Thousands of protesters took to Egypt’s streets on Monday to commemorate the anniversary of the murder of blogger Khaled Saeed, who was beaten to death by police. His assailants are due to be sentenced later this month, but the subtext of the demonstrations was that the hoped-for changes in post-revolutionary Egypt are too slow in coming. As the Arab Spring slides into a long, hot summer, the gap between expectations and reality may become intolerable.
Meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Democratic activists in Egypt have found out there is little difference between rule by ousted President Hosni Mubarak and rule by a provisional military council. Egypt’s military leaders have been in charge in one way or another since the 1950s. While they give lip service to change, their recent actions have raised concerns among activists that the revolution is being betrayed. Last week, the military cracked down on some of its critics in the media, while activists talked of an impending Second Revolution. The $3 billion loan the International Monetary Fund promised Egypt on Sunday should be viewed as an attempt to stave off a political as well as economic meltdown.
The worst may be yet to come in Egypt. Revolutions typically don’t happen all at once; most of history’s major revolutions have unfolded over time. The French Revolution went through several increasingly bloody phases before culminating in Napoleon’s dictatorship. In the Russian Revolution, Czar Nicholas II was deposed in March 1917, but Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not seize power until November of that year. Several years of civil war followed before the Communists began devouring themselves.
A more proximate and troubling parallel for Egypt is the 1979 revolution in Iran. The Shah departed the country in January 1979, but the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini didn’t assume constitutional powers until the following December. When Khomeini returned to Tehran from exile in Paris, many liberal reformers thought the aged cleric simply wanted to serve as a spiritual adviser for the new government, not be the supreme ruler. The ayatollah, however, had laid out his plans explicitly in his book “Velayat-e faqih,” or “Islamic Government,” published in 1970, and he saw himself as anything but a figurehead. He consolidated supreme power over the course of two years, and those liberal intellectuals who thought Khomeini was someone to be manipulated or ignored were the first to go.
The new political order in Egypt has yet to emerge, but the military will seek to play as large a future role as possible. It faces a delicate balancing act between preserving its privileges, maintaining international support and ceding power to increasingly restive civilian political activists. The greatest threat is that the process will spin out of control and result in renewed chaos, which would favor extremist movements like the Muslim Brotherhood. Fears of a second, more disruptive revolution may be unfounded. According to a poll released Sunday by the International Republican Institute, 89 percent of Egyptians say things are currently going in the right direction in their country. Mr. Obama should have it so good.