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Lessons from Egypt: do not underestimate the power of peaceful Satyagraha and the Internet

Dr. Arvind Gupta was Director General at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 14, 2011

    Finally, Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak had to ‘waive’ his presidency. On 11th Feb, amid an ‘explosion of emotions’ in Egypt, President Mubarak was compelled to step down. The Army Supreme Council headed by the Defence Minister Field Marshal Mohammad Hussein Tantawi has taken over the reins of the country. Egypt is now set for what seems like a transition to democracy. The peoples’ 18-day long peaceful protests at Cairo’s Tahrir Square won in the unequal battle between the people and the autocrats.

    What happens next in Egypt is unclear. Will there be democracy? Will there be free and fair elections? What will be the role of the army? Will the Islamist come to power? These are very important questions to which there are no easy answers. But, for the moment people are celebrating the revolution which they brought about by simply assembling at Tahrir Square in large numbers day after day for eighteen days risking their lives.

    Sceptics who doubted the efficacy of unarmed protestors to overturn autocratic regimes peacefully have been proved wrong – yet again. The power of the non-violent protests – the Satyagraha – is often underestimated or ignored even in democratic countries like India. It is forgotten that in more recent times peoples’protests helped end the Cold War.

    It is not clear at this stage whether the banned Muslim Brotherhood (MB), the fundamentalist ideological movement which has provided inspiration to large number of Islamist movements around the world, will play a positive role in Egypt’s transition to a secular democratic dispensation. During the protests, MB sided with the protestors and distanced itself from the Al Qaeda. But, given its radical past, one will have to see whether the Bothers’ pronouncements were tactical or do they signify a major change of heart.

    What are the lessons of the unprecedented show down between ordinary people and despotic regime in Egypt?

    The key lesson is that ideas remain powerful mobilisers. The concepts of freedom, justice and liberation have powerful resonance in people everywhere irrespective of the regimes they live under. Further, people power can force out the tyrants no matter how magnanimous they are. The realist prescriptions which mostly emphasise powerful state institutions may not always be correct. How to take into account the power of the people's inspiration into account while analysing a particular situation is always a challenge. Many people thought that Mubarak will carry on at least till September and the protestors are tiring out. That has not happened.

    Crises can erupt suddenly without warning. No one had predicted the Tunisian unrest spreading to Egypt in quick time and bringing down an icon like Mubarak in less than three weeks. In the past too, the collapse of the Soviet Union was missed by most analysts. The analysts, schooled in structured thinking, are likely to get it wrong in future. The speed of the internet and the power of Facebook is a new factor that was not present in the 1980s or the 1940s when India became independent.

    External factors are important but only to the extent that they facilitated a peaceful transition. The West would not have liked to see their loyal ally Mubarak go. The external factors could not have stopped the transition indefinitely. The US first sought to back Mubarak but then changed its mind seeing that protests were genuine.

    People power may not always succeed in forcing a regime change as in Iran last year or in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But, it cannot be entirely suppressed. Gandhiji's Satyagraha is a preferred model for people.

    The Internet has multiplied the power of protestors manifold. Authoritarian regimes are apprehensive. Look how China does not allow the googling of the word 'Egypt' on its Internet search engines!

    Militaries can play a helpful role. But in the end they will either have to kill their own people or defer to their wishes. This happened in Pakistan and now in Egypt. But in China they chose to kill protestors in 1989.

    Violence can erupt. Efforts to incite violence in Egypt were made but the damage was contained because the military and police refused to fire.

    The success of people power does not mean automatic installation of democracy. But it does mean that a new political climate has been ushered in. If there is political vacuum, undesirable elements may rush in.

    Other authoritarian regimes are worried. Many have announced concessions. The political climate in the Arab world and possibly beyond will change.

    There could be other regime changes but this may not happen immediately. The circumstances in different countries are different. Where the local populations are relatively well off, the change may be slower. But, some reform and liberalisation can be expected.

    Even in countries like China where the political and economic situation is vastly different, there could be repercussions. The Communist party may come up with new ‘theories’ and concepts to its credentials.

    Apart from freedom, corruption was an issue articulated by the protestors. Corruption can bring people on the streets even in democratic countries. There could be repercussions in India too where there have been a lot of public resentment on the issue of corruption.

    The Arab world is witnessing a critical moment. A major change is in the offing. There are stirrings in other Arab countries too. The Algerian government is considering lifting the emergency, in force since 1992, ‘very soon’. The government is preparing to face demonstrations in the near future. In Yemen, the president has declared neither he nor his son will contest the next presidential elections. Jordan is also stirring.

    There would be huge geo-political implications of the collapse of the Mubarak regime. The fate of Egypt-Israel treaty is uncertain. The Palestinians have been enthused by Egyptian developments. Hezbollah has welcomed the fall of the Mubarak regime. Syria is for the moment quiet but needs to be watched. The rulers in the Gulf countries, particularly in Saudi Arabia will be restless. What is the future of Jordan, another key US ally in the region? Gen Mike Mullen is preparing to go to Israel and Jordan even as 36 tribal leaders have publicly criticised Queen Raina of Jordan for corruption and demanded her removal from political life of the country. In the coming days, as people in the Arab world mull over the significance of the people’s revolution in Egypt, the picture as to where the Aran world is heading may become clearer.