The Egyptian Epic Enters Phase Two (II)

Rami G. Khouri

CAIRO -- Egyptians refer to their “revolution” that overthrew the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak last February, and they revel in its continuing afterglow, appreciating how significant and satisfying was their deed. The post-revolution phase now underway in the country is a more difficult challenge than the weeks of street demonstrations that sent Mubarak into retirement, where he, his two sons and some of his senior officials are detained and will soon be tried in court. Everyone asks in Egypt every day: Did the revolution really change much beyond removing the top officials from office, and will a new democratic system of governance fully take root in the country?
Speaking with a range of ordinary Egyptians, professionals, academics and activists in Cairo this week, I also had a rich vantage point from which to understand the deeper political issues at play here, when I participated in a two-day seminar of 30 representatives of non-governmental organizations from a dozen Arab countries, who gathered to discuss “Paths towards democratic changes and equitable development in the Arab region: Towards building a civil state and establishing a new social contract.”
The meeting -- convened by the Arab NGO Network for Development, the Arab Institute for Human Rights, and the Egyptian Association for the Community Participation Enhancement – clarified what I see as the three most important political dynamics to emerge from the Egyptian experience (which is also taking place in Tunisia): The Tahrir Square experience was an exhilarating mass empowerment of once helpless individuals who came together and were able to remove their disliked previous government; the concept of “the consent of the governed” is now operational in Egypt, as “people power” has become the legitimate source of authority and governance, but without ideological expression or anchorage; the spirit of Tahrir Square must now be translated into a new governance structure and social contract that provide citizens with both their political and civil rights and also the promise of more egalitarian socio-economic development prospects.
The NGO activists who came from all corners of the Arab world to discuss these issues in Cairo this week knew instinctively from their decades of experience that they had to achieve one overriding imperative if the newly forged assets of the popular rebellions across the Arab world were to be translated into long-term gains for all citizens: The new governance systems of the Arab world must be based on rights of citizens that are both clearly defined in constitutions and also implemented and enforced on the ground through credible legal and political structures. Among the critical elements that must define a new social contract and credible constitutionalism are a strong, independent judiciary, and a new relationship between the military-security sector and the civilian population.
The political contest underway in Egypt today sees the spirit of Tahrir Square continuing to manifest itself in several forms (street demonstrations, legal action, new political parties, civil society activism, dynamic media) that seek to define a new governance system in the face of the two most powerful forces that hover over society – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Egyptians increasingly see a growing alliance between the military and the Islamists, which some activists even refer to as a quiet coup d’etat. The new element at play now is the Arab citizen, whose courageous confrontation of the autocratic old order has energized and empowered him or her. Masses of Arabs today feel that they actually have the ability not just to demand, but also to enforce, their rights as citizens in the pluralistic and constitutional democracies they seek to construct from the wreckage of the Arab security states they endured for many decades.
The polarization, fragmentation or even violent collapse of some Arab states -- Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Algeria and Iraq to date, with others lined up to follow suit -- is the natural consequence of states that fail to provide their citizens with the rights they expect. Rehabilitating and rebuilding more stable Arab states and governance systems today requires addressing the equal rights of all citizens in the political, civic, economic, cultural and social fields, and “constitutionalizing the protection of citizen rights,” as one Moroccan scholar called it.
The historic change that Tunisia and Egypt have triggered is simply that Arab citizens are now players in this process, having been mostly idle bystanders in the past four generations when Arab statehood proliferated without any real citizen sovereignty taking root in parallel. This struggle to define the new Arab world will go on for some years. The important thing is that it has finally started in earnest, and its outcome will be determined largely by the interaction among indigenous actors that now include the once vanished but now reinvigorated protagonist in the saga of statehood: the Arab citizen. 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 © 2011 Rami G. Khouri -- distributed by Agence Global