Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,/But to be young was very heaven!–Oh! times,/
What temper at the prospect did not wake/To happiness unthought of?/ The inert
Were roused, and lively natures rapt away!
So wrote the English poet William Wordsworth about the French Revolution; so feel many Arabs at this moment of apparent long-awaited revolution in some of the Arabic-speaking and dictatorship-ruled states of the Middle East. But Wordsworth’s enthusiasm soon evaporated with the Great Terror of the French Revolution and its aggressive policies that led to a quarter-century of war. Only a century later did a stable French republic actually emerge.
This kind of concern and pessimism may not be what people want to hear — and it certainly isn’t what they are hearing from “experts” and mass media — but policymakers and publics better start thinking seriously along such lines.
Consider recent precedents in this regard:
1. Iranian revolution, 1978-1979: Mass protests by a wide coalition against dictatorship. Result? Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is now president.
2. Beirut Spring: Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Druze unite against Syrian control. Moderate government gains power. Result? Hezbollah is now running Lebanon.
3. Palestinians have free elections: Voters protest against corrupt regime. Result? Hamas is now running the Gaza Strip.
4. Algeria holds free elections: Voters back moderate Islamist group. Result? Military coup; Islamists turn (or reveal their true thinking) radical; tens of thousands of people killed.
But what do Egyptians really think? According to a recent Pew poll, they are extremely radical even in comparison to Jordan or Lebanon. When asked whether they preferred “Islamists” or “modernizers,” the score was 59% to 27% in favor of the Islamists. In addition, 20 percent said they liked al-Qaeda; 30 percent, Hezbollah; 49 percent, Hamas. And this was at a time that their government daily propagandized against these groups.
How about religious views? Egyptian Muslims said the following: 82 percent want adulterers punished with stoning; 77 percent want robbers to be whipped and have their hands amputated; 84 percent favor the death penalty for any Muslim who changes his religion.
In a democracy, of course, these views are going to be expressed by how people vote. Even if Egypt does not have an Islamist government, it might well end up with a radical regime that caters to these attitudes and incites violence abroad.
There are reasons not to expect Egypt to turn into a moderate, stable, and democratic state: There are few forces favoring this outcome; the rebellion has no organization; Egypt doesn’t have the resources to raise living standards and distribute wealth; extremist ideologies are deeply held and widely spread.
There are basically three possibilities for the outcome:
First, the establishment and army stick together, get rid of Mubarak, but preserve the regime. The changes put in charge a former Air Force commander (the same job Mubarak once held) and the intelligence chief. The elite stays united, toughs it out, does a skillful combination of coopting and repressing the demonstrations, and offering some populist reforms. The old regime continues. In that case, it is only a minor adjustment.
Disgusted with the Mubaraks — Hosni’s stubborn refusal to step down; his son Gamal’s disgraceful cowardice, showing he fully deserved his insulting nickname “the boy” — the regime throws them overboard.