Friday, March 25, 2011

Reality Bites in Egypt

In Egypt, the brief euphoria of Mubarak's ouster has faded into party bickering and shady deals. The revolution was secured by the army, but the army's leaders don't want to give up their privileged position and they want to restore order and keep the political upheaval from spilling over into social change. So it seems that they have come to an arrangement with the Muslim Brotherhood, which they used to regard as their great enemy. Their goal appears to be keeping power in the hands of conservative men and out of the hands of youthful protesters. Among other things they have agreed to a short timetable for elections. The general feeling is that holding Parliamentary elections by September will give a big advantage to the groups that already have national networks, that is, the army, Mubarak's old party, and the Egyptian Brotherhood. My Egyptian acquaintances have been passing around stories about semi-official harassment of protesters, many of whom have been picked up by "police" of some sort, roughed up, and then released with polite apologies. Nobody seems to know who, exactly, is behind this, but it fits with the notion that the army is trying to scare off radicals, limit the scope of change, and keep power in the hands of familiar actors.

What will actually happen remains anybody's guess. Egypt is in many ways a conservative country, full of observant Muslims, and the long survival of Mubarak's government shows that he had strong backing from a lot of people. On the other hand Egypt also has a large number of young people energized by their recent triumph, and a pent-up desire for real change. It will be interesting to see how their Facebook/Twitter networks will measure up against the old-style networks of patronage and religion in an electoral showdown.

Either way, though, what matters most is holding an election where something really is at stake. And as those of us from old democracies know, democratic elections usually have a lot more to do with party bickering and shady deals than revolutionary euphoria.

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