'Revolutions devour their children'

Earlier this week Egypt’s military rulers made it clear that they will effectively be in power till “late 2012.” The generals, all Mubarak appointees, want to reorganize the political landscape to ensure they can still wield influence. They’ve also revived old emergency laws favored by Mubarak. And they try civilians in military courts. Revolution indeed.

That reminded me of a recent opinion piece by Hussein Agha and Robert Malley in The New York Review of Books, “The Arab Counterrevolution.” There, Agha and Malley argue that “the Arab awakening” is “a tale of three battles rolled into one”: people against regimes (basically the tug of war between regimes and spontaneous protesters); people against people (“a focused fight among more organized political groups”); and regimes against other regimes (this “assumes an increasingly prominent role”). They argue that “any number of outcomes could emerge from this complex brew.” They claim that “the outcome of the Arab awakening will not be determined by those who launch it.”

Revolutions devour their children. The spoils go to the resolute, the patient, who know what they are pursuing and how to achieve it. Revolutions almost invariably are short-lived affairs, bursts of energy that destroy much on their pathway, including the people and ideas that inspired them. So it is with the Arab uprising. It will bring about radical changes. It will empower new forces and marginalize others. But the young activists who first rush onto the streets tend to lose out in the skirmishes that follow. Members of the general public might be grateful for what they have done. They often admire them and hold them in high esteem. But they do not feel they are part of them. The usual condition of a revolutionary is to be tossed aside.

That leaves “two relatively untarnished and powerful forces”: the military and “Islamists.” The Islamists are more concerned with how they’re perceived in the West. As for the military,

[i]n Egypt, although closely identified with the former regime, they dissociated themselves in time, sided with the protesters, and emerged as central power brokers. They are in control, a position at once advantageous and uncomfortable. Their preference is to rule without the appearance of ruling, in order to maintain their privileges while avoiding the limelight and accountability. To that end, they have tried to reach understandings with various political groups. If they do not succeed, a de facto military takeover cannot be ruled out.

Agha and Massey concludes:

The Arab world’s immediate future will very likely unfold in a complex tussle between the army, remnants of old regimes, and the Islamists, all of them with roots, resources, as well as the ability and willpower to shape events. Regional parties will have influence and international powers will not refrain from involvement. There are many possible outcomes—from restoration of the old order to military takeover, from unruly fragmentation and civil war to creeping Islamization. But the result that many outsiders had hoped for—a victory by the original protesters—is almost certainly foreclosed.


Further Reading

Goodbye, Piassa

The demolition of an historic district in Addis Ababa shows a central contradiction of modernization: the desire to improve the country while devaluing its people and culture.