More reasons that Egypt 2011 is not Iran 2009: Pessimists’ edition.

Like many Egypt-watchers, I’ve been fearing a crack-down, or mass violence, since the protests started last Tuesday, and finally, here we are.

I want first to point out that it’s remarkable that what we’re seeing today didn’t happen earlier. It’s true that in the first few days, dozens of protesters were killed and probably hundreds injured, and that protesters fought back, as well as setting fire to police stations, but these events were sporadic, and there were also moments in which the police backed down or soldiers came to the defense of protesters — there was no sense of general, organized crackdown, no sense that all hell had broken loose.

Today, it seems, hell has broken loose. Or, rather, in all likelihood: Hell has been loosed, by those who hope to be served by it.

In my reading of the situation, the regime has been trying to wait the people out, because at a certain point, people will be literally hungry (a large percentage of Egyptians lives hand-to-mouth — if they don’t work on Monday, they don’t eat on Monday night) and exhausted from the effort of protest. I have a feeling that Mubarak had been hoping either that chaos would ensue when he pulled police off the streets on Friday, or that protesters would get violent, so that he would have an excuse to crack down and swoop in as the stabilizing factor — and when that didn’t happen yesterday, of all days, with upwards of two million people in Tahrir Square, I think he and those trying to save the regime decided to foment it.

So: You send in your police, out of uniform. You draw on those sectors who are supported by your patronage, along with petty criminals to whom you can give pardons, and — I presume — the folks who still genuinely prefer you. At a certain point, you’re also going to have people who don’t care about Mubarak but they’re damn hungry and unhappy, and they just want to get back to work, so they’ll be happy to go bust heads in anger, in the hope that life can get back to “normal.” You bus all these in, you give them leaflets, and you tell them to bring sticks and rocks — no live ammunition! — to make sure it looks organic.

No less important: You make sure that the army (which is still holding back, still hedging its bets) will at the very least not overtly intervene, even as it quietly lets trouble-makers into the square. You make sure that there are enough soldiers in place to give a patina, a whiff, of protection (making sure that they’re centralized around important buildings, like the Ministry of Information and the Museum), but not enough that they could have any real effect. And you hope to hell (in fact — you’re likely entirely confident, because for 30 years, you’ve been very good at brutalizing your people) that the violence goes your way, and you and those you would hope to see follow you in power can claw back what the people have taken.

And yet, even though the army has been present throughout all of this, it’s shown no indication that it’s particularly anxious to help Mubarak.

I suspect that the military’s plan is to allow things to continue to fall apart to the point that Mubarak is ousted (as of this writing, on Wednesday afternoon CST, I still think this could happen before another day dawns in Egypt, but I certainly believe it will be in the next few days) and then swoop in as saviors, forming a “temporary government.”

I imagine the “temporary” military-led government will then improve the people’s’ financial circumstances enough to dampen the desperation, and it may even reign in the police corruption and barbarity a bit, but democracy will not be first on that government’s list of priorities. Neither will human rights. It’ll be a new authoritarian government against which people will find themselves having to organize again.

All of this is already different from Iran 2009, in that there’s no cleavage between the regime and the military in Iran, and furthermore, in 2009, there was not much more than a minute of hesitation before heads were being cracked.

However the biggest difference, to my mind, is this: I think Iran will move onto the path of genuine democracy in the next ten years or so, but Egypt likely won’t.

There’s the fact that far more Egyptians are poor, and Egypt’s education rates much lower, than in Iran. These are huge issues.

But more to the point (though, of course, there is correlation): The Iranians have experience with actual, functioning democracy, even if truncated (there’s a reason they were so furious when their votes were stolen in 2009 — they expected their votes to count), and they’ve been slowly building a civil society since the years of the Reform Movement/the election of Mohammad Khatami in 1997.

Iranians have a civil society infrastructure, and decades of working within a (limited) version of representative democracy — and in 2009, a regime that still had a certain degree of legitimacy in the eyes of the people thoroughly discredited itself. No regime is a monolith, no ruling party speaks with one voice, and Iran’s is cracking, to some degree, under many strains, not least the aftermath of the stolen election and the resultant violence. I believe that sometime in the next decade, disaffected members of the regime and those members of the clergy who have gotten off the Islamic Republic bus will create the circumstances that allow real change to occur — and however the change is triggered, it will be followed by the establishment of mechanisms that will lead to a genuine Islamic democracy.

I just don’t see that happening in Egypt. There is too much hunger, too little literacy, and essentially nothing in the way of democratic traditions — whoever takes over next will either have to be more magnanimous than most people who grasp power generally are, or more open to the drivers behind the uprising than I expect them to be.

So, to sum up yesterday’s and today’s posts: From the stand-point of the heat of the revolutionary moment, Egypt’s prospects are better than Iran’s were — I am confident that the Mubarak regime is falling (has essentially fallen) and cannot be saved.

On the other hand, from the stand-point of what next?, I’m very worried that Egypt faces many more years of repression, but am fairly confident that Iran is just a few years from a much better future.


Please note: I do not consider myself an expert on either Egypt or Iran by any stretch. I’m just a MidEast geek who’s read a lot. Here’s a short list (in no particular order) of some of the books I’ve read that inform the opinions expressed above – if you click through to the links, you’ll find short descriptions:

  1. Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East (2008) – Robin Wright.
  2. Heavy Metal Islam: Rock, Resistance and the Struggle for the Soul of Islam (2008) – Mark LeVine.
  3. The Media Relations Department of Hizbollah Wishes You a Happy Birthday (2009) – Neil MacFarquhar.
  4. Muhajababes: Meet the Middle East’s Next Generation (2008) – Allegra Stratton.
  5. Let the Swords Encircle Me: Iran – A Journey Behind the Headlines (2010) – Scott Peterson.
  6. The People Reloaded: The Green Movement and the Struggle for Iran’s Future (2011) – Nader Hashemi and Danny Postel (eds).

1 Comment

  1. JP

     /  February 2, 2011

    That really is the pessimist version. 🙂 I think Egypt is closer than that, if the world community is able to stand behind these young people in a way that allows them to work towards an open future, and first off, does not allow great death tonight and in the coming months. But Marabak is not the only one who does not want to let go. We shall see. I want to be in optimist mode, but I just read a tweet from someone who fears they will all die in the square tonight.

    praying loud in Alabama

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