Turmoil in Egypt and Syria

Egypt and Syria today are demonstrating two keys to understanding revolutions: (1) No one gives up power willingly; and (2) building coalitions with mass support is the key to gaining command.

In Egypt, two titans are contending — the military (Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, SCAF) and the Muslim Brotherhood (through its Freedom and Justice Party, winner of the parliamentary elections).   The military is reluctant to cede power.  They had evidently hoped to manage a deal with the Brotherhood to retain certain economic and policy domains for themselves with no oversight or interference, while giving the appearance of power and domestic social policy to the Brotherhood.   The military’s use of violence, their assault on pro-democracy NGOs, and their efforts to blame foreigners and troublemakers for all of Egypt’s woes show their determination to assert their importance, even though most Egyptians wish nothing more than to see them leave the political stage.

The Brotherhood is playing the stronger hand, and playing it with greater skill.  Rather than simply aiming to build an Islamist front, they are trying to position themselves to be leaders of the largest and broadest possible coalition, reaching out to Christian and secular groups and avoiding identification with the more fundamentalist Salafis (who won the second largest bloc of seats in the Parliament).

Meanwhile, the youth movement continues to take to the streets and manifest its unhappiness with the army’s rule.  The Salafis themselves are trying to reach out and form broader alliances as well.  The FJP only controls 47% of the seats in Parliament.  While this is by far the largest bloc, they need support from other parties — whether the liberal New Wafd and secular Egyptian Bloc parties (with about 7% each), or among the splinter parties and independents, which altogether hold a not-inconsiderable 14% of seats.

So for the next few weeks, expect to see furious parliamentary maneuvering over the composition of a government, and increasingly sharp contention between the FJP, which plans to lead a broad-based government and exert control over Egypt, and the SCAF, which will be trying desperately to hold on to as much power as it can.  But the FJP will eventually win this battle, as it can count on the support of the people, and in a period of revolutionary uncertainty, that is the currency that counts.

In Syria, Assad is finding this out.  As in most personalist or sultanist regimes, Syria’s ruler relied more on dividing and weakening potential rivals than on a solid base of support.  Even the army was kept weak and at the margins of power; it was more the internal security forces that were given prime rewards and used to ensure loyalty and punish opponents.   That is why, as Assad’s position weakens, military defections are accelerating and more and more of Syria is slipping out of his grasp.  The internal security forces are great at rounding up suspects, interrogating and terrorizing civilian opponents, and crushing isolated demonstrations.  But they lack the size, loyalty, and force of a proper national army committed to the regime.  Even the military units commanded by loyal Alawites cannot be sent into battle as their enlisted men are at risk of defecting if asked to act too brutally against Syrian civilians.

Assad’s efforts to stay in power by force were bound to fail; that is not possible for sultanist regimes that depend on appearing indispensable, powerful, and keeping their enemies demobilized and passive.  The effect of Assad’s attacks on his population has been to consolidate international opposition and unify the internal opposition, and to escalate their demands.  The time when reform or concessions would end the revolt is long past; nothing less than Assad’s departure will do.  Even that is not likely to end the violence, as one clear outcome of Assad’s actions has been to change the peaceful opposition into an armed civil conflict that is leading Syria to civil war.  Assad’s departure is thus more likely to be like Ghaddafi’s than Mubarak’s — leaving a situation of uncertain authority and a militarized country in its wake.

At this point, a Russian veto is all that stands in the way of a UN Security Resolution calling for Assad to step down; and with Russia holding its own election in March and Putin trying to avoid the appearance of being a dangerous tyrant himself, it is clear that the Russian veto will not long withstand an increasingly violent Assad pushing Syria further into civil war.

The Syrian opposition — civilian and the Free Syrian Army composed of defectors — has succeeded beyond the expectations of most observers.  They have freed patches of territory, stood up to Assad’s security forces and backed them down in some instances, and have taken the fight to Damascus, within earshot of Assad’s own palace.  The challenge ahead of them now is not merely to fight, but to continue to build their base of popular support, and gain defectors from the business elites who are the key pivot still providing support for the Assad regime.

Both the Assad regime and the SCAF are providing clear evidence that no one gives up power willingly.  Yet the next chapter in both Egypt and Syria will demonstrate that whoever commands a broad coalition of popular support will triumph in the end.

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About jackgoldstone

Hazel Professor of Public Policy at George Mason University
This entry was posted in The Middle East Revolts and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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