The Egyptian Endgame

PRINCETON – Can Egypt’s long history help us to understand the uprising, already labeled a revolution, now underway in Cairo, and how it might turn out? I believe so. After all, the demonstrations by millions of people to demand an end to the rule of President Hosni Mubarak and his National Democratic Party (NDP) are not an unprecedented phenomenon in the country.

Egypt’s history is replete with powerful and famous rulers (starting with Ramses II in pharaonic times, and including Saladin, Muhammad Ali, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lord Cromer, all the way up to the Egyptian military trio of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar El Sadat, and Mubarak). This suggests that, although Egyptians may not necessarily prefer strongman rule, they are entirely comfortable with it and may even believe that it is necessary.

To be sure, popular revolts are nothing new for Egypt. Crowds rose against Napoleon’s French forces in 1798, against the monarchy in 1881-1882, against British dominance in 1919 and 1952, against Sadat in 1977, and against Mubarak in 1986. These uprisings were repressed, often brutally, first by foreign troops (the French army in 1798 and British soldiers in 1882 and 1919) and more recently by the Egyptian army.

Unfortunately, while angry protesters have sometimes forced unwelcome rulers out of power, they have been unable to replace tyrants with governments that respect the public’s wishes. Will this long history of authoritarian rule now be broken?