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Saturday, 12 February 2011

Mubarak departs – what next?

I’m sure that many like me had been longing for that moment for the last few weeks. It finally came last night, when Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak’s defiance collapsed in the face of the determined and unceasing protests of the courageous Egyptian people. There is no doubt that history has been made; the scenes of jubilation following the announcement were more than reminiscent of the scenes across eastern Europe in 1989 when one after another, despotic governments fell to popular expressions of the desire for freedom and democracy.

The word “revolution” is overused by journalists and historians. Whether this peaceful movement for democracy has achieved anything truly revolutionary remains to be seen. But it has been amazing – even miraculous – that ordinary people have had such an extraordinary impact in this most unlikely of places. It was almost inconceivable that Mubarak, the US-backed dictator whose position appeared unassailable just weeks ago, would be brought down by his own people. Even as late as Thursday, Mubarak’s hold on power seemed as firm as ever as he defiantly refused to resign, instead promising to “hand over power after upcoming elections...I will deliver Egypt and its people to safety.” When the end did come, it came quickly. And completely.

There were understandable scenes of euphoric joy in Cairo and beyond. The Egyptian people deserve their moment. They have brought down the regime. The stood up for freedom and democracy when Western democracies were, at best, ambivalent towards the plight of Egypt’s people. They have dreamed for so long of real democracy - democracy that George W Bush ironically felt he could bring to the Middle East via the promotion of US political and economic interests. How fitting that rebellion came from within: Mubarak had never calculated for such an outcome, believing that friendly relations with the West alone would secure his position. If this marks merely the beginning of a wider movement towards greater democracy in the area, it will precipitate a new reality in international politics: Egyptians will have shown that democracy does not need to be facilitated by paternalistic, neo-colonial Western powers and that the moral authority of the West has evaporated. Accepted political certainties will have to be reconsidered.

Egyptians are understandably delighted by the turn of events. They are talking in terms of freedom and liberation. There is a sense of hope and expectation. As celebrations erupted across Cairo, the jubilation was almost tangible. Not for the relieved protesters the difficult and complex questions that remain unanswered about Egypt’s future. They were simply happy to enjoy the moment, as well they might.

Euphoria has naturally spread beyond Egypt’s borders. German chancellor Angela Merkel said: “Today is a day of great joy.” Indeed. Political bloggers celebrated with the Egyptian people: John Mark Cole hailed “freedom for Egypt”, Jonathan Fryer drew inspiration from the protesters’ courage and Andy Crick revelled in “the immense victory”. Meanwhile, President Obama informed the world that “the people of Egypt have spoken. Their voices have been heard. And Egypt will never be the same again.” Let’s hope so.

I don’t want to detract from the ecstasy and elation. This is an incredible result for democracy. But the jubilation must be tempered by realism. Mubarak’s resignation, welcome as it is, removes one individual agent of Egypt’s despotic regime. What it does not do is destroy the foundations on which the dictatorship was established. For real change to happen, rather than just an exchange of personalities at the top, revolutionary changes to Egypt’s political framework are required. That there is an appetite for change is unquestionable. The momentum is currently with the protesters. Whether these changes will be allowed to happen is, however, another issue; there are so many interests that could be described as “vested”.

There are some key potential obstructions to reform. Firstly, is the rather obvious one: Egypt is now under martial law. The Higher Military Council does not exactly inspire much confidence as an agent for political reform. Secondly, Field Marshall Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, who leads the new government, is hardly renowned for his progressive reform agenda. The septuagenarian leader of Egypt’s armed forces is an unlikely choice to facilitate the kind of changes pro-democracy protesters have been demanding. A deeply conservative figure, it is doubtful if he has much in the way of a well-considered direction towards greater political reform. Thirdly, and most seriously, is the position of the army itself. Historically dependent upon the Mubarak regime for its status and privileges, questions have to be asked about the army’s willingness to forego its power and privilege in exchange for democratic progress. Will it be happy to surrender control? What if another strongman emerges from within and is better positioned than Mubarak to survive protests? Does the army actually have either the capability or the readiness to implement the kinds of changes Egyptian people want?

So far, the army has made the welcome intimation that it is only governing in transition. It has also promised a free and fair presidential election in September. So far, so good. Egyptians will accept this development so long as it is a temporary measure and a precursor of further change. Mubarak’s departure was simply one of the protesters’ demands – the others being an end to the emergency laws and the dissolution of what is considered a corrupt and illegitimate parliament. At the moment it is simply too early to know if these demands will be acted on and, if so, to what degree.

A fourth problem is the inescapable truth that the foundations of tyranny run deep – not only in Egypt but in neighbouring states. Whether a “new wineskin” can be prepared into which the demands and fervent desires of Egypt’s politicised masses can be poured is uncertain. What is sure is that current political structures, based as they are on elitism and privilege, can not withstand the strain and pressure of the appetite for reform. Much of the ancien regime remains in place and has an obvious interest in its own preservation. If wise, it will embrace the momentum towards the new political reality, but that is by no means certain.

It will be truly incredible if Egypt’s “revolutionaries” accomplish a lasting shake-up of their country’s political and economic system. It is not entirely outwith the realms of possibility that they could do so. But a movement that is virtually leaderless and lacking in organisation is not necessarily in a strong position to direct either the pace or direction of reform.

A fifth issue of pertinence will be the role of the West. There can be no escaping the fact that Mubarak was, in many respects, a product of US foreign policy. It therefore follows that Western democracies, with their own political interests in preserving the status quo, are indirectly responsible for the plight of Egypt’s people. The past can not, however, be unravelled and undone. In the present circumstances Obama and Cameron seem to have got the balance right, encouraging protests without pressing their own agendas (at least not openly). What they are anxious to avoid, of course, is taking on the kind of role George W Bush naively imagined for himself – that of bringing “democracy” to the Middle East. No longer is it possible for Western leaders to express support for democracy while supporting individuals who suppress it. Neither is it possible to take on an overbearing or aggressive approach to issues of Middle Eastern politics.

The potential for democratising the Middle East is greater than ever before. Western nations must play an active role in encouraging this. We have seen unleashed the power of aspirational politics and it will be a betrayal of the Egyptian people if they are abandoned, as before. This of course does not mean that the West should openly interfere with the political process or manipulate it for its own ends. For too long “democracy” has meant little more than carrying out the wishes of Western powers. Such notions of democracy will not wash with the newly-politicised Egyptians, who understandably want the real thing this time. Britain, Germany, the EU and the US have a moral obligation to empower Egyptians to take control over their own destiny.

It’s a difficult thing to get right. Standing on the outside opens the West up to charges of negligence; too direct involvement leads to the perception of political manipulation. What must happen if for Egyptians to be given the chance to shape their own future. Not only do Western democracies have to accept this in both principle and practice – so does Israel and the far more conservative Arab League.

A final point I will make – a criticism in fact. While optimism and realism are required in equal doses for Egypt to move towards greater freedom, what is not needed are the innately conservative influences negatively predicting chaos, unrest and the ascendancy of militant Islam. Such people are not democrats, promoting what they consider “stability” instead of real change. They distrust Egypt’s people and are suspicious of the Egyptians’ ability to make decisions in their own interests. Such cynics point to the Muslim Brotherhood and predict, rather naively and with obvious prejudice, the emergence of an Islamic state.

Regrettably, some such cynics and purveyors of prejudice and fear appear to work for sections of the UK media, most notably the tabloid press. It is vital, therefore, to crush the myth that Egypt will fall to Islamic fundamentalists and the supposed radicalism of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Let’s get things straight: the Muslim Brotherhood is not in the same mould as al-Qaeda. It has a broad respect in Egypt, largely because it has been consistently and systematically repressed by the Mubarak regime. The MB does not advocate the use of violence as a tactic. Politically, the MB would be irrelevant if its mere existence had not presented Mubarak with a convenient bogeyman with which to frighten the US. Without him and the stability he provided, Mubarak maintained, Egypt would succumb to Islamic radicalism. Mubarak successfully used the MB, exaggerating its threat and significance to silence Western criticism of his regime and its shameful human rights record. And all the time the “Muslim threat” allowed Mubarak to clamp down even harder on Egyptian society in the interests of “security”.

Western commentators who have bought into Mubarak’s rhetoric – and broadcast it to a largely uninformed public – are doing democracy a disservice. Take a closer look at the protesters: where were the sectarian flags and banners? Where was the rhetoric of fundamentalist Islam? No-one was calling for an Islamic state, but for democratic values and personal freedoms. Even the MB’s demands were no more radical than a call for political inclusion – given that they were unfairly reduced to zero representation in the rigged 2010 elections, an understandable and perfectly democratic objective. The Egyptian people clearly believe that democracy is a preferable system of government, so why would they be supportive of a theocracy? It is actually rather surprising how small Islam loomed in the minds of the protesters, both in Egypt and Tunisia.

There are some who have drawn parallels between Iran in 1979 and Egypt in 2010, but that too is short-sighted: why would the model of Shi’ite Iran appeal to the moderate Sunni majority in Egypt? It should also be noted that the military, who are now in control, are unlikely to support any efforts to create a new religious political order.

The MB retains some popular support, but this is based more on the fact that they are themselves a victim of anti-democratic oppression rather than any public sympathy with fundamentalist Islam. There also exists a loose unity between opposition parties who, in spite of differing political views, have a shared desire for removing the old regime. The MB went along with the secularist parties; in Tahrir Square Muslims and Christians held hands and expressed solidarity. Even if it had wanted to, the MB would have been incapable of hijacking the uprising, so how is it conceivable that it could create an Islamic state? The truth is that this “revolution” has turned a lot of conventional wisdom on its head, and has completely destroyed the Arab stereotype. Get that, Daily Mail.

The only way I can see the potential for a pro-Islamic movement is in the event of the Egyptians’ desire for democracy to be completely frustrated. If the hoped-for changes are not delivered, sections of the restive population may well be tempted by the messages of groups with less moderate objectives than the MB. But, as things stand, extreme Muslim organisations simply aren’t even attempting to compete in the marketplace of ideas, such is the strong appeal of democracy.

While we in the West might be obsessed by the MB, Egyptians are looking beyond it – to an Egypt with new political and economic opportunities. We should be similarly optimistic about Egypt’s potential. The established order has been unsettled, stirred up and, frankly, terrified. The incredible opportunities now possible are a testament to both grassroots activism and the power of the internet (which I addressed previously: Democratic ideals of internet-inspired revolution should be applauded) Obviously the result is uncertainty (not necessarily a bad thing) as well as new demands and expectations.

Egyptian democrats and liberals are finally finding their voices and are determined to seize the opportunity to shape their own destiny. Egyptian people need to be allowed to become the masters of their own fate, irrespective of Western concerns. Compromising democracy for “stability” would be duplicitous and dishonest – and potentially devastating. Egyptians have not only expressed a wish to be free of Mubarak’s oppression, they also want liberation from the West.

If the Egyptian revolution is allowed to run its course, with the West acting merely as a supportive and empowering friend, the consequences for democratic movements in the Arab world could be huge. If the appetite for democracy takes hold across the Middle East, where then does militant Islam go? Not only have the Egyptian people been enabled to demand democracy without Western involvement, it is also possible that democracy itself will trump Islamic militancy.

So what happens now? Let’s leave it to the Egyptians to decide, will we?

1 comment:

Andrew said...

A good piece in today's Independent, making some similar points as well as asking some other vital questions:

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/africa/egypt-the-key-questions-answered-2213292.html