Revolution in a revolutionary state: What might be coming in Egypt 

From Wednesday, February 9, 2011 in the News Tribune (Jefferson City, Mo.), p. B5:

Revolution in a revolutionary state:  What might be coming in Egypt

By Kurt W. Jefferson

            With the coming of the Muslims, after the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century, the advance of the Arabic language and the Islamic faith took 300 years to ensconce themselves; although the Arabs took the region in about 20-30 years after the Prophet’s death in 632.

            Home to one of the oldest Christian people in the world, the Copts, Egypt submitted to the Muslims by 641. The transformation of the country, which at that point looked back nearly 4000 years to the start of Pharaonic rule, began.  However, Mamluk control of Egypt for nearly 300 years starting in 1250 eventually gave way to 400 years of Ottoman control with the final nearly 40 years under the aegis of the British prior to World War I.  In 1952, the Free Officers Movement led by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser instigated Egypt’s most recent revolt, prior to this year’s, and removed King Farouk from power.

            The 2011 revolution in Egypt is important for several reasons:  First, Egypt is America’s best friend in the Middle East (after Israel) and our future foreign policy and defense interests will change no matter what the outcome of the situation in Cairo.  Second, the fuse that was lit by the Tunisians three weeks ago in the Jasmine Revolution is spreading and is directly affecting regimes in Amman, Sana, Riyadh, Beirut, Damascus, and other important capitals in the region.  Third, the underlying assumptions of these popular uprisings are challenging long-standing ideas of what political revolutions are all about in various corners of the non-Western world.  In other words, this revolt may be less “ideological,” in the Leninist or Maoist sense, and more about social and economic variables.

            What are some of the issues that led to the historical transformation in Egypt today?  And how will the state and region be affected?  According to a colleague who recently returned from Egypt in late January, some 40% of Egyptians make less than $4 per day.  The failure of the Egyptian leadership, under Hosni Mubarak, to redress the nation’s ills via economic development has instigated the public’s ire.  Even the middle class in Egypt has been hit hard.  The average Egyptian college professor makes $660 per month.  That is what I made each month in as a graduate teaching assistant teaching part-time at the University of Missouri-Columbia from 1988 to 1991.  Most importantly, only one in four Egyptians who have graduated from college has a job.  The failure to have a robust social and economic system that can placate demands for jobs and a normal standard of living is part of the problem confronting the regime in Cairo.

            Of course, the United States’ response to the crisis has been, unsurprisingly panicked and a bit contradictory; but like 1989 in Eastern Europe, the events of recent weeks in the Maghreb and the Middle East have caught US government officials by surprise and getting a bureaucracy like our government to react with unity and conviction is not easy, as President Obama is finding out.

            What’s coming in the region?  Socio-political forces in Egypt will undoubtedly attempt to move, as in all revolutionary contexts, to fill the political vacuum with some type of pluralistic, multi-party democratic institutionalization.

             The Muslim Brotherhood, a movement started in the late 1920s which grew in importance and power in the Islamic world due to the radical philosophical and ideological vision of Sayyid Qutb (who was executed by the Egyptian state in 1966), will be a salient factor in future Egyptian politics. Twenty percent of Egyptians adhere to the movement. This may be a red flag for the US; however, other variables in Egyptian politics may blunt the role of Islamism.

            Like Hamas in Palestine after 2006, the Brotherhood could alter its tune (toward pragmatism) when faced with the realities of participating in parliament or actually governing.  The role of the Copts (10% of the population) of which many will want the status quo to continue even long after Mubarak is gone, the importance of moderate Muslim political parties and secular parties and groups (including liberals, conservatives, communists, and socialists), and most importantly, the role of the powerful military will create a spectrum of power that will eventually affect the political development process in Egypt.

            Like Turkey or Pakistan, the Egyptian military will continue to hold the trump card for any regime that comes to power and it may be through it that the US will continue to have influence in working with whatever forces take the reins of state in Egypt.  We must remember that like Egypt, a revolutionary state after 1952 under military leaders Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and Mubarak, the US itself is a revolutionary state (from our foundations in the 1770s) and even though this new revolution will undoubtedly change the status quo in Cairo, we can certainly understand the desires of the Arab and Muslim people of that ancient civilization. Those desires are, in most instances, no different than our own.

            No longer can the West continue to see the nations of the Arab and Islamic world as small pieces on a geopolitical chessboard.  The revolt of the masses in the Arab world may propagate revolution in the region, but the current Egyptian revolution has less to do with ideology and more to do with the hopes and dreams of ordinary people.  Americans, if we remember our own history, can certainly relate to that.

Kurt W. Jefferson is director of the Center for Engaging the World in the Churchill Institute at Westminster College in Fulton, Mo. where he is a professor and chairs the college’s transnational studies program and the political science department. He spent nearly three weeks in January 2010 in Jordan (with 11 other American small college professors) in a training seminar on “Islam and Middle Eastern Culture” sponsored by the Council for Independent Colleges, the Carnegie Corporation of New York, and the United States Department of State.  He has worked at Westminster College since 1993.