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Making Sense of Egypt’s Revolution 2.0

November 23, 2011

Tahrir Square, Nov. 21. Photo by Malak Rouchdy.

As we enter the fifth day of mass protests, we are all seeking to make sense of it. As always, anthropologists (including me) are mulling it all over, while the political scientists are offering commentary and analysis so quickly you wonder how they do it. Here are a few recent efforts:

The way Marc Lynch tells the story, this whole uprising is the military’s fault, for acting against the (symbolically) wrong people with abusive levels of force:

The Islamists and most other participants in the demonstration left Tahrir at the end of the rally [on Friday]. A few hundred people, mostly (it seems) families of the martyrs of the January 25 revolution and veterans of past Tahrir occupations, decided to launch a new sit-in.  … But then Egyptian security forces, acting on authority which remains murky, moved in with extreme force to drive out the small group attempting to occupy Tahrir.  Their over the top violence, including massive tear gas and highly abusive police behavior, seems to have then attracted the attention of the core of Egyptian activists who came running to join the fight.  Instead of rapidly clearing the square, the security forces found themselves locked in an epic running battle with thousands of protestors. …

Steven A. Cook argues in his Foreign Policy blog that the SCAF has no one to blame but itself. Hard to argue with that. He says:

Over the past nine months, SCAF’s attempt at governing has faltered at every conceivable step, alienating former allies and laying the ground for the current unrest. SCAF chairman Field Marshal Mohamed Tantawi and his officers have never offered Egyptians a political horizon, never empowered civilian ministers, and favored fleeting tactical agreements with political groups over serious negotiations. That’s how you get stunning ironies like the 26-year-old Asmaa Mahfouz — a prominent activist — dragged before a military tribunal for merely insulting Tantawi and the SCAF, while Mubarak regime stalwarts like former Interior Minister Habib al-Adly, a man responsible for actually killing Egyptians, goes before civilian judges who are suspected of being sympathetic to him.

Brian Ulrich, writing in americanfootsteps.com,  points out that revolutions are rarely one time events, but processes that unfold in fits and starts:

As a historian, I find it unsurprising that a revolution would traverse multiple phases, as that is simply what often happens. …. It would not surprise me if Egypt’s politics develop something like Kyrgyzstan did after the Tulip Revolution, with a steady ebb and flow of protest as groups with conflicting agendas that trust neither each other nor the system vie for influence.

Many are skeptical that protesters can bring down the SCAF. For example, Walter Russell Mead writes:

There are no signs that the military is losing its hold over the troops or that the broad masses of the population are ready for a revolution against Scaf.

And many are arguing that next week’s elections should take place as planned no matter what. One of these, Shadi Hamid argues that,

The polarization that would likely result is difficult to overstate. It is easy to imagine how such a situation could spiral wildly, and violently, out of control. If Islamists — particularly those, like the Salafis, who have entered the democratic process for the very first time — begin to lose faith in the democratic process, it may lead to a radicalization of the Islamist rank-and-file, setting the country back considerably. And once democratic processes are derailed, it can become rather difficult to recover, as in Algeria 1991, Jordan 1993, and Turkey mid-1990s.

But not everyone agrees with that wisdom. Issandr El Amrani, writing in the arabist.com is convinced that it is not yet the time for elections:

Anyone reading this site knows I thought even before the current crisis that the upcoming elections, because they were so poorly prepared, were a disaster. You can’t build a new political system on bad foundations. This is only more the case now, but elections are only worth postponing if you have a real civilian executive authority that takes over most of the SCAF’s duties. Remember the military and police are supposed to secure elections, but who trusts them now?

And why should Americans care? Stephen M. Walt offers “Ten Reasons Why Americans Should Care About the Egyptian Revolution” from money (the US gives Egypt $2 billion of your tax dollars) to regional stability (which affects prices at the pump) to Obama’s electoral hopes (his middle of the road, “no drama” approach to foreign policy is being tested here)

And speaking of the U.S., how should it respond to the revitalization of Egypt’s revolution? Paul Pillar offers a principled US response to the uprisings:

the United States should proclaim the principles it considers important and relevant to the Egyptian situation. Proclaim them loudly and clearly, for sure, but stick with principles rather than getting into particular formulas for applying them, because any application would quickly stumble on some of the inherent tensions among the principles, laudable though they are individually. Those principles are: First, violence from any quarter, governmental or nongovernmental, is unacceptable. Second, Egypt should move toward greater popular sovereignty. Third, individual human rights and liberties are important, no matter who runs the government. And fourth, the United States looks forward to strong and cordial relations with whatever government emerges from the current political flux in Egypt.

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