The resignation of Egypt’s cabinet this week shows the paralysing complexities surrounding the process of transition to democracy in post-revolution societies in the Arab world.
Only in Tunisia, the country that ushered in this huge wave of change in North Africa, has the transition to democracy been relatively smooth, albeit accompanied by some challenges. It’s a pity, therefore, that events in Tunisia were not so instructive to the rest of the Arab world in informing the way of plausible transition.
Of course, each country’s path towards democratic reform was always going to be a contested terrain once the tidal wave of protest hit the shore. But the unceremonious and drama-laden departure of president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia seemed to provide the template of how the future “fate of vultures” in the Arab world would be sealed; Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Syria, Algeria and so on.
Of these countries, perhaps Egypt and Libya have provided the most revealing insights into how genuinely people’s revolutions can be hijacked and manipulated for other ends that have absolutely nothing to do with the initial demands of those who first set out to demand change or reform and braved the consequences of their actions, the highest price of which is death.
Nine months ago, Egypt was ushering in a new era; long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak had done what at the beginning of 2011 would have been unthinkable — relinquish power. Much global relief met his departure as many of us were sent into a frenzy, waxing lyrical about the mobilising currency of social media such as Twitter and Facebook. True, these tools were quite helpful in bringing down the Mubarak regime but maybe — and just maybe — too much time was spent focusing on the execution of the revolution than what needed to be done post-revolution.
To their credit, many Egyptians were quite clear about the country they wanted to inherit as a result of their bold actions. They still are clear about that but the system is failing them in a very big way. As a result, recent gatherings at Tahrir Square with fresh demands that the military plays a minor role in government affairs, especially ahead the November 28 elections is the painful realisation, on the part of the protesters, that their military has no clear intention of stepping into the background or confining themselves to the barracks as it were.
This is a challenge that is presented profoundly in most collective action, especially that which appears to be well-coordinated as the Egyptian revolution was; they usually overlook the strategy of marshalling all collective efforts into fruitful expression of the aspirations of the people. While it is difficult to see how this could have been achieved given the quick turn of events at the time, perhaps the protesters needed to have a clear plan on what would happen should Mubarak step down once they started demanding his head. As a famous Ugandan proverb instructs, “the Baganda do not rebel without a prince”.
You can also say there has been a huge misunderstanding regarding who actually won the revolution.
Those gathered at Tahrir Square see themselves as the liberators of Egypt from the hold of the fallen pharaoh, Mubarak whose removal from office is their victory. On the other hand, the military sees itself as the one that actually ushered in the revolution for if it had not sided with the people, eventually, chances are that no revolution would have taken place. This kind of thinking by the military is no accident as they have always been driven by the need to guard and protect that which is “Egyptian” since the early 1950s.
Quite clearly, however, the military is willing to work with a civilian government but one that is subordinate to its wishes. If Egypt is to go down the path of substantive democratic reform, then it is quite necessary that any future government be strong enough, empowered by the necessary democratic institutions, to challenge the military’s position in the country’s history. Such a government will obviously have the support of the people who are protesting at present.
Outside Egyptian borders, the current experiences will also be instructive to countries like Zimbabwe, Malawi and Swaziland, but mostly Zimbabwe. When violent clashes between protestors and police broke out in Malawi in July, Africa was said to be one country as it was being imagined that the Arab Spring had finally headed south of the Sahara. Questions were asked about what it would take for Zimbabwe to beget an Egypt and the common refrain for a considerable time at rallies and demonstrations addressing Zimbabwean issues was “Mubarak Mugabe”, meaning do a Mubarak on Mugabe.
Zimbabwean civil society and also the Morgan Tsvangirai-led faction of the Movement for Democratic Change have called for security sector reform in Zimbabwe as a prerequisite for the holding of free and fair elections that will lead to a democratic transfer of power to the eventual winner. This call has been prompted by utterances by senior military personnel in Zimbabwe who have proclaimed that they will neither salute any president who is not Robert Mugabe nor anyone without liberation war credentials.
A 1976 Mugabe quote informs this kind of thinking: “Our votes must go together with our guns. After all, any vote we shall have, shall have been the product of the gun. The gun which produces the vote should remain its security officer — its guarantor. The people’s votes and the people’s guns are always inseparable twins.”
Therefore, if the “Mubarak Mugabe” mantra is not accompanied by an emphasis on the need to overhaul also the entire system that has allowed him to stay in power for so long, Zimbabweans will find themselves in the same predicament as the Egyptians should they eventually rise up like their North African counterparts did.
In Egypt today, we have now seen who the real pharaoh is. For the sake of democracy, he also needs to be confined.