As events continue to unfold in Egypt, here’s another expert on the region: Walid Phares, author of The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What’s truly going on in Egypt?
Walid Phares: The current popular uprising is a mixture of public discontent with economic and political affairs in Egypt, a push towards political change inside the country led by young democracy currents, the Tunisian model that gave the uprising a copycat to follow, and also a convergence of efforts by anti-Mubarak political forces not all promoting democracy. This cocktail of ingredients led to the largest demonstrations in Egypt’s history, where the focal point is opposition to President Mubarak, but there are diverging points of view immediately beyond that. In my view, this is a real surge coming from the bottom, but many others are riding the wave.
Initially this move — and it is not well known yet by global public opinion — was triggered by a network of bloggers, called al-Mudawinun in Arabic. These young, educated people, although leaderless, formed an online federation that took credit for previous calls for strikes and demonstrations. The Mudawinun (“Bloggers”) were able to generate a gathering of youth groups called the April 6 Movement. Over the past weeks, emulating Tunisia’s revolt, the movement organized an online campaign to trigger marches in Cairo and several cities. According to our sources, the Egyptian youth involved in this networking were initially influenced by the vision of the Cedar Revolution in Beirut in 2005 and the Green Revolution in Tehran in 2009. Some say they were also impressed by the sight of young Coptic demonstrators after the attack against Alexandria’s church on January 31. The several days of Christian youth demonstrations in Alexandria and Cairo, and the online activities they generated, gave examples to the larger April 6 Movement to try it at a national scale against the Mubarak regime as a whole.
Ironically, Al Jazeera and the Islamist propaganda tools were inciting against the regime from their ideological angle, inciting their constituencies in the same direction but not for the same goals. The Bloggers, April 6 youth, and the Coptic students were calling for a secular and freer government. The Muslim Brotherhood and their ilk were calling for an Islamist state.
The Bloggers launched the first wave of protests, as their Facebook effort received an original endorsement of more than 75,000 “friends.” This was the start of it. Those who took to the streets first were students, the middle class, workers, and farmers, and the protest widened from there. It was a huge popular protest with little literature, almost no spokespersons, and no party backing at its onset. Soon enough, as the numbers swelled, the Egyptian political parties — most of which never succeeded in organizing a large march — joined in. The Muslim Brotherhood were last to join, as they were weighing the situation (and wanted to be situated in the back, at first).
The government shut down the Internet, thus disconnecting the original network of youth, and leaving this large mass seeking political expression. That was when the “establishment” of the opposition took over the representation of the demonstrations from the original “underground.”
Lopez: Who’s to blame for events coming to such a boil?
Phares: Many — the Mubarak regime for not engaging in reforms earlier; the U.S. administration for banking on two parties only, the regime and (ironically) the Muslim Brotherhood, and for not engaging the forces of civil society seriously. Who to credit? The young bloggers and the mainstream civil society who rose for change; the Egyptian armed forces, who are maintaining the link between the outside world and Egyptian society.
Lopez: How is what’s happening in Egypt related to the “coming revolution” you write about in your new book?
Phares: In my new book, The Coming Revolution: Struggle for Freedom in the Middle East, I argue that the region as a whole cannot stay away from political change forever, 21 years after the end of the Soviet era, ten years after 9/11, and with the rise of the Internet, globalization, and the war of ideas. I projected that deep down, civil societies will express frustration and eventually rise against any form of suppression, should it come from Islamist and terror regimes (as was the case in Lebanon and Iran) or against authoritarian governments (as was the case in Tunisia and Egypt). Not one country in the Greater Middle East will escape the mounting tide of civil-society liberations. That is a natural evolution of things — but a notion that was rejected by the Western Middle East Studies experts, who argued that the only change will be led by the Islamists. I countered by saying that while the Islamists and the jihadists are progressing, those who do not share their views, particularly the younger generation, will not be silent.
In my book, I show that in Afghanistan and Iraq the democratic revolution is embodied not by the current political processes but by the expansion of the underlying current of youth eager to get there. In Lebanon and Iran, and eventually in Syria, democratic revolution will rise, and could be defeated before it rises again. I also underlined the rise of revolutions among ethnic and religious minorities, as in Sudan, and the Kabyls in Algeria. But the most powerful change will come from Muslim-majority countries, if and when change forces will rise. Each country will experience its own model, and that is the case in Tunisia and Egypt. But again, these early spasms are only the beginnings. What comes as a result of the first surges may not look like the European democracy revolutions but it will create a new equation: forces of democracy confronting the forces of jihadism.
Lopez: How has the Obama administration been doing?
Phares: First it hesitated before it acted, mainly because of lack of global strategies. The Obama doctrine countered the Bush doctrine of spreading democracy. We saw that when the president didn’t want to “meddle” in supporting — even verbally — the Green Revolution in June 2009. The academic expertise serving the administration is known as the apologist trend in Middle East Studies, that is, to resist a U.S. engagement with democracy forces in the region, and, worse, to engage with the Islamists. We saw the results in Tunisia and now in Egypt. The administration has no engagement with civil-society forces and is banking on either the regimes or the Islamists. Thus, when large masses demonstrate against suppression and for liberties, the administration doesn’t know where to start.
The statements of the administration — in view of the shortage of strategy — are perhaps rational, meaning slow to admit realities on the ground, but eventually Washington is following ideas that are useful: for example, to work with the Egyptian military to serve as a defender of national security and protector of civil society in Egypt until a process is finally found to solve the issue. But the administration is not measuring accurately, so far, the speed of the Muslim Brotherhood’s reorganization and penetration of the country. And that may have consequences. Also, we’re discovering that the administration’s “democracy projects and agencies” have completely failed in achieving goals despite millions of dollars spent.
Lopez: What are the prospects of democracy there?
Phares: I use a different equation: What is the strength of democracy forces in the region? Because democracy won’t come by itself, it needs actual movements and forces as was the case in Eastern Europe. In my estimate, the democracy forces and dissidents have never been so ready to act. But they are frustrated with U.S. abandonment since 2009. It looks like a change of direction here will determine the success there
Lopez: What is the best realistic situation for the region?
Phares: We have to brace for more spasms in the region. We’ve entered the large-earthquake era. Tunisia and Egypt are not done; there will be more developments in these two countries. In my book, I project revolts and revolutions in many other places: Algeria, Sudan, Syria, and Iran (again).
Lopez: What will Hosni Mubarak’s legacy be?
Phares: Stability and authoritarianism. Kept the peace but didn’t advocate its political culture.
Lopez: How bad a player is Mohamed ElBaradei?
Phares: He will be a critic of the West, but deal with it — like some leaders in Latin America. He is seen as the interim man of the day by secular youth, but the most defining part of his image is, precisely, “interim.” He will take a risk by partnering with the Muslim Brotherhood, because he fears them, but they will use him until they can seize their moment.
Lopez: How endangered are Coptic Christians right now?
Phares: The Christian Copts have been and are still in a dangerous stage, as they are still targeted by jihadists and will be assaulted politically by the Muslim Brotherhood. In my book, I argue that Copts and Muslim seculars should form a strong alliance until the debate about the long-term fate of the Copts begins.
Lopez: What’s your bottom-line advice for Washington?
Phares: In Egypt, they need to solidify the partnership with the army, help shape the exit strategy for Mubarak, work closely with the interim government, and above all engage with and empower the youth secular groups, the only real hope for the future.
In the region at large, the U.S. must review existing strategies and create new ones. I’d say we need a brand new direction in Washington, D.C.