Why July 2012 Is a Bright Spot in Arab History

BEIRUT - The sequence of political events in Egypt in the last two weeks was an important step on the long road to the reconfiguration of governance and politics in Egypt, because it highlighted the legitimacy of several critical actors who will long remain in some form of peaceful political confrontation. Within days we witnessed the following dramatic events: The elected president was declared to be Mohamed Morsi, who symbolically took the oath of office in front of a large crowd of supporters in Tahrir Square; then more formally repeated the same oath before the Constitutional Court; after which, he called the disbanded parliament into a single brief session that demanded a review of its dismissal by the Constitutional Court and the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF); only to have the court and SCAF affirm that the parliament was disbanded and could not meet; which President Morsi then acknowledged and accepted as the law of the land.
Only a classic Egyptian comedy or drama film would have a more robust sequence of events that was each worthy of the audience’s rapt attention. But this is no film. This is the extraordinary and still uplifting story of a shattered political culture that is trying to stand on its feet again, and regain simultaneously its dignity, efficacy, and, most importantly, its legitimacy. This shows again -- we should get used to this, because it will happen over and over again across the Arab world in the years ahead -- that in the more normal trajectory of national development, a country establishes legitimate institutions of governance, which become more efficient over time, and finally earn a certain amount of respect and dignity because of the combination of their legitimacy and service to the citizenry. This is a luxury that most Arab countries do not have these days, as we witness in the four to date that have started on the road to national political reconfiguration (Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen; a fifth, Iraq, still suffers the curse and burden of having its reconfiguration process midwived by a criminal Anglo-American military invasion).
The important development in Egypt this month has been the affirmation of five key actors who now interact on the stage of national politics -- the president, the SCAF, the parliament, the court system, and the public as represented by the crowd in Tahrir Square that witnessed the first presidential oath. How these five interact will continue to evolve, with each one maneuvering for advantage in the arena of public opinion, using the instruments of peaceful politics. That these events now take place routinely and nonviolently is a great success for the Egyptian people, who understand the historic nature of the decisions they are making as they wake up and rebuild after six decades of military rule.
The process is still in its early days. Many other actors remain to claim their place on this great stage, including credible political parties, civil society organizations, private sector organizations, and associations of workers, students, women, farmers and others. All of these will have to be represented in the next big step, which is selecting a commission to draft the new constitution. Intense political negotiations and confrontations will define this endeavor, which is to be expected and welcomed, given the enormous and lasting impact of a national constitution.
For now, we can only marvel at the manner in which those already on stage went about the process of staking out their ground, challenging the power and legitimacy of some other actors, retreating a bit when they were counter-challenged, and ultimately leaving the stage fully manned by the forces now at work. The most important actors, in my view, are the citizenry in Tahrir Square and the court system, because they represent the core elements of any credible democratic and republican system of governance: Ultimate authority is vested in the people, and the judicial system is the critical guarantor of citizen rights and the rule of law, which are the bedrock of such systems. Presidents, parliaments and military officers come and go, but the citizenry and the judiciary remain.
That is why it was so important and correct for President Morsi to challenge the SCAF by calling the disbanded parliament into office briefly and taking his first oath in front of the citizenry, and similarly correct for him to accept the dissolution of parliament when the constitutional court reaffirmed that decision. He sent exactly the right messages that the Egyptian and Arab people want to hear: We seek to create systems of governance that are anchored in the consent and rights of the citizenry, and guaranteed by the work of a judiciary that adheres only to the rule of law, and to no other allegiance.
For this reason, the early days of July 2012 will be remembered as a moment of rebirth and reason in modern Arab history. 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