What is happening in Egypt? What does it mean for them and for us?
Those are very difficult questions to answer. The best answers require knowledge of many histories: The history of Egypt and the wider Middle East; the history of American involvement in the region; and the history of revolutions, revolts, coups, and uprisings around the world.
You can’t get that on the evening news. Newscasters are hemmed in by irresistible pressures. They know a lot of detail about what is happening now and little about what happened before. Few of the pretty faces who speak the news know how to analyze events themselves. Their bosses want them to stress the extreme, the dangerous, the lethal, rather than the typical, the complex, or the peaceful. And they have only a minute to tell their story.
Hooray for newspapers. We can give you much more content, in sentences over which one can pause, with ideas that can’t be scrolled across the bottom of the screen.
I am not an expert on the Middle East, but I do know about revolutions. So I can say something about how to think about what is happening in Egypt.
It is difficult to topple a dictatorship and difficult to predict when a dictatorship can be toppled. Why did so many Egyptians decide that at this moment Hosni Mubarak’s government, never popular enough to do without a constant state of emergency for the past 30 years, might be weak enough to attack? The spark was lit far away, in Tunisia, in December. After nearly a month of growing protests, an aroused Arab population overthrew a dictator who had been entrenched for 23 years.
Suddenly a wave of unrest washed through North Africa and the Middle East. Revolution was exported from Tunisia, but not as weapons or armies. What matters in maintaining a dictatorship is the balance among fear of the government, determination to get rid of it, and confidence that the potentially fatal act of revolt can succeed. The fear was easy to see — that’s by design. Governments that rule by repression deliberately evoke fear by the open use of force against any challenge. One never knows how deep and wide the determination to get rid of a system is, until suddenly it gets defiantly expressed on the streets. That happens at those unpredictable moments when hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of people suddenly believe that they can create change.
For revolutionaries and for ordinary citizens the best confidence-builder is the success of their neighbors. The international revolutionary explosions in Europe in 1848, 1918, and 1989, in Africa in the 1960s, and now across the Arab world demonstrate the power of example.
But few revolutions succeed in fundamentally changing a system. Killing the king or forcing the dictator to leave does not necessarily dislodge the much larger structure of relatives, friends, defenders, servants, cronies, partners and profiteers from the positions of power they have acquired. Dismantling the power structure takes persistence that is hard to infuse into a popular uprising.
The course of a revolution is never predictable. The stability of the first new government or the fifth, the role of the military chiefs, the willingness of those who came out into the streets to accept whatever new relationship develops between government and people, are all question marks.
Few revolutions result in democracies. Ours did and was exceptionally peaceful. An important factor for us was that American revolutionaries overthrew a foreign power. Much more difficult and deadly is trying to put your own countrymen out of power. The creation of a stable democracy depends above all on the people’s will — how willing are they to bet on democracy as the best long-term solution to the problems that brought them out?
Little depends on what we in the U.S. do. Our best bet is to offer support to democratic institutions, no matter who the likely winner of a free vote might be.
We haven’t done that very often.