The popular mobilizations in Egypt have opened up a great debate worldwide. Some governments, such as that of China, immediately declared a lockdown on all information sources deriving from this Arab country to avoid any possible “contagion”. European and U.S. public opinion has been tearing its hair out in a discussion that sometimes appears to have emanated from Rashomon, the Japanese film in which each of the actors has a distinct reading on a same incident. Some have celebrated the uprising against an authoritarian leader who, at his eighty-some years of age, no longer proffers viability even to the members of his traditional coalition. In the many takes on the events of Egypt in recent weeks, there is one question that is repeated over and over again: where else could something like this happen.
The question is not necessarily an idle one, but it is often absurd. There is no doubt but that in the world a broad nucleus of authoritarian governments persists that prefers to be left in peace, by their own populations and by the rest of the world. However, the notion that nations “become infected” says more about those making the assessment than about the history of the world. At the same time, the obvious fact is that the occurrences in Egypt itself are as important as the readings of the political dynamic of these in diverse world capitals. In many senses, the latter appears to be the more significant of the two.
There is no better perspective that that afforded by distance and time. My observations this week are the following:
The incidents in the streets of Cairo and in other cities in Egypt possess their own characteristics that some reporters have related with extraordinary clarity. However, perhaps the most interesting thing to observe is the debate in the Western capitals on what is happening in these localities. In the U.S., the debate pursues two dynamics: on the one hand, applause for the democratization of a country, a process that unifies the left with the right. And on the other, in the U.S. as well as in Europe, the duality is obvious between the much-welcomed opening and fears about a turn toward the most reactionary Islamism. The titles of journalistic articles such as Who Lost Egypt?, as if that decision had to do with Washington, Paris, or Moscow, are not exceptional. The aftertaste of arrogance in much of the debate truly wields an impact, above all because what is being debated has little or nothing to do with what is going on in Egypt: it is all about internal interests and their desire to snag a political point in a dispute that has nothing at all to do with that reality.
Revolutions, if that is what the culmination of these manifestations and protests turn out being, are always attractive. The euphoria associated with the liberation of the population and the dismissal of old power clusters is an interminable source of fantasies and novelistic opportunities, but rarely solve the problems about which the population is protesting. Egypt is an essentially rural country whose population depends on governmental transfers in the form of subsidies for bread and other basic goods. Those who protest, essentially the urban middle class, follow a universal logic: the liberté, egalité, fraternité that the French Revolution of 1789 continues to inspire. However, very few of these revolutions end in consecrating these elemental principles. Very few end up delivering a democratic outcome, perhaps Indonesia being the most relevant positive example of late. In the final analysis, the majority are spirited off by extremists of one stripe or another: from Robespierre in Paris and Lenin in Petrograd to Khomeini in Iran. After the romantic stage the hard reality sets in, and the contingents that are organized nearly always win here, they share a previously consolidated ideology, and are ready for anything. Some groups start a movement but others end up, in charge. So far it looks as if the army has taken control: to change everything so that all remains the same. In fact, both in its origin and dynamic, this movement has much more in common with the 1968 student movement in Mexico than with Prague or Teheran.
Everything indicates that there is a behind-the-scenes negotiation in Cairo. The old coalition that sustained Mubarak in power was propped up by the Army, which has now taken control of the government. The new prime minister has conducted the affairs of the Egyptian state for years from the organs of security and obviously has the capacity to articulate negotiations with the key groups in that society. While nothing is assured in these processes of sudden change, it appears most probable that the old power structure will be sustained in the government, but now without Mubarak. The old adage telling that the problem is not the power but rather the age of the person who holds it is confirmed once again. Mubarak’s error, like that of so many other authoritarian leaders (Porfirio Diaz comes to mind), consisted of retaining himself in power, considering himself indispensible, thus forfeiting the confidence of his own political support structure. There is no doubt that many Egyptians yearn for a world of freedoms, but it is not obvious that freedom is what they will receive in exchange for these mobilizations.
Is there something that the Egyptian crisis can tell us about the Mexico of today? Some international observers have pointed out that the potential for contagion is very high in the world in general, but above all, in countries whose governments have displayed particular incompetence, and many have exemplified this speculation with Mexico. The truth is that there is no parallel at all. It is possible that some similarity exists with the old system, but the country has evolved in a distinct direction. To begin with, one of PRIist system’s strokes of genius, learned at the knee of the regimen that it intended to institutionalize, the Porfiriato, was that of six-year presidential terms of office: the president could be very strong and abusive, but there were absolute time limits to the abuse. More importantly, however poorly things are transpiring in the country, at present we are able to partake of freedoms that were simply unthinkable before, and, in any case, there wouldn’t be anyone to rise up against. The old system only exists in the minds of some nostalgic PRIists, because all of us other Mexicans know that the power was dispersed and that there’s no turning back. Mexico is a complex country, and this complexity paralyzes it, but it is not an unstable country on the brink of catastrophe.
What the Egyptian case does demonstrate is that the population can tolerate many things, but that its patience is not infinite. Survey after survey demonstrates that the Mexican population does not want violence and that, at the same time, it profoundly understands the complexity of the moment that has been ours to live through. But this does not take away from the fact that the country has legitimate claims for a serious transformation concerning what is most deeply afflicting it at present: crime and economic paralysis. The majority will demand this at the polls, but some will be tempted to go down other paths. In Mexico, the problem is not the authoritarian government, but instead, the poor system and structure of government that we have. The pyramids and other likenesses are interesting, but the essence lies in the dysfunctional nature of our government.