The people’s revolution in Egypt was momentous, following Tunisia, which was equally game-changing. But these situations are not unique. In Asia, the first people’s movement that overthrew a dictator was that of the Aquino couple, husband and wife, that toppled the regime of the Philippines president, Ferdinand Marcos, in 1986. And in our South Asia region, there was a people’s coup d’état in 1990, when the Bangladeshi people compelled the resignation of their president at the time, Hussain Muhammad Ershad. These were the first two indications of people’s power in Asia and were marked by a scant loss of life in the process of change.
Each revolution has its own dynamics and character. In Bangladesh, political parties already existed and had earlier enjoyed periods in power. The electronic media was State-controlled, but there was a free print media, and one in which Ershad was virulently attacked. In both Bangladesh and Egypt, a form of parliament existed which was dominated by the deposed president’s party — respectively the Jatiya Party and National Democratic Party — and previous elections were considered fraudulent. In Bangladesh, Ershad made no pronouncements at the eleventh hour about staying on in defiance of public opinion, and the army was never called out even in a neutral capacity. Crucially, in both countries the tipping point was not the people’s determination but the unwillingness of the army to support the position of the president, whom it was willing to sacrifice in order to protect its own interests.
In Bangladesh, unlike in Egypt, the president’s role was passed to a chief justice who had the backing of all political groups. An interim neutral civilian administration was set up to run the country until elections took place within three months. Political parties had high-profile leaders who were at loggerheads with one another but had led the people’s movement in unison. In Egypt, there are no identifiable leaders, and it is unlikely that the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed ElBaradei, or the Arab League secretary-general, Amr Moussa, or someone from the Twitter, Facebook and Google generation will have the political staying power to garner the support of the people. Power has been passed, meanwhile, to a military council consisting of former vested interests.
What is likely to happen is that the army in Egypt, as in Tunisia, will run the country for longer than the period until September that is presently envisaged. Of course, behind the scenes, they have already been running the country ever since the fall of the monarchy. It is quite probable that a new strongman will emerge from the army ranks to assume the leadership and become the face of the revolution. It may not necessarily be the field marshal in charge of the army: it was Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser and not General Muhammad Naguib who took the reins of power after the exile of King Farouk. The army in Egypt, if it remains united, is a status quo institution; it will enjoy the support of the proponents of stability such as the West, the Saudis and Israel. It will be the new establishment with no sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone the brand of Imamist Islam propagated by Shia Iran.
In Bangladesh, the Islamist political groups were part of the people’s movement as they were in Egypt, but they did badly at the ensuing polls, winning only a small percentage of the popular vote and a handful of parliamentary seats. This is not likely to be the same case with the Muslim Brotherhood when free elections are held in Egypt, because, unlike the Jamaat-e-Islami, the Muslim Brothers have a tradition of educational support and social welfare that has given comfort to millions of the deprived population in Egypt, who will be their main constituency in any election. But the cards in any polls will be stacked against them. In Bangladesh, the first election after the Jamdani Revolution was won by the conservative, nationalist, pro-Islamic party of Khaleda Zia, which beat Sheikh Hasina’s pro-liberation, pro-secular Awami League. The same kind of result may be expected in Egypt, where new political parties will be formed through splits and splinter groups from Mubarak’s NDP by leaders wishing to carve out a political role for themselves, and the attractions of a religiously affiliated party, other than the Muslim Brotherhood, will have obvious attractions for the new establishment and the general public.
The nurse, Edith Cavell, famously said, “Patriotism is not enough.” So it may prove in Egypt, where the road ahead will be long and hard towards a truly democratic state and the enjoyment of basic human rights. Building strong democratic structures from scratch can take generations. The needs to earn a livelihood and sustain family life are always paramount, even for revolutionaries. If the army can restore a measure of stability and progress in the social and economic life of the Egyptian nation, it can win the confidence of the people and few will begrudge it a fairly leisurely roadmap to new and pluralist elections. Ershad made a comeback in Bangladesh politics, and his party is a member of the present ruling coalition. But he had been in power for only seven years, not 30; his rule had not been marked by abuse of human rights as in Egypt; he was 15 per cent autocrat and 85 per cent opportunist; and he was accessible and not a recluse sheltered within palaces guarded by bodyguards. Hosni Mubarak, in contrast, will never make a comeback and would do well to flee his country.
It is unlikely that the events in Tunisia and Egypt will be exemplary for the rest of the region in a domino effect. The countries ripe for revolution would be ones where the regimes have overstayed their welcome, where politics are the monopoly of the head of State, where the population is young and socio- economic conditions are stagnating. Among such countries are Algeria, Iran, Jordan, Syria and Yemen. They will hope to stave off the crisis by making popular concessions but falling short of political rights. Oil-rich states, like Libya and the Gulf sheikhdoms, have cushioned their rulers from upheaval by distributing the benefits of wealth, unequally of course, but in some measure to all levels of the population despite the absence of human rights. They are helped in this by a huge presence of non-political ‘guest workers’.
After the Bangladesh revolution and the jubilation that followed, a diplomat said wryly, “Now they are ringing the bells, but soon they may be wringing their hands.” That may be true of Egypt. The protesters comprise diverse groups with varied demands that can never be fully or quickly satisfied. Strikes and riots for better living standards that have broken out may retard the timetable for lifting the emergency and let the situation play into the hands of hardliners in the military council. Euphoria will give way to the reality that absolute power now vests in the military, and what the army does with it can be anticipated by reference to the country’s past history. If the army that has suspended the parliament and promised a referendum on a new constitution can proceed to fashion a democratic Egypt and hand it over to a legitimately elected civilian authority, that will represent the biggest revolution of all.