This article is co-written by Michael Kennedy and Shiva Balaghi
“To Husni Mubarak: leave already. Arabs around the world are trying to sleep,” read a tweet. “Leave already, my hand hurts,” read a sign held up by a man on Cairo’s streets. From Tahrir Square, we hear that protesters are facing a new pressure possibly more strong than the pro-Mubarak thugs set lose on them in recent days. Family members, neighbors and merchants in the Tahrir area are pleading with them to go home already and let life get “back to normal.” The White House has heard the message that Mubarak must go, and must go now. But what next?
On January 25, the very first day of these protests, a young Egyptian put together a montage of photos of the demonstrators and the plain clothes police who were beating them up onto youtube. He ended the short video with a quote from JFK, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable.” The intensity of the protests in Cairo and throughout Egypt have had a significant impact and a vicious blowback, but no resolution. Activists have decreed a week of resistance starting Sunday, and many are committed to remaining in Tahrir.
Dangerous stalemates can lead the visionary activists to negotiated revolution. Those in Egypt can take some lesson from what Poles struggled through in 1988-89 where jailers and jailed sat at a round table to figure an exit from crisis.
Strategic concerns and the demands of the people in Tahrir Square are not necessarily at odds with one another. When President Obama came to office, he chose Cairo as the site to express his plans for a new beginning to US relations with the Muslim world. Look closely and listen to Tahrir and you will hear echoing calls for Arab democracy. Tahrir continues to chant with hope for freedom in voices growing tired and frayed but remaining determined.
Neither DC nor Tahrir wants to see an Iranian style revolution where the secular parties (small and unorganized) get subsumed by the more broadly based and organized Islamist elements of the opposition. “We do not want Iran!” and “We are not Islamists!” are common cries from Tahrir. Insightful analysts are urging Washington to take this to heart. This movement is about Egyptians and their shifting sense of citizenship, their rising expectations that their state should be held accountable to them the people.
The question remains: what to do now? Who can lead Egypt? After decades of repressive rule by Sadat and Mubarak, the secular opposition in Egypt has no clear leader with moral rectitude and popular support. Egyptians in Tahrir have drawn a red line: Mubarak must go. But why they want him to go is essential to the equation. Protesters’ anger is fed by years of crony-capitalism and corruption; by state thuggery against citizens who dared to think they should vote freely in 2005; by newspapers and state-owned television stations that spout nothing but government slogans. Accountability and freedom must be part of the equation for change in Egypt. Replacing Mubarak without instituting real political, social, and economic reform will only punt the ball and leave the Egyptian playing field open to malfeasance. Hossam Baghat and Soha Abdelaty published an essay about what Mubarak must do before he resigns in order for a post-authoritarian future to be possible.
Asking how the country can be led into a post-authoritarian era is at stake in this revolution. What Egyptians and the international community must do is set a table with room for many men and women who can sit and talk in private about building an alternative future for Egypt. And here Poland circa 1989 presents us with a road map for successful if gradual political transition.
From February 6 to April 4, 1989 the Polish government organized a series of roundtable discussions with the Solidarity Movement and other opposition groups. The street protests moved into roundtable negotiations. The Polish Round Table made enemies into collaborators and showed the way towards radical but non-violent change. The secret meetings were chaired by the head of Solidarity, Lech Walesa, and the Minister of Internal Affairs, Czeslaw Kiszczak. The Polish government hoped the talks would allow them to coopt the opposition; instead the talks transformed Polish society, leading to the end of Soviet-style communism in Poland.
In the rush to build a new society on the ruins of communism, the imagery of collapse fit very well those who would design, or impose, institutions anew. With communists vanquished, questions of how their exit was made possible seemed best relegated to the historians, once sufficient time could intervene to allow neutral portraits to be painted. However, as more time intervened, it became clear that communist rule produced a pattern of social relations that made the communist-ruled past an integral part of understanding and creating a democratic future. Although that made analytical sense, it still left a powerful political distaste for many, especially when communists could be perceived to have profited from their own exit. The Round Table, it has been said, was a deal that privileged its attendees. There was, however, another way to see this Round Table, but it required stepping outside the stream of popular Polish history into a world of contingency and comparison. It required thinking about the Round Table as an instance of peaceful, but radical change.
When we think about radical change, we normally think about violence. For some of the negotiators at the Round Table, violence was a possibility they sought to avoid. Indeed, the struggle to avoid violence could be read as a leitmotif of recollection, but rarely a major theme of analysis. Once violence becomes a possibility in the narrative of communism’s collapse, however, its relationship to other features of social transformation becomes critical. And manifold.
In 1988, nobody in Poland wanted to negotiate with the other side. Communists ruled the state, and could count on force to prevail. However, they also saw that Poles killing Poles was no way to create a sustainable peace. There was no way for authoritarians to live with themselves, and their families, if they committed crimes of violence against their own people. Authoritarians needed a way out.
And Solidarity needed a way out. Those committed to democratic and peaceful change wanted to make a revolution against revolution – wanted to create a lawful state through legal means within a condition that disrespected basic human rights, civil rights, political rights. By the summer of 1988, it became increasingly impossible to manage the protest movement as young men got sick of their elders’ compromises. Both Solidarity’s elite and communist authorities realized that unless they negotiated a compromise, violence could be the only winner.
Why should they trust one another? They didn’t. But they also invited a transcendent power, the Catholic Church, to sit at the round table, to participate in the compromise that would likely displease most but lead the way to peaceful change.
What happened? They designed gradual change, beginning with semi-free elections. That made everyone ready to compromise, and move ahead, but it also set up the trajectory for gradual change—what one in another generation might have called non-reformist reforms.
Many Poles are still upset that General Jaruzelski, the communist and military leader who was responsible for the deaths of shipyard protesters, was not punished for his crimes. Many are still critical that this was a deal somehow between those who compromised, the reds and the pinkos. But there are few who would say today that Poland’s compromise was wrong in world historical terms. That compromise has made democracy and freedom possible in a world once ruled by dictatorship and violence.
Egypt’s round table should have a seat for members of the political parties represented in parliament. It should include the military, judges, unions and business leaders. It must also include members of Egyptian civil society who have been increasingly active and vocal. There are those who’ve worked with judges to fight for constitutional rights; those who have stood up for human rights, women’s rights, gay rights; those who have sought educational reform and cultural freedom; they are spending their days in Tahrir Square and their nights patrolling their neighborhoods.
“I have watched ordinary Egyptians become heroes,” wrote American University of Cairo law professor Amr Shalakany. An Egyptian round table might help more heroes emerge, the kind like Lech Walesa who showed he could do more than organize protesters. An Egyptian round table might not bring about immediate justice, but it can help reconcile calls for freedom with practical concerns and help bring about radical but peaceful change. We stand with the Egyptian people who are today in the midst of “a sweet revolution” and support them in their quest for a pathway to justice, peace, and freedom.