LONDON, United Kingdom — Among the many glorious things proved and re-proved by the Egyptian Revolution — chief among them that people cannot be oppressed forever by their rulers — is a common cliche since the collapse of the Soviet Union two decades ago: We live in a post-ideological age.
Once upon a not-too-distant time revolutions were the product of ideology. The people who fought them had an ideological program they wanted to impose on their societies: Marxist, pan-Arabist, fascist, communist or republican democracy. Each political ideology had an economic system attached to it.
But what is the ideology in Egypt's revolution? Or in Tunisia's?
Most revolutions are led by a small group of charismatic figures articulating an ideology. Who is that figure in Egypt? Mohamed El Baradei? He is the embodiment of technocratic non-charisma. The brave, honest Wael Ghonim, the Google marketing executive credited with setting up the Facebook page that sparked the demonstrations? We know Google has changed the world — but not via political ideology.
The greatest proof that politics has moved beyond ideology is this: The coup de grace was delivered to Hosni Mubarak by the military. In the age of ideology a military coup was a frightening thing. But in Egypt the people in the streets are delirious with joy. The radio stations aren't blaring martial music 24/7 as an audio warning to people to head home. There is no curfew, the enemies of the state are not being herded into soccer stadiums before being executed.
In a way, the conclusion of act one of this mighty revolution represents continuity in Egypt. The modern history of the country began with a military coup nearly 60 years ago. In July 1952, the Free Officers Movement, led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power in a coup. There were nine men at its core. They did not come from elite backgrounds and had a range of political beliefs. The Free Officers ideology did not go much further than restoring "dignity" to the Egyptian people.
Nasser did not personally take power in the coup. He felt his lack of rank — he was a humble lieutenant colonel — and his ordinary background might not command respect of the wider public. He waited until 1955 before taking power and pushing Egypt further along the path of one-party rule.
At Nasser's side throughout the coup was another lieutenant colonel, Anwar Sadat. Sadat was also at Nasser's deathbed in 1970 and took over as Egypt's president then. He became close with an air force officer, Hosni Mubarak, who he appointed as vice president. As Sadat was present at Nasser's death, Mubarak was present at Sadat's. Newsreel footage shows soldiers surrounding Mubarak and hustling him away seconds after Sadat was assassinated at a military parade marking the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War. Mubarak was wounded in the attack.
Now Mubarak is gone and today, at least, Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi is in charge. His ideology is not known and for the moment it is not important in these post-ideological times.
But when Nasser took power ideology was everything. The Cold War was dividing up the world between two superpowers with distinct ideologies. Countries like Egypt (and India and much of Africa) were forced to choose sides. For a while, these new nations tried to resist. They set up the "Non-Aligned Movement." But non-alignment is not much protection from ideological forces when superpowers roam the earth saying those who are not with us are against us.
After toying with non-alignment, Nasser drifted toward the Soviet camp for weapons and tried pan-Arabism as an ideology. It foundered on the reality of profound national differences within the Arab world.
Now Egypt is poised again on an era of change. It's people have fought a revolution for "dignity" with great dignity — when Mubarak wrong-footed Egypt, the Obama administration and the rest of the world Thursday night by not resigning, the streets did not erupt in mindless violence. The restraint of people in the face of that final provocation was magnificent to watch from a distance. When the histories are written it will be seen as the reason the military high command finally forced Mubarak to leave.
But with no guiding set of political and economic ideas and principles articulated by a charismatic leader, it is not clear where the revolution goes from here. In the decades since 1952, as the presidency of Egypt was handed down from one military officer to another, political parties shrunk, were banned, and to all intents and purposes eliminated.
If act two of the Revolution of 2011 is to have a happy ending, the delirious masses in Tahrir Square are going to have to quickly rediscover the joys and dangers of politics based on parties representing competing ideas. They are going to have to re-create an ideological age.