How can you placate the frustrations of a disenfranchised population without giving them real political power?
The answers to this question describe the common ground that unites Western leaders with their authoritarian counterparts in the Middle East. The game is to come up with political formulae that will make a potentially rebellious population feel heard just enough so that the fire of revolution can be dampened.*
Egyptian Armed Forces Chief-of-Staff Sami Annan, along with a delegation from the Egyptian Army, happen to be visiting Washington this week. I doubt that their counterparts in the Pentagon will be advising them on the fastest way to prepare Egypt for democracy.
Issandr El Amrani comments on al-Sayed Badawi, the president of the Wafd party (the most established of Egypt’s legal opposition parties) who appeared on Al Jazeera, demanding the formation of a new national unity government, the dissolution of parliament, and new elections under a proportional representation system.
My gut reaction: this is either a significant break with the Wafd’s behavior for over 30 years, or he is making this announcement on behalf of the regime. Why the conspiracy theory? Because he doesn’t mention the question of the presidency, a chief demand of the protestors. Perhaps he should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Meanwhile, the National Association for Change has made its own demands, including asking Mubarak to step down and [his son] Gamal to be disqualified from the presidency, as well as the dissolution of the parliament. Other groups have other demands, including a new minimum wage and the firing of the interior minister.
These people should be coordinating — and remember they are not the ones who protested tonight.
The cautiousness of some of the Egyptian opposition leaders demonstrates exactly why an authoritarian regime provides space for an opposition to operate: so that at a moment such as this, opposition leaders will not place themselves at the vanguard of revolutionary change and that by holding back, they will undermine the popular will.
*Am I implying that any Western countries harbor the seeds of revolution? Far from it. The “success” of Western democracy has been to depoliticize populations through the anesthetizing power of consumerism. People don’t care too much if government by the people is a fiction, so long as they can get their hands on the latest iPhone. Once the anesthetic is applied sufficiently widely and sufficiently frequently, there ceases to be such a thing as the will of the people.