Danecki: Egyptian uprising of the people

Jan Smoleński, Political Critique: Egypt seethes. According to some estimates, around a million people took part in yesterday’s demonstration in Cairo. There were protests in other major cities. What is the reason for these occurrences? And can we call it a people’s revolution?

Prof. Janusz Danecki*: I prefer the term ‘people’s uprising’. This is an indication of civil disobedience against authority, which doesn’t suit the Egyptian society; the masses revolt against the situation, which was unbearable. Besides, there were similar grounds for protests in Tunisia

And precisely what were the grounds?

The first and foremost – an economic one: poverty, unemployment, practically no prospects for the youth. And notice there are the young people protesting, who want to have conditions for any development. The bad economic situation gave rise to the question, why it is as it is; and the most probable answer was that the Egyptian government is inefficient and undemocratic. The street wants reforms, but has no illusions that the current authorities will introduce them, as they have heart the same promises for too long. Neither Ben Ali in Tunisia nor Hosni Mubarak in Egypt have kept their promises. Hence, there is this revolt.

Can the fact that this is an uprising of the masses influence the Western countries’ aloofness to these protests? When I recall the Green Revolution in Iran, the West reacted in a completely different way, but also that unrest was an uprising of the middle class against theocracy. I have the impression the West fears that the crowd is under the influence of extremist clergy.

The Egyptian and Tunisian crowds are not under the influence of clergy. The reasons for these protests are secular, if this word can be used. Additionally, these protesters have some benchmark for a country, which they would like to realize, and it is the western democracy. The street looks for a cure to their poverty and unemployment in democracy.

So why this dissimilarity in support for those two uprisings?

The West was always afraid of religious extremism in the Middle East and the Iranian theocracy always was considered dangerous. Moreover there is the matter of the nuclear weapon and armament risk. That’s why the Western countries would willingly get rid of the ayatollahs and they supported the Green Revolution, which in fact was an uprising of a narrow social group, namely the educated middle class. And that is the reason why the Green Revolution didn’t succeed – it was not a mass uprising.

In the case of Egypt and Tunisia, there are no threats of clergy power. The states of Egypt and Tunisia were created by Europeans, patterned on Europeans countries. There is the president, the prime minister and the parliament, although all of them are just façades, like in Poland during the communism time.

Obviously the sense of frustration and the inability to influence your own life had an impact on people leading them to the streets, so by all means this is a democratic uprising. Nevertheless the West is anxious of what will happen if the regime fails. Will there be chaos, or not? Maybe is it better the regime remains and gets ready for the gradual power devolution. In my opinion the second option is better than the sudden fall of the regime. I have the impression that President Mubarak inclines towards the second scenario and prepares himself for leaving. He appointed his people to the most important state positions, ordering to negotiate with the opposition, which in some measure accepted the role of the representative of revolting masses.

The similar mechanism worked in Tunisia. The president resigned practically at once, but there appeared the provisional president and the provisional prime minister – both from the previous authority – and the opposition joined them. Thus there was set the provisional government, which will lead the democratic transformation, since, let’s not hide it, the new constitution, new elections and new state institutions cannot be arranged with one overturn from day to day.

Behind the reserve about supporting the uprising in Egypt, is there an American anxiety that they can lose an ally in continuing the war on terror with the usage of torture? It is no secret that Mubarak accepted the torturing of US’s prisoners on the territory of his country. If the new democratic authority appears in Egypt, it doesn’t have to be favourably disposed towards the Americans. It seems the uprising also showed that the USA is not essential for the region‘s democratisation, and actually they can disturb it.

Of course there is a possibility that the new authority would change Egypt’s foreign policy. Actually we can be certain of that. However I am not sure if the USA, with their referring to democracy, is as cynical as you suggest. What you call a reserve I would call a caution. The United States has to act prudently, if they don’t want to lose an ally in the Middle East. I think this precaution is justified, because if the USA insisted on the immediate departure of Mubarak and it actually happened, it would end with a catastrophe. Whereas, if the democracy is established, than the USA will have to take it into account. This democracy doesn’t have to be threatening for the United States.

Of course it’s said that the power will be taken by the Muslim Brotherhood and Egypt will be an enemy of the USA, like Hamas. It is not very likely. More probable is that the democracy will be established and there will be a place for many trends; from the socialism of Nasser’s type, through liberal parties, to religious fundamentalists like the Brotherhood. Kindly notice, that so far there have been no anti-American outcries. There were only protests against Mubarak, corruption and nepotism. I am convinced that the democratic authorities will be appointed, unless it comes to some catastrophe, although the process of transformation into a free society can be long and take even a few years.

Do you think that the relations between Egypt and Israel will worsen? After all, Mubarak somehow co-operated with his eastern neighbour.

Let’s start with saying that the bilateral relations will certainly change, but I do not expect the 180-degree change. After all, if the new government comes into being, it will be created by relatively young people, who were born in the world with Israel, the ‘Zionist entity’ as it was named in Arabic countries. We have to remember that the bilateral relations will also depend on Israel’s policy and I hope Israel will act rationally. The prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, said there was a danger that the anti-Israeli extremists would come to power. And in fact the extremists are anti-Israeli; The Brotherhood is moderately anti-Israeli, Hamas, which grew out of the Brotherhod, is extremely anti-Israeli. I don’t think they will come to power, because I do not hear or see the people representing the extremists among the protesters, so the new government won’t be all about them either.

Do you see a chance the protests initiated in the North Africa may overflow to the other counties?  There were already demonstrations in Sudan and protests in Jordan. 

The country, which is closest to the continuation of this in fact general-Arabic tendency, is Algeria. There also is an authoritarian government and there also were economic-based revolts. The difference between Algeria and Egypt or Tunisia lies in the fact that Algeria is wealthy enough to clog people’s mouths with money and introduce some reforms reducing the poverty. Moreover in Algeria, the 20-year war just ended, so I don’t know if the people are keen to start any unrest.

Whereas Jordan, you mentioned, is a different case. This is a monarchy, which is in principle dynastic. The king dissolved the government yesterday under the influence of social protests against unsuitable governance of the country, but it seems improbable that some similar uprising would happen. In monarchies like Jordan or Morocco the changes will consist in the gradual reducing of the king’s power in favour of democratic institutions. And these processes are slowly going on.

It is unknown, what with Libya and Syria, the two republics, which are in line for the regime changes. Libya is a totalitarian country. You could say it is a total unenlightened absolutism. In Syria the situation may look slightly better.

But the situation in Sudan is different. This is a very poor country. The people, under the influence of the events in Tunisia and Egypt, are also revolting against the undemocratic government. However it is hard to say the country is entirely authoritarian when the free referendum was allowed and in the result the new country came into existence. The country, saying in addition, which will be separated together with deposits of natural resources, so the economic situation of the North will be even worse.

There is a hypothesis that these uprisings were inspired from the outside. For example, Teheran claimed that the revolt in Egypt would help to create the ‘Islamic Middle East’.

I do not believe in any external inspiration, as nobody had expected the protests. These protests don’t even have leaders. Although some voices appeared saying that Iran initiated the uprising; but when you listen to the Iranian television, the accounts of the events look rather like propaganda taking advantage of them, mostly anti-Israeli anyway. Certainly Iran will try to make use of the situation, but this people’s uprising is too big to be the result of the external influences.


Janusz Danecki* is a professor of Arabian studies on Warsaw University and School of Social Science and Humanities.


Krytyka Polityczna
Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) is the largest Eastern European liberal network of institutions and activists. It consists of the online daily Dziennik Opinii, a quarterly magazine, publishing house, cultural centres in Warsaw, Łódź, Gdańsk and Cieszyn, activist clubs in a dozen cities in Poland (and also in Kiev and Berlin), as well as a research centre: the Institute for Advanced Study in Warsaw.