Calm and Confidence in Cairo

Rami G. Khouri

CAIRO -- Nearly a year after the Egyptian revolution that toppled the Hosni Mubarak regime, perhaps the most striking development in the country is how casually most people have adapted to the new political conditions, especially the dominance of Islamists in the transitional parliament that has just been elected. A visitor to Cairo senses two overriding patterns in people’s sentiments: There is no panic, and there is also no consensus. The combination of these is reassuring, in my view, as Egyptians seem to be following their stunning revolution with a historic political transition with their usual aplomb.
Among the dozens of people from all walks of life that I spoke to during my visit in recent days, many questions dominated our conversations, with little certainty in the answers. Unlike events during the past 62 years of Egyptian politics, nobody really knows what will happen in the coming months, which is a good thing. This is because it suggests that events will unfold on the basis of two dynamics that have long been missing from Egypt and the rest of the Arab world: the will of the citizenry and its manifestation through multiple credible political channels, including parliament, civil society and political parties, the media, the military, the courts, and street demonstrations.
There is widespread satisfaction that Hosni Mubarak, his sons and some of his officials are now on trial for various serious crimes -- yet there is also concern that the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has detained thousands of other Egyptians and put them on trial in military tribunals, where there is no appeal mechanism. The firm parliamentary dominance of the Islamists -- the Muslim Brotherhood party took around 40 percent of seats in the lower house and the hardline Salafist party took another 20 percent -- has generated above all pride in the free electoral process, but also new expectations among different sectors of society. Supporters expect the Islamists to show how good governance without corruption can take root in Arab lands; critics await the Islamists’ failure to deliver if they cannot get beyond their sloganeering and focus on the immense challenges of economic revival, job-creation, and improving social services and housing.
Neutral observers and most Egyptians are less concerned about the Islamists -- after all, they are loyal and long-suffering Egyptians who were democratically elected and deserve to govern -- and seem most focused on the process by which the SCAF will turn over power to the elected civilian authorities in the coming months. This process should start when parliament convenes on January 23, and continue with the writing of a new constitution, and the election of the upper house and then the presidency. Months ago, most Egyptians thought the former Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa would easily win the presidency; today that certainty has disappeared, and several other candidates have entered the race. All eyes are on the upcoming one year anniversary celebrations of the January 25 revolution, which will provide hints about how the various political forces in the country will cooperate in the months and years ahead.
Egyptians enthusiastically discuss the possible combinations of political coalitions that could occur in that period. Civilian authorities will assume more power as the military recedes into the background, from where, Turkish-like, it will want to preserve both its immense privileges and the stability of the country. Problems persist of course, and threats and dangers with them. Street kids and gang-like behavior, the absence of police in a few quarters, economic stress, insufficient accountability for thousands who died or went missing, and other painful issues generate real anger and concern among many Egyptians. Yet the removal of the former regime and its oppressive rule continues to generate immense satisfaction among Egyptians from all walks of life, who understand that the transition to a legitimate political system of governance takes time. They are buoyed in their self-confidence and national pride by the certitude that the military will not remain in power.
Nearly one year has passed since the January 25 revolution, and one year in the life of Egypt is a second in the life of any other country in the world. The Mubarak men are on trial, January 23 and 25 are just days away, a new president will soon be elected, honest men and women of faith will play a greater role in public life, and all other Egyptians have the guaranteed opportunity to have their say and hold the government accountable to an unprecedented new popular legitimacy. There is confidence and no panic among Egyptians, I suspect, largely because they have managed their own societies at the national and local levels for around 6,500 years. They know how to do this, if given the chance to do so; now they feel that they have given themselves that chance, which is why they are so calm and confident. Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global