Why Egypt Matters

Gershom Gorenberg

My new column is up at The American Prospect:

The women banter with the soldiers and get through the checkpoint carrying bombs in their handbags. We see them in black and white, which sharpens the lines in their faces and shows their fear more starkly. They arrive at their target. One enters a restaurant. The camera pans the people eating as she pushes her bag under the counter and leaves. As individuals, the victims are innocent, but seeing the world from the camera’s perspective has already told us that the explosion that will rip them apart belongs to revolutionary necessity.

This is a sequence from The Battle of Algiers, the classic 1966 drama about the uprising that drove France from its central North African colony. The film is worth watching again this week, when the Egyptian revolution is back in the center of the news, precisely because Egypt has not followed the Algerian script. Comparisons with the past matter because they underline that so far, history is not repeating itself in Cairo. And this is just part of why the reshaping of Egypt, tarnished and volatile as it may seem, is still so terribly important to the Middle East, and why the revolution turning oppressive would be a tragedy for the entire region.

Let’s stress: Countries have larger turning radiuses than supertankers. In the midst of the turn, no one can predict the final direction. Last winter’s demonstrations toppled Hosni Mubarak, but not military rule. We don’t know how the revolution will conclude. Neither does the apparent majority won this week by the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamic groups in the first round of voting tell us where the revolution will go. Later, when the outcome of the revolution is more clear, scholars will explain why it was inevitable. Don’t believe them.

But with that proviso, the first reason that Egypt matters so much is that the mechanics of its change provide a model that could supersede Algeria’s. As portrayed in dramatic form in The Battle of Algiers and theoretically in Frantz Fanon’s treatise The Wretched of the Earth, Algeria taught that violence is absolutely vital to revolution. At first, most of the oppressed—which in Algeria meant the colonized people—were cowed and uncommitted. The small cadre of revolutionaries needed to kill colonists, both uniformed and civilian. In doing so, they provoked greater violence by the colonizers. That overreaction in turn showed the masses that there was no middle ground and pushed more people to the side of the revolution. …

Half a century after Algerian independence, the uprisings in Tunis and Egypt last winter posed a new model for radical change. Social media and satellite TV could bring frustrated masses to demonstrate relatively peacefully, even if the regime responded brutally. Tunis came first, but Egypt had a stronger impact, since it is the fulcrum of the region: the country with the largest population, the major power, the cultural center of the Arab world. Its military chose its own legitimacy over Hosni Mubarak’s continued rule, and promised a transition to democracy. The region has been shaking ever since. Libya and Syria have shown that mass protest is not always enough. What happens in Egypt could preserve or destroy the hope in nonviolent civil uprisings.

Read the rest here.