By Pankaj Mishra
This commentary was published in The Guardian on 05/05/2011
Not far from the square, on the corniche, a small pro-Mubarak demonstration was under way. Earlier in the day, radical Islamists had demonstrated before the American embassy in their first public show of strength. Adding to the confusing reality of post-Mubarak Egypt, thousands of demonstrators in the southern city of Qena had been agitating for days on end against a newly appointed Christian governor. But, here, in Tahrir Square, the main stage for Egypt's festival of democracy, day-tripping revellers like myself easily outnumbered protesters and activists.
The great drama of Mubarak's overthrow behind it, Egypt now copes with an agenda as full as that of a country newly liberated from colonial rule: self-government, social equality, economic consolidation and cultural regeneration. At least one of the many post-revolutionary promises – reassertion of national pride – is already being fulfilled. Mediating the Palestinian agreement between Fatah and Hamas, and releasing Gaza from a brutish captivity, the new Egyptian foreign minister realises a long-thwarted Egyptian desire for dignity and prestige in the wider world.
Political groups are scrambling to get themselves into shape for the national elections due in September; there are already rumours of secret deals between the army and the Islamists, and of other crass expediencies of party politics. Now that it is here, the post-Mubarak era is not as marvellous as it seemed in the imagination. Still, the visitor to Cairo is quickly infected by the excitements of sovereignty, the new political emotions and ideas suddenly in play.
It's true that tourists to the revolution like myself have been traditionally prone to ideological self-deceptions; we tend to see what we want to see, and we suppress anything that doesn't fit our preconceptions. Later, when we are inevitably defeated by reality, we grow bitter, turning against our own naive enthusiasms. But as I stood among the crowds and picnickers in the square, I couldn't resist a pang of confidence and optimism.
Hannah Arendt often spoke of the idea of "natality", the new beginnings latent in human life and action. According to her, every new generation of men and women possesses the creative power to open up fresh possibilities of thinking and action; and, witnessing young Egyptians plan voter awareness campaigns in rural areas, it was hard not to be moved by this latest manifestation of "natality" in the Arab world.
It was disconcerting then to hear in street conversations a high degree of nostalgia for the Mubarak regime – not so much for its brutalities as for the stability it suddenly embodies in Egypt's post-revolutionary disorder. Life, if not exactly sweet then, offered a few certainties. Burdened by the daily imperatives of survival and work, few people could afford the time and leisure to think about the future, let alone form political movements to change it.
For these reflexively conservative Egyptians, long content to mind their own business, their country is now full of threats rather than opportunities. And their mood of foreboding is not an overreaction. For the hard work of creating democratic institutions has barely begun. Indeed, democracy is hardly an adequate word to describe the political system that must not only ensure individual rights and civil liberties but, more importantly, prove itself responsive to the plight of nearly half the population that lives on less than $2 a day.
Egypt's most urgent challenges are unquestionably economic. The western media, inevitably highlighting English-speaking Egyptians, may have given the impression that the uprising was the work of middle-class Facebookistas and the Twitterati alone. It was actually fuelled in its most important stages by the distress and rage of the labouring classes, which has been expressed in sporadic protests over recent years.
A series of workers' strikes in early February proved crucial in forcing Mubarak out. Many more strikes have broken out since; the general economic outlook has worsened since February. Food price inflation is running at over 50%; foreign exchange reserves are depleting fast. Tourists, major contributors to the national GDP, have disappeared. That a draconian IMF bailout and the usual brutality towards the weak will accompany political liberalisation is not beyond the realm of possibility.
Egypt's luck in this regard seems particularly bad from where I write, Indonesia – another former military despotism from the cold war. Indonesia stumbled into multi-party democracy following a regional financial crisis, but its political journey has been smoothed subsequently by a strong economy, primarily the growing Chinese and Indian demand for Indonesian commodities.
Indonesia was fortunate too in having powerful Muslim individuals and organisations that affirmed rather than overturned the country's ideological commitment to religious pluralism. Early in the country's transition to electoral democracy, its president Abdurrahman Wahid, former head of the 30 million-strong Muslim group Nahdlatul Ulama, confidently strengthened the legal rights of minorities and also managed to briefly sideline the military.
It may be optimistic to expect a similarly enlightened attitude from the Islamist parties – Egypt's only organised groups at present – that may be the default winners of September's elections. The responsibilities of power are unlikely to persuade the Muslim Brotherhood to drop its mind-numbing slogan "Islam is the solution". But then not much hope can be invested in the nascent secular and liberal political formations in Egypt. Overwhelmingly Cairo-centric, they seem far from organised. Though well-intentioned, their representatives – upper to upper-middle class – seem no more connected than their counterparts in India or Pakistan to the lives of their struggling compatriots in the countryside.
The elections in September may expose greater tensions of class, clan, gender and religion. Far from being a miraculous panacea, popular enfranchisement in heterogenous societies deepens old divisions and conflicts. Christians in Indonesia feel more rather than less insecure today, as hardline Islamic groups proliferate. Crony capitalists, the bane of pre-democratic Indonesia, have multiplied; members of the military have reinvented themselves, and possess a new authority derived from the ballot box. Assisted by political decentralisation, elected officials have carved out mini fiefdoms within Indonesia's resource-rich territories.
The example of Indonesia proves that many social, political and economic problems do not simply disappear when despotic rule ends; indeed, they can grow more tenacious. It is painful to think that for Egypt, too, democracy may entail the recycling of old elites, and the creation of a new class of oppressors and plunderers. But the experience of other "democracies" cautions us against rejecting this possibility. Indeed, for tourists to Egypt's revolution, it may be the best insurance against cruel disenchantment.