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A Resilient Revolution

February 2, 2011

In previous posts, I have referred to five metatrends that I think define resilience: local, simple, varied, connected and open. The events over the past few days in Egypt demonstrated once again the power and significance of these concepts. What we have witnessed in the streets of Cairo, Alexandria and other Egyptian cities as well as Egyptian and sympathetic Arab communities around the globe is a sort of resilient revolution.

Hosni Mubarek’s regime and his 30-year tenure as Egypt’s ruler have been defined by a commitment to stability both internally and externally. To be sure, this track record considered in light of current events should make clear to all the error of confusing longevity with resilience even in a place as volatile as the Middle East.

The U.S. — placing a premium on stability over resilience itself — backed Mubarek despite his decidedly undemocratic tendencies until it became evident such support was both largely irrelevant and ultimately unsustainable. Indeed, the real question now is whether we have harmed our national interest and the credibility of our commitment to human rights and the rule of law by not making it clear where we stood with respect to the protests raging throughout the country and elsewhere in the Middle East sooner than we did.

Putting that aside and returning to the five metatrends, each has played out in interesting ways in recent days despite Mr. Mubarek’s efforts to retain power and his allies’ reluctance to play their hands in public: The people have sensed their power lies in their own resilience as evidenced in the following ways:

Local — Despite efforts by the government of Egypt to interfere with communication and co-opt media for their own aims, spontaneous protests emerged across the country, organized by small groups that relied on decentralized and horizontally aligned allegiances among small groups united by a shared vision rather than a common leader or clear structure. The government’s vertically-oriented hierarchical model of control simply could not keep up with much less outmaneuver the protesters once they sensed an advantage and decided to act.

Simple — The protesters’ amplified their power through the simplicity and directness of their demands: Mubarek must go. The absence of a single, identifiable opposition leader — notwithstanding the prominence of Mohamed elBaradei and his efforts to position himself in front of the mass movement for change — played in the protesters’ favor by making it clear that their objective was the nation’s welfare and therefore interest-based not personality-driven. It also made the movement very difficult to co-opt, control or reorient and will make it all but impossible for President Mubarek to remain in power until his term ends no matter how the next fews days go.

Varied — Decentralized control and local organization coupled with the simplicity of the messages and demands of protesters made it easy for people with very different agendas from every corner of Egyptian society, including marginalized groups that have been excluded from the nation’s social and political life for decades, to join the popular uprising without immediate fear of reprisals for their participation. Christians and other religious minorities have joined the ranks of Muslims just as crowds have seen men and women, young and old, educated and uneducated mixing freely and largely peacefully.

Connected — Even the disruption of Internet and other telecommunications services by the government did not significantly disrupt or interfere with the ability of protesters to organize or communicate their demands. When the army took to the streets at Mr. Mubarek’s direction, they had few good options. Their legitimacy, like his lack of the same quality, hinged on the desires of the people to see their country under democratic control, not simply control. The willingness of protesters to embrace the military and work alongside soldiers to maintain order, prevent looting, protect cultural institutions and suppress disruptive behavior and even violence prevented events from spinning hopelessly out of control.

Open — The willingness of the military and the protesters alike to play their cards face-up has prevented a dangerous situation from becoming truly chaotic. Violence and bloodshed have occurred, but seem to have been limited by the willingness of protest leaders and military leaders alike to make their intentions and expectation clear to all concerned. With the U.S. government’s arrival in the ranks of the openness parade, things have started to look like they might start resolving themselves in a fashion more rather than less consistent with our most fervent hopes for the emergence of peaceful, moderate and more democratic civil institutions in the Middle East. We have a long way to go, but this is looking better than almost anybody could have imagined even a short time ago.

It’s worth noting that this last principle — openness — may have played an unusually significant part in the process from the start. Some commentators have suggested that the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan and elsewhere have been fueled by the release of once secret communications regarding the Middle East peace process and U.S. efforts to deal with states and their leaders, particularly to resolve the Palestinian crisis. This assessment suggests the importance of ensuring that our policies not only reflect our principles in their ends but also in the means by which we pursue them.

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