The nationalist phoenix rises

Since January 2011 Egypt rose against its long-standing dictator, removed him from office, entered a muddled transition period and a myriad of referenda and elections ensued. This led to the short rule of former President Mohamed Morsi, which was brought to a quick end by another round of demonstrations and thus the country witnessed the second removal of a president by the army in the span of three years.

Since July 3 2013, Egypt experienced yet another muddled transition period, and we are gradually and steadily witnessing the return of those forces who were already in power before 2011. This phenomenon of the return of the feloul (or remnants of the Mubarak regime) is evident most clearly by the selection of the new Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb, former head of Arab Contractors, former appointed member of the Shura Council and member of the policy committee of the now dissolved National Democratic Party. In brief, the new prime minister is feloul through and through.

Some observers believe that this return of a coalition between nationalists and the Armed Forces to the helm of the state is the finale of the Egyptian uprising, a return to ground zero. Like a phoenix, the nationalist-army alliance rises from the ashes of the revolution to retake its original position in the state. Many of the revolutionaries are disenchanted and confused as to why large parts of the population seem to support this return of the old regime.

Interestingly, 20 years ago in Eastern Europe a similar development took place. Electoral victories of communist and ex-communist parties all over Eastern Europe in the early and mid-1990s returned to power, those who had been swept away only a few years earlier by revolutions. In the West, this comeback instilled fear that communism might after all still be alive and that the communist bloc (and with it the Cold War) could potentially return.

If you ask any observers of the Arab uprisings how they remember the end of the Cold War, you will most likely get the impression that it was a pretty quick affair. In November 1989 the Berlin Wall fell, and after that, it was overall smooth sailing. Francis Fukuyama even suggested that history “ended” and capitalism and liberal democracy won the day. The countries in Eastern Europe joined NATO and the European Union one by one and achieved unprecedented levels of freedom and prosperity.

This account is however about as far from the truth, as you could imagine. The most successful Eastern European countries went through at least a decade of economic hardship. Yugoslavia was thrown into a 10-year-long series of wars, which gave way to uneasy peace in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. And last but not least, countries such as the Ukraine are still struggling with the post-Cold War shake-up, a quarter of a century after the 1989 revolutions.

There are two reasons why we tend to ignore how long it took for these revolutions to run their course. Most of us, especially observers outside of Eastern Europe, have either forgotten the details, or are too young to actively remember the political complexities of the events as they were unfolding. Personally, I remember the fall of the wall, because my brothers travelled to Berlin and brought back a piece of it, a common souvenir at the time. And a few weeks later, friends of my parents from Eastern Germany came to visit, friends who had not been allowed to travel to the West before. I remember we ate potato salad that day. But I only learnt about Solidarność (the union which led the transition in Poland) and the Monday Demonstrations (the weekly demonstrations in Eastern Germany which put unprecedented pressure on the regime) many years later. I learnt about the events post-facto, which means I would see detours as aberrations, a perspective not available to those living during the events.

But more importantly, we simplify things. We tend to mistake beginnings or parts of a development as symptomatic of the whole historical stage. The French Revolution might be remembered by the storming of the Bastille, which took place two days after the riots began, and is usually seen as the starting point of the French revolution, when the revolutionaries successfully attacked the prison, which at the time only housed seven inmates and was mostly relevant due to its gun powder storage, and its symbolic role. The French certainly celebrate the day as their national holiday, but the French revolution was not in 1789. It lasted a decade and its after effects took a century to play out fully.

Our tendency to simplify things is enforced by the wish, or need, to find events which can be used for memorial purposes, which then stand for the whole, as a pars pro toto, like the storming of the Bastille for the French Revolution, or the Boston Tea Party (when a group of Boston residents destroyed a tea shipment of the British East India company to protest against new taxes, marking the beginning of a process which eventually led to American secession from Britain) for the American Revolution.

A more detailed reading of these different revolutionary processes shows that generally revolutions take time, and more importantly, revolutions are messy. The Arab uprisings are no exception, and they are certainly no messier than the Fall of the Iron Curtain, or the French Revolution.

Like the current return of the nationalist-army coalition in Egypt, a return of the communists seemed possible in Europe in the mid-1990s. The political analyst Roger Fontaine gave expression to, but also questioned, that fear of a communist revival in an analysis written for the Cato Institute (a libertarian American think-tank), under the apt title “Red Phoenix Rising? Dealing with the Communist Resurgence in Eastern Europe.”

Indeed, some of the sentences in Fontaine’s paper could be right out of today’s opinion pages, after replacing a couple of adjectives. Fontaine writes that “the earlier hopes for a smooth transition from Marxist police state to democratic capitalism have proved premature, indeed, naive.” And in variations, a dozen different analysts have expressed recently that “the earlier hopes for a smooth transition from Arab autocracy to liberal democracy have proved premature, indeed, naïve,” or something to that effect.

Fontaine then elaborates that compared to the hopes for a quick transition, “reality has been considerably more complex and, on balance, disappointing. The transition to democratic capitalist societies has proven more difficult and erratic than most Western experts anticipated in the immediate post-Cold War period. An assortment of communist, reformed communist, and neo-communist parties has exploited the problems of the economic and political transition throughout Central and Eastern Europe to gain power or at least to mount serious challenges to non-communist reform factions.”

You get the picture. The simile is quite obvious.

So what happened in Eastern Europe? To simplify what essentially happened was that revolutionary movements did in fact come to power in Eastern Europe, then the economy collapsed being over-burdened by the past and challenged by the transitional instability, which pushed those who had never been completely excited about the changes to long for the good old days, and then finally communist parties made their come back. But, and this is the key point in this development, communist parties were unable to deliver on their promises to reconstitute the “good old days” and as a result, they quickly lost power once again.

A similar development happens currently in Egypt. The January 25 uprising had brought to power a civilian government under Mohamed Morsi, which was mostly administrating a process of economic decline, which it handled with little political skill and desire to dominate power, to say the least. The country saw an upsurge of street crime and general instability. Suddenly people, mostly those who had never been ardent supporters of the revolution in the first place, started to paint a rosier picture of the autocratic era and longed for security and economic stability. Consequently, they turned to the nationalist-army alliance, in the hope that they will deliver the “stability” of the past. And as a result, an electoral victory of Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in the upcoming presidential race looms on the horizon

What we are also witnessing in Egypt today is a resurgence of Nasserist rhetoric. Supporters of the military establishment argue for a return to the system of rule established under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser. The assumption here is that the corruption and ills of the late Mubarak era are to be blamed on Gamal Mubarak’s reforms. Interestingly the communist party in Russia made a similar point in the mid-1990s, when they argued that the USSR’s demise was brought about by Gorbachev’s “new-thinking” and reforms, which were a “deviation from socialism.”  

Obviously this is mere rhetoric. After a quick look at Egypt’s new Cabinet, one wonders how much it will deviate from the so-called Gamal Mubarak neo-liberal reforms. Similarly in Eastern Europe, none of the elected neo-communists actually reintroduced a planned economy.

On the level of international relations, however, and similar to the hopes of some Sisi supporters that the field marshal would be able to restore Egypt’s regional role, the Russian communist leader Zyuganov wanted “to restore Russia’s international status by reviving the old Soviet Union” after assuming power following the revolution.

On another level, the dilemma of the January 25 revolutionary movement in Egypt lies in its inability to compete on the level of party politics. The revolutionary movement is in essence leaderless, internally diverse and most of its “members” have an aversion to entering institutional politics in the first place.

Fontaine pointed out a similar dilemma facing Easter Europe’s revolutionary groups. He explained that “Lithuania’s independence movement, Sajudis (…) like Poland’s Solidarity (…) was more a movement than a party, and the leaders of its quarreling factions had little taste for the nuts and bolts of economic reform.”

When one reads about the political turmoil that faced Eastern Europe following their revolutions, one finds that it is eerily similar to Egypt. For example, in 1995, Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz became “Poland’s eighth premier in six years.”  

Additionally, Fontaine explains Romania’s turmoil as follows: “The political system, critics charge, is partially to blame. It features a strong presidential system with a weak parliament and a slow-moving bureaucracy still heavily laden with the former regime’s apparatchiks and Social Democratic Party of Romania loyalists, often one and the same.”

All these similarities might indicate a similar sequence of events, however that does not necessarily have to lead to the same outcome. At the same time there is a huge difference in context between Egypt and Eastern Europe.

Eastern European political developments were strongly influenced by the role of the European Union, which offered membership, if certain reforms would be implemented. No state or group of states plays such a role in the Middle East after the Arab uprisings and Saudi Arabia seems to be playing the opposite role, trying to maintain, or re-establish the Arab autocracies where they have fallen. Additionally the levels of violence since the beginning of the transition (Ettehadiya clashes, the dispersal of the Rabea al-Adaweya sit-in, and also the recent terror attacks, to name but a few) make it clear that Egypt does not fit in the same category as Poland or the Czech Republic, which witnessed nearly no violence at all.

Finally large parts of the Middle East suffer from the historical predicament of artificial borders (Egypt is one of the few states which is more or less unaffected by this), and struggle with how to handle its Islamist groups. Both of these challenges were not present in Eastern Europe in the 1990s.

It is therefore impossible to predict with certainty where Egypt will go and if the role of the nationalist-army coalition in Egypt will develop more along the lines of the army in Turkey, or more along the lines of the communist parties in Eastern Europe. It is unclear if the transition process will be relatively short like in Estonia, or if it will be seemingly never ending like in Ukraine. Nevertheless it is a good reminder that Egypt’s path, and the perceived mood-swings of its citizens, are following a pattern, which could also be observed elsewhere after revolutions. And the return to power of those targeted by the revolution, does not at all indicate the end of the transition, but is a mere step in a complicated and indeed often messy process.

Moritz Mihatsch 

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