Paul Pillar

The Coming Implosion of the Egyptian Revolution

The Egyptian revolution is not going well. Its problems are reflected in the increasing frequency of clashes between police and angry protesters. The Arab Spring is in danger of stumbling badly in Egypt as a result of overreach by those seeking change, possibly leading to implosion of the process of change they have already set in train.

Two basic circumstances underlie the problem. One is that the ouster of Hosni Mubarak from the presidency did not overturn the previously existing pattern of institutional power. Egypt today is a military dictatorship, albeit one that has promised more democracy. The other is the extensive nature of popular expectations for the revolution. Not yet tested are the sky-high hopes for an improved standard of living. A more immediate source of anger and disappointment is insistence on achieving full justice and recompense for any offenses committed by anyone associated with the previous or current regimes. The most recent focus of contention was the acquittal of three former ministers on charges of corruption. A few days ago another flashpoint, which touched off a riot, was the release on bail of seven police officers charged with the fatal shooting of demonstrators in Suez during the height of the revolutionary protests.

Taking a hard line toward people such as the police officers almost guarantees an unending cycle of violence, recrimination, and more violence. Anger over previous events brings people into the street, some of the protests turn violent, and attempts to quell the violence cause casualties that become the cause of still more anger and still more protests. Repression may become the only way the cycle is broken—at least for a while.

Uncovering the corruption that has been rampant in Egypt has much to say for it, not least of all that it could help to clear the ground for a healthier Egyptian economy that would, in the long run, have a better chance than the current system of coming anywhere close to those high expectations for a better way of life. But to insist that the corruption be not only uncovered but comprehensively punished risks crossing red lines of entrenched interests that are still capable of bringing the whole process to a screeching halt. That primarily means, of course, the Egyptian military officer corps, whose unusual role in Egypt's economy, regardless of how corrupt it may be, is certainly privileged.

What happened in Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt in January and February was so inspiring, and Mubarak's ouster was seen as such a triumph, that the possibility of a train wreck in the months ahead has probably not gotten the attention it deserves. There may not be a lot that outsiders can do about it anyway. But any powers of persuasion probably should be used to make the point that demanding a whole loaf rather than most of one may mean not getting any loaf at all. Much of the history of bringing autocracies and especially military dictatorships to a peaceful close—including the Falangist regime in Spain and the military juntas in Argentina and Chile—suggests that such a termination is possible only by forgoing complete application of justice for all offenses committed under the old regime.

A related point to make is that however malodorous has been the corruption and some of the application of force under the old regime, they did not constitute crimes against humanity that make a Nuremberg-type process imperative. A better direction for achieving some sort of closure to what was offensive about the Mubarak era may be something like a truth and reconciliation commission. Admittedly, such an approach works best in circumstances in which the departure of old rulers was somewhat more willing than what Mubarak exhibited. (One of the most richly deserved Nobel Peace Prizes ever awarded was the one that F. W. de Klerk, the last president of apartheid-era South Africa, shared with Nelson Mandela in 1993.) In any event, the stakes in avoiding a crashing end to the political opening in Egypt are high.