Everyone has a favorite historical analogy for popular uprisings, and the metaphors are multiplying madly as the demonstrations in Egypt grow and persist into another week. Will the Egyptian revolt end in an Islamist seizure of power like the Iranian revolution of 1979? Many on the Right -- including, notably, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu -- fear just that outcome. Will the result resemble more the Tiananmen Square crackdown in China in 1989? In other words, the regime survives and eliminates the opposition, but appeases the public anger with economic reform? Well, the Egyptian military already seems to have decided it won’t be like that -- by not cracking down. But whatever the political outcome -- whether President Hosni Mubarak survives or not -- economic reform will certainly be the minimum acceptable to Egypt’s unhappy young people.
Or is the Egyptian turmoil more like, as a former senior State Department official said on Monday, “May 1968”? Those were the wild student protests in Paris that reverberated around the world, threatening to overturn Charles de Gaulle’s government but not quite getting there. There were many knock-on effects of the demonstrations, including a conservative backlash that arguably included the election of Richard Nixon in the United States that year, but revolution wasn’t one of them. “It was this spirit that was infectious,” said the former official. “But no one knew the outcome.”
That’s the only certainty now as well -- no one really knows. It is quite possible that the rapid toppling of two long-entrenched Arab dictators -- first, Tunisia’s Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, then possibly Mubarak -- could spread quickly to other regimes, especially since economic discontent seems a central motivation. In Jordan, where the unemployment rate is 13.4 percent compared to Egypt’s 9.7 percent (according to CIA estimates), King Abdullah is also running a police state that brooks no dissent. In Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh is presiding over terrible poverty and an unemployment rate that the CIA says runs as high as 35 percent. Saudi Arabia is ostensibly rich and under rigid control, but unemployment is higher (10.8 percent) there than in Egypt.
Still, the betting among some of the more sober-minded analysts of Arab and Middle East politics inside and outside the U.S. government is that the turmoil in Egypt is likely containable politically -- that it sends reverberations throughout the region but without a wave of revolution to follow. “I don’t see it as a brush fire spreading across the Middle East, but it is going to have an impact across the Middle East,” said Barbara Bodine, the former ambassador to Yemen and a longtime specialist in Near East affairs. “It has been a game-changer in how people see their governments and their ability to change them.” But that still is a long way from revolution. After all, the last one to occur in the region had been the Iranian revolution -- and that remained a one-off event for three decades, until Tunisia.
Overturning a government requires that a whole array of unusual circumstances align at once, not least of which is a leader who turns and flees, as Ben Ali did to the surprise of many experts. “King Abdullah of Jordan and the Gulf Arab leaders have the ability to adapt. And Abdullah has, more than Mubarak, pushed for reforms,” said a U.S. official involved in analyzing the Arab world. “Remember in 2003 to 2005, when people were predicting another Arab spring. The Iraqis were holding elections. So were the Palestinians. There were a lot of predictions that got way ahead of where the facts were. The spillover or domino effect tends to be less than people fear it will.”
Beyond that, while Egypt was once seen as the aristocracy of the Arab world -- the country that others looked to -- its time of influence has passed. “Egypt has not been center of gravity in the Middle East for a very long time, in terms of education, in terms of money, the arts, the media," Bodine said. “The aristocracy is often the last to know their time is over.” Indeed, Egypt’s government is uniquely despised for precisely the reason that it has been so stagnant in its policies. “What you had was this gerontocracy sitting on top of an ossified bureaucracy," Bodine added. "I think what you’re watching is this utter frustration, not that things were going badly, but they weren’t going at all.”
Still, it is impossible to know how things will play out, not only today but, just as importantly, months from now. Revolts and movements can get hijacked, as happened in 1917 (to deploy another favorite analogy). The early Bolsheviks were nobodies in Russia before the Revolution, but thanks to the combined ineptitude of Tsar Nicholas II and Alexander Kerensky -- the first representing bumbling monarchy, the latter the most indecisive sort of democracy -- Lenin and co. established their "dictatorship of the proletariat" with a swiftness that surprised even them.
If Mubarak goes, will what seems now to be an encouraging and somewhat hopeful grassroots movement get hijacked by the most organized political force left in the country -- the Muslim Brotherhood?
Place your bets.