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The Unavoidable Disappointment of Revolutions

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Since the fall of the Tunisian president there has been a euphoric
sense of destiny among democrats who see the forces of popular
unrest creating a string of small successes in achieving democracy
in lands in which democracy has not been seen before. Each victory
of the people and each capitulation by the forces in power are seen
as a current pushing forward the democratic process. There is talk
of "domino effects' and the threats these uprisings pose to the
entrenched oligarchies that make up the current power structures in
the Middle East, North Africa and elsewhere.



These feelings are admirable. They confirm the possibility in
peoples' minds that change and progress can be made by protest
movements and sacrifices in the name of "democracy'. These movements
and their successes give hope to the powerless that their turn may
come. The only problem is that the experience across the world of
such revolutions is that they do not reach the idealistic goals they
seek and fail to maintain the goals that they do achieve. They
engage the popular conscience but eschew the political and economic
realities.



The reality of the quest for power by the powerless is that there
are very few mechanisms which will allow them to crystalise their
seized power into some agreed structure. The revolutionaries who
lead these struggles are usually quite unfit to lead governments of
any complexity. The skills needed to make a revolution are not the
skills needed to run a country. There is no revolutionary way to
prepare national budgets, protect the currency, maintain school
standards, monitor the firemen and policemen; etc.



One of the most important facts is that poor people do not have
power and, in all likelihood, will never have power. Often they are
destitute, living on pittances, frequently out of work, and bereft
of hope. They are in the survival business and cannot afford to use
their time for anything much more than survival. For most of the
poor it doesn't really matter who is in charge; there are few
changes to their lives which are different if they are run by kings,
despots or democrats. They are defined by their poverty, not by
their political consciousness.



It is usually the lower middle-classes who make revolutions. They
are no longer toiling for survival. They have hopes and ambitions.
They are convinced that their struggle to achieve economic
improvements in their lives and their investment in education should
allow them to maintain their positions and have wider opportunities.
They are the backers of "democracy'. One problem is that "democracy'
isn't a definable or exportable policy. It means something different
in every country, region, city or town. The "will of the people
freely expressed' is inevitably conditioned by the circumstances and
the limitations of the community to which it is applied.  There may
be broad consensus on the goals but a wide disagreement in the
method of achieving these goals.



One of the traditional heckles from the crowd listening to radical
speakers is "All right comrade, we agree. Now tell us the nature of
the transitional phase". Agreeing on a goal and casting one's moral
vote is much easier than agreeing a scheduled program for achieving
the goal. With the acquisition of power comes responsibility. This
is often a brake on the process of seeking this power. This is what
has been happening in Egypt.



There are some important constraints which shape the moves towards
change in Egypt. If democracy is only allowing political parties to
function without hindrance, ending arbitrary imprisonments and
torture, or improving public health, education and opportunity this
can be achieved by a range of political actors. However, there are
important truths in the political sphere which have nothing much to
do with democracy.



Egypt is the largest importer of wheat in the world. It imports
nearly half its total food consumption. Half of Egyptians live on
less than $2 a day and food comprises almost half the country's
consumer price index. It accounts for about two-thirds of spending
for the poorer half of the country. Prices for wheat are rising; not
only because of the failure of the Russian crop, but because as
prosperity reaches Asia its dietary patterns have changed and they
have switched from rice to wheat. Moreover, they have the money to
pay for this from their own earnings. The Egyptians do not. Prices
are rising for wheat and similar commodities and the government has
increasing difficulty in keeping up without substantial foreign aid.



Whoever takes over from Mubarak, if he goes, will have to deal with
this staple commodity. The Muslim Brotherhood are taking a quiet
backseat to this revolution. They are not making demands for
political change which will put them in power. They are not stupid.
They can remember what happened  to Hamas when it was elected. All
of a sudden the food for the Palestinians began to dry up. Hamas was
challenged by the need to provide food which was being delayed or
limited by the West. In June 2010 a delegation from the Muslim
Brotherhood visited Gaza and harangued Hamas for buying Israeli
foodstuffs. They know if they come to power in Egypt they, too, will
have a serious problem feeding the nation. They wish to avoid this;
hence the low key approach to popular democracy.



The other major problem which is not being addressed by the new
'democrats' is the question of security. This issue was of far less
importance in Tunisia but is a critical issue in Egypt. Egypt is a
major force in the Middle East. It is well armed, well-led and
generally approved of by the populace. Egypt is the major
counterweight to Iran in the region as a military force. It will
prove vital in the upcoming struggle in the region between Shia and
Sunni muslims. This is why Egypt is so crucial to the interests of
the West.



Egypt has a long tradition of Mamelukes. The Mamelukes were
originally foreign slaves brought into Egypt to serve as a cohesive
military unit. They developed, over three hundred years, into a
close, hereditary military caste. They lived well off the land, grew
immensely wealthy, and dominated the political system. The Ottomans
grew to fear the Mameluke kings and plotted to remove them.



On March 1, 1811, Muhammad Ali invited all of the leading Mamelukes
to his palace to celebrate the declaration of war against the
Wahhabis in Arabia. Near the Al-Azab gates, in a narrow road down
from Mukatam Hill, Muhammad Ali's forces ambushed and killed almost
all in what came to be known as the Massacre of the Citadel.
According to period reports, only one Mamluke survived. During the
following week, hundreds of Mamelukes were killed throughout Egypt.
Nonetheless the tradition of the Mamelukes endures. Egypt has been
run for thirty-odd years by a new group of domestic Mamelukes;
generals and officers who control the country; an entrenched
military caste. This is not changing. Whoever seeks to take over
control from Mubarak will have to deal with the new Mamelukes and
leave them in charge.



So the protesters and the seekers of democracy will have to curb
their appetites for full parliamentary democracy because this aim is
not consonant with the needs of Egypt for food, stability and a
strong military machine. It can curb the excesses, the corruption
and the greed; install political parties which will attract a
national constituency but, ultimately, it will have to compromise
and accept slow progress instead of a revolutionary change. The
unavoidable disappointment of revolutions is immutable. However the
changes being made as a result of the protests are remarkable even
without total victory.

 

[1]   Andrew
James
McGregor, "A
military
history of modern Egypt: from the Ottoman Conquest to the
Ramadan
War"
, Greenwood Publishing Group, 2006 ISBN
0275986012
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www.ocnus.net

Dr. Gary K. Busch has had a varied career-as an international trades unionist, an academic, a businessman and a political intelligence consultant. He was a professor and Head of Department at the University of Hawaii and has been a visiting (more...)
 

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