Egypt's Mobilization of the Last Minute

As the tear gas dissipates across Egypt, it is important to reflect on what happened, what didn't -- and why.

In the jubilation that surrounds knocking a dictator out of office, the refrain is that this was accomplished by a "people power movement."

This is part truth, part exaggeration. The momentous events unfolding in Egypt can be better understood if viewed against other recent people power movements, particularly in the Philippines and Indonesia. It's a mixed picture.

In 2010 the Philippines held its fourth national elections since Marcos was toppled in 1986, and Indonesia held its third round of democratic elections in 2009.

Unlike Hosni Mubarak, who remains safe inside Egypt, Ferdinand Marcos fled into exile in Honolulu and died there in 1989. Then Imelda Marcos and the rest of the corrupt family were allowed back into the Philippines in 1991, though they had to leave Ferdinand literally on ice in Hawaii. She shocked many Filipinos by immediately running for president in 1992 and again in 1998.

Last year marked the full restoration of the Marcos family. Imelda Marcos was elected to the House of Representatives, her daughter Imee was elected governor of Ilocos Norte province, and her son Ferdinand Jr. won a Senate seat.

As for the murderous, torturing, corrupt dictator himself, Marcos was allowed back in 1993 but remains above ground in a crypt in his home province, frozen and under a glass case. Imelda is holding out for a hero's burial with full military honors. Marcos's restive corpse is on public display literally as a ghoulish show of political resistance.

Faced with overwhelming popular protests in 1998, Suharto calmly handed over power to his vice president and went home to his house in a quiet Jakarta suburb, where he remained unperturbed until his death a decade later.

Despite having far more blood on his hands and money in his offshore accounts than Marcos, Suharto was buried with full state honors by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono ("SBY"), one of Suharto's top generals.

The 2004 presidential election that brought SBY to power had so many carry-overs from the dictatorship running, including Suharto's own daughter, that activists wondered if the regime was staging a bizarre democratic come back.

Once the "people power" euphoria passes in Egypt, the country is likely to settle down to a political path that parallels what happened in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Throwing out (or pushing aside) a dictator and setting up a reasonably functioning electoral democracy is a major achievement. But dislodging the thousands of rich and powerful figures (including in the military) who ruled in cahoots with the dictator is much harder and rarely accomplished.

Shocking as it might be to imagine today, there is a better than 50-50 chance that the world will be reading the headline "President Gamal Mubarak" within a decade.

And the greatest irony is that it will likely happen democratically, just as Suharto's and Marcos's cronies, criminals, and thugs adapted and adjusted, and then quickly captured and dominated the democratic machinery of their countries.

Activists in both countries have been asking themselves how things could change so radically and yet so superficially in the years since the democratic transition.

In all these cases we witnessed "people power" but no "movements." The people power part knocks the dictators down. But the absence of organized and sustained movements allows the oligarchs and elites to adapt and continue.

When a new democracy is taking shape, no one is better positioned to run the show than these figures at the top.

Because dictatorships are by definition repressive, it is often impossible to form full fledged movements for resistance. Indeed, this is one reason oppositions tend, if anything, to be religious. Churches, mosques, and temples are the last base from which to operate when the rest of civil society has been crushed. And religions are flexible enough to serve as ideologies of repression or liberation.

Instead of organized movements, what occurred in all three of these cases were "mass uprisings" or "mobilizations of the last minute." These are tremendously powerful and disruptive surges of popular participation.

When such mobilizations erupt, usually almost out of nowhere, an entrenched regime faces a simple choice of massive repression, as China unleashed in Tienanman Square, or overthrow.

In Indonesia, two days before Suharto stepped down, he instructed the commander of the armed forces to use any means necessary to restore order.

This would have meant unspeakable carnage on the streets of Jakarta. Suharto's fate was sealed when the commander decided not to attack.

A mobilization of the last minute can be strong in the short term. But the social and political forces it represents are typically inchoate, its alliances are temporary and mostly focused on the person of the dictator, and its power is unsustainable.

Sudden mass uprisings are highly unorganized, lack clear leadership, and contain no lasting institutions.

When dictators fall and regime change is underway, mobilizations of the last minute quickly fragment. Some activists realize that dispersing prematurely is the last thing the people should do. But with victory in hand and celebrations finished, it is time for the vast majority of people who stopped everything they were doing to go back to their daily lives.

Within 24 hours of Mubarak's defeat, the leaders of the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution held a press conference and asked the Egyptian masses to leave Tahrir Square and go home. This move was inevitable but fatal.

In Indonesia and the Philippines, there were grassroots reverberations in the months after the people power uprisings. But in neither country has it been possible ever since to concentrate so much popular power into such an overwhelming social force.

It is in the weeks and months after a regime falls that status quo oligarchs and elites re-exert their formidable power. They do not rely on mobilization, organizing, social cohesion, and tremendous personal sacrifices. They have money, office, positions, and they run the economy and state machinery.

In Egypt, as in Indonesia and the Philippines, it is these political elites and wealthy oligarchs who possess the power resources needed to set the agenda and to control the pace of change so that they can adapt well to it.

Their first task is to make sure there are no trials, retribution, or jail time. The rallying cry is that the country and its economy are in crisis, people need jobs, there must be reconciliation and healing, and everyone needs to be "forward-looking."

It sounds like a sensible argument. But it has two enormous flaws.

First, it means no clear court decisions will be rendered against the criminals from the dictatorship. This leaves the matter foggy, and doubts arise over time about whether there were any crimes in the first place.

This is how members of the Marcos, Suharto, and Mubarak families make their come-backs. If they were so bad, people ask years later, why didn't they spend time in jail?

Second, a rare opportunity to strengthen the rule of law itself is squandered. Law only has meaning when it is stronger than the strongest individuals. And this occurs only through the pain, risks, and costs of actual cases, prosecutions, and the demonstration effect of sentences against criminal elites and oligarchs.

In most transitions, the dominant view is that new democracies need time to get "consolidated" before they can risk being confrontational with powerful actors. This is pragmatic but shortsighted.

Indonesia and the Philippines both got excellent transitions to democracy, but neither got the rule of law. Instead they are saddled with "criminal democracies" where competitive elections flourish, but are dominated by influential oligarchs and elites with criminal histories. The legal system bends to these powerful figures rather than the other way around.

(The "authoritarian legalism" of Singapore is the same problem but inverted -- the legal infrastructure is strong but democracy is absent.)

The lesson of the Philippines, Indonesia, and Egypt is that mobilizations of the last minute can achieve spectacular results. But they are no substitute for the long and difficult work of organizing grassroots movements.

As oligarchs and criminal elites in Egypt move quickly to capture and coopt the new democracy, Egyptian activists face the challenge of forming strong and durable movements that can tame and punish the most powerful figures in the system. Only that will prevent the unsettling spectre of President Gamal Mubarak winning in a legitimate election in the years to come.