Affairs in Egypt are of interest not only because of the human rights issue — the Egyptian people rising up spontaneously to demand democracy and an end to autocratic rule – but also because it is a kind of paradigmatic illustration of the relation between geography and the devices of popular coercion. Lately, as soon as scholars try to define the relation of systems of power to geography, they are accused of geographic determinism. Such attacks veil important issues. It is true, as some argue, that societies live in imaginary worlds of their own fabrication; but it is also true that societies deploy their imaginative “worlds” in social and material affairs that have their own properties, no matter what is thought or said about them. This is why it is useful to examine how power is constituted in geo-ecological settings, because those settings have properties that set limits on what can be usefully imagined for the exercise of power, that is, usefully deployed to coerce populations in real situations. Egypt is a kind of paradigmatic example of how the geo-ecological world constrains the range of options for those who must live in it. The essential conditions of life for the Egyptians is the Nile River and the deserts that abut it.
Egypt is essentially a society dependent solely on the Nile River – solely, in the sense that outside of the range of the river human habitation is nearly impossible. There is the river where humans can cultivate the land and beyond it there is desert where no one can live. Escape from the sown is virtually impossible. Historically Egypt has been ruled by small military coalitions who have exercised control of the peasant populations who had nowhere to flee. Coalitions that could control traffic up and down the river and the populations of the sown areas along it have been ruled millions for millennia. There have been changes of government according to rules of succession or by coups d’etat but the many popular uprisings in its history have failed because the populations of the country have been easily accessible.
This is why the current popular movement in Egypt, with thousands demanding democracy and the rule of law, is exceptional and truly [possibly] revolutionary.
But there is a contradiction in modern autocratic systems. Autocratic regimes must have an entrepreneurial/ bureaucratic class to manage societal affairs in the modern world. Such an entrepreneurial / bureaucratic class has to be educated; it must acquire knowledge of the wider world so as to be competent to engage with the wider world. But the education of such a middle class, the creation of a sizable body of individuals whose horizons are wider than the affairs of every day life, introduces them to social currents elsewhere. It is hardly surprising that such a body of people would demand rights that a dictatorial regime refuses to give. And in Egypt that body of individuals is large, and perhaps as many of half of them are under 25. They have yet to experience the brutal hand of an autocratic state.
It seems to me that the modern history of Egypt is the story of occasional confrontations between the demands of the entrepreneurial / bureaucratic class for more rights and the demands for obedience and conformity by those in power. The more intense the clashes became the more shrill became the calls to rebellion – until they were silenced by excessive repressive measures. Waves of public discontent were punctuated by periods of intense repressive measures deployed against key public opponents. In this context extreme ideologies of rebellion have taken root: the ideas of Hassan al-Bannah who founded the Muslim Brethren in 1928 spawned numerous radical activities; the social critique and moral appeal of Sayed Qutb set in motion the Islamist movement of the last forty years. But only elsewhere, for the radicals had to regroup outside of Egypt, as conditions within the country allowed virtually no activities against the regime. There have been many public demonstrations – but brute power crushed them, for the only escape was flight from the regime of the Nile.
What frightens me about the situation in Egypt now is that the populations, excited as they have been by the public display of their shared resentment of the Mubarak regime, have not yet discovered how far an autocratic regime will go to stay in power. The Chinese students who demonstrated on Tiananmen Square on behalf of a more open society had no idea that the Chinese regime would respond so cruelly. The Iranians who rose up in frustration at the state-sponsored hijacking of the national election in 2008 had no idea how far the Ahmadenijad / Khamenei regime would go to stay in power. In both cases widely supported demonstrations were crushed brutally. Had these regimes learned from the experience of the Shah of Iran who fled rather than further brutalize his own people? The regime that followed him has been careful never to flinch. Has Mubarak learned something from the sudden flight of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from Tunisia? What we have yet to see in Egypt – despite the demonstrations, despite even President Obama’s clear demand that a change must take place “now” – is any serious indication that Husni Mubarak is really going to give up power.
We may never see it happen, now that his administration has mounted an organized response to the demonstrations. Loyalists on horseback and camelback are being deployed with whips against the demonstrators. Mubarak and those before him never held their positions by popular suffrage; he is unlikely to give it up. Pharaohs need not care whether they are liked.