In contrast to the somewhat artificial uprisings in Libya and Syria the uprising in Egypt that overthrew President Mubarak at the start of the year was a genuine and wholly internal affair. Like all such uprisings it was driven by a mix of longstanding grievances against a regime that had become corrupt and authoritarian and which had lost touch with its people and the pressing needs of the moment, namely the huge spike in oil and food prices caused by the US Federal Reserve Board’s quantitative easing programme and the shortfall in the Russian harvest. A rise in food prices of the sort that took place in 2010 puts intolerable pressure on people and families in countries like Egypt and given the low opinion most Egyptians had of their government it sufficed to push matters politically over the edge.
Since then there has been simply drift. The economic pressures that triggered the original uprising have not eased. If anything because of the disruption to the economy and the collapse of tourist revenue they have got worse. In the meantime such government as Egypt has is provided by a self appointed unelected body of senior military officers. Like all such “provisional governments” the current Egyptian government lacks the authority and the legitimacy to carry out major changes, which its members drawn as they are from senior functionaries of the old regime anyway have good reason to dislike. Nor having gained power are they at all anxious to part with power since this risks bringing to power people who might be prepared to use that power to carry out the sort of changes they dislike. In holding on to power and resisting change they have moreover the support of the foreign stakeholders in Egypt’s status quo namely Saudi Arabia and the US.
The appearance after the collapse of an old regime of a “provisional government” formed from former functionaries of that regime and trying to preserve as much of that regime as possible whilst promising “reforms” is typical of many revolutions. The growth of resentment and opposition to such a government is a revolutionary commonplace. As the government is self appointed and “provisional” and lacks legitimacy its failure is also a commonplace.
The true crisis in Egypt is not that the current military authorities are facing opposition and that this has tipped over into violence. That was entirely predictable. The crisis is the complete lack of viable leaders able to unite the revolutionary forces and to take them forward. There is as yet no sign of an Egyptian Robespierre, Lenin or Khomeini. There is no strong revolutionary movement such as was provided by the Jacobins, the Bolsheviks or the radical Mosque. If such a person or movement exists in Egypt today then they would surely have made their presence felt by now. The fact that no such person or movement has so far appeared can only mean that they do not exist. All the potential leaders who have been mentioned so far are instead either western educated liberals such Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who are hardly cut out to be revolutionary leaders and who seem to have no real empathy with the Egyptian masses or the Muslim Brotherhood, which in Egypt is an intensely conservative force that for all practical purposes supported the old regime and the status quo and which has no programme for taking Egypt forward.
In the absence of such a revolutionary leader or movement there is drift. Elections have been announced but on the assumption that they take place it is difficult to see that they will bring about any meaningful change such as would be noticed by the Egyptian people. It is likely that any government that emerges from such elections will be weak and unstable. It is difficult to see how it could make real headway against the many intractable problems that Egypt has.
In the light of this drift it is very difficult to see where this revolution is going. One possibility is that whatever government emerges from the elections will for all its weakness have sufficient legitimacy to survive the inevitable disappointment that will follow, If so the revolutionary impetus will dissipate into cynicism and apathy and Egypt will eventually end up with a government very like the one that was overthrown in January.
The other possibility, which has not been discussed though it is surely a very real possibility, is for a military coup led by radical younger army officers. It was middle ranking army officers whose intervention proved decisive in January when they made known their refusal to obey orders to fire on the protesters. That experience will have given these officers confidence and a sense of their own power. The general weakening of discipline that will have taken place since then will encourage the growth of political associations or networks amongst the officers and it is a virtual certainty that these exist by now. Egyptian officers have the precedent of the 1952 coup that brought Colonel Gamal Nasser to power. Nasser for many Arabs and Egyptians including one suspects many army officers remains a revered figure. Given this precedent and the lack of a convincing civilian alternative the possibility (though not the certainty) of a coup leading eventually to the establishment of a military dictatorship with a radical programme must be very real.