An anti-government protester sits in front of a burned out vehicle, near the Egyptian Museum, February 5. The Arabic on the sign reads “I am a martyr with God’s permission.”

Revolution and its Impediments

“I was dodging tear gas,” Trager recalls. “I was dodging masses just running in every which direction. It was very chaotic on the ground. It frankly looked like a war zone. So it wasn’t clear to me while I was still out on Angry Friday—and I didn’t go home until about 3:30, I mean, I was suffocating—it was not clear to me that the protesters were going to be successful … I wasn’t sure how far the violence would escalate against the protesters. I didn’t think a massacre at that particular moment was out of the question.”

With Coke rubbed over his face to ameliorate the tear gas, Trager tried to find a way back to his apartment. Burning tires blocked a bridge across the Nile. Changing course, he passed a hospital where doctors were tossing facemasks to demonstrators, but Trager couldn’t get his hands on one. At last he found a taxi driver willing to take him. The scene was chaotic.

“It was when we started approaching the Egyptian Museum area, just north of Tahrir Square, that all hell broke loose,” Trager wrote several days later in The Forward, the Jewish daily. “People started banging on the windows, begging to get in to escape the effects of the tear gas, which was so overpowering that, even with our windows closed, the driver’s eyes began itching. That was when we entered the war zone. As the taxi driver navigated delicately past swarms of people blocking our path, fearing that the crowd could turn on us with any false move, tear gas canisters started to fly directly over our heads from below the highway. One after the other, they twirled in the air like gorgeous John Elway spirals, letting off plumes of gaseous smoke that stung everything in their path as they fell among thousands of demonstrators. Meanwhile, some of the demonstrators responded in kind, chipping off pieces of the highway—a small chunk of the lane divider, a swab from the side rail—and pelting the police from above. And with predictable imprecision, the police responded with rocks of their own.

“When we arrived at my apartment,” Trager continued, “the driver let out a deep sigh and refused to take any money. But I insisted, since he’d possibly just saved my life.”

The events of the next two days placed it back in jeopardy. “There was massive looting Friday night, Saturday, and Sunday night,” Trager said in February. “Basically Mubarak, when he took the police off the streets, he sent looters to terrorize the people. They hit my neighborhood Saturday night, Sunday night … Shops were broken, destroyed. ATMs were destroyed. Things were just closed.”

Into this security vacuum stepped “neighborhood watch groups,” which, Trager notes wryly, didn’t have much in common with the yellow-vested middle-aged men that term conjures in the States. “These were vigilantes. In my own neighborhood they were 16- to 18-year-old kids with guns, swords, clubs; and 10-year-olds with broomsticks. I mean, this was my first line of defense!

“That was very chilling, seeing, like, a kid with a sword, and I’m the American,” Trager says. “It was the first time I ever really felt nervous.”

The American embassy began evacuating US citizens from Cairo. Trager, who had been unable to contact his wife or family due to the Internet and mobile-phone outages, and feared that rumored electricity cuts would be next, joined the exodus on Monday, January 31. Before he left, however, he witnessed an extraordinary turning point on Tahrir Square, when Egyptian army tanks rolled onto the scene of clashes between demonstrators and regime-sponsored counter-revolutionaries.

“I thought it was brilliant, actually, because when the military retook Tahrir Square on Saturday—well, they didn’t retake it, they took it on Saturday the 29th—they really just stood there. They just sort of stood there and smiled and … kissed babies, let people climb on their tanks and [write] graffiti [like] ‘No Mubarak,’ you know. They didn’t do anything. They didn’t do anything to stop the violent thugs that went after the people. They tried to play neutral. And I actually think that they were trying to give Mubarak time to use other means to pressure the protesters out of the square. And when that didn’t work, and when it was very clear that the protesters were sort of there to stay, and you were not going to remove them without a massacre, the army made the strategic decision to ask Mubarak to leave.”

Given the leaderless nature of the revolt, the Army may have been the only entity capable of orchestrating a minimally bloodless end game.

“What we saw while Mubarak was still around,” Trager points out, “is that all the people who tried to negotiate on behalf of the protesters with the regime very quickly realized that there was nothing they could do. Because the protesters had held their line—Mubarak’s got to go—and there was simply no intermediate step that anyone claiming to represent the opposition could agree to.”

What enabled the army to step into the savior role—at least in the two weeks between Angry Friday and Mubarak’s resignation on February 11—was the fact that it was “divided horizontally,” says political science professor Ian Lustick, an expert on Middle Eastern politics.  

“There are the lieutenants and captains in the tanks, who identified with the demonstrators because they have the same frustrations and the same middle-class backgrounds—and [on the other side] the generals who own 30 percent of Egypt and run the country from the back rooms, but don’t know how many of their orders would be followed by the lieutenants and the captains in the tanks if they ordered them to fire on demonstrators.

“Since the world thinks they’re in charge, they’ve got a space of time in which they can decide Egypt’s future,” Lustick adds. “But not too much time … Right now they’re trying to see how much of their money they can keep, and how much of Egypt they can continue to rule.”

Trager came back to Philadelphia in early February, then returned to Cairo toward the end of the month. Before his first journey to post-Mubarak Egypt, he voiced deep concern over the future.

“I don’t think that you’re going to have as much unity against the military as you did against Mubarak,” he said. “And I think that that’s actually going to make it easier for the military to make sure that its interests are protected. Those interests are not democratic.”

The Egyptian Army is an economic powerhouse, with ownership stakes in everything from real estate and hotels to bottled water and high-tech firms. It controls an estimated one-third or more of Egypt’s economy, and has long been shielded from pubic scrutiny.   

Says Trager: “We have to ask the question, What is the Egyptian regime? Is the Egyptian regime Hosni Mubarak? Or is the Egyptian regime actually Hosni Mubarak, but really backing the military? And if the Egyptian regime is essentially a military regime with some sort of civilian leader that just keeps things under control to protect the generals, well, that could easily reemerge.”

As of mid-February, he was worried that the Obama administration would be predisposed to support such a development.  

“I frankly think that the administration is going to sit back, and it’s going to allow the army to subvert a more democratic future in Egypt,” he said. “I think it’s going to do that because it sees the army as in its interests, which is true. We have a very strong relationship with the army. I’m not saying it’s a stupid thing. But I do think that these episodes should show the shortsightedness of relying on authoritarianism or relying on dictatorships for stability.”

An interesting counterpoint to that criticism comes from David Faris, a longtime opponent of the United States’ close relationship with the Egyptian military.

“I’m a critic of US policy, but I think that [the Egyptian Army’s handling of Tahrir Square in early 2011] is an argument for engagement in some way, shape, or form,” he reflects. “Because the places where we think we have some influence—even if that influence was based on years of support for an authoritarian regime—it does seem like the US was able to exert some positive influence on the Egyptian military. In a way that we have zero leverage with Libya. So as much as I’m not in favor of sending billions of dollars of year to an authoritarian regime, at the same time you could make an argument that the engagement was important in some way, or allowed us to have leverage at a critical juncture.

“It forces me to look back at the position I held, which was really against this funding altogether. I like to think that I’m a reasonable person and I will change my mind based on evidence and events, and I have to say, I think that was important.”

But engaging exclusively with the regime was woefully shortsighted, the scholars agree.

“The American government has not invested any time or energy or resources in establishing bridges with opposition movements,” Kreidy says. “That’s a huge mistake. Because if you had built bridges with the opposition with legitimate representative or various groups in the population of Egypt, then you wouldn’t have the kinds of worries that you have now about what will happen. Because when some groups are bogeymen, you’re not going to talk to them. Well, if one day they get to power, then you’re in for surprises.”

Yet he acknowledges that this kind of bridge-building is a double-edged sword. “I say the best thing the US can do right now is just stand back. Because the moment you embrace these protesters, they’re tainted.”

The bogeymen to which Kraidy was alluding, of course, are the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood navigated the roiling waters of January and February with considerable savvy, endeavoring to downplay their own role in the uprising and pledging to limit their political ambitions going forward. The organization promised not to run a presidential candidate in the coming elections, and to contest only a minority of seats in Parliament.

Lustick suggests that the Brotherhood is not as radical or intractable as many in the West believe it to be, and that replacing the regime with a more inclusive democracy might temper the Brotherhood’s hardline positions.

“One of the things democracy does,” he says, “is to take extreme views in a society and tempt those views to become enmeshed in the give-and-take of mundane, compromising politics. And over time that kind of activity builds up interests in that community that undermine the extreme views of the original leaders.”

Lustick cites a historical precedent. “This happened with the Catholic parties in Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in many countries in Europe, where they formed Christian Democratic parties that were supposed to be—from the points of view of the clerics who created them—instruments of the Church. But they eventually became expressions of bourgeois political opinion in which the Church’s influence faded and faded, because of the interests of politicians in getting elected.”

Trager, whose views of the Brotherhood have been shaped by close contact, isn’t so sanguine. “Their goal is the Islamicization of Egyptian society,” he says. “And look, the Obama administration, I’ll give them credit for this: I think it is legitimately concerned about the Muslim Brotherhood gaining too much power.”

At the FPRI meeting in February, Trager recommended that the Obama administration advocate for an amendment to Egypt’s constitution that would prevent the establishment of a state religion.

“We need to have the Muslim Brotherhood pay a price for being so cautious, for sitting out [at this early stage], and ensure that once they are no longer laying low, that they can’t impose an Islamist theocracy,” he said. “If we explained what that meant and what it was, we might have traction now, while there are real voices among these protesters calling for a civil state.”

He added that it was important to challenge Islamist ideology on its merits: “We need to make it very clear that democracy requires popular sovereignty, not the sovereignty of any theological figure, not the sovereignty of God.”

A civil state has never been easy to build under any circumstances. The Arab world is no different. The exultation of February gave way to that hard reality in March. Bahraini security forces cracked down violently on pro-democracy protests, with material aid from Saudi Arabia. Libya descended into civil war. Cairo experienced an unsettling string of church bombings and Tahrir Square was the scene of attacks against pro-reform demonstrators—abetted, according to witnesses, by army officers. Meanwhile, secular and sectarian political parties maneuvered—sometimes in concert, sometimes in tension—to shape new amendments to Egypt’s constitution and to position themselves for the planned August elections. In mid-March, Egyptian voters approved a constitutional referendum that many analysts viewed as a victory for the army, the former ruling National Democratic Party, and the Muslim Brotherhood; it set a swift election timetable that places the secular reformers, who lack an organized party infrastructure, at a disadvantage. “Five weeks after Hosni Mubarak yielded his presidency to the unified masses of Tahrir Square,” Trager reported in The Atlantic, “Egypt’s could-be revolution is a deeply divided mess.”

What happens in the coming year is almost certain to have lasting ramifications for the region and the world. Before Trager returned to Cairo, he laid out the stakes.

“Historically in the Middle East, the saying has been, and the saying of the Muslim Brotherhood has been, Islam is the answer. So what is Islam the answer to? Islam is the answer to tyranny. And actually that’s been true—unfortunately, that’s been true. In Iran, Islamists toppled the Shah. In the Palestinian Territories, Hamas [defeated] the authoritarian Palestinian Authority. There are other examples.”

But as many of those examples show, the Islamist program has often replaced one tyranny with another.

“We need to show that actually, liberalism is the answer,” Trager declared. “We need to show that liberals can win. We need to show that to a Muslim public in one of the Muslim world’s most populous countries: that it can happen, that actually liberals preaching secular, mostly liberal values can make change, can topple a regime, can produce a more productive order.

“We should be heavily invested in the success of these protests.”


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COVER STORY: Anatomy of an Uprising By Trey Popp
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©2011 The Pennsylvania Gazette

Remaining Egyptian protesters shout slogans as they are surrounded by army soldiers trying to lead them away from Tahrir Square Sunday morning, February 13.

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SIDEBAR: Far Away, So Close:
Penn Students with Middle East Ties
React to the Uprisings


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Last modified 2/24/11