After the Uprising, a Hope for a New Civil Society in the Arab World
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Egypt’s military dissolved Parliament and suspended the Constitution today, meeting two key demands of the protesters in Tahrir Square. The military said they would hold onto power for six months, or until elections were held. Constitutional changes would be offered in a referendum.
Nobody really knows where this is going to lead in Egypt, much less around the region. Will the future reveal a change in leadership or what Anthony Shadid calls a “new notion of citizenship,” a change in how Arabs view their role within the state. Will Arabs across the region use the power of engagement to build a society that can realize their very human goals? Will they be able to build a society that fulfills their own conception of dignity? And what if they government that emerges doesn’t fit with these ideals?
Protesters in Cairo were blunter. One leader had fallen, but some worried about a military that sought to claim the mantle of the revolution even as it remained a bulwark of the old order. Asked what they would do if it imposed its own brand of rule, Ahmed Sleem, an organizer with an opposition group led by Mohamed ElBaradei, a Nobel laureate, said simply, “We know the way to Tahrir Square.”
Egypt’s revolution earned many names in 18 days: Revolution of the Youth, of the People, of Anger, of Freedom, of the Hungry, and most poetically, the Revolution of Light. In the end, it was called the January 25 Revolution, the date of the first protest. In that, it was a departure from another revolution, that of July 26, when Gamal Abdel Nasser and fellow officers seized power from a decadent king and mobilized Egypt for wars with Israel. It evolved into something far less ambitious: a mantra of security and stability, in which Egyptians and many Arabs were forced to give up their rights.
Even in his very last days, Mr. Mubarak understood the conflict in those terms; in his last speech to the nation, he spoke of security and stability 10 times. The protesters in Cairo wrecked the regional formula, though their ambitions have yet to offer a paradigm to replace it. “Leaders in the Arab world are weaker now,” said Sadiq al-Azm, a prominent Syrian thinker and writer.
Arab leaders recognize this but aren’t sure how to approach it. Iran and tiny Bahrain will see protests on Monday; Bahrain’s king responded by literally handing $2,650 to every Bahraini family. Yemen’s President promised more concessions to protests which have been going on for a few weeks. In Algeria, the government promised to lift the emergency law but did not approve a protest held yesterday, which 30,000 riot police broke up in violent clashes. The country shut down the Internet in reaction to the protests. Palestinian leaders announced elections in September and the chief negotiator with Israel, Saeb Erekat, tendered his resignation.
I don’t know if you can necessarily call this an uprising for democracy so much as an uprising for hope. Poor youth throughout the Arab world view their lives with despair. Governments have shed their responsibility to their citizens, and only graft and connections can allow for social mobility. This could breed alienation and susceptibility to extremism or nonviolent street action. Only in the past month has the latter prevailed, and this crack in the foundation has yielded a new model for hope in the region. This model fits better on some countries, like Egypt and Tunisia which have some sense of nationalism, rather than others like the Gulf states (which can buy off their people) or more repressive regimes like Iran or Syria.
That doesn’t mean that the Egyptian uprising will necessarily end in anything like democracy, and the same goes for the rest of the region. But it feels like a different model, one motivated by worker grievances and the struggle just to have a normal life where effort and talent are rewarded. Activism and democracy promotion has led to extremism elsewhere in the Arab world; that doesn’t need to happen in Egypt or Tunisia or elsewhere. The binary equation of authoritarianism versus Islamism, the way autocrats have kept power and the support of Western governments for decades, doesn’t have to hold. Serve the people, respect their individual human and civil rights, and you can have a different country.
“I think the most important challenge for Egypt the next few years is how to build a new civil culture,” said Hanna Grace, an opposition leader. “Not military, not religious, but a civil culture. How do you build a secular modern state for religious people?”