Wherever Egypt Goes Most Arab Nations Go

By Hasan Afif El-Hasan

We are lucky to be alive to witness how the people of Egypt toppled the regime of a ruthless and corrupt tyrant who ruled them and squandered their country’s resources for decades. By reclaiming their country, the Egyptian youth made history. The Egyptians’ popular uprising that lasted eighteen days proved wrong the myth that the Egyptians tolerate their tyrant rulers as long as they provide protection and security. Because of its location, Egypt was invaded all too frequently and ruled by many foreign forces through the centuries but its society retained its strength. The first nation-state in history adorned with a sophisticated civilization appeared in the Nile Valley and the Egyptians have protected the borders of their country since the Early Bronze Age. During its recorded history that covers five millenniums, Egypt’s inhabitants have produced a way of life, so powerful and enduring that it lasted thousands of years and survived many interruptions including the last thirty years under Mubarak regime.

Now, the Egyptian people are on their way to join the world’s communities that won their civil rights in the last century using non-violent protest. Their uprising will be remembered as the spark of the Arab Nations’ democracy renaissance. 

The impact of Egypt’s dictatorship fall on the world order is similar to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Its immediate effect is being felt in the rest of the Arab World, in the US relations with its allies in the region; and it will certainly be felt in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. After what happened in Egypt and Tunis, the US may need a foreign policy that not only supports freedom in the abstract but is guided by long-range practical principles to achieve it. The Egyptians who are demographically young but culturally ancient can teach the US and the West that there is a better way than war for spreading democracy.

Tony Blair, George W. Bush and American neo-conservative ideologues claim that overthrowing Saddam’s regime was worth the cost of invading and even destroying the country they came to liberate, dispersing its population all over the world, wasting hundreds of billions of dollars and losing and injuring thousands of the invading young military soldiers in the process. Some informed estimates place Iraqi civilian casualties at over 600,000.

The Egyptian people, the Israeli establishment, and the children of Gaza are the first to feel the impact of the change in Egypt. Israel lost its most important Arab ally and ruthless partner in the crippling siege of Gaza; and now, the children of Gaza can buy bread from Egypt across the border. For those who do not know or forgot, Israel and Mubarak’s regime placed Gaza under all-out siege with the blessing of the US since mid-June 2007, claiming it was preventing alleged dangers posed by the Palestinian resistance movement. The blockade deprived Gaza’s 1.5 million residents of food, fuel and other necessities. Egypt even maintained the siege during the 2008 Israeli war against Gaza that killed more than 1,400 Palestinians and ruined the Strip’s infrastructure. “More than 10 percent of Gazans mostly children, are physically stunted due to malnutrition”, according to several studies.

Mubarak and Omar Sulaiman were the key bridge of Israel to the Arab world, frequently mediating between the Palestinians and Israel. But the fall of Mubarak’s regime will have no effect on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process because the peace process is already dead and the US is pre-occupied with the 2012 national elections, the budget and the economy.

After being embarrassed by the 1,600 leaked documents about peace talks with Israel where Palestinian Authority (PA) negotiators offered unacceptable compromises on the basic rights of their people, the PA lost credibility, and the Palestinian chief negotiator had to step down. Israel is not prepared to give up Palestinian land for peace. It is expanding settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem; and it has already rejected the Arab Peace Initiative. 

Israel and the US are concerned that pro-Palestinian groups in Egypt, including Muslim Brothers might gain a larger voice in Egyptian decision making. The Muslim Brothers have a large constituency in Egypt but the Egyptian people never supported Mubarak’s stand against the Palestinians in Gaza; and once the Egyptian people control their destiny, they will not continue Mubarak’s policy toward the Strip even if the US threatens to cut its financial aid. The Egyptian people are too proud to trade principles for cash!

The recent Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia triggered Egypt’s uprising that ousted Mubarak, and wherever Egypt goes most Arab nations go. If liberal democracy is established in Egypt, the rest of the Arab people will demand it. Egypt’s influence in the Arab World is derived from its stature as the most populous.

Popular movements in the Middle East are contagious. Many Arab countries followed Egypt’s example when Nasser staged the 1952 military coup that ended the monarchy. There were many coups in Iraq including the one against the Hashemite royal family, in Yemen against Imam Ahmed bin Yahya, and in Libya, Muammar al-Qaddafi staged a bloodless military coup against King Idris in 1969. There were four military coups in Syria, and in Jordan, there were many failed attempts against the life of King Hussein. President Nasser is credited for laying down standards of Pan-Arab political agenda that forced even the moderate Western-supported regimes in the region to adopt. 

The Pan-Arab movement was defined as a defense against the threat of outside forces, but it did not talk about the relationship between the individual and the state. And once nationalists were in power, they have successfully redefined nationalism as the defense of their regimes against internal and external threat. Regimes of Mubarak in Egypt, Libya’s al-Qaddafi, Hafez  al-Assad in Syria, Saddam Hussein of Iraq, Abdallah Saleh of Yemen, Ibn Ali of Tunis are examples.

Democracy is not only voting and dipping fingers in ink. According to the theorist Guillermo O’Donnell, democracy is a political system with three central components- free and fair elections, civil liberties and institutions which should guarantee separation of powers and hold everybody equal before the law. Power should be filled through regular, free, fair, and competitive elections with universal suffrage and secrecy of ballots. There should be freedom of organization and for parties and candidates to campaign, speak and publish peacefully anywhere in the country and solve electoral disputes by legal procedures.

Some scholars suggest that certain level of economic development is a requirement for the establishment of democracy. But none of the Arab states is classified as democratic even if the average income per capita in states that do not depend on oil, excluding Yemen, ranged from $3,419 to $6000 according to the UNDP, well above the suggested minimum threshold. For those states that rely on oil as their primary revenue source, the average per capita income exceeds $24,000.

Some Westerners including many politicians in the US argue that Islamic tradition is inconsistent with democracy, and democracy can succeed only in a Judeo-Christian culture. James Zugby from Arab American Institute once described these politicians as “either display ignorance of facts or shaped more by political needs than reality, or are just plain dumb.” Their claim fails to explain the seven non-Arab democracies with a Muslim majority. Democracy has emerged in Mali, among the world’s ten poorest countries, a non-Arab Muslim majority population and only $700 GDP per capita in 2006, adult literacy of 39.8% and 50.9 years of life expectancy at birth.

Parliamentary democracy has survived in Bangladesh, another non-Arab, Muslim state with $1,500 in GDP per capita, adult literacy of 40.8%, and 48.1 years of life expectancy. Bangladesh even elected a woman prime-minister, Begum Khaleda Zia, in 1996 and 2001 general elections.

Turkey is another non-Arab country with an overwhelming Muslim majority and a democratic secular constitution since 1945. Democracy was interrupted in 1997 by the extreme secular military elites when the Islamic Welfare (Refah) Party won enough seats in the parliament to form the first government under the Islamic prime-minister Necmettin Erbacan. The Refah Party proved its compatibility with democracy when it won a majority in the 2002 elections and formed a democratic secular government. The political objectives of the mainstream Muslim movements seem to integrate rather than overthrow governments.

Despite these democratic success stories in non-Arab Muslim majority countries, the Arab World remains mired in authoritarianism, clientelism and nepotism. Most Arab countries have a large educated middle class, yet there is no equal opportunity, the positions of power have been distributed among a few individuals, and the opposition has no chance to unseat the incumbent.

This has to change if the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts are to succeed.

– Hasan Afif El-Hasan is a political analyst. His latest book, Is The Two-State Solution Already Dead? (Algora Publishing, New York), now available on Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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