As Cairo erupted in jubilation Friday over the announcement that Hosni Mubarak had stepped down, I remembered another celebration of revolution I witnessed in 1979.
I was visiting some Syrian communists in a rickety wooden house in the heart of the old city of Damascus as they gathered around a crackly short-wave radio set and broke out the whiskey. They were celebrating the return of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to Tehran that very day; they believed this marked the start of a revolution that would end with leftists taking over the Iranian government. Many young Iranian idealists thought the same.
Of course, things developed very differently.
The charismatic Khomeini and the well-organized Shiite clergy wiped out the overconfident Iranian left (and liberals) and created a theocracy. I raise this example not because I think Egypt will become another Iran, but as a caution: Revolutions often wind up producing results far different from the hopes of the rebels who make them.
If the incredible young Egyptians who conducted a nonviolent revolution with Facebook and Twitter can recognize this danger, they will be better prepared to keep their revolution on track.
These young people deserve our sincere admiration. Anyone who knows Egypt understands the deep and justified emotions that drove them. They toppled a corrupt and sclerotic regime that had proved incapable of reforming its economy or giving its people any say in their future.
Moreover, this was most definitely not an Islamic uprising. Egypt’s best-organized Islamist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, was not involved in organizing the demonstrations and joined the rebellion late in the day.
Most interesting, a new poll commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and conducted in Cairo and Alexandria, found that just 15 percent of those polled approved of the Brotherhood. Its leaders got barely 1 percent of the vote in a presidential straw poll.
Asked to pick national priorities, only 12 percent chose sharia (Islamic law) over democracy and economic development. When asked why the uprising had happened, 30 percent each said corruption, unemployment, and economic conditions. Only 7 percent cited the concern that the regime was “not Islamic enough.”
That’s the good news. But the hardest part of this revolution is yet to come.
In the still-fluid Egyptian situation, the army has essentially taken over. There’s no history of Mideast military regimes turning over to democrats, and we don’t know whether these generals will let political reforms proceed.
If they do, however, the talented professionals and young executives who rallied the crowds must now confront a far greater organizing challenge: how to develop political parties that can deliver the reforms that Egyptians want.
The obstacles are huge:
First, Middle Eastern regimes, Egypt included, have never permitted independent political parties to flourish. The parties that developed in years past were mostly based on tribe, or sect, or discredited ideologies such as Arab socialism or communism. More independent Egyptian parties have long since withered or been smothered. The current parliament is made up almost entirely of the ruling party, which had exclusive access to the government trough.
The opposition must now figure out how to organize itself, and to produce new and competent leaders. That’s assuming, of course, that the army officer class, which benefited mightily from Mubarak’s economic cookie jar, permits those leaders to emerge.
Second, the revolutionaries must now contend with a wave of inflated expectations. Having watched the revolution unfold, Egyptian workers and youths will want to see results — faster than they can be delivered. Their attitudes may sour if they don’t see the goods.
And third, there is the Muslim Brotherhood, currently banned as a political party, but likely to take part in any democratic process. Although its popularity is limited, and the army will watch it closely, the Brotherhood has one big advantage: It already has a well-oiled organizing mechanism through the mosque. It has no charismatic leaders and could never win a majority of seats in parliament, but it could win a solid bloc. This could provide substantial clout if other opposition parties fragment and quarrel with each other.
So the challenge to the brilliant young team that organized this revolt is to apply its talents to the second phase: organizing the political structure to carry out the reforms the protesters demanded.
U.S. should step up
Although the odds are long, this is not impossible, especially if they convince the Egyptian public that — unlike the Mubarak regime — they care about the dignity of ordinary people.
After a few fumbles, the Obama team has a chance to regain the good graces of Egypt’s young rebels. It should do more than press the army to permit voting; it should offer technical aid to help develop the parties and institutions that make elections work.
The leftists I visited in Damascus were lost in unrealistic dreams, as were their compatriots in Tehran. But Egypt’s young rebels can make more history (and the West can help) if they keep their feet on the ground.