted their demands for political enfranchisement, it would supply them with governmental jobs, a basic subsidy, as well as the rather ephemeral sentiment of regaining national dignity.

This social contract subsequently fractured in many different ways. The first blow came during the 1967 war, when Egypt’s military was crushed and Nasser faced a humiliating defeat, the second arrived when former Egyptian president, Anwar Sadat, launched his economic liberalization program known as “Infitah,” which was aimed at breaking the deadlock of the public sector and encouraging growth in private sector investment. The final break came when the government, due to spiraling financial obligations, began to allow basic food prices to rise while wages remained stagnant. For the average Egyptian the rise in the price of basic food stuffs was so destabilizing that in 1977 massive street protests broke out in Cairo that resulted in many deaths, the running street battles were eventually quelled when military units were called out in force.

When I travelled to Egypt in early May 2011, I saw the encrustation of years of political and economic inertia. The buildup of such dashed hopes was a combustible mass that only needed the Tunisian spark, which eventually set Egypt aflame. Egyptians, always a proud people that take to heart the Arabic sobriquet of their country, Umm Al Dounia (mother of the earth), now were optimistic. Egyptians feel that instead of placing their aspirations on the shoulders of an erstwhile Arab Napoleon, rather it would be the people who would represent the national dignity.

This is apparent when one first arrives in the Cairo International Airport; passport control officers now smile and undertake their duties with a professionalism that was not apparent before, taxi cab drivers beam and tell visitors, “Welcome to the new Egypt.” Any visitor to Egypt over the past decade can attest to what an extraordinary contrast this was when compared to the frustration apparent in the eyes of street peddlers, middle class engineers and well as nearly every other segment of the population during Mr. Mubarak’s rule.

Placing the Arab protests in the broader context, there has been a rejection of the notion that the paternal State or Party is the proper representative of the nation and that in order to protect the people’s cultural rights and national sovereignty on the global stage, individual rights must be suppressed.

Egyptians have taken to the street in earnest, now, if they feel that their demands are not being met, they will protest everything from irregular sanitation service to crumbling schools. While it was Nasser who awakened Egyptians to the possibility that they were actors on the global stage and convinced them that he carried the torch in their stead, it was Mr. Mubarak’s twin policy of sclerotic management of the economy and iron fisted repression of domestic dissent that finally caused his regime to be toppled.

While the removal of Hosni Mubarak was an enormous step, regardless of whether Mr. Mubarak is in power or not, Egypt as a nation continues.

Continuity in Egypt is a curious phenomenon. Egypt claims a distinguished heritage stretching back thousands of years, but yet, there is discontinuity when one considers the successive invasions that culminated with Egypt’s transformation into an Arab and Islamic nation in the seventh century. This double movement of continuity and discontinuity may be seen with Egypt’s current transition to a democratic polity. On one hand, there is an administrative structure that is still in place that carried out the diktats of Mr. Mubarak’s regime. Yet, there is a palpable change in how many of these same officials and governmental organs respond to the public they are now empowered to serve.

While bureaucracies everywhere may be somewhat heavy handed, and those in the Arab world perhaps notoriously so, Egypt is undergoing a psychological transformation in the long process of reeducating the mindset of the government to be responsive to the people.

The Egyptian revolution is not finished, it did not end with the stepping down of Hosni Mubarak, it really only just began. It will continue to take place until ordinary Egyptians feel they have a stake in the system, that they are not passive subjects, but rather citizens in the full sense of the word.

The lowering of the flag of the Mubarak regime should rightly be seen as the end of Egyptian humiliation and the regaining of national dignity, however, it should also be regarded in the context of the raising of a new flag. The new Egyptian flag comprises the notion that the Egyptian people have spoken with one voice and will now have to move on from the euphoria of the first days of Mr. Mubarak’s departure to the messy business of everyday governance.

The notable Chinese politician, Zhou Enlai, was once asked in 1953 his assessment of the French revolution of 1789, he replied, “It is too soon to tell.” As Mr. Mubarak enters the annals of history—and of notoriety—the ultimate impact of the Egyptian revolution is still unformed and its story is still much too soon to write.

(Justin Dargin of Harvard University is a frequent visitor to the Middle East who learned his fluent Arabic in Egypt. He can be reached at: [email protected])