Events in Egypt over the last three weeks have truly been inspiring. A bottom-up movement — a true people’s uprising — has managed to displace an autocratic ruler. Facilitating this bottom-up movement was a top-down military establishment that refused to fire on peaceful protesters; indeed, it interceded to protect the people from the autocrat’s thugs and enforcers. And so “pharaoh” Mubarak was shoved into retirement, and the people rejoiced.
The question is: Will this “revolution” be truly revolutionary? Consider the following definition of “revolution” by Samuel P. Huntington: “a rapid, fundamental, and violent domestic change in the dominant values and myths of a society, in its political institutions, social structure, leadership, and government activity and policies.” Crucial to this is Hannah Arendt’s criterion that in modern revolutions “the idea of freedom and the experience of a new beginning should coincide.”
Egypt has made a new and inspiring beginning, yet a new idea of freedom has not yet taken hold in its institutions and structures of power. Consider Egypt’s temporary caretaker ruler, Omar Suleiman, an old comrade of Mubarak’s and handpicked by him to reign in his stead. Or consider Mohamed Tantawi, the Minister of Defense and head of the Higher Military Council, whose unpromising nickname is “Mubarak’s poodle.”
Will a Suleiman or a Tantawi be the steady hand Egypt needs at the wheel, steering the ship of state through the exhilarating yet also potentially treacherous currents of democratic change, with the help of a military crew whose loyalty is ultimately to the ship rather than to its caretaker captain? Or will Egypt’s caretaker and militarized crew seek to return the ship of state to its previous course, perhaps with a few minor course corrections (the end of emergency rule; a handful of seats won by opposition parties)? And how would the people of Egypt — intoxicated by the promise of free elections, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, all those freedoms we associate with true democracy — respond if the latter, reactionary, course is adopted?
It will also be curious to see what role the United States plays. Much of this will occur not in open view but behind the scenes. For all our talk of enabling democracy and facilitating the voice of the people across the world, one must recall our thirty-year record of supporting Mubarak and courting as well as arming the Egyptian military. Given the scare quotes we tend to put around the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and given our constantly stated fears of radical Muslims as well as our vital interests in this area (Israel’s safety, securing oil, safeguarding the Suez Canal), it’s less than guaranteed that our foreign policy establishment is ready, eager, and willing to facilitate greater freedom and political diversity in Egypt.
In raising concerns about the long-term meaning and results of Egypt’s revolution, I don’t wish to sound like a killjoy. Events this week have truly made history. But let’s return to Huntington’s definition of revolution. Have we yet seen a change in Egypt’s dominant myths and values? Has the Egyptian government yet changed in fundamental ways? Have traditional hierarchies of power yet been overthrown or recast in favor of empowering the average Egyptian in the street?
To paraphrase Winston Churchill, the people’s uprising in Egypt and Mubarak’s forced departure constitute the end of the beginning of Egypt’s revolution. But can the Egyptian people and their institutions now fulfill the promise of these momentous events? Can they work together to expand personal freedoms, ensuring that the voice of all the people will ultimately be heard and acted upon? And in this process will the United States offer more than rhetorical support to the aspirations of average Egyptians?
Time will tell. But we can help by keeping an eye on the actions of our own government. Trust, but verify, as Ronald Reagan might say. Trust, but verify.
Professor Astore writes regularly for TomDispatch.com and can be reached at email@example.com.