When I hear both President Obama and President Ahmadinejad expressing their joy at the outcome of the Lotus Revolution in Egypt I am worried. I am worried, because one of them has got it wrong.
I would like to believe that a reported three million people filled Tahrir Square in the name of democracy. I wish I could share President Obama’s optimism in comparing what is happening in Egypt with the struggle for civil rights led by Mahatma Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King. However, his contention that Egyptians are looking for “nothing less than genuine democracy” may turn out to be no more than wishful thinking.
Understandably, given his own background, former Soviet refusenik and human rights activist, Natan Sharansky, sees a comparison between the fall of Mubarak and the collapse of the Soviet Union. He argues that a democratic Egypt is better for Israel’s security than our being dependent upon the whims of a dictator when it comes to honouring the peace agreement between our two nations.
However, history teaches us that the fall of a dictator, whether in Russia or in Iran, does not necessarily harbinger an age of democracy. The deposition of Mubarak and his replacement by a military junta headed by Defence Minister Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi leaves the question open as to what form of regime will now replace Mubarak’s dictatorship.
The fact that the fall of Mubarak has not immediately led to the establishment of a people’s council representing the various political factions in the country is perhaps indicative of the fact that Egypt is not yet ready for democracy. Not only does it have no history of representative government, but the elections held at the end of last year in which the Muslim Brotherhood was not allowed to participate showed that not one single party, except for Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, gained even one per cent of the seats in the so-called People’s Assembly.
The Lotus Revolution was, we should remember, primarily a personal attack on Mubarak rather than being an orchestrated campaign for democratic change. He may have resisted reform, but public bitterness was principally directed against the corruption, deteriorating infrastructure and rampant poverty in a country where 40 per cent live below or near the poverty line.
It should be recalled that thirty per cent of Egypt’s population is illiterate. In such a society it is difficult to believe that there can be any easy transition to democracy. Unlike in other countries where there have been identifiable opposition leaders, such as Alexander Dubček in Czechoslovakia or Lech Wałęsa in Poland, it is not clear who will fill the political vacuum in Egypt. In such a climate – and Mubarak understood that – the Muslim Brotherhood has every opportunity of exercising power out of all proportion to its numbers.
Commentators agree that Egypt could go one of three ways. It could remain a military dictatorship. (After all, there is nothing so permanent as a transition government.) It could follow the path of Lebanon or of Iran. (Either of these would represent a serious military threat to Israel.) Or it could establish a western styled democracy, a course of action which would come as a pleasant surprise in a country where the Muslim Brotherhood is the only organized opposition party, and in a part of the world where there are no real democracies other than Israel.
One of the protesters in Cairo last Friday is reported as having said: “For 50 years, it was a police state and we adapted ourselves to it. The question now is: Can we take another route?”
It is too early to know what that route will be and what its implications will be for the future of relations between Egypt and Israel. However, one thing is clear: either Obama or Ahmadinejad is going to be very disappointed.