“From Egypt to South Korea” Feb. 2011

Click here for the WAMC audio for “From Egypt to South Korea”

For specialists in international history it was relatively easy to be cynical about the developments in Egypt this last week, especially cynical about media coverage which kept babbling about Mubarak’s thirty year regime. What thirty years were they discussing? We were after all talking about a regime that is significantly older than Mubarak’s personal administration, a largely military dominated regime that vice president Mubarak merely inherited when Anwar Sadat was assassinated. A military dominated regime Sadat himself inherited after Nasser, yet another military officer, had his fatal heart attack, a largely military regime that emerged in 1952.

A regime that saw three military backed leaders succeed each other, from Nasser’s, socialist “lite” nationalist version that nicely complemented Arab pride but did little to improve people’s living standards. A regime that was succeeded by Anwar Sadat’s opening to Israel and America which facilitated integrating Egypt into the world economy, an opening Mubarak continued and which brought in billions in economic resources but new wealth that too often stayed with the largely westernized Egyptian elite and the military classes. People whose needs were so different from the masses for whom decades long frustrations coupled with the recent upsurge of food prices and yes, empowered by the new communication tools from Facebook to Twitter went into the streets over the last weeks in their hundreds of thousands to demand the ouster of President Mubarak.

But of course we have also seen that behind all that drama, of the enormous public demonstrations and the vicious street battles the reality of a still vigorous military establishment regime, one considerably less feeble than an 82 year old former general whose been living in far off in Sharm el-Sheikh – about as far as one can get from Egypt’s heartland.

Yes, that very same largely military regime that has dominated Egypt for the last half century impressively manipulating the situation with finesse of a Hollywood director; controlling the streets, deciding who could and could not enter Liberation Square. Altogether doing a wonderfully Machiavellian job of encouraging both directly and indirectly those rent a thugs who charged into the square to confront the masses while allowing the army, the army that controlled those very entrances even as they did not intervene, to retain its national prestige and cleverly set itself up as the savior of the nation.

Presenting itself as the reasonable party between the demonstrators and the rent a thugs now moving ever so carefully toward building a wider coalition and nudging their erstwhile leader, Mubarak, every so slowly toward the door, maybe now, maybe in September.

A withdrawal that would apparently now satisfy a reasonable percentage of the regime’s critics all the while largely leaving the military regime largely intact under the guise of a coalition. A result that would most likely deeply disappoint those who want real change in Egypt.

But it is also true that things may turn out quite differently than the Army imagines as those for those of us who have followed events from Indonesia to South Korea well remember. After all, South Korea for example once struggled under its own troika of successive military leaders who long used the threat of North Korean arms to deny a democratic opening as successfully as Mubarak has cited the Muslim Brotherhood as an excuse not to open up.

Yes South Korea’s had its own generals, not Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak but Park Chung-hee and Chun Du-hwan. But when the South Korean military tried to pass power on to Roh Tae-woo in the late 80s a popular uprising not unlike Egypt’s erupted that eventually saw the announcement of a democratic election for the nation.

Sure, a popular election that temporarily stalled when the nation’s leading democratic alternatives proved unable to mount a common campaign But one that saw only four years later – in a nation changed forever — South Koreans elect Kim Young-sam, South Korea’s first modern democratically chosen president.

A struggle that despite its early set backs inaugurated an era of South Korean democracy that has continued to today. Allowing perhaps the rest of us the hope that despite the possibly looming disappointment that may well soon face Egypt’s democratic activists, they most probably have already managed to change Egypt forever.

About Steven Leibo

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