A Brave New Arab World


by Sabir Ibrahim

Over the course of 18 days, a popular uprising in Egypt swept one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators from power. Ripple effects from the downfall of Hosni Mubarak are being felt in Libya, Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, and Bahrain as Arabs, emboldened by the Egyptians (who were themselves emboldened by the Tunisians), are breaking long-standing barriers of fear that have thus far kept popular resistance to autocratic rule from taking root. Though it remains to be seen what long-term effect the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings will have on the region, the events of the past month undoubtedly signal the dawn of a new era in the politics of the Arab World.

Discussions of a post-Mubarak future in the Middle East have centered on two key questions: what now and who’s next. Egypt’s fate now lies in the hands of its military, which took control of the country after forcing Mubarak to step down on February 11. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, led by Field Marshal Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, has dissolved parliament and suspended Egypt’s constitution. Though the army has vowed to stand aside and hold elections within six months, any optimism that the fall of Mubarak’s government will immediately usher in a new era of democracy should be tempered by unease over the absence of a constitution and the concentration of absolute power in the hands of a few army generals. Militaries in poor countries that become involved in politics don’t have a great record of living up to their promises.

However, the de facto coup in Egypt was triggered by a popular uprising, not an internal power struggle. Egypt’s army is generally well-respected amongst the masses and Tantawi is not perceived as a power-hungry aspiring dictator, so while Egypt’s road to democracy likely won’t be free of obstacles, the chances of a return to totalitarian rule or military dictatorship are minimal. One possible outcome of Egypt’s transformation is the creation of a Turkish-style republic in which the military does not interfere with democratic institutions, but retains the right to depose any government that it deems to have violated certain foundational principles of the republic (in Turkey’s case, Kemalist secularism). While the Turkish system is far from ideal, it would be a welcome change from the previous regime, in which Mubarak’s National Democratic Party dominated all senior positions in the government and elections were widely regarded as a sham.

In any case, Egyptians now face the task of building sustainable democratic institutions and restructuring a political system that had previously operated according to the dictates of a single individual. Throughout the uprising, protestors showed remarkable discipline in avoiding divisive slogans and polarizing rhetoric, staying uniformly focused on the goal of forcing Mubarak from power. However, Egyptians must now arrive at a consensus on potentially divisive issues such as the status of opposition parties, the rights of minorities, and the role of religion in public life. For a people previously unaccustomed to shaping policy through their own public discourse, this process will undoubtedly have its hiccups.

Many analysts have speculated on what Egypt’s new government and political system might look like should a genuine transition to some form of democracy take root. Views offered by media pundits have ranged from pie-in-the-sky pipe dreams to uninformed doomsday scenarios grounded in hatred of Islam and Muslims. A common thread in the American Right’s mostly tepid reaction to the Egyptian Uprising is a fear that post-Mubarak Egypt will be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, which supposedly plans to impose a radical and misogynistic version of the shari’ah. These theories only reflect ignorance about Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood.

Taliban-like interpretations of the shari’ah that curtail women’s rights and impose harsh, draconian punishments are alien to Egyptian culture. Unlike Pakistan or Afghanistan, Egypt has never suffered the effects of foreign occupation, widespread political violence, searing poverty, or a deeply-entrenched feudal system that ordinarily give rise to extremism and religious fanaticism. Nor does Egypt have a powerful, petrodollar-funded religious establishment that has sought to export its own rigid strain of Islam to the rest of the world, as in Saudi Arabia. Rather, Egypt has served as the center of traditional Sunni Islam for centuries, and the rulings of Egyptian jurists both contemporary and classical have tended toward the liberal end of the spectrum. Women in Egypt both religious and secular are active and influential in all realms of society. Anyone who has lived in Cairo and had to convince a woman at the Mogamma to extend their visa or grant them a work permit can attest to this.

The role of religion in Egypt’s politics reflects these nuances. The Muslim Brotherhood has built a solid base of grass-roots support mostly through social works and religious activism, not fiery political rhetoric or a hardline religious ideology. Furthermore, support for the Brotherhood is widespread but far from universal, and even many religious Egyptians remain skeptical of its agenda. Thus, the Brotherhood is unlikely to become an overwhelmingly dominant force in Egypt’s post-Mubarak political order and will likely remain one of many popular opposition groups vying for a seat the table.

As has always been the case, all eyes in the Arab World will be on Egypt, both amongst the masses and within the power corridors of other Arab capitols. With 80 million people, Egypt is easily the most populous Arab country. Since the days of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Egypt has in many ways served as the political and cultural center of the Arab World. The Egyptian Revolution may not directly lead to the fall of other autocratic governments, but it is likely to trigger more popular demands for basic rights and government accountability along with jitters from long-serving autocrats.


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