It was Burke, that cautious philosopher of democratic revolutions, who taught us that liberty is neither good nor bad--what matters is how people use it. I have little fear that the Egyptians are motivated by dreams of a new caliphate. The Muslim Brotherhood is powerful and organized, but it is neither the dominating force in modern Egypt nor the radical organization that Westerners fear. The Muslim Brotherhood may have produced al-Qaeda's intellectual leader, but it has decidedly moved on. It's moderate rhetoric and embrace of the leftist elements in the Egyptian protest movement show us that.
I'm even less worried about the Egyptian military. We're less than a month into this revolution, but the great irony is that after the Western media's fear of a post-Mubarak government, the one institution that's more amenable to U.S. interests than the Mubarak regime--the Egyptian military--now holds the reigns of power. Decades of military aid and mutual cooperation might pay off big, though the biggest question is how large the military's role will be in the medium and long term. With Mubarak gone, the military is the only centralized institution left, and I get the sense that it holds the veto over real democratic reform. Moving forward, the country could go one of two ways: either the military oversees a new transition to democratic government with elections later this year, or the military's coup is permanent, and the Egyptians have traded a civilian autocracy for a military one. Given the fervor of the protesters, and the military's continuing deference, I doubt the generals plan to follow in Mubarak's footsteps.
The fundamental problem with Egypt is economic, though, and democracy doesn't grow the economy. Mubarak may have been repressive, but the same can be said of Saudi Arabia's king. The difference between the two regimes is the material wealth of their populations--especially the youth. That difference is what made revolution possible in Cairo, but out of the question in Mecca.
Scholars sometimes view the developing world as trapped in a privatization-nationalization cycle. The unemployed masses revolt and governments nationalize industries, but government industries are too inefficient. When the governments privatize industries, economic growth resumes, but it's often too staggered and inequitable. So the masses return to the street, and nationalization efforts begin again. During the past decade, Mubarak privatized some industries with notable success--economic growth often topping 8 percent. But the financial crisis hit Egypt hard, and it's no surprise that many of Egypt's protesters cite Nasser--the country's great nationalizer--as inspiration.
The hope moving forward is that Egypt continues the economic liberalization of the past decade while transitioning to a more modern, freer society. I'm oddly optimistic. Egypt's revolutionaries are remarkably grounded; they've lashed out at Mubarak while respecting their nation's history, institutions and culture. They could have made this about the West, or Israel, but they didn't. They made it about their freedom and the president who took it from them.
But when they move from the streets to (hopefully) the ballot box, their country's future will depend on that same measure of prudence. They've earned their liberty; let's hope they use it well.
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