Can Egypt and Syria Be Saved?

What the experiences of Mubarak and Assad can teach us about revolutions.

Egypt and Syria today are demonstrating some key features of revolutions. No one gives up power willingly. Instead, the key to taking command is building coalitions with mass support.

In Egypt, two titans are contending—the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. The military is reluctant to cede power. It had hoped to make a deal with the Brotherhood to retain certain economic and policy domains with no oversight or interference, while giving the appearance of transferring domestic social policy to the Brotherhood. But the military's use of violence, its assault on Western NGOs, and its efforts to blame foreigners and troublemakers for all of Egypt's woes show its determination to assert its importance, even though most Egyptians wish nothing more than to see it leave the political stage.

The Brotherhood is playing the stronger hand and playing it with greater skill. Rather than aiming to build an Islamist front, Brotherhood leaders are trying to position themselves to be part of the largest and broadest possible coalition, reaching out to Christian and secular groups and avoiding identification with the more fundamentalist Salafis, who won the second-largest bloc of seats in the parliament.

Meanwhile, the youth movement continues to take to the streets and manifest its unhappiness with the army's rule. The Salafis are trying to reach out and form broader alliances as well. The Brotherhood controls 47 percent of parliamentary seats. While this is by far the largest bloc, it needs support from other parties—whether the liberal New Wafd and secular Egyptian Bloc parties (with about 7 percent each), or among the splinter parties and independents, which altogether hold a small but significant 14 percent of seats.

For the next few weeks, we can expect to see furious parliamentary maneuvering over the composition of a government. Strife will increase between the Brotherhood, which plans to lead a broad-based government and exert control over Egypt, and the generals, who will be trying desperately to hold on to as much power as they can. But the Brotherhood will eventually win this battle, as it can count on the support of the people. In a period of revolutionary uncertainty, that popular backing is the currency that counts most.

The Syrian Spring

In Syria, Assad is finding out what happens when the popular tide turns. As in most sultanist regimes, Syria's ruler relied more on dividing and weakening potential rivals than on having a broad base of support. Even the army was kept weak and at the margins of power; it was the internal-security forces that were given prime rewards and used to ensure loyalty and punish opponents.

As Assad's position weakens, military defections are accelerating, and more of Syria is slipping out of his grasp. The internal-security forces are great at rounding up suspects, interrogating and terrorizing civilian opponents and crushing isolated demonstrations. But they lack the size, loyalty and force of a proper national army committed to the regime. Even the military units commanded by loyal Alawites cannot be unleashed into battle, as their enlisted men are at risk of defecting if asked to act too brutally against Syrian civilians.

Assad's attacks have consolidated international opposition and unified the internal protesters, who are escalating their demands. The time when reform or concessions would end the revolt is long past; nothing less than Assad's departure will do. Even that is not likely to end the violence, as Assad's actions have led the once-peaceful opposition into an armed civil conflict that is leading Syria to civil war. Assad's departure is thus more likely to be like Qaddafi's than Mubarak's—leaving a situation of uncertain authority and a militarized country in its wake.

At this point, a Russian veto is all that stands in the way of a UN Security Resolution calling for Assad to step down. But with Russia holding its own elections in March and Putin trying to avoid the appearance of being a dangerous tyrant himself, the Russian veto will not long withstand an increasingly violent Assad pushing Syria further into civil war.

The Syrian opposition, comprising civilian protesters and the Free Syrian Army made up of military defectors, has succeeded beyond the expectations of most observers. They have freed patches of territory, stood up to Assad's security forces and even backed them down in some instances. They have taken the fight to Damascus, within earshot of Assad's own palace. The challenge ahead of them now is not merely to fight but to continue to build their base of popular support and cultivate relationships with business elites who are still providing support for the Assad regime.

Both the Assad regime and the Egyptian military are demonstrating that no regime gives up power easily. Yet the next chapter in both Egypt and Syria will bear out a key principle of revolutions: whoever commands a broad coalition of popular support will triumph.

Jack A. Goldstone, an expert on revolutions, is the Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

Image: sammy.aw