The anatomy of revolutions can be deceptive. Vladimir Lenin composed his famous April Theses within weeks of the February Revolution in 1917 and pointed out: “The specific feature of the present situation in Russia is that the country is passing from the first stage of the revolution … to its second stage” — something with which, with the benefit of history, we'd readily agree today. Yet, when he presented his Theses, Lenin was booed by the Mensheviks and Boris Bogdanov called them “the ravings of a madman.” Among the Bolsheviks, only Alexandra Kollontai initially supported the Theses (which became their manifesto later).
The Egyptian uprising, too, is highly deceptive. The seductive air cannot fudge the possibility of the revolution taking protean forms. There is hardly any precedent of a military acting as the arbiter of a democracy project. Indeed, the January 25 uprising caught the international community by surprise. Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei couldn't have put it better: “This miraculous event … has taken away the breath of two worlds: the West and the Islamic world.” Thus, all major protagonists — internal and external — including the Military Council in Cairo are hastily adjusting to an emergent situation rather than following a script.
However, the paradox is that there was also an inevitability about the uprising — in a historical context as well as in terms of Egypt's specific circumstances — which seems to provide the best guarantee that the country cannot simply lapse back to the pre-revolutionary times. The so-called 1922 Middle East settlement that the erstwhile colonial powers Britain and France hastily put together on the debris of the Ottoman Empire and against the backdrop of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia has, by far, outlived its lifespan. Essentially, a regional order artificially created for the perpetuation of the western dominance (political, economic and cultural) over the region has crumbled. The “pro-West” elites, who were conceived from thin air as the ruling oligarchies, never represented the people and they incrementally became anachronisms in a regional environment that underwent rapid transformation in the recent decades. The disconnect between the authoritarian regimes and the people has become impossible to bridge through patchwork. Therefore, the odds are that unlike the abortive revolutions of the past in Egypt, this one probably has a “fighting chance” of survival. The surgical intervention by the military to set aside Hosni Mubarak can be compared to cauterisation of a poisonous wound, which isn't a substitute for cure. Hopefully, the military leadership is savvy enough to realise it.
Can the revolution survive?
Of course, revolutions have been betrayed. Where Egypt will go from here significantly depends on external factors. First, can Egypt's revolution survive in a regional vacuum? To be sure, the Arab oligarchies will strive to goad the Egyptian military leaders to cap the democratisation project. They feel greatly threatened by the Egyptian uprising. Saudi Arabia, in particular, has taken a virulently reactionary stance. The Egyptian generals, with covert Saudi and Israeli backing, may feel tempted to conclude that once order and normalcy is restored, people will forget. That is to say, only if a “revolutionary climate” prevails in the region as a whole and the Arab oligarchies resign themselves to the writing on the wall of history can we say with some degree of confidence that the Egyptian revolution has become irreversible. Second, much depends on the stance of the Barack Obama administration. Ironically, the two success stories of “colour revolution” — in Georgia and Ukraine — are to be attributed to the George W. Bush era, whereas Mr. Obama's record is pathetic, although he's been high on rhetoric. Now comes the crunch time. What happened in Egypt is in complete harmony with what Mr. Obama said in his evocative speech in Cairo in 2009. He is now obliged to the Muslim world that the U.S. doesn't become party to a “counter-revolution.” Thus, Egypt becomes a litmus test of not only Mr. Obama's presidency but also his place in history as a statesman. It is going to be a difficult test since his professed beliefs as a humanist and his audacious intellectuality grate against his gut instincts as a successful politician.
Mr. Obama's principal dilemma is that although there was no overt “anti-Americanism” in the Egyptian uprising, the massive groundswell of public opinion is arrayed against the country's unholy alliance with the U.S.-Israeli combine. Egyptians want to come out of their national humiliation and surge to the forefront of the Arab world to reclaim their historical place. The likelihood of a democratically elected government in Cairo perpetuating the kind of security alliance Mr. Mubarak had with Israel is unthinkable. This means several things. One, Egypt can no longer collaborate as a watchdog for Israel in the Philadelphi Corridor, which is the vital lifeline for the Palestinians in Gaza, and without such collaboration, the Israeli blockade of Palestinians cannot work. Two, sharing of “intelligence” with Israel may slow down. Three, Egypt will not only resume championing the Palestinian cause but also stop manipulating Hamas. With Mahmoud Abbas' reputation already under a cloud following the WikiLeaks disclosures of his dealings with Washington and Tel Aviv, Hamas has gained in stature as the voice of resistance. In short, Israel's isolation in the region will become total if democratisation indeed gains traction in Egypt. As Illan Peppe, the well-known Israeli “new historian” pointed out, “In the eyes of large sections of western civil society, the democratic image of Israel has long ago vanished … And even if the [U.S.-Israeli] special relationship preserves for a while, it is now based on even shakier foundations … But trust the Israelis … to interfere clandestinely and destructively to undermine any transition to democracy [in Egypt] … and they would elevate the Islamophobic campaign to new and unprecedented heights.”
Tel Aviv's traditional ploy has been to distract attention away from the Arab-Israeli problem and the Palestinian issue by beating the drum on the Iran nuclear issue but it may not work any more. The entire U.S.-Israeli game plan to create a phalanx of “pro-West” Arab regimes pitted against Iran is unravelling, which in turn may lethally damage Washington's “containment” strategy toward Tehran and make Iran's rise as a regional power virtually unstoppable.
All in all, therefore, can Mr. Obama preside over the unleashing of historical forces that may leave him no choice but to prevail upon Israel to get into a path of negotiation and peace with the Palestinians and its Arab neighbours? This is where the audacity of the hope that Mr. Obama held out to the Egyptian people (and the Muslim world at large) will be put to the test. The fact of the matter is that the Israeli lobby in the U.S. can create nuisance for American politicians. Mr. Obama is expected to know which side his bread is buttered in the tough re-election campaign that lies ahead.
Equally, what needs to be factored in is that the tensions in the Middle East have worked to the advantage of the U.S. military-industrial complex to develop the region as a highly lucrative market for arms exports. Recently, the U.S. signed a whopping $60-billion arms deal with Saudi Arabia alone. The U.S. is petrified that the Arab uprisings may spread to the other “pro-West” countries, especially Saudi Arabia and Jordan, and would have ideally liked a “colour revolution” in Tehran. There is some evidence that an orchestrated effort is under way to whip up the opposition in Iran. But the Egyptian uprising has fired up Arab imagination and the awakening is a veritable reality. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle. The educated Arabs who are at the forefront of this awakening cannot be branded “Islamists” or “anti-western.” Nor are they likely to be distracted by the U.S. shadow play over Iran. Their only claim is that they want democracy and an equitable, accountable, and fair system of governance. There were no takers for the Israeli narrative that the Egyptian uprising was an Iranian-like revolution and there isn't going to be any if the Arab world as a whole gets shaken up.
In sum, there are admittedly many imponderables. What happened in Egypt since January 25 has come as a surprise and it is foolhardy to predict what will come next. However, huge aspirations have been unleashed. The Israelis, the Americans and the Arab oligarchies are pushing to contain the aspirations. And many contenders are there to claim a leadership role in Cairo and the privileges of power. Nonetheless, there is cause for optimism. During a conversation between those two iconic figures of journalism, Mohamed Heikal told Robert Fisk of Independent: “In revolutions, there is no pattern. People want a change from the present to a future. Every revolution is conditioned by where it starts and where it is moving. But this event showed a huge Egyptian mass of people that it is possible to defy the terror of the state. I think this will revolutionise the Arab world.”
(The writer is a former diplomat.)