Gamal Abdel Nasser pledged to thrust Egypt into the postcolonial time zone in 1952, when he wrested control of the government from the Egyptian monarch and the British Empire. As he wrote in his autobiographical essay, Egypt's Liberation, "The revolution marked the realization of a great hope felt by the people of Egypt since they began, in modern times, to think in terms of self-government and to demand that they have the final say in determining their own future." Unfortunately, almost 50 years later, Egyptians are still struggling to determine their own future. And now, with President Hosni Mubarak deposed, the aspirations of the people once again rest in the hands of the military.

Mubarak was just 24 years old when Nasser took power. He was part of a generation of leaders in the developing world who, like Nasser, came to view hegemonic nationalism as necessary and used the military to secure national unity at the expense of civic freedoms. When Mubarak took office after Anwar al-Sadat was assassinated, he rolled back Sadat's interior political reforms and repressed his political opponents, especially the Muslim Brotherhood.

It is safe to say that most of the protesters who filled Tahrir Square had an altogether different view of nationalism, the military, technology, ideology, and most important, time. Mubarak, however, subscribed to an outdated nationalist ideology that did not tolerate democratic discussion and was trapped in a view of the world that refused to account for change. For Mubarak, time stood still, so protesters clamoring for change made no sense historically to him.

Likewise, xenophobic Egyptian state propaganda presented the protesters as part of a foreign, almost neocolonial, conspiracy meant to undo the nation. As a result, the military -- which has been the beneficiary of autocracy and generous foreign aid packages from the United States and elsewhere -- found itself straddling the past and the future as it faced its first true crossroads since 1952. It had to make a decision about its place in time.

Many leaders within and outside the Middle East suffer from the same type of historical jetlag as Mubarak. As a result, they are similarly unable to keep pace with younger populations demanding political reform. Last month, activists in Tunisia chased 74-year-old Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali into exile, which emboldened Egyptians to get rid of Mubarak. With both men out of power, leaders from Algeria and Libya to Yemen have been put on notice.

Like Mubarak, other "presidents for life" see popular challenges to state authority as inauthentic and conspiracy-driven -- an understandable worldview, since many of them cut their teeth during decolonization. They suffer from what can be called postcolonial time disorder, or PTD, meaning that they still subscribe to an out-of-date philosophy of governance, according to which authoritarianism is the only cure for external or internal political challenges. They have a Manichean inability to think outside the logic of totalizing state power.

PTD originated in countries' efforts to jump-start history during the anticolonial national liberation movements before and after World War II, when the great European empires ran the show and stamped out democratic movements. Decolonization and the postcolonial periods were so hard fought that states could claim that only their uncontested authority would prevent a return to the past.

In various ways, PTD affects how such leaders as Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, and Myanmarese President Thein Sein run their countries. All of them contend that their uncontested powers shield their people from the dangers of a neocolonial world. Ben Ali viewed his unflinching stranglehold on the population as a quasi-divine nationalist right. Mubarak was one of decolonization's last men standing and served as the secretary-general of the Non-Aligned Movement, an artifact of the Cold War. Now that he has fallen, it is possible that the paradigm of unchecked state power -- which has prevented time from moving forward and blocked democratic enfranchisement -- will also implode.

Now that the clock has finally struck for Mubarak in Egypt, other states in the region suffering from PTD remain vulnerable to revolution. Algeria -- a regional power, U.S. ally, and major energy producer -- is foremost among them. Protesters there, who went to the streets on February 12 in much smaller numbers than in Tunisia and Egypt, hope to catch a lift from their neighbors. But it is not clear if Algerians have the stomach to pull off what the Egyptians and the Tunisians have done.

After massive riots caused the one-party state to collapse in 1988, Algeria failed to become a democracy, and the military took power in 1992. What followed was the decade-long Algerian civil war. Algerian civil society has only just begun to emerge from the trauma of that war, which left 200,000 people dead. To date, it remains the region's most violent conflict between militants and the state. As was the case in Egypt, public protests in Algeria are prohibited under state-of-emergency measures, which have allowed the government to engage in heavy-handed censorship and the abuse of civil liberties. And like Mubarak, following the revolution in Tunisia and flashes of protests in Algeria, Bouteflika vowed to lift the existing state-of- emergency measures. But he has not yet done so.

One of the key moments of decolonization came in February 1960, four years after Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal, when British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan delivered his "wind of change" speech to the South African parliament in Cape Town. The speech signaled that the United Kingdom was willing to accept the loss of its African colonies, and it set in motion a wave of decolonization. Today, the Middle East might be experiencing another "wind of change" moment, with the people rejecting regimes that are out of sync with time, fueled by corruption, reliant on brutal police regimes to suppress dissent, and determined to stay in power at all costs.

As the dust settles, all eyes are turning to the military elite. For Egypt, the question is how the military will facilitate a democratic process and whether it will remain, as it is often described, the people's army. In South Africa, it should be remembered, Macmillan's speech gave the apartheid state justification to retreat from foreign criticism and leave the Commonwealth of Nations to create the Republic of South Africa in 1961. The country was betting against time, and it took another 30 years to break the hold of PTD on its leaders. After the downfall of Mubarak, it is doubtful that the Egyptian military will dig in and resist efforts to reform the one-party police state.

To stay with the South African example, Nelson Mandela said many times that while in prison he saw too many postcolonial leaders come to power only to abuse their people and rob them of the promises of liberation. In this sense, Mandela is one recent leader who understood the dangers of PTD and inoculated himself from its effects by embracing national reconciliation and democracy after he was elected president in 1994. Given the brutality of the South African regime he was succeeding, this was by no means an easy strategy. Nevertheless, he overcame his rage and set the South African clocks forward with a program of national reconciliation, complete with trials and forgiveness for willing participants. And he oversaw the implementation of the most liberal constitution in the world, which ensured multiparty competition.

If Egypt -- and, indeed, other governments in the region whose leaders still have untreated PTD -- is to move forward, its future leaders must be sure not to inherit PTD from past leaders. In the West's rush to prejudge the various movements that might be involved in the new government in Egypt, it is worth remembering that both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher initially insisted that Mandela was a communist-backed "terrorist." All the while, the United States and the United Kingdom were supporting radical Islamists, including Osama bin Laden, as anticommunist allies fighting in Afghanistan against the Soviets. The fact that Mandela became the most important man of peace of his generation and bin Laden became the greatest terrorist is cause for skepticism and patience.

The legacy of Mubarak's oppressive rule will make it difficult for Egyptians to fight off the desire for revenge. To overcome that impulse, the military will have to provide security and the space Egyptians need to consider constitutional reforms like those South Africa enacted, which protected civil liberties for all citizens. The newly reconstituted Egyptian state must also allow journalists, activists, and historians to do their jobs, since, as South Africa demonstrated, historical awareness and civic-minded democratic activism is vital for any state to move forward after decades of distrust. From all the evidence so far, the Egyptian activists appear well-positioned to keep track of the military's progress toward reform.


For further expert analysis of the uprisings across the Arab world, please check out Foreign Affairs/CFR new ebook, The New Arab Revolt: What Happened, What It Means, and What Comes Next. It is  available for purchase in multiple formats including PDF, Kindle, and Nook.

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  • JAMES D. LE SUEUR is Professor of History at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. He is the author of Algeria Since 1989: Between Terror and Democracy.
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