There were a couple pieces of breaking news this morning, one being that chemical weapons were allegedly used by Syrian government forces (the situation there I hope to have a post on soon) and two, that an Egyptian court has ordered the release of Hosni Mubarak. While this is still a developing story, and according to the AP it is unclear as to whether he will end up being released (Mubarak is currently being held for an additional 48 hours pending appeal), this ruling potentially articulates a shift in public opinion, and undoubtedly reveals a swing in the pendulum of revolution. The Egyptian people, as other revolutions before them, have once again divided upon themselves and, as in many prior cases, the political power has reverted to those with the greatest monopoly of violence, the military.
There has been speculation that Egypt will follow the path of Syria into outright civil war. There is some academic research that supports this due to the ungovernable Sinai peninsula which already has the beginnings of an insurgency and the porous Libyan border.* This latter reality has caused a nearly two-year long influx of weapons from post-Ghaddafi Libya into an Egyptian population that has been arming itself since before the latest outbreak of violence. The argument could be made however that an armed population could deter the government from escalating violence and the centrality of the population around the Nile valley could limit the effectiveness of any potential insurgency.
I will not deem to pretend that I can predict what will happen in Egypt in the coming weeks and months, the situation is very unstable and as of this weekend, violent. It will, however, be difficult for the interim-government to maintain the legitimacy of claims that there is “room for all“, if the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood are all in prison. The push must be made for stability, both politically and economically, and fortunately this is what the military has focused on (at least the former) since the revolution in January 2011. It was, after all, the military who essentially pushed out their patron, Mubarak, by maintaining their neutrality through the protests of 2011. While today’s court ruling may be some kind of reparation by those in power for that abandonment, the timing is unfortunate. The paradox of (potentially) releasing the imprisoned former ruler, while nearly simultaneously arresting the leadership of the opposition in the midst of widespread protests and violence following a coup** is a politically dangerous one that, again, undermines the legitimacy of the interim-government and potentially that of any government that follows it.
Taking a couple large steps back, the proverbial “arc of history” comes into view. Western Europe was arguably the first region to overthrow an oligarchic political system, in that case feudalism, replacing it with firmly democratic systems of government. That process took some 150 years and remnants of feudalism still remain, albeit with little actual power. The point is that political systems have an innate inertia that, despite seemingly rapid changes such as the overthrow of a government here or there via popular revolution or military coup, slows real political progress and change to a glacial grind. While this grind has increased speed in recent decades due to the communication revolution and the internet (what is politics if not the spread of ideas?) we should not assume that Egypt or indeed the entirety of the so-called “Arab Spring” will be over soon nor should we overreact to events like potential release of Mubarak. These changes and revolutions may, and probably will remain a political reality through the end of this decade, with various other seasonal metaphors (read “Arab Winter“) thrown in. The importance of these years should not be understated. Much like the French Revolution(s), the Revolts of 1848 and the various revolutions and counter-revolutions surrounding the birth and death of European Communism, these events and years are historic. Any policy or opinion should look beyond the immediate events and interests to this greater arc and aim to come down on the “right side of history”.
UPDATE: According to the AP, Mubarak is to be placed under house arrest upon his release. This seemingly middle path of only semi-release lends itself primarily to the notion that the military is fundamentally interested in stability over all else. That being said, the comfortable conditions of a Mubarak under house arrest will by no means sit well with Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters whose leaders are still in prison, not villas in Sharm el-Sheik.
*(Cullen S. Hendrix (2011): “Head for the Hills? Rough Terrain, State Capacity, and Civil War Onset”, Civil Wars, 13:4, 345-370. Also for a more general discussion on the causes of civil war Blattman and Miguel (2010): “Civil War”, Journal of Economic Literature, 48:1, 3-57)
**Despite the lack of a “formal declaration” by the US government on labeling it a coup, let’s be honest, it’s a coup.
Contrary to how this is being framed in the media, the release of Mubarak demonstrates that there is still some respect for the rule of law in Egypt as he has served the maximum amount of pre-trial detention allowable in the case. While we may not like what the law says sometimes, it is still the law and it should not be discarded for the sake of expediency. Having said that, there are many other instances in Egypt where the rule of law has been ignored/abused and the timing of his release could not be worse.