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Between Fanon and Fukayama: Understanding Egypt's Revolutionary Abyss

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In a poignant scene from the Battle of Algiers--that timeless cinematic testimony of insurrection, torture, and triumph--Ben M'Hidi, the resistance movement's political boss, tells Ali la Pointe, the street ruffian turned zealous revolutionary, "It is difficult to start a revolution, more difficult to sustain it, and still more difficult to win it. But it's later, when we've won, that the real difficulties will begin." The words couldn't ring more this weekend as Hosni Mubarak rolled his tanks on the streets of Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere.

What started as a largely middle class internet movement to voice dissatisfaction with stagnation in Egypt has unleashed the fury of the Nile nation's downtrodden hordes. In the first days of this movement the young stood with the old, the poor with the wealthy. But the rage of the masses has now moved beyond burned police stations and looted shops and turned on the chic neighborhoods of Zamalek and Mohandissen.

At this stage in the conflict the disparate elements that have made up the collective Egyptian effort to oust President Mubarak will have to ask themselves some hard questions if their movement is to reach its goal.

Political scientists often explain social revolutions through the concept of "rising expectations"--e.g. when they are not met or there is some stall in economic progress, one can anticipate social unrest and political change. Until now that is largely what we have seen from Egypt's opposition movements. Educated and unemployed, the cosmopolitan Cairene youth demanded only the promise of greater freedom and economic opportunity. For all intents and purposes, this was a Fukayama-style march to the "end of history" where an authentic liberal democracy would make its long overdue entrance in Egypt. Outside of the Muslim Brotherhood, the only substantive ideological demand of Egyptian opposition was greater capitalist efficiency and democratic procedure.

The scenes of from Friday's chaos, however, show a different dimension of the story. Ecstatic and jubilant, the shabby youth before the cameras displaying their makeshift weapons and shouting curses to the president-pharaoh were nothing short of joyful. Only Frantz Fanon, that nearly forgotten philosopher of violence and revolution, can explain this aspect of the Egyptian unrest. Those Egyptians with nothing to lose are not only willing to set buildings aflame and loot their leftovers, they are likely to have little sympathy for their middle class counterparts whom they see as part of the same corrupt system that is to blame for their miserable state. This violence for them is cathartic redemption and they pay little regard to the political calculus of the moment.

As property damage and other uses of material violence become a hallmark of the fallout we can expect to see a marked withdrawal of the educated, middle class elements while the enraged youth that Fanon so acutely described in The Wretched of the Earth will wreak havoc on the streets. In fact this may have been Mubarak's very design--with chaos on the street his iron hand will be welcomed by many.

On the other side of the coin, if the revolution that the liberal, democratically-oriented currents in Egyptian society began ever does succeed they will face their stiffest challenge the very next morning. They will need to manage three levels of resistance to genuine democratic progress: first, the military, which will likely retain a strong instinct for autocratic rule and reach for that option on a regular basis. Then, the Muslim Brotherhood, shrewdly quiet through this ordeal, will jump on the opportunity to expand its networks and take advantage of a gaping power vacuum. And finally, the awlad al-shuwari' (street kids) and young thugs who are determined to confront the state at any cost and remain in perpetual revolt.

The day after is indeed the most dangerous and difficult aspect of any revolution. When the symbol of oppression is no longer available as target for broad based consensus and coalition building, the disparate elements of any national movement inevitably turn on one another. My sense is that on Friday when the streets went ablaze and civil breakdown became the norm the next day, Egyptian society got its first taste of what its country's post-Mubarak abyss looks like. And like any abyss, the Egyptian one today offers little more than a chilling uncertainty.