Why Egypt Matters

(AGF s.r.l./Rex Features via AP Images)
A woman votes at the polling station during parliamentary elections in Cairo, Egypt. Egyptians flocked to the polls for the first post-revolution elections after a week of violence and political crisis.

The women banter with the soldiers and get through the checkpoint carrying bombs in their handbags. We see them in black and white, which sharpens the lines in their faces and shows their fear more starkly. They arrive at their target. One enters a restaurant. The camera pans the people eating as she pushes her bag under the counter and leaves. As individuals, the victims are innocent, but seeing the world from the camera's perspective has already told us that the explosion that will rip them apart belongs to revolutionary necessity.

This is a sequence from The Battle of Algiers, the classic 1966 drama about the uprising that drove France from its central North African colony. The film is worth watching again this week, when the Egyptian revolution is back in the center of the news, precisely because Egypt has not followed the Algerian script. Comparisons with the past matter because they underline that so far, history is not repeating itself in Cairo. And this is just part of why the reshaping of Egypt, tarnished and volatile as it may seem, is still so terribly important to the Middle East, and why the revolution turning oppressive would be a tragedy for the entire region.

Let's stress: Countries have larger turning radiuses than supertankers. In the midst of the turn, no one can predict the final direction. Last winter's demonstrations toppled Hosni Mubarak, but not military rule. We don't know how the revolution will conclude. Neither does the apparent majority won this week by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups in the first round of voting tell us where the revolution will go. Later, when the outcome of the revolution is more clear, scholars will explain why it was inevitable. Don't believe them.

But with that proviso, the first reason that Egypt matters so much is that the mechanics of its change provide a model that could supersede Algeria's. As portrayed in dramatic form in The Battle of Algiers and theoretically in Frantz Fanon's treatise The Wretched of the Earth, Algeria taught that violence is absolutely vital to revolution. At first, most of the oppressed—which in Algeria meant the colonized people—were cowed and uncommitted. The small cadre of revolutionaries needed to kill colonists, both uniformed and civilian. In doing so, they provoked greater violence by the colonizers. That overreaction in turn showed the masses that there was no middle ground and pushed more people to the side of the revolution.

The strategy worked—in setting off the chain reaction of bloodshed, and in liberating Algeria. French deaths in the war have been estimated at between 10,000 and 25,000; Muslim deaths at anywhere up to a million. Algeria joined the pantheon of anti-colonial revolutions, and Fanon's work of cinema took a central place in the canon of armed struggle. Fatah and other Palestinian organizations were particularly enthralled by Fanon's logic of terror. When Egypt's defeat by Israel in 1967 shattered Arab faith in Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser's pan-Arab nationalism, armed Palestinian groups became the replacement heroes of the Arab world. But the last, reflexive return to "armed struggle" during the Second Intifada showed yet again that the strategy has done little for Palestinians but fill graveyards. Meanwhile, across the Middle East, dressing the theory of armed struggle in religious language has fed the ideology of jihad.

Half a century after Algerian independence, the uprisings in Tunis and Egypt last winter posed a new model for radical change. Social media and satellite TV could bring frustrated masses to demonstrate relatively peacefully, even if the regime responded brutally. Tunis came first, but Egypt had a stronger impact, since it is the fulcrum of the region: the country with the largest population, the major power, the cultural center of the Arab world. Its military chose its own legitimacy over Hosni Mubarak's continued rule, and promised a transition to democracy. The region has been shaking ever since. Libya and Syria have shown that mass protest is not always enough. What happens in Egypt could preserve or destroy the hope in nonviolent civil uprisings.

Note that not just the method but the target of the Egyptian uprising was new—a failed Arab regime rather than a foreign ruler. The nature of that regime can be traced to another episode of revolutionary history: Just over a century ago, the Young Turks seized power in the Ottoman Empire, imposing a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary rule. But as Turkish historian M. Sukru Hanioglu has written, the Young Turks' real power base was the army. They maintained the façade of democracy—"elections, the right of representation, freedom of the press"—but secular Turkish nationalists in the officers corps really ran things. And they bequeathed this "constitutional travesty" to most of the states that arose "upon the ruins of the empire," Hanioglu writes. The Mubarak regime provided an example of officers ruling from behind a republican false front. For the moment, the rule of the Assad dynasty in Syria still provides another.

The ruling officers, one could add, have often followed the Turks in seeking to impose secularism from above. An unintended consequence is that Islamicists have been able to present themselves as the alternative to corrupt, ineffectual regimes. Hence the success of Islamic parties in Egypt's election should not be a shock.

The Brotherhood's initial victory is cause for worry, but it is not yet proof that the revolution has failed. The question is whether the Brotherhood treats winning an election as a mandate to seize power or merely to govern. If it forms a government, it will be tested by how it treats the Christian minority, women's rights, and free debate; by whether it keeps international commitments including the peace agreement with Israel; by whether this election is followed by another in several years, and by whether it leaves office if it loses. It takes a long time to know how a revolution has turned out.

Given the dangers, those in the West who greeted the revolution nearly a year ago may be tempted to applaud the military's desire to name the next government, to write the next constitution, and to remain the real power. Yet if that happens, the hopes for a new kind of Middle Eastern revolution—one without bombs, leading to democracy—will have been squandered.

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