Somebody sneezes in Cairo and the people of Sanaa and Tripoli catch a cold. Egypt has always acted as an indicator of trends across other parts of the region – no less in recent days.
Suddenly Egyptians are fearing a new brand of dictatorship. Following the country’s recent democratic elections the Muslim Brotherhood captured the Parliament, the Government and the Premiership. But people were not unduly scared by this, because the Brotherhood had pledged not to go after the Presidency as well; along with a number of other pledges they made to reassure people as to their intentions.
However, once the Brotherhood were secure in all the other seats of power, they have conveniently announced that they are going back on their earlier promise and are to nominate Khayrat al-Shatir as the new president.
How those who bled in Tahrir Square must be shaking their heads in disbelief: How was their revolution so easily subverted by an organization that in the early stages only played only a minor role?
Of course, the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys an impressive organizational infrastructure stretching across the entire country and survived decades of being targeted and vilified by the regime. It also has a broad welfare and social support apparatus which has won the Brotherhood great support and loyalty amongst wide sections of society – so how could other new and unknown democratic political parties compete?
Once the Muslim Brotherhood is in control of all the major centres of power (possibly excluding the military); it will have absolute control over immense resources and other political parties and groups will find it highly difficult to compete in future elections. And we all know that absolute power corrupts; the temptations are too great for enriching oneself and suppressing your opponents.
This is why the path of revolution is almost always a grave and destructive mistake. The French Revolution beheaded the King but introduced Napoleon’s dictatorship; the Russian Revolution brought in a Communist dictatorship and the murder of millions under Stalin; the Iranian revolution brought Khomeini.
The problem is that in all such revolutions the leaders are purged but the institutions of state and the composition of society generally remain exactly the same. One form of dictatorship is exchanged for another with depressing predictability.
The great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz portrays this brilliantly (and arguably predicts the events of 2011 and beyond) in many of his books. In numerous stories Mahfouz describes great expectations aroused during a revolutionary transformation – either in Egypt or imaginary settings. However, each time these hopes are dashed by a new generation of repressive leaders who fail to keep their promises; whether it be Nasser rounding up and torturing members of the Muslim Brotherhood; or Sadat promising a new economic dawn, but bringing impoverishment and runaway inflation.
There are several simple lessons from Egypt for Bahrain’s would-be revolutionaries:
Firstly; the results of revolution are wholly unpredictable. As in Iran in 1979, young liberals thought they were fighting for their freedom, but they in turn were purged by the followers of Ayatollah Khomeini.
Secondly; the chaotic and violent situation which follows any revolution requires ruthless leadership in order to regain control of the streets. The period which follows a revolution is almost always more violent than the revolution itself (we are seeing this in Libya and Yemen) and the new leaders quickly end up with overflowing prisons and blood all over their hands.
Thirdly: If the old regime was violent and corrupt, the new regime is likely to be similar or worse. This is because it is weak institutions which allows corruption and the culture of impunity within the security forces which permits abuses, torture and state terrorism. These state institutions will either remain the same, or they’ll be purged and refilled by people without the necessary skills and experience – who will be even more incompetent.
Fourthly and most significant; the best organized and most wide-reaching political group will capture the state. You could argue that the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt would have been stupid to deny themselves the Presidency, when they were in such a strong position for winning it. In a revolutionary situation no checks and balances exist for restraining the strongest elements of society and preventing a dictatorship of the majority; or absolute power for the strongman who is able to monopolise the use of force.
Bahrainis who are weighing up whether to support revolution or the King’s path of institutional reform would do very well to look at long and hard at the experience of other countries in the region and decide whether we want that for Bahrain. Let’s hope that wisdom will prevail.