Revolutions break our heart, whether they fail or succeed. Will Egypt’s revolution escape this grim prophecy, or will it follow the ‘human, all too human’ pattern of disappointment and betrayal that has haunted the great majority of human revolts? Cautious observers along the Nile banks and elsewhere are waiting anxiously for Egypt to recover from its revolutionary hangover and comfort them by answering a simple question: Did the Internet savvy demonstrators accidentally push the restart button? Is this July 1952 all over again?
Pessimists are certainly justified in pointing out a few chilling similarities. To begin with, Egyptians are back again on the receiving end of military communiqués issued by a tight-knit group of officers they know so little about. Also, in a way reminiscent of 1952, vocal and violent critics of the old regime were caught flat-footed when it finally gave way: after driving the country to a precipice (symbolized in January 1952 by the burning of Cairo), opposition activists had neither the stomach nor the vision to make the leap from dissent to rule. Political power, and the responsibilities that come with it, ultimately fell into the lap of the men in khaki uniforms. Liberals, leftists, and Islamists are yet again making demands, and then waiting for the military junta to call the shots. Our suspicions grow even more now that we know that high-ranking officers were the ones who finally nudged the president out of office (though in a less conspicuous way than in 1952).
Refusing to accept this unsettling analogy, optimists find recourse in one resounding difference between 1952, when the people wholeheartedly supported a military coup, and 2011, when the military was swept over by the strong current of popular revolt. Is this enough guarantee that the military will act any differently? It might be too early to judge, but there are reasons to be hopeful.
The Khaki Uniforms ought to have learned from their own history that military governance inevitably degenerates into authoritarian police rule, which can drive a country to disaster, and ultimately marginalize the military itself. Egypt’s Supreme Military Council should have also been following the experiment on the other side of the Mediterranean, where the emergence of a relatively autonomous civilian political space under the auspices of the Turkish armed forces has – despite many reversals and misgivings – produced a stronger and more vibrant state (and military).
Hope is even more justified considering the fundamentally different position of the people themselves. Egyptians did not receive Communiqué No. 1 during the early hours of another lazy summer day in July; they did not welcome unwittingly the top-down political change while sipping morning tea and getting ready for another dull day at work. This time, the communiqué was broadcast on gigantic screens, amidst millions of angry protesters, who had successfully brought the country to a grinding halt. Egyptians have been empowered and emboldened irreversibly.
For the first time in their history, they have participated in a thoroughgoing popular revolution, not some ‘blessed movement’ carried out from above. A revealing indicator of this new sense of ownership is a text message that began circulating hours after the president was ousted with clear instructions: “Do not throw trash on the sidewalk! Do not cross a red light! Do not pay a bribe! This is now your country.” People from all walks of life have finally experienced what it is like to be a real actor in history, rather than a chorus of applause for those in the limelight.
Can an entire population that has thrust itself so decisively into the center stage of history allow a bunch of officers to kick it out again through the backstage? It has happened before. It might happen again. This is a moment when even the staunchest realist hopes his skepticism (bordering on cynicism) about human potential proves unwarranted, and that history does not repeat itself.