Monday, 25 June 2012

Who's in charge?

You hear a lot of gloomy eulogies for the Egyptian revolution now, both from knowledgeable people in the country and the usual spurting founts of contemporary wisdom. The narrative is more or less this: popular revolt, nasty old dictator overthrown, army moves in and takes over, parliament dismissed, presidency hollowed out, army wins, The End.

This strikes me as an erroneous conception of how a state is ruled and an oversimplification of the elements that go into domination by a ruler or a ruling elite. As it happens, I’m reading the fascinating Histories of Tacitus, which describe the fateful year of the Roman Empire, 69 C.E. (A.D.), when Nero was overthrown and a parade of new emperors succeeded him. Rome had seen its best days, but it was still going to dominate the region for centuries. Yet its political system was prone to upheaval, even anarchy.

Galba was the regional commander who ousted Nero, but he had hardly settled into his reign as the new emperor when a countercoup took place led by Otho. Tacitus astutely describes the conspiracy but also notes how Galba failed to shore up crucial support among key players, such as the navy, the courtiers, his own soldiers, and last but not least, the mob, including slaves. Each one contributed something to his downfall. So while there is a cabal of disgruntled and ambitious officers alert to his weakness, a whole set of conditions had to be met for their plot to succeed.

This all takes place under a system of absolute monarchy where the emperor held the power of life and death over virtually everyone. It is a brutal dictatorship and yet not a totalitarian one, especially given the turmoil of a recent overthrow. The head guy is vastly powerful, but he cannot control the course of events, only try his best to manage them. Failure is usually fatal.

Another curious part of the story is the role of psychological forces in the ebb and flow of political influence. At a crucial moment when Galba needs to call on the loyalty of his subjects to defend their emperor, the populace is singularly unimpressed. First, they have just witnessed the last absolute ruler, Nero, driven to suicide, so the mystique of kingship falls flat. Furthermore, Tacitus reports that while Nero bribed the masses and bankrupted the state, Galba was a proper tightwad--admirable but unwise under the circumstances. Furthermore, he had massacred a huge contingent of defenseless prisoners upon taking power and thereby alienated many Romans of all classes, especially soldiers.

Egyptians chafed for 40 years under the Mubarak dynasty, and no one doubts that the army remains enormously powerful. But something happened last year that puts an intangible but very real new factor into play. In the inexplicable ways of a nation’s history, Egyptians’ collective will burst forth out nowhere and toppled the dictatorship. The forces unleashed by that event do not disappear, and it is incorrect to claim that the army now holds all the cards. It may possess a monopoly of brute force, but it must either win its legitimacy under new conditions or resort to the sorts of brutality seen in past decades in Algeria or, more recently, Syria.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s na├»ve belief that a fundamentalist regime was next on the agenda also proved to be illusory. After winning the parliament, they apparently marginalized all other participants in the overthrow of Mubarak by dominating the elaboration of the new constitution. They thought they could have the whole cake and thereby gave the military a chance to recoup lost ground. That was a grave but potentially educational and even salutary error.

Thoughtful commentators (not including the rip-and-read airheads on cable or network TV) describe a complex Egyptian polity with strong currents of moderate Islam, fundamentalist Islam, labor, secular liberals, secular leftists, and remnants of the Mubarak elite and bureaucracy. No doubt the domestic security forces are major players, too. Despite the unfortunate turn of recent events, I sense not a crushed rebellion but a dynamic, ongoing shake-up with many competing interests at play and a revolutionary spirit very much roiling about beneath the surface. Tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets last year and risked their lives for the chance of a better future for their children and their country. That spirit doesn’t dissipate in the flips and flops of palace intrigue. I get the impression that these smug army guys had better watch their Ps and Qs.

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