Eighteen Days That Shook the Middle East – Part II

Governments that avoid rigid ideological rules for their citizens and allow new ideas to flourish can wield great influence. This two-part YaleGlobal series suggests that Egypt, the largest of Arab nations, transformed by the uprising, will in turn transform governments and politics throughout the Middle East. By embarking on a wave of democratization, Egypt could reclaim its historic role as the political and cultural epicenter of the Arab world, writes author Rami G. Khouri in the second article of the series. To succeed, Egypt’s governance must incorporate defining values of Arabism, Islamism, tribalism and cosmopolitanism – and faithfully reflect public opinion. Turkey’s democracy and economic success, especially its “soft and tantalizing brand of Islamo-secularism,” could serve as a model for Egypt, Khouri explains. Nations as diverse as Iran and Israel may chafe over differences with a newly empowered Egypt yet will be forced to address its concerns. Priorities for Europe and the US will be tested, as Egyptians and other Arabs pursue representative government and checks on power that have so far collaborated with the West. – YaleGlobal

Eighteen Days That Shook the Middle East – Part II

From culture to politics – what happens in Egypt spreads throughout the Middle East
Rami G. Khouri
Wednesday, February 16, 2011

BOSTON:  The populist political revolt sparked in Tunisia and capturing its biggest prize in Egypt will transform the Middle East, because in the realm of politics and culture, what starts in Egypt always ends up spreading to the entire region. From Pharaonic empires five millennia ago to Islamism, socialism and Arabism in the past century, from peace treaties with Israel to modern cinema and Salafist terrorism, major phenomena born in Egypt spread to the rest of the Middle East and sometimes to the world. We should expect history to repeat, as Egypt pulls out of a self-imposed mediocrity and marginalization of the past four decades and regains its role as the dynamic center of Arab ideology, politics and culture.

How Egypt transforms itself remains to be seen, as it will surely experience bumps, diversions and regressions on the road from military-backed authoritarianism to civilian-based democracy. We’re likely to see a free and broadly democratic Egypt develop that elusive prize denied to the Arab people for the past century: a stable, self-defined governance system, credible and legitimate because it’s based on fair representation and real accountability. Axiomatically, democratic governance in Egypt at the heart of the Arab world must reflect the four principal value systems and social configurations that define the Arab world to various degrees, namely Arabism, Islamism, tribalism and cosmopolitanism. Such a system that faithfully reflects public opinion is likely to trigger changes in policies around the region and the world.

Several clear implications can be identified as this process starts, related to six principal actors with whom Egypt interacts across the Middle East: Arab countries, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the USA and Europe.  A democratic Egyptian government that reflects public opinion will support democratic transformations and more accountable governance throughout the region. Egypt first gave the Arabs a sense of their own collective Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s, and is likely to regain a regional role as the spearhead of a new pan-Arab identity anchored in the twin processes of genuine self-determination and a collective commitment to democratic governance that’s deeply desired across the region.Critical will be the role played by rule-of-law institutions that Egypt pioneered nearly a century ago, including a free press, an independent judiciary, credible rather than sham constitutionalism, and dynamic institutions of civil society, human rights activism, lawyers and other professional associations.

The peace treaty with Israel will remain intact because war is not a desirable option for either country, yet the current Egyptian-Israeli cold peace will be radically re-balanced. Widespread indignity felt by Egyptians who see themselves as the jailers of Gaza on behalf of Israel and Washington will give way to a realistic policy by which Egyptians use their ties with Israel to push the latter to adopt a more law-abiding stance towards the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Just as the US maintains peaceful ties with Russia and China, but needles them constantly about human rights and other problem issues, so will Egypt keep peace with Israel, but raise the temperature on issues of profound national concern to Arabs.

The Palestine issue remains a principal lens through which most ordinary Arabs view their relations with Israel and the US, and Egypt’s resumption of a leading regional role will reflect this in its relations with Israel. The hope is that Israelis would put away frenzy and zealotry and understand the profound significance of a democratic Egypt: Responding to the legitimate concerns of Arab public opinion while safeguarding basic Israeli needs and rights within the 1967 borders can be a win-win situation for all. The Arabs should now re-launch and clarify their 2002 Arab Summit Peace Plan, and Israelis simultaneously should engage diplomatically on the basis of that proposal that offers both sides their key needs and demands.

Egypt’s influence on conditions in Iran will be complex, even contradictory. Egyptian and Arab popular sentiment at once admires Iranian defiance of the US, Israel and the Western world that tries to limit Iran’s nuclear technology capabilities. But that popular sentiment does not want to emulate the Iranian heavy-handed governance system dominated by authoritarian theocrats. Democratic Arabs will support Iran’s resistance against Western threats, sanctions and double standards, as well as the desire by many Iranians to change their system into a populist and accountable democracy.

Turkey will be a great beneficiary of Arab democratization, as more open, dynamic Arab societies learn from Turkey’s great leap forward in constitutionalism, republicanism, democracy and economic vibrancy, all wrapped in Turkey’s latest contribution to human civilization: a soft and tantalizing brand of Islamo-secularism. The balance among all these forces and identities in Turkey has the best chance of being repeated in many ways in Egypt, where Islamist social and personal values are strong, but the will for secular democracy is stronger. The great regional prize to be grasped one day will be the convergence of values and governance systems among equally democratic Egypt, Iran and Turkey – a prospect more likely today than it was just weeks ago.

The US and Europe will react to all this in bewilderment at first, as has been the case in recent weeks. The pair is unsure about how to navigate the transition to the ultimate end of colonialism finally underway, and remains confused about how to deal with self-confident Arabs and defiant Muslims. Mass Arab resentment against Western support for Arab autocrats and Israeli colonizers has not surfaced yet in the current transformations, but it lurks below the surface. Arabs react to the deeds and policies of Western governments, not their rhetoric. Those policies, in the eyes of most Arabs, have lingered for decades somewhere between chronically unjust and criminally complicit. Arab democratization waves should be seen as an opportunity for a fresh start for all concerned. Arab governments can engage the West on the basis of shared values and common interests, while the West can once more try to come to terms with the structural Arabism and Islamism in public opinion that will permeate new Arab secular governance systems.   

Egypt’s transformation, with Tunisia’s and others to follow soon, will quickly affirm that the three principal tests of American and European sincerity in the period ahead are whether:

  • These Western countries act with civility and composure in dealing with Arab Islamists who participate in free democratic systems, instead of repeating the mistake of boycotting Hamas when it won the Palestinian election in 2006

  • They give the same priority to Arab human and political rights as they do to Israeli fears;

  • They accept that 350 million Arab men and women can forge stable, productive and satisfying societies only if the rights of Arab citizens are affirmed above the self-inflicted distortions of Arab, Israeli and Western security agencies.

It’s hard to exaggerate the impact that a democratic Egypt will have on the entire region, as Cairo resumes its role as the fulcrum and wellspring of Arab identity, ideology and influence, after two generations of self-induced irrelevance.


Rami G. Khouri is director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, and a syndicated columnist and book author.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization

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