The protests that have shaken the Egyptian government in recent days raise some of the most enduring questions for observers. After years of relative calm, why do mass demonstrations emerge so quickly? After decades of determined police repression, how do the organs of state power become so uncertain and precarious? Most of all, how does the momentum of power shift away from the men with the guns to the people on the streets?
Whether or not the protests in Egypt unseat long-time dictator, Hosni Mubarak, they have transformed the Egyptian landscape as no other popular movement since the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood and the assassination of Anwar Sadat thirty years ago. Understanding why this transformation has occurred is incredibly difficult, but absolutely crucial for anticipating future developments in the region. So far, American and European observers have failed to understand the dynamics of political change in Egypt, Iran, Syria, Yemen, and of course Iraq. Better policy requires more acute understanding of when and why ordinary citizens, like those in Egypt today, take to the streets against their American-supported leaders.
So why did Egypt erupt in street protests last week? One cannot explain this phenomenon by pointing to the “objective” suffering of Egyptian citizens. Poverty, crime, and corruption have been rampant in their society since Mubarak first took power. If anything, recent government efforts have contributed to some minor improvements. People in Egypt are not revolting today because they have suddenly awaken to their suffering. In the past, Egyptian suffering has kept Mubarak in power. With his strong connection to the military, the Egyptian leader has asserted that only he can preserve the basic rudiments of order and economy. Without Mubarak, citizens have feared a far worse descent into violence and deprivation.
Mubarak has continued to make this argument about his indispensable role in the wake of recent protests. The difference now is that his claims no longer command public credibility. Thousands, perhaps millions, of Egyptian citizens no longer believe that Mubarak can or should preserve order. They no longer see him as a lesser evil when compared to alternatives.
This is the crucial tipping point: when established leaders lose their image of indispensability. As never before, citizens now believe that Mubarak stands in the way of order, and they believe that almost any alternative would be better. This change in image does not reflect a change in Mubarak’s behavior, but a transformation in the expectations and fears of citizens. Expectations and fears, it turns out, are susceptible to rapid alteration because of circumstances.
The key circumstances for events in Egypt today are the popular overthrow of the government in Tunisia, the election of a Hezbollah-backed government in Lebanon, and the emerging movement to unseat the leader of the Ivory Coast. In each of these cases, long-established patterns of government authority have shifted because weak leaders could no longer control the institutions of governance in their societies – the military, the economy, and the ballot box.
Mubarak is stronger and more effective than his counterparts in these neighboring countries. He has not lost control of his government, not yet. What Mubarak has lost is the expectation that any replacement would be worse and the fear that any effort to challenge him would result in overwhelming repression. The protesters do not believe either of those things any more.
That explains the true “demonstration effect” of the events in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Ivory Coast for Egypt. Watching events closely on Al-Jazeera as these neighboring societies embark on a new path, citizens of Egypt have asked themselves: “why not us?” These nearby examples have shown that radical change is less dangerous than everyone claimed. These nearby examples have revealed that the fears of repression are, perhaps, exaggerated. It is not that the Emperor has no clothes. It is that the Emperor’s clothes are far less impressive and intimidating than ever before.
Understanding mass protests and political change is very difficult, especially in the Middle East. Theories and formulas offer few reliable predictions. The best analysis is one that examines how circumstances near a society transform the ways in which citizens within a society view their leaders. Expectations and fears shift in comparison to what citizens see in other places. Altered expectations and fears send largely passive citizens into the streets.
What does this analysis mean for U.S. foreign policy? Above all, the United States should avoid any direct intervention in the popular protests and government reactions. American leaders should express support for the democratic aspirations of Egyptian citizens and they should call for an avoidance of violence. They should not, under any circumstances, take sides. The best policy is to hang back and wait, even if the violence increases. The United States did not contribute to the protests in Egypt and the United States cannot channel those protests, or Mubarak’s reaction, in a clear direction. Washington should emphasize its principles, wait, and then assess the politics that follow the protests. In the end, the United States should work with whoever leads Egypt to encourage long-term stability, openness, and economic growth in this vital region.
The opinions expressed in this blog are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of either Global Brief or the Glendon School of Public and International Affairs.