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Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 03:06 | SYDNEY
Friday 18 Aug 2017 | 03:06 | SYDNEY

Egypt after Mubarak

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14 February 2011 11:11

Now that Mubarak has gone, what can we expect' Here are five initial observations:

1. After the elation comes frustration: The protesters have done something really remarkable, certainly by the standards of Middle Eastern politics. They feel justifiably empowered and their leaders and spokespersons are clear-sighted about what they want now: not just the departure of Mubarak, but a genuine democratic transformation and all that it involves, including a lifting of the 30- year-old emergency law, constitutional revisions and new elections.

The problem is that none of this will happen as quickly or as easily as the protesters want. They will disagree among themselves about how to proceed and they will face a military whose every instinct will be to move slowly and cautiously. We are in post-Mubarak Egypt, but there is still an open question about how different it will be from Mubarak's Egypt.

2. The three big challenges are constitution, restitution and food: Constitutional changes are key, not least because of the limits the current constitution places on elections (under the current constitution, it would be very difficult for anyone outside the ruling party to run for president). Whether to simply suspend the constitution, make amendments or go for wholesale revisions before or after new elections are big choices now confronting the military leadership.

Some process of accountability and restitution will also be needed to ensure people keep faith with a gradual and peaceful process of democratisation. And any transitional administration will have to deal urgently with the food crisis that was a cause of this unrest — the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization says 2011 is shaping up to be as bad, if not worse, than 2008 in terms of soaring food prices.

3. A military dictatorship is not inevitable: The protesters' initial inclination to trust the military is already giving way to tensions between some segments of the protest movement and the military over the establishment of a civilian-led transitional government. But as this and this respected Egyptian observer have noted, a military dictatorship is not inevitable.

Faced with a choice between protecting Mubarak and his inner circle and responding to the protesters' demands, they chose the latter, thereby preserving their reputation as a respected national institution (but also protecting their interests and probably avoiding dissension in their middle and lower ranks). I think the military's interests are narrow enough ('order' and the protection of their privileges and funding) to be more or less reconciled with the protesters' demand for democratisation. 

The main danger is that the protesters read the military's hyper-cautiousness about what to do next as obstruction; or that the military feels its relatively narrow interests are being targeted by the protesters. Any resulting confrontation would be bloody and could turn a military inclined to eventually cede power to civilians into the dictatorship everyone fears.

4. Throw out your old assumptions about Egyptian politics (well, a lot of them, anyway): If the last few weeks have demonstrated anything, it is that many old assumptions about Egyptian politics and political actors simply no longer hold. It used to be said, for example, that Egypt's secular middle classes were weak, meek and self-interested. Yet we have seen Mubarak overthrown by protests organised in part by a Google marketing executive based in the UAE. With the dead weight of Mubarak gone, expect new actors and forces to emerge, and probably quicker than we all think.

5. There is a big generational division at play: Related to my previous point, to understand the new divisions in Egyptian politics, old categories of 'regime' and 'opposition' will be less useful than 'old guard' and 'new guard'. Many of the protesters are revolting not just against Mubarak but against his generation of politicians and actors, whether in the regime or in the opposition. For example, we are already seeing a revival of tensions between young Muslim Brothers and its geriatric leadership over the former's participation in the protests. 

These kinds of fissures will spring up all over the place, including in other opposition movements and groups, and possibly even in the army.

 Photo by Flickr user giladlotan.

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