And Now the Hard Part

Friday I came to my 9:15 World Politics class with an apology.  Due to my late night obsession with events in Egypt, I had forgotten to write the quiz they were supposed to take.   They didn’t seem to mind.    And for the past week, this has been an obsession.  Following al jazeera streaming video and reporting, watching events unfold in what I’m convinced is the start of an historic transformation of the Arab world, it’s hard not to be caught up in the emotion of the millions celebrating at Tahrir square in Cairo.

The news of Mubarak’s resignation was timely.  I was about to go participate in a panel discussion about Egypt (which drew a nice crowd) just as the news came out.   Some colleagues had al jazeera’s live video stream on the screen before the discussion began.  We were watching history.  It’s hard to over state the importance and drama of the Egyptian revolution; it may be for the Arab world what the French revolution was for the West.

Therein lies the problem.   The French revolution, also greeted with relief and hope by enlightenment thinkers, didn’t turn out so well.   The rule of an autocratic Monarch gave way to chaos and ultimately Napoleon Bonaparte, who would craft a French nationalism that would allow France to conquer Europe for a time.   But Egypt isn’t France.   Egypt isn’t Iran.   Egypt isn’t Berlin of 1989 either.   The path forward is unclear and difficult.

For the Arab world to truly progress a few things need to happen.  First, real democratic reform must take place, and the people must work to assure they aren’t hijacked by well organized extremist groups.   This will require the military perhaps moving faster and with less caution then they’d prefer, and the people will have to have more patience and trust in the military than they’d like.   The military in Egypt is a key player in this; as in Turkey, the Egyptian military could make democracy it’s goal, while at the same time preventing it from collapse.

Second, we should get less caught up in the debate about “secular” vs. “religious” groups and think more broadly about the development of a true civil society.   Technically civil society is defined as people voluntarily participating in social and civic organizations.   But millions taking to the street to demand change is also a strong indication of a potential civil society.    The key is to turn that desire for change into effective long term efforts to make Egypt a vibrant society.

The emphasis of especially western scholars on voluntary organizations is only one aspect of civil society.   It misses the core issue — why it is that people might choose to get involved.  Civil society is constructed first and foremost on a series of shared beliefs and understandings about society and the role of both the individual and government.   Polities can function well even with very different governmental structures if the underlying shared norms and values fit with how the country operates.   Social democracy works well in Sweden, but probably wouldn’t work in Alabama.

That also explains why ideologues tend be wrong about politics — they try to use reason to figure out the right form of government, rather than recognizing that a government has to fit the culture to function.   To truly change politics, culture must change.  Otherwise, you need force to prevent things from simply reverting to what they were before.

In Egypt the new generation — half the population is under 24 — has a very different set of cultural values than their elders.   That’s why Mubarak and Suleiman were so clueless; their message of ‘stability and security’ spoke to an Egypt that is fading away.  The new generation wants opportunity, freedom, global connections, and a voice.   They now know they can change the world when they unite.

That’s why it is misguided to raise dire warnings about the Muslim Brotherhood or expect the extremists to benefit from this Arab transformation.  The Brotherhood has a charter that sounds pretty extreme, but its make up is diverse, and in recent years has been moderating.   Yet there are extremists amongst them, and a number of them would love to take whatever new freedoms are emerging and radicalize the youth.   Their dream is that the Arab youth embrace fundamentalist Islam.

That’s not going to happen.   Even in Iran where the Muslim clerics hold power, the people are not with them, especially not the youth.  In the Arab world groups like al qaeda have also been rejected.    In fact, it was  probably torture and oppression at the hands of people like Mubarak that helped fan Islamic extremist flames in the first place.  Given the rise of al jazeera and the desire of the youth for opportunity, the only way for extremists to gain traction is if a global depression creates true economic catastrophe in the Mideast.

The West can help by encouraging true acceptance of Muslims in our societies, modeling religious tolerance, and allowing western Muslims, who are mostly modern and anti-fundamentalist, to come up with a coherent theological counter to the extremists.    They can even find it in their own past, before the Ottomans enforced a reactionary conservative Islam, Islamic rationalists saw the Koran as a human product, to be interpreted differently in changing times, and subject to human reason.   It will be a difficult transition, the extremists will try to create instability and enemies, maybe lashing out at the West hoping create a conflict that will spread chaos.   As long as we don’t let them goad us, they have a losing hand.

The image below is powerful; Coptic Christians encircling Muslims at prayer time to protect them from the police.   Interfaith collaboration and cooperation can help all sides focus on the common values they promoted so powerfully in the last three weeks.

Perhaps I am too optimistic.  It’s hard not to be moved by millions of people demanding liberty and democracy, willing to suffer long uncomfortable weeks of protest, to risk death (and many did die) and torture, and then to erupt in joy when the tyrant backed down.    Yet if one cannot be optimistic about this, what does it say for the values we as a country hold true?

As was the case in 1989, the most moving aspect of this revolution is that it came non-violently from the people deciding they would no longer tolerate tyranny and oppression.   When the people unite, they can bring down any government or ruler.   The hard part is not to loss patience or interest during the difficult transition.  There isn’t a lot the US government can do, but governments may not be as important as they used to be.   We all can connect via social media, promote the values we believe in, make our voices known and recognize that the Egyptians have shown us a glimpse of what the new order could become:  power to the people.

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  1. #1 by Lee on February 13, 2011 - 3:20 pm

    I can’t imagine your class being all that upset over your lapse with the quiz! LOL I, too, have been watching the situation with interest and perhaps a bit of trepidation too. Not that I personally believe that extremists will now control Egypt, just that the whole middle east area seems so fraught with instability and has such an impact on global economic issues.

    What I am wondering is how realistic it is for other countries to adopt democracy. No matter how I write this it sounds elitist and that is really not where I am coming from. Yet, seeing many countries where other than the deposed ruler, the next strong authority is the military makes me wonder if democracy is a) possible and b) the best course of action for a country in a position such as Egypt is now to attempt to develop.

    • #2 by Scott Erb on February 13, 2011 - 5:01 pm

      We definitely live in interesting times. I think ultimately things will get better; ultimately the enlightenment and the rejection of monarchies in Europe lead to a peaceful European Union. But your trepidation is warranted, especially when one considers how bloody the path to creating a peaceful EU has been!

  2. #3 by Titfortat on February 13, 2011 - 3:42 pm

    I dont think accepting Islam even on a moderate level is the way to go. In fact, I believe the reason that democracy seems to flourish in the west is because we are moving away from our ties to religion, though Bush and Cheney were a bump in the road. Christianity as a social connection is fine but that is about as far as it should go. Secularism is the way to go. It is fine to adopt certain values from your religious tendencies, other than that it has no place in the formation of a Nation. Moderate Islam will only become that when the moderates speak out(Loudly) against the extreme forms of their religion. Look at Britain, France, Denmark and you
    see that there is a problem because no one has the cajones to speak out publicly. Mixed with the Liberal political correctness of the west and you can see we may be in for a nasty ride. Only time will tell.

    • #4 by Scott Erb on February 13, 2011 - 4:59 pm

      I see your point, Titfortat, but think of the French revolution. It was overtly secular (they even threw dirt on the floor of the Notre Dame cathedral), and was so much a break from French culture that society went into disarray. The youth are more secular than the generation before hand, but to deny or try to ditch Islam completely would spark a fundamentalist backlash. Cultures change slowly, Christianity has secularized over centuries, but hasn’t disappeared.

      Also, looking at Europe, you’re actually seeing a strong growth of moderate Islam, extremist Islam is a vocal minority in these societies (and is criticized by moderate/modern Muslims). In fact, I think European Muslims may be key to helping the youth in Arab lands reshape the Islamic world. Finally, if you look at the Arab world, it’s pretty clear there is little love for the al qaeda message; extremist groups are always trying to sound more moderate than their core followers because extremism isn’t selling, especially amongst the youth. Ultimately, with half the population of the Arab world under 24, they’re the ones who will determine the future.

  3. #5 by mike lovell on February 13, 2011 - 9:41 pm

    So what are your ideas on reports of the military dissolving parliament and suspending their constitution??

    • #6 by Scott Erb on February 13, 2011 - 9:45 pm

      It’s necessary to end the regime. The military promises new elections in September, and most Egyptians are seeing the military as more trustworthy than the old regime. Signs are that the military (which apparently also thought Mubarak was going to resign Thursday night) refused to shoot on protesters when Mubarak wanted them too, and ultimately pushed him out the door. One hopes that the Egyptian military will be like Turkey’s — seeing itself the defender of stability and democracy.

  4. #7 by henitsirk on February 15, 2011 - 12:04 am

    Your comparisons between Egypt and Turkey and Iran grabbed my attention (I have an armchair historian’s interest in Turkey). Iran has gone to the religious side; Turkey has gone secular; both fairly extremely. Turkey is still working on democracy, as neither freedom of expression/the press nor freedom of religious practice are properly functioning there.

    Neither the Iranian nor the Turkish path seems workable in the long run. You can’t force people to be religious or secular. If you could somehow create a geographical area where the residents have only one religion voluntarily, then maybe you could create a fundamentalist state. Of course, that’s worked out oh-so-well for Pakistan. And of course even that wouldn’t guarantee internal peace: we could ask the Kurds, who are primarily Muslim, how they are treated even in so-called Islamic states.

    Egypt does have serious issues of “stability and security,” based on a lack of social justice and economic imbalances. Seems to me that creating a government that will address those issues will enhance security in ways that matter to the Egyptian people. If people can’t feed themselves or fear for their civil liberties, not much else is going to matter to them.

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