Revolutions: The Dictators Are Gone, Now What?

Guests

Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent
Joseph Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning historian

In Egypt and Tunisia, the dictators are gone — but much of the previous systems remain. What comes next is far from clear. The protesters who overthrew the governments have little political experience and risk being sidelined by more powerful interests.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. Im Neal Conan in Washington.

In both Egypt and Tunisia, the leaders are gone, but much of the previous system remains, and many now wonder whether toppling the longtime leader wasn't the easy part.

What comes next is far from clear. Elections are on the fast track in both countries. Today, Egypt's military rulers promise presidential elections by November at the latest, but decades of dictatorship left little of the infrastructure of democracy intact, and protestors who helped overthrow the governments have little political experience. And powerful interests may be more interested in something that amounts to more of a reshuffle than a revolution.

Once the king is dead, or the dictator is gone, what defines a revolution? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, how international law reduces the options to end the war in Libya with a quick deal for exile. But first, what's really changed in Egypt and Tunisia? In a few minutes, historian Joseph Ellis will join us, but we begin with NPR foreign correspondent Deb Amos on the line with us from Cairo, and good of you to be with us.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thanks, Neal, good afternoon.

CONAN: And how much of the old regime remains in place there in Cairo?

AMOS: Well, quite a bit of it. Certainly, I did a story this week about protests that are across college campuses in Cairo. And their complaint is that all of the presidents and all of the deans by law were appointed by the former president, Hosni Mubarak. And they want those people to go.

Their argument is the president is gone, and so the system should be gone, and they have been demonstrating every day to make that happen.

Now, it is unlikely that it will. It - there is no process to decide, you know, who was a good guy and who was a bad guy or woman, appointed by Mubarak. And so there are a lot of people, in certainly the Facebook generation, who say, well, we got rid of one guy, but that's all we have done.

There are other Egyptians who say: And that was quite an accomplishment, so let's calm down a bit and move the country forward. And I think that is the tension here.

But let me just say one thing: I think that we may have to have some new definitions of revolution. This is a revolutionary generation that turned over the revolution to a middleman. They didn't take power. They didn't seize power, which is the historical precedent for what you do. They turned it over to a military council.

So I think we have to think very carefully about how revolutions work.

CONAN: Well, did they turn it over to a military council, or did the military council step in to preserve their place? For example, is there any suggestion that even after a presidential election, the president would be able to dismiss the generals?

AMOS: You know, I - of course we have to wait and see. But I think that the Facebook generation, and I use that term because it's hard to decide exactly what to call them, I think that they were comfortable turning the revolution, this leaderless revolution, not exactly leaderless if you really talk to people here - there were seven different groups and they were all talking to each other - but nevertheless, when the moment came that the president stepped down, remember that the youth were able to replace a prime minister that they didn't like. They went back out on the square, and the military said: Okay, okay, we hear you. And they put the announcement that there would be a new prime minister on the military's Facebook page.

So I think it would be wrong to say that the military seized that role. I think that there was a balance of power between the revolutionaries and the military. These were the people who were going to move Egypt into the next step.

Now, I think your question is a very important question: Do they give up power? From everybody I have talked to here, they are comfortable that the military wants to give this hot potato over to the civilians. They do not want to be tarnished by what happens to you when you are in the nitty-gritty of politics.

Already they are being charged with abuse against students, abuse against some of the protestors that they arrested. This is the rough-and-tumble of the real world. The military in Egypt has always been happy to be behind the scenes.

So it seems that they are trying to keep this process going as quickly as they can to give power back to the civilians.

CONAN: You suggested - obviously when the president by law appoints the heads of the universities, the president has enormous power. That was under the old constitution. Under the revised amendments that were approved in the one election that has been held in Egypt, has the president's powers been scaled down?

AMOS: Well, actually no. And it's all a little confusing. You know, there were only a handful of articles that were up for debate, and the military brought in experts: lawyers, constitutional lawyers who rewrote these. And then that was part of a referendum. The people decided yes or no.

And Egyptians, 77 percent, said okay, we're fine with this. Now we have an announcement that there is going to be an interim constitution. That will not be subject to a referendum.

So, you know, if the military was good at this, if they'd ever done it before, perhaps they would have thought better to have the interim constitution and have the referendum on that.

But I think what we are seeing, you can describe this as inept, you can describe this as not much experience in running a country, to explain why there has been such confusion. You are absolutely right, the president's power has simply been defined as he or she can only have two terms.

But it is not clear yet whether Egypt going forward will have a constitution - excuse me, a parliamentary system or a strong presidential system. We have to wait to see how that is going to play out.

CONAN: And one big factor in all of this is the incredibly short amount of time that all of this has occurred, and we wanted to bring in for some perspective, from member station WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts, Joseph Ellis, who has written extensively on the American revolution, a Pulitzer Prize winner, professor of history at Mount Holyoke College there in Massachusetts. And Joseph Ellis, nice to have you back on the program.

Professor JOSEPH ELLIS (Mount Holyoke College): Thank you, Neal, it's great to be back.

CONAN: And our revolution, of course, in this country, well, forged in many years of war and then a lot of politics afterwards before we finally arrived at the Constitution. In Egypt, they were talking about something that - a conflict that - protest that lasted, what, 18 days.

Prof. ELLIS: Yeah, I think that there are lots of different kinds of revolutions, and we should probably begin with the very humbling assumption that no one ever knows what's happening in a revolution, really, and the legacies that the revolution creates become controversial forever.

But one of the principles that made the revolution in America succeed is that it was a kind of evolutionary revolution - that is to say, it didn't - it overthrew Great Britain and George III quickly, but then it took some time to move to a nation state. And then after that, the full promise of the American Revolution was delayed, especially with regard to the issue of slavery.

So a conservative revolution or a seeping revolution or an evolutionary revolution tends to be one that is the soundest and with rights and forms of government that stick.

CONAN: And those institutions were developed over a long period of time, and in a sense was the American Revolution - you wrote about it by saying that in a sense neither side on the revolutionary side, neither side lost.

There were the people who wanted a strong state and people who wanted diversified control, and both won in a way.

Prof. ELLIS: That's right. The Articles of Confederation left the states sovereign. And one of the things that made the American Revolution successful at that stage is that colonial governments had been existing and functioning for over a century.

In places like Egypt, I don't think something like that exists. So they don't have the same kind of deep commitment to forms of representative government. Though I will throw this in. This will offend a lot of my friends, I think. But I think if you're going to be colonized, and then you wish to successfully create your own independent state, it's best to be colonized by Great Britain.

The two largest democracies on the planet are the United States and India, and they're the two former colonies of Great Britain. I would say that, for example, Egypt has a much greater chance of successfully negotiating this revolutionary experience into something stable, representative, transparent, rule of law, because Britain left some of those institutions in place. I would say Libya has almost no chance at all.

CONAN: Deborah Amos, is there any remnant of those institutions alive today?

AMOS: Well, I can't speak to that, but I will tell you that the idea of evolution here is simply not in the cards. Time is so speeded up. In the next 18 months or less, Egyptians are expected to vote for a parliament, a president and they'll be asked to ratify a new constitution. Eighteen months after 30 years of essentially being asleep during the Mubarak regime. And it also requires Egyptians to know about the issues of a constitution and the issues of rights.

There are people here suggesting that the only way that you can do that is to set up technology - Wiki pages, Twitter discussions, all printed out in newspapers - and that moves it down another 100,000 people and then brought out to the villages, so that you can discuss it with illiterate Egyptians. It is a huge undertaking in a very small amount of time. And so you have to assume that there's going to be mistakes made in that kind of time.

But the pressure is because, for example, outside donors need to know what kind of government this is before they begin donating again. It's hard to sign a contract until the currency stabilizes and that's not going to happen until there's a government again. So, evolution is not in the cards here.

CONAN: And that's going to make things difficult. We want to hear from out callers this hour about - well, what is it that defines revolution. 800-989-8255, email us talk@npr.org.

And Joseph Ellis, we just have a minute or so before the break, but technology surely has accelerated this and, well, the pressure of time in Egypt is going to be very daunting.

Prof. ELLIS: I agree. I agree with the reporter there. Though I think the way to think about this is that once the constitution is passed, that's not the end of the revolution; that's just the beginning, and the key is whether the constitution establishes a framework that will permit additional change and reform to occur over decades.

CONAN: We're talking with historian Joseph Ellis, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author of many books about U.S. history. His latest, "First Family: Abigail and John."

Also with us, Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent with us. She's covering the evolution of the revolution in Cairo. If you'd like to join the conversation, again, it's 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. Stay with us, I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. As Libya faces civil war and protests continue in Syria, Yemen and other countries around the Middle East, we're talking about what happens after the dictator's toppled. Egypt and Tunisia overthrew their leaders but not the governing system - or at least not yet. So what's a revolution and what's just a reshuffle? Our phone number, 800-989-8255, email talk@npr.org. You can join the conversation on our website, too. Go to npr.org, click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Our guests are NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos on the line from Cairo and Joseph Ellis, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of any number of books about U.S. history; his latest: "First Family: Abigail and John."

And let's see if we can get a caller in on the conversation. And we'll start with Jack, Jack with us from Eugene.

JACK (Caller): Hi, there.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

JACK: Well, I was actually kind of laughing at the guy that said it's an evolution. Revolution is - definitely you end up back where you started. It's now a basic fact of revolving around a point, and he said that the America has an evolution and I kind of - I don't really buy into that, considering America originally had a revolution against East India's Company and the monarchy. And they've seemed to have tried to create near-monarchies and they've certainly got the companies running the country again. So, I'd say that we do need more evolution and less revolution. And these Twitter-lutions(ph) are very odd. But, there...

CONAN: Well, Joseph Ellis, I'm not sure whether you can square all that history...

Prof. ELLIS: Yeah, I'm not sure what I can make of that. I think that a revolution, in any modern sense of the term, is by definition a fundamental change in the social and political conditions and an overthrow of more than just a ruler. That would be a coup. But a fundamental change. In the French Revolution, overthrowing the aristocracy; and the Russian Revolution, fundamental change in the class system. And so, it is a shocking - the definition of revolution that the caller's referring to was the original definition of revolution from Copernicus. Copernicus' De revolutionibus; that is the coming around again, but the modern revolutions that have existed in America, Russia, France, China have changed our understanding of how to define revolution.

CONAN: Let's go next to John(ph), and John's with us from Long Island.

JOHN (Caller): Hey, how are you?

CONAN: Good, thanks.

JOHN: Thanks so much for taking my call, great show. I just wanted to make people aware that revolution - the definition of revolution will most likely change very soon and I was stated before to the person who took my call that a shift in the consciousness, in the way we think, of humankind is the most important revolution of all kind because anybody can protest, anybody can scream, anybody can pick up a rock. Those are all primitive forms of rebellion, but to actually shift your mind towards the resolution and to come together as a true human species; a shift in consciousness, your mind. That is the greatest revolution of all.

CONAN: And Deborah Amos, it seems that's a pretty good definition of what happened there in Egypt when, as when people say, people lost their fear.

AMOS: I knew you were going to come to me on that because you're absolutely right. It is what happened here and - look, in the Middle East, not anybody can throw a rock and not anybody can protest. That's been the problem certainly in Egypt for the last 30 years.

So anybody who was here on January 25th and looked around and saw people coming down out of apartment buildings and out of, you know, places that had no electricity, and taxicab drivers, and the dry cleaning guy, and the middle-class neighborhoods, all coming to the square at the same time. It was an extraordinary moment, a psychological moment in the Middle East. Now, Egyptians don't like to say that the Tunisians did it first because they are the Egyptians, after all.

Soundbite of laughter)

AMOS: But it something that is sweeping the Middle East, that people watch and they see that other Arabs have the courage to walk out and say to their leaders that people want the regime to fall. And they've all been using the same slogans. And I think that no matter what happens here - and how the military manages the transition - that is the part that can't be denied.

I was talking to a book publisher the other day, and she said, you know, for the first time I can order a book called "I Want To Be President," which is an American book that, you know, would seem not controversial at all to us, but it was unthinkable to have it in this country for kids to read. And she says that there are children who say to their parents, you know, you can't boss me around. I'll just have a revolution.

(Soundbite of laughter)

So there has been, I think, a change of mentality here.

CONAN: And Joseph Ellis, I think that's probably true in every revolution - there is a moment.

Prof. ELLIS: There is. The people that make a revolution are usually particular radical, psychological people. It's unusual that the same people that can make a revolution can also secure it. That's one of the distinctive features of the American Revolution, 'cause you have to be capable of a radical act, and then of a conservative act.

And as Deborah was talking, I was thinking in their twilight years, Adams and Jefferson used to debate whether or not the principles of democracy established by the American Revolution were transportable to other areas of the world. And Jefferson argued that they were; they were universal principles and they would eventually conquer every nation on the planet. And so he wouldn't be surprised what's happening in this springtime of revolution in North Africa.

Adams said that it wasn't, that countries like Catholic countries in Latin America could never become democratic and he said the same thing about Muslim countries in the Middle East. So, we're about ready to find out which of them was right.

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, John. Let's see if we can go next to - this is Jim, and Jim's on the line from Reno.

JIM (Caller): Yeah. Hi, Neal.

CONAN: Hi.

JIM: Well, you know, we're talking about revolutions and, of course, many of them aren't successful; the Soviet Union, the Bolshevik revolution, I think most of that era. If you ask the people there were they happy, I don't think that they were happier than they were before. Same thing with Cuba. So I think a revolution really wouldn't be defined by necessarily changing the government necessarily. I mean, let's say you had a dictator, so you throw him out, it is possible if you had a new dictator - as long as everybody in the government, from the dictator down, really wanted the best for the country and the people and you had a very low level of corruption, I think then you have a revolution.

CONAN: It's interesting you raise that. And Joseph Ellis, I'm going to turn to you on that. There is a moment after the military success in the American Revolution when the elite in London believes, well, clearly, Mr. Washington is going to become King Washington.

Prof. ELLIS: That's right. And there was a movement in the Continental Army to try to get him to accept the crown and he simply refused to do it, saying that it would have been a betrayal of all the principles they thought they were fighting for. He then again stepped down from power at the end of the second term of his presidency, setting a precedent that we now enshrine in a Constitutional amendment.

So I think that the constitutional provision in the Egyptian constitution that restricts the president to two terms; if they can enforce that, that is absolutely crucial because what the historical pattern is, some one leader becomes the face of the revolution - whether that's Napoleon or Lenin or Mao or Castro - and then some kind of dictatorial situation exists.

There're very few people that step away from power. The only one besides Washington that I know of is Nelson Mandela. And we've got to create a situation in which every leader, no matter how crucial, is eminently disposable.

CONAN: And Deb Amos, let me turn back to you in Cairo. There is as yet no person who has assumed that role as the face of the revolution.

AMOS: No, but you make a very crucial point that is very relevant to this one. And that is, can people who can make a revolutionary act also make a conservative one as the revolution moves forward? And we don't know that yet and I'll tell you why it's important here. The largest Islamist group in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, they weren't so good at being revolutionaries. In fact, they were late to the square. They did come but that's not their business. They are good at the conservative act. They are good at organizing. They are good at running for elections.

The revolutionaries, the Facebook generation, are very bad at conservative acts. They want people to continue to go out on the streets. They're calling for another million person march on Friday. I don't think it's going to happen. But they don't know how to organize into political parties. So, the question here is, yes, it's important that now for the first time the presidential term is only two.

But much more important is what happens in the parliamentary elections. You know, the starting gun how gone off, and we are going to have an election here in September and the people who are the most organized are the Muslim Brothers and the old party of Mubarak, the National Democratic Party. They are still around, and they still are very good at what they do in the provinces. You know, what you have is, let's say a prominent family who can get you a job or make sure your kid gets into university or even elementary school, for that matter - those people will still run - maybe under another name, but they are still the National Democratic Party, as it was run before Mubarak fell. So here it's a little bit more complicated picture than simply how long the president runs, and whether there's a leader of a revolution who doesn't feel like moving away.

CONAN: Joseph Ellis, there were, you know, obviously, elections in this country before an election for president.

Prof. ELLIS: Oh, yeah. They had to exist for some years as a loose confederation, something like the E.U. now. And there was a tremendous suspicion of any kind of executive power. If you read the Declaration of Independence, it doesn't have very much good to say about kings or about executives. And the specter of monarchy hung over every conversation about executive power. If you actually read the American Constitution, its definition of the powers of the executive branch, it's extremely vague because they were afraid to give it much power for fear that we'll create another monarchical situation. So monarchy is very much on the defensive in the early years of the new American nation.

CONAN: Let's go next to Ian. Ian's on the line from Wasilla in Alaska.

IAN (Caller): Yes. You know, I've just been thinking a lot lately about the similarity between these revolutions going on in the Middle East and Northern Africa and the Latin American revolutions in the, you know, late '50s, early '60s, particularly Cuba. And you know, I found it very interesting in that the successful revolutions in modern history have kind of had this mentality of a continuing revolution.

So it's not just a quick revolution, turnover of government and then, you know, boom, you're done. But they have this, like, common goal. Like in Cuba, they've had this common goal of public education and public health. And whether or not the results, you know, show any positive change, there's been this rhetoric going on of progressive positive change for the people. And I think, in the Middle East, if they're going to be successful revolutions, they really have to amp up this rhetoric about common good for the people.

CONAN: Well, continuing revolution also, in addition to the social programs you talk about, Ian, it also justifies emergency decrees - and we're in a state of emergency - throughout the existence of the revolutionary state.

IAN: Absolutely.

CONAN: And interesting, getting back to you in Cairo, we're talking about emergency decrees there. And now the military says, yes, we promise by September.

AMOS: Well, the good news, of course, is that there won't be an emergency decree during the elections. But here, I think, is a point -and I want to go back to something that Joseph Ellis was saying - and that is this tension when you keep thinking we don't want a king back, and so you limit the power of the president.

I think that there are plenty of people in Egypt who are suspicious of a strong executive and would like to limit the powers of the president, but are now going to be constrained with the way that this set of elections has been set up. First the parliament, then the constitution, then the presidential election. So you're going to have one election where you don't really know what the powers of the president are, except as outlined in some interim constitution that can be changed.

I think people want to have that discussion here. I think that they understand completely what the dangers are of a too-powerful president in Egypt. They want some power sharing. And hopefully, in these next 18 months, there will be time for that conversation. But it doesn't feel like there will be. It feels like all of this is a bit rushed.

CONAN: We're talking with Deborah Amos, NPR foreign correspondent in Cairo, and Joseph Ellis, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go to Santiago - Santiago calling from Kalamazoo.

SANTIAGO (Caller): Good afternoon.

CONAN: Go ahead, please.

SANTIAGO: I think the definition of revolution that comes from economic history and political philosophy is that a revolution is when there's a change in the ownership of the land, the banks, the factories, the natural resources, as well as the group of people that control the military, the bureaucracy and the media. And that did not happen in the United States between 1776 and 1789, when the unifying common denominator was the support for slavery, both in the North and in the South. And that has certainly not happened in Tunisia or in Egypt, where 20 of the 21 governments in the region have armies and governments that are controlled by the United States.

CONAN: Controlled by the United States is pretty much of a leap there. But I get your point, Santiago, on fundamental change of ownership of land, banks, media. Deborah Amos, that has not happened in Egypt.

AMOS: It certainly hasn't, and that is a question here. You know, Egypt, over the years, has moved to what's called a neoliberal economy, you know, a more open economy, not state-controlled, although the better definition would be crony capitalism. There were many, many, many sweetheart deals if you were close to the president, and certainly people who are in the ruling party were the recipients of fabulous sweetheart deals on land, on running factories in this country. And there is - many people - there are many people who want a reckoning, want an accounting of where the money went.

CONAN: And a lot of it went to the military.

AMOS: Well, not a lot of it, but a certain percentage of it. They are in the business of being in business, not unlike the Chinese military, and they will probably stay in that kind of business. But I think the more egregious feeling was on the political level. You know, there are levels and then there are levels, and I think that there are priorities of who most people would like to see go to jail.

We were talking to a former diplomat tonight. And the question was, who has to go to jail before the people on the square feel like some justice is moving forward? We've had some small things here. In the paper today, a hundred police officers have been referred to the criminal court for killing protesters. And if you remember, earlier last year a young blogger, Khaled Saeed, was beaten to death outside of an Internet cafe. And it took a Facebook campaign to get the government to look at it. So that is moving forward, to see 100 police officers have been referred to a criminal court. We haven't seen any of the big ministers behind bars yet.

CONAN: And we're running out of time. So I will - not hoping to speak for Joseph Ellis, but point out a lot of the establishment in this country did lose a lot of their possessions. Those who supported the other side in the revolution had to leave. But Joseph Ellis, thank you very much for your time today.

Prof. ELLIS: My pleasure. Thank you for having me, Neal.

CONAN: Joseph Ellis's most recent book is "First Family: Abigail and John." And Deborah Amos, appreciate your staying up there this evening in Cairo.

AMOS: Thank you very much, Neal. Nice to talk to you.

CONAN: NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos with us from Cairo.

When we come back, we'll turn to Libya and the options open to Moammar Gadhafi if he's interested in giving up power. Is it better if he flees with his billions for a life in exile or if he's clapped away in chains for a war crimes trial? Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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