Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Egypt's Looking Glass

Anyone who has turned on the news since January 25th will have heard of the unrest in Egypt. The problems in Egypt were sparked by a fruit vendor in Tunisia who set himself on fire in protest against his government after his business was shut down by the autocratic regime. This sacrificial act of desperation against government abuse became a symbol for the people of Tunisia and after weeks of protest and unrest the dictatorial president stepped down on January 14, 2011.

Quickly, the success of the Tunisian Revolt inspired similar actions in other North African and Middle Eastern nations. One of these nations was Egypt. The narrative of the story is well known. Tired of thirty years of autocratic rule under Hosni Mubarak, President of Egypt, and led by the Tunisian example, the people of Cairo, Alexandria and other cities in Egypt took to the street. In particular the famous images of protesters occupying Cairo’s central Tahrir square have acted as a symbol of the people’s resistance. On February 11 Hosni Mubarak resigned from the presidency.

Many observers from the Western World have observed the events as a democratic revolution, but I’m less certain. The one clear goal of the Egyptian protesters was the removal of Hosni Mubarak. The desired aftermath of the protests are less clear, or more to the point, those of the majority of the Egyptian population.

I wonder if we Westerners aren’t seeing what we want to see. Do we see democrats where there may only be a handful? Two thoughts came to mind when I watched these events unfold. The first was the French Revolution. After the French Revolution, which also had a similar goal of toppling the former regime with a less clear goal of what was to follow, the new republic held an election. The results of the election are a bit surprising because the parliament that was returned to Paris was packed full of conservatives and those that were sceptical if not hostile to the Revolution. Many, in fact, were monarchists. How did this happen? Well, the Revolution was largely a result of actions of the urban classes in Paris, and not of the entire nation, and then, as now, the urban classes were more liberal than their rural counterparts. This began the unravelling of the Revolution.

Could not the same thing happen in Egypt? We keep hearing about Egypt’s youth bulge, but what about their parents? What about generations of people rained in a country that has been ruled by military dictators, and scorn the Western democracies? What are their feelings on our system of government?

The second thought I had was about the Cold War. If the Egyptian Revolution had occurred during the Cold War I wondered if the Soviet media would not have depicted it as a class-based revolution. That the proletariat of Egypt, tired of religious dogma of the opposition and the oppression of the Mubarak regime had taken to the streets for their class interests. You could cast the story that way if you wanted. It’s all a matter of perception.

As a democrat I am happy that Egypt’s dictator has been toppled. However, I am not confident that a flowering of Western-style democracy is around the corner. If an election is held in Egypt I would not be surprised to see authoritarian parties do well, even secular ones. And like that, the cliché that has overcome the media of “one person, one vote, one election” may come to pass. This is one prediction I desperately hope I’m wrong about.

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