The Thrill of the Sovereign Moment

Rami G. Khouri

BEIRUT -- Events move so quickly in the continuing citizen revolts across the Arab world that an observer could easily feel lost or confused while trying to understand what is really happening, or just trying to sort out the really new and historic from the routine agitation of discontented men and women. Two developments in Syria and Egypt on Thursday and Friday of last week help clarify what is going on, and what is really at stake. These two are the return of tens of thousands of demonstrators to Tahrir Square in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, to show their discontent with the slow pace of government trials of those in the former Mubarak regime who are accused of corruption and killing, and the visit to central Hama by the American ambassador in Syria, Robert Ford.
These two very different events converge in focusing our attention on the ultimate issue at stake in the ongoing Arab citizen revolts, the prize, if you will: national sovereignty. This has been the heart of the ongoing political confrontation between Arab citizens and their ruling authorities since the current revolt started in December in Tunisia, but in reality the contest over Arab sovereignty dates back many decades. The question of sovereignty is about who holds ultimate power and who is in charge of national decision-making in the independent countries that have defined the modern Arab world during much of the past century. Most national decisions in most Arab countries for most of the past century have been made by small groups of unelected men who dominate the political elite. The current revolts across the region demand at their core the reconfiguration of this power system, to give citizens a major role in national policy-making.
In fact, this is not simply a struggle between the rulers and the ruled. Four and a half parties can be identified as contenders for the sovereign authority in the Arab world: the existing governments, the security agencies, and the citizens are the three key ones, but many Arabs also feel that decisions in their countries are actually made by major Western powers, and even by Israel (my half-party in the four and a half list) which is often accused of driving decision-making in some states, especially Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, where deference to Israeli wishes is institutionalized in assorted peace agreements.
The developments in Cairo and Hama this week are significant because they touch the heart of the matter of who ultimately shapes national policy in Arab states. Egyptians who return to the streets in their hundreds of thousands send the message that they see power as being vested in the people, and thus they expect government to pursue policies that are shaped by the citizens and respond to citizen demands and rights. It is important to recognize the political and historical significance of this development at this delicate and probably decisive transitional moment that will shape for many years the nature of national political sovereignty in Egypt -- and what happens in Egypt always influences developments in many other Arab countries. The January-February revolution overthrew the Mubarak regime, but it has not been replaced yet by a credible new governance system, and the transitional supreme council of the armed forces still holds ultimate power. The demonstrators want to make sure that power remains anchored in the will of the citizenry, thus affirming in practice the consent of the governed. Some Arabs are finally experiencing the same thrill that French and American citizens experienced in the late 18th Century, followed by many other democracies: the exercise of citizen sovereignty.
U.S. Ambassador Ford’s visit to Hama touches on a different dimension of this same process, but includes the added complexity of how foreign powers relate to events within the Arab world. The State Department explained the Ford visit as a show of solidarity with the residents of Hama, saying he had, “spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.”
The battle in Syria, as in the entire Arab world, is not only about peaceful assembly and self-expression, of course; it is about defining the ultimate authority for the exercise of power, and thus about sovereignty itself. The United States says is believes that the citizens of Syria should participate in this process, and the ambassador’s visit is a dramatic gesture of support for citizen rights. I ignore for now whether this is an appropriate ambassadorial gesture, and whether anyone believes the United States is sincere or credible in its support for Arab citizen rights. What matters now is to grasp the historic nature of this seminal moment in modern Arab history, when national sovereignty itself is at stake and being reshaped, in Cairo, Hama and hundreds of other cities and town across the Arab world. 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