The Egyptian uprising: ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?’

Those two questions are torturing observers, who are so obsessed with the mechanics of the revolt that they have missed its historic importance.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Books

There are two questions about the Arab uprisings that are giving sleepless nights to Western observers: ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?’. The revolts seem to have come from nowhere, and appear capable of going anywhere. Seemingly out of the blue, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets, first in Tunisia, then in Egypt, and to a lesser extent in Jordan and Yemen, demanding the ousting of corrupt regimes. The suddenness and unpredictability of their uprisings has induced many a cold sweat in the West.

But anyone with a fleeting acquaintance with history will know that uprisings are often sudden and frequently fail to fit neatly into the schedules drawn up by political analysts. ‘Revolution comes like a thief in the night’, said Marx. In their attempts to answer the burning questions of ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?’, much of the Western political and media elite has revealed both its anaemic skills of political analysis and also its fear of mass agitation for democracy.

Their most common answer to ‘why now?’ is that new social media have allowed people in the Arab world to get together and express dissatisfaction. Incapable of grappling with the political underpinnings of this upheaval, observers instead fetishise the technical tools and virtual networks used by the protesters to communicate information. And their answer to the question of ‘what next?’ is: ‘Possibly another Iran, an Islamist backwater, a populist state that will threaten Israel and the West.’ This reveals more about the West’s feverishly fearful outlook – and its narcissism, where an Egyptian uprising comes to be less about Egyptians and more about us – than it does about real life and politics in the modern Arab world.

Again and again, the importance of these events, their potentially seismic impact on global politics as we know it, is drowned out by the narrow techno-fetishism or Iran-panic of outside observers. So in the interests of giving this political tumult its proper historic due, and in an attempt to answer some of the ‘why now?’ and ‘what next?’, here are three key things that have changed or are changing beyond recognition.

The end of playing the Palestine card

From Washington to London to Jerusalem, observers are obsessing over what impact the Arab uprisings, especially in Egypt, will have on Israel and the so-called peace process in the Middle East. But a far more important and fruitful question is what impact recent developments in the Israel-Palestine issue have had in the Arab world and how far they may have contributed to the current revolts. Because a key reason for the ‘why now?’ is that the decommissioning of the Palestinian national struggle over the past 15 years has robbed Arab regimes of perhaps their one and only, certainly their most useful, tool of legitimation.

It is impossible to overstate how central the Palestinian question was to the legitimacy of the Arab states, especially Egypt. Isolated Arab rulers effectively sought to deflect their own populations’ desire for political self-determination through focusing on the unresolved question of Palestinian statehood. They also frequently justified their authoritarianism as a necessary brace against potential Israeli aggression. As one historian describes it, ‘The Palestine issue provided Arab rulers with a pretext to exercise full control over society in the name of preparing for “the battle of destiny”‘ (1).

The Palestine question played a key role in both the founding of the modern Arab regimes in the 1950s and in the political and moral self-legitimation of those regimes in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The defeat of the Arab armies in the Arab-Israeli war of 1948 was the pretext on which the officer classes in the Arab core – Egypt in the early 1950s, Syria and Iraq in the late 1950s – swept aside the old ruling classes and created new states. A shift in power from the Western-backed landowning classes to a petit-bourgeois officer class was in part politically legitimated as a response to the old Arab rulers’ failings on Palestine. In his Philosophy of the Revolution, Colonel Nasser, who ousted the British-backed King Farouk in Egypt in 1952, wrote about Palestine as ‘the first element of Arab consciousness’ (2). Officer-led revolts that could not directly or substantially locate their legitimacy in the demos instead relied heavily on the ‘promise of Palestine’ (3).

In the pan-Arab period of 1952 to 1967, from the Egyptian revolt to Israel’s routing of the Arab armies for a second time in the Six-Day War, the Arab regimes legitimated themselves through often Palestine-focused, anti-Western Arab nationalist rhetoric. In what we might term the ‘pro-Palestinian period’ of 1967 to the late 1980s, following the 1967 war’s final discrediting of pan-Arabism, the Arab regimes professed political and moral support for Palestinian guerrillas. Of course, in the real world, particularly in Egypt and Jordan, Arab rulers brutally repressed Palestinians and their representatives. Yet as the Egyptian historian Walid Kazziha argues, the Palestine issue was central to both the moral legitimacy and the political and military authority of the Arab regimes: ‘Palestine acted as the focus of political solidarity in Arab societies, and tended to minimise the influence of the elements of dissension within each of them.’ (4)

The narcissistic handwringing over what the uprising in Egypt might mean for the Israel-Palestine ‘peace process’ overlooks the impact of that ‘peace process’ – the impact of the final defeat of Palestinian nationalism and its co-option into new Western political structures – on Egypt and other Arab states. The erosion of the Palestinian question has undercut both Arab states’ founding myths and their justification of authoritarianism as a check on internal dissension. Denuded of its national component, the Palestinian issue has over the past decade become the property of victim-oriented Western middle-class radicals, of little use to old Arab nationalists with expectant populations to deal with. It is striking that where there were, according to one report, ‘no signs saying “Free Palestine” on the Egyptian protests’, at the solidarity-with-Egypt protests in London there were many Palestinian keffiyehs and ‘Free Gaza’ placards. The very removal of the dynamic that made the Palestine issue a central focus of regime legitimation for the Arab states – its future-orientation and its nationalist vigour – has now made it ideal fodder for fancy-dress radicals in the West.

The exhaustion of the regimes

Another key reason for the ‘why now?’ is the sheer exhaustion, political but also physical, of the Arab regimes. The fundamentally artificial nature of these states, their failure to modernise or to create any meaningful kind of civil society or political sphere, has brought about a crisis of political succession.

In contrast to Turkey under Kemal Ataturk, who founded the Turkish Republic following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War, the Arab core never pursued political or cultural reforms that allowed the development of modern political systems. Instead, their ruling officer classes based their authority on the monopolisation of force and political influence; on external recognition, whether the backing of the Soviet Union for the early ethos of Arab nationalism or later Washington’s propping up of ‘anti-Islamist’ Arab rulers; and on their abundance of natural resources, most notably oil. These were fundamentally fragile regimes, consisting, in the words of the Palestinian-American scholar Hilal Khashan, of ‘tenuous political edifices’ that frequently appeared ‘on the verge of falling apart’ (5).

In recent years, the tenuousness of these edifices has been thrown into sharp relief. The erosion of Arab nationalism, the decommissioning of the Palestinian struggle, the fall of the Soviet Union – all have impacted heavily on the Arab regimes. Most pressingly today, there is the problem of succession. The Arab states have appeared as Bonapartist regimes, exhausted and withered, and lacking the means to absorb political or social change or to relegitimate their rule. Their increasingly uphill task, as one observer describes it, has been ‘regime preservation’ (6). Even the very age of the regimes is striking: as journalist Issandr El Amrani points out, in both Tunisia and Egypt the ruler ‘had been in place so long that half the population had no memory of his predecessor – more than 23 years in the case of Ben-Ali, nearly 30 in the case of Mubarak’ (7). Having ’emptied formal politics of meaning’, both the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes had ‘deprived themselves of intermediaries between the state and its citizens who could have negotiated [the succession crisis]’ (8).

The Mubarak regime’s attempts to deal with its succession crisis were a key trigger of the current uprising. It responded to its increasing isolation and problems of preservation by seeking to monopolise political power even further. So in the fixed elections of December 2010, Mubarak’s National Democratic Party ‘won’ 90 per cent of the seats, leading to a fall in the opposition’s share of seats from 24 per cent in the 2005 elections to 10 per cent in 2010. This ‘monopoly of parliament’, as Amr Hamzawy aptly described it, was a desperate move by a regime facing a ‘legitimacy crisis’ (9). It backfired, of course, provoking protests that have exposed the utter isolation and disarray of the Mubarak regime. Indeed, the bewildered response of the Mubarak regime is now the key driver of the uprising, acting effectively as an invitation to the revolters to continue pushing for Mubarak’s removal.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the succession crisis in Egypt has been the extent to which even beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime have been unwilling to rally behind Mubarak or to try to resolve the succession crisis. Mubarak’s son, groomed as successor, has resigned from politics, echoing Colonel Gaddafi of Libya’s increasing inability to nurture his offspring as future leaders too (10). Mubarak himself is publicly reported as being ‘fed up’ with ruling and with power itself (11). On one level these can be seen as propagandistic gestures designed to placate the crowds – but more fundamentally, one gets a powerful sense that the Arab regimes lack not only the means to preserve themselves but also the will. They really are ‘fed up’. At a profound level, we are witnessing a crisis of the self-consciousness of the Arab elites, an historic fraying of what Nasser and others referred to, rather grandly, as elite ‘Arab consciousness’ (12). This absence of will, this feeling of profound rot, sends a green light to the Egyptian masses: ‘Come and finish us off.’

It is important to note what we are witnessing here: not a ‘Twitter revolution’ or a ‘Wikileaks uprising’, as many self-regarding Western observers claim. No, this represents the unravelling of perhaps the final remaining legacy of the post-Second World War set-up. Where other postwar arrangements fell apart over the past 10 to 20 years, most notably the division of Europe and the post-colonial ‘strongman’ arrangements in parts of Africa, the Arab system remained largely unaltered – until now. For all the narrow techno-focus of Western observers, the events in the Arab states really signify an historic crisis of Arab elite will and legitimacy that could bring to an end the last remaining institutions of the postwar arrangement, of the old world order. This is the key dynamic in the Arab world right now – not the uprisings themselves so much as the emptying out of the Arab order, which invites revolting.

The crisis of America’s imperial clout

The Arab upheaval also provides insights into how Washington has changed, and the extent to which its capacity to make sense of and meaningfully guide world affairs is diminished. The Obama administration’s response to the Egyptian crisis in particular – Egypt being a key American ally in the Arab world – has captured its increasing imperial paralysis. From constantly fretting over the emergence of ‘another Iran’ to sending contradictory public messages about what it wants Mubarak to do, Washington’s foreign-policy elite has revealed itself to be bewildered, at times out of control, and governed more by the politics of fear than by a determination to pursue anything that looks like a clear self-interest.

Of course, this doesn’t mean Washington won’t play a key and deeply problematic role in assisting in ‘regime preservation’ in Egypt – ‘Mubarakism without Mubarak’, as some radical critics describe the desired end result of Washington’s current meetings with the Egyptian regime (13). And it is important to recognise the role played by American intervention in the Middle East in accentuating the current crisis of the old Arab order. Most notably, America and Britain’s backing of the Mujahideen in the Afghan-Soviet war of 1979 to 1989 stored up enormous problems for the Arab regimes in the subsequent decade of the 1990s. Returning Isalmists, coached in Madrassa-style millenarianism and trained by the CIA in urban warfare and bomb-making, played a role in temporarily destabilising north African countries, including Egypt (14).

More recently, Washington’s removal of the Baathist regime in Iraq in 2003 had the consequence of strengthening the hand of the non-Arabic state of Iran in the Middle East. The West’s erasing of what it once cynically considered to be a useful counterweight to Iranian influence – that is, Iraqi Baathism – has allowed Tehran to play a more directly interventionist role in various Middle Eastern theatres, from sponsoring the Islamist-leaning Hamas in the Palestinian territories to backing Hezbollah in Lebanon. It has also encouraged a tightening alliance between Iran and Syria, once a member of the ‘Arab core’. These developments have further isolated and weakened the old Arab structures in the Middle East.

At the same time, the most striking thing about America’s intervention now to try to troubleshoot the Egyptian crisis is its changeability, its unpredictability, its sense of fear-fuelled desperation. Driven more by the nightmares of the past, especially the Iranian Revolution of 1979, and unclear as to what its best interests in the Arab world are today, Washington may help to erect a bit of political scaffolding around the collapsing Arab order, but it will be a deal that is unlikely to have much longevity or depth and will have about as much legitimacy as Mubarak currently enjoys.

And then there is the question of ‘what next?’. It’s the hardest one to answer. We can say with some certainty that in Egypt there won’t be ‘another Iran’, and nor will there be a ‘new Nasser’, a re-flourishing of Arab nationalism, as some romantic commentators have started to fantasise (15). The question of what happens next depends on the decisions taken by the current regime and its nervous backers in Washington and also by the protesters. Their uprising has been inspiring, but its leaderlessness, its lack of an overarching ideology or strategy, could prove to be its undoing. While Western radicals celebrate the no-leader, wait-and-see nature of the uprising, they fail to recognise that it is precisely those qualities of the revolt that are giving the Egyptian regime and its Western backers extraordinary latitude to get their house in order. There is a danger that this rising will lose focus and become exhausted, tragically allowing the corrupt and unwilling ruling elite to stagger on by default.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Books


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today