Tahrir as a thermostat

Tahrir as a thermostat

You probably remember the beginnings of the Egyptian Awakening. It was Dickensian: the best of times, the worst of times. Happiness and anxiety were in the air, fearful talk was spreading of Islamists taking power in Cairo.

I remember a Turkish diplomat saying “There is always going to be the Tahrir Square to correct any mistakes,” stressing the transformative nature of the Tahrir experience. “If the new military rulers of Egypt should make any mistakes the people know that they can go to Tahrir again,” he said. And that is exactly what they did last week.

Tahrir is now acting as a thermostat for Egypt’s political climate. A thermostat, as we know, is “part of a control system, regulating a system’s temperature to maintain near a desired level.” If people do not like something they can “go Tahrir” to warn the system. It works.

In February 2011, Tahrir Square demonstrations led to the downfall of Hosni Mubarak. But the whole thing felt a bit more like a coup d’état than a revolution. The army took over after Mubarak and protests began to die down. Yet last week, Egypt’s political sphere, including the military junta, learned the Tahrir experience is still alive and well. This is both good and bad.

First, the good part. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as well as future rulers of Egypt knows they will have to pass the test of Tahrir. There was no shortage of warning signs before the new demonstrations. To begin with, the Emergency Law, which protesters wanted to abolish, was actually extended after Mubarak’s resignation. Then demonstrating Coptic Christians were murdered in the streets. And most recently, the Selmy Document was released, which notes that the military should have supra-constitutional mandate as guardian angel after elections. These events create an atmosphere that is not conducive to democracy; hence the Tahrir alarm kicks in. The political elite see they are having a hard time keeping up with the fever and demands coming from Tahrir.

But there are limits to the thermostat. The Egyptian state needs a government in order to deliver what its people are asking for: jobs, economic growth and welfare. A preoccupation with political transformation could lead to the neglect of the economic situation while the economy is in dire need of attention. I say this speaking straight from Turkey’s recent experience. Since 2007, Turkey has not accomplished any major economic reform that I know of. Instead, our economy lost about half a decade due to the 2007 Parliament’s preoccupation with political transformation.

Egyptians have invented the Tahrir model for political transformation. It works like a thermostat, creating a conducive environment for democratic transition. Tahrir 2.0 has shown the control system is effective. Now Egyptians have to devise a way to transfer this function to the ballot box and create elected representatives of the people. Otherwise they will be stuck in transition limbo