I don’t suppose many people remember the thoughts of Chairman Mao any more. But there was, in my youth, one particular thought attributed to the Chinese Communist leader that was strangely popular among radical leftists who wanted to overthrow global capitalism.
It went like this: “A revolution is not a dinner party, or writing an essay, or painting a picture, or doing embroidery.” (And yes, it was so long ago that I had to look it up to make sure I’d remembered it correctly.)
It’s been in my mind this week as I’ve followed the latest chapter in the Egyptian revolution, played out in Tahrir Square in central Cairo, and in many other towns and cities. Those who’ve been shot at, clubbed and tear gassed will not have needed reminding that they weren’t at a dinner party, or painting a picture.
Some of them may also have recalled another of Mao’s pensées: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” And they’ve proved him wrong on that, haven’t they?
Mao was right about one thing, though: revolutions are about seizing power. And when a group without power tries to seize it from a group with power, then resistance is usually inevitable. (Some of the anti-Communist revolutions in Europe in 1989 were an exception to the rule, in that the power of the elites had atrophied to such an extent that they sometimes crumbled away offering virtually no resistance at all.)
Back in February, on the day that President Hosni Mubarak was finally forced from office, I asked: “Was it a victory for a popular revolution, or a military coup d'état?” And I answered: “Almost certainly, a bit of both.”
Nine months on, I think the answer still stands. But to the tens of thousands of protesters out on the streets of Cairo and elsewhere this week, a bit of both is no longer good enough.
In February, they believed – or chose to believe – that they and the generals were on the same side. But now they are demanding that the military give up the power they inherited from Hosni Mubarak without any further delay.
Egypt is a test case on which a great deal depends. It’s true that so far, Tunisia, where this extraordinary year of Arab uprisings began, has set a pretty good example of how to manage a transition from autocracy to democracy. But Tunisia is a small and relatively insignificant Arab state. Egypt, on the other hand, is anything but.
So in Libya, and now in Yemen – and who knows, maybe one day soon in Syria as well – they are watching anxiously to see what happens next in Egypt. After all, removing a decades-old dictatorship does not automatically lead to the sunlit uplands of liberal democracy. (Somalia and Iraq are just two salutary examples of how it can all go horribly wrong.)
On Monday, barring any unexpected last-minute changes of mind, Egypt’s lengthy, multi-stage election process will get under way. More than 6,000 candidates are standing for election to a People’s Assembly, which is meant to act as a lower house of parliament and set in train a process to draw up a new constitution.
The elections are scheduled to roll on more or less non-stop until mid-January, and then – if the generals’ latest promise is to be believed – in the summer, presidential elections will be held to choose the country’s first elected post-Mubarak leader.
Do Egyptians have the patience to allow the process to proceed at this leisurely pace? Judging by the events of the past week, the answer would seem to be probably not.
But don’t forget: the crowds in Tahrir Square may have looked huge – and they were – but there are plenty of people in Egypt who desperately want the violence and the protests to end, and for whom a much more urgent priority is to get the economy moving again.
If it’s a choice between jobs and democracy, not everyone will necessarily choose democracy first.