Looking at 1979 and 1989 to understand Egypt in 2011

Events in Egypt are beyond the speed of instant communication. History/political science professor Ken Martens Friesen looks to Berlin and China in 1989 and Iran in 1979 to see which way Egypt could go in 2011.

An authoritarian ruler is on the verge of collapsing under the weight of years of autocratic rule and economic mismanagement. The people, for years suppressed, are suddenly full of democratic hope—could this be their moment in the sun? Weeks of demonstrations from hundreds of thousands of non-violent protesters advocating for a new age of democracy. Is this Egypt 2011, Berlin 1989, Iran 1979 or China 1989? 

The hope in Egypt is that this will be another Berlin 1989—the democratic beginning of a renewed society leading to greater freedom and economic security for the average citizen. Other parts of the Arab Middle East could also be at a ‘tipping point,’ with recent events in Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan all signaling the public’s refusal to continue the authoritarian status quo.

Yet two other historical scenarios could also easily repeat themselves in Egypt today:

  • Iran in 1979 was a modernizing Middle Eastern state with a harsh ruler. The Iranian government, like Egypt’s, had long been supported with billions in military and economic aid from the United States. Because Iran, like Egypt, was a key U.S. ally in the region, we sacrificed hopes for democracy for the security of the Shah’s stability. The people, suppressed for decades, seethed. Their anger was finally released in the overthrow of the Shah. Events, however, brought about not democracy but a conservative Islamic regime under Ayatollah Khomeini. Years of anger at U.S. support for authoritarianism helped bring about the Iran hostage crisis that dramatically unfolded over a slow and painful year.
  • China in 1989 also seemed on the brink of democracy. Protests by millions of youth in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square advocating for openness brought the country to a standstill over the spring and early summer as the world watched. Simultaneous events in Eastern Europe brought some to believe this wave of democracy was an unstoppable global process. The “End of History” was on us, with democracy and free markets leading the way. Instead, the Chinese Communist Party unleashed the People’s Army on the protestors, killing hundreds and making it abundantly clear the party was still firmly in charge. Since then the Chinese people have been placated by economic reforms that have dramatically boosted their economy, but the government has done little to allow liberty.

The danger in hoping Egypt will go the way of Berlin is to ignore the similarities to Iran and China. Egypt, like Iran, has had popular long-standing Islamic opposition parties. The most notable, the Islamic Brotherhood, has stood up to Egyptian rulers for decades, from both left and right. As they were in Iran, they have been brutally suppressed. Among the many poor in Egypt they gained credibility by advocating for just economic and social policies. While the brotherhood has played largely a background role in the protests to date, that could easily change in this fluid scene.

The Mubarak regime has also suppressed secular groups that challenge its political dominance. The worry is that in the political vacuum now forming there will be no Gandhi or Mandela to lead the Egyptian people to their new promised land. The one possible secular alternative is Mohammed ElBaradei, but he is seen by some as a political opportunist rather than a genuine democratic reformer. The longer unrest and turmoil continue, the more chance the Islamists will have to make their case that they alone can provide stability and economic hope.

The other possibility, a violent crackdown by the Mubarak regime, for now seems unlikely. The army, a key player in the future of both Mubarak and Egypt as a whole, has signaled its unwillingness to use force against peaceful protests. But Mubarak has managed to hold on to power for 30 years with the army at his side, and is likely developing strategies to use the army to continue his rule. Whether this means violent repression or making enough promises to placate the demonstrators

The image of millions of people rising against the odds to struggle for political change is an enduring one. The reality that the struggle does not inevitably bring about democratic change is one sometimes ignored. Given Egypt’s political and economic history, the safer bet would be towards something other than a democratic future. Yet other countries, including other predominately Islamic societies, have defied the odds—Turkey and Indonesia come to mind. If the Egyptian people continue to rise to the occasion perhaps, just perhaps, it will be their moment in the sun.

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