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.