Adrift on the Nile: The recent revolution that began in Tahrir Square has taken Egypt into uncharted waters
I WAS PRESENT in Warsaw, Berlin, Budapest, and Prague in 1989 when non-violent revolutions swept the Communists from power, creating a brand new model of regime change. I stood in Wenceslas Square as hundreds of thousands of people rattled their keys, unleashing an eerie, shimmering sound into the air, chanting, “Your time is up!” I had lived among the Czechs for a decade in the 1970s, and I felt the power of their relief as the hated regime slipped into history.
So, not surprisingly, I was intrigued by the instant media punditry comparing the bloodless revolutions in central Europe with the recent wave of Arab uprisings in the Middle East. Even on television, I could see similarities between Prague 1989 and Cairo 2011: the peacefulness of protesters; the prominent role played by young people; the sparkling displays of public eloquence and wit; the sudden release from fear and the rebirth of civic pride; the infectious jubilation when the regime was finally brought down. But I saw big differences as well.
In 1989, British historian Timothy Garton Ash, having a celebratory beer with Václav Havel, observed that in Poland it had taken ten years to overthrow the system, in Hungary ten months, and in East Germany ten weeks; Czechoslovakia would perhaps take ten days. He was simplifying, of course, yet his remark captured something of the truth of the moment: Soviet-style Communism was a unified system run, with some minor local variations, from Moscow, and its collapse overturned the old Cold War domino theory — the belief that if Communism were not contained militarily it would spread to other countries. The revolutions of 1989 marked the end of an era, and provided an occasion for joy and optimism to everyone who had lived so long in the shadow of nuclear Armageddon.
Even from my armchair in front of the television, I could see that the events in Tahrir Square were charged with a different energy and a different meaning. Without knowing much about the misery Hosni Mubarak had inflicted on his country, I could still feel the enormous, pent-up frustration of protesters who, day after day, pushed back against the police, braving tear gas, truncheons, armoured cars, rubber bullets, and buckshot, not to mention the stones, Molotov cocktails, and bullets unleashed against them by the regime’s thugs and sharpshooters. Hundreds died and many more were injured. The battle of Tahrir Square looked and felt like a real revolution.
Yet the outcome remained far from clear. Mubarak was gone, but he was instantly replaced by an interim military junta that promised to step down after elections later in the year. The military had allowed the revolution to take its course — one of the slogans in Tahrir Square was “The people and the army are one hand!” — but as a governing body it was ham-fisted and slow, and the popular trust it enjoyed at first soon began to fray. The 1989 revolutions had been swift and decisive, their outcomes never really in doubt; Egypt’s revolution appeared to be bogging down, and had succeeded only in comparison with those in Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Bahrain, where the violence continued unabated.