Egypt’s courts are fanning the flames of revolution. After appealing to reformers by mandating the dissolution of municipal councils, the courts reversed their trend last week with two highly controversial decisions. First, a court decided to release seven Egyptian policemen accused of murder on bail, and another court chose to acquit three Mubarak cabinet members of corruption. Once again, anger boiled over on the streets of Cairo as protesters picked up rocks and clubs in a public display of distrust and frustration.
The court rulings may be a hurdle to the process of democratic change, but there is a silver lining. A resurgence of protest is a sign that the reformers are not going to give up their fight anytime soon. The continued protests are a critical development in the broader Arab Spring. Whereas renewed protests give hope to reformers across Egypt and the Middle East, an inability to mount public opposition would result in a loss of political momentum and would be the death knell of the revolution.
There is an important theoretical underpinning to the continued protest. Protests can be successful because they function as signals. Public opposition, especially peaceful opposition, indicates to the regime that the reformers are serious about their demands, willing to bear heavy costs in time and resources, and willing to sacrifice life and limb without violent retaliation. Egyptian protestors have demonstrated these qualities since January.
In countries where protestors have not been successful in overthrowing their regimes, the regime has won the signaling battle by showing that violence, death, and torture are the prices to pay for reform. Many protesters are (understandably) unwilling to pay that price, and they have backed down. Autocratic leaders are formidable opponents with a loyal following and the means and willingness to execute brutal attacks on their own people. Bashir al-Assad in Syria, Muammar Gaddafi in Libya, and King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa in Bahrain have all employed violence to quell opposition. Serious reform remains unlikely, in these countries, until the autocrats change their signals and expose a more moderate stance. Perhaps a second effort by reformers in coming years will find more success.
Until then, the Egyptian efforts remain the dominant push for legitimate reform. The unyielding protests – such as those in response to unpopular court rulings – confirm that the fall of Hosni Mubarak is not enough to satisfy a people starving for democracy. There is much cause for a sanguine outlook on events because the reformers themselves believe that change is possible. The “Egyptian Spring” is not a battle of military strength, wealth, or fame; it is a battle of wills. The Egyptian public is winning that battle, and if they remain steadfast, they will be victorious in the revolution.
Photo Credit: Kodak Agfa