Events are moving so quickly in the citizen revolts across the Arab world that an observer could easily feel lost trying to understand what is really happening – or just trying to sort out the new and historic from the routine agitation of discontented men and women.
Two developments in Syria and Egypt this week have helped clarify what is going on, and what is really at stake. These two are the return of tens of thousands of protests to Tahrir Square in Cairo and other Egyptian cities, to express discontent with the slow pace of the trials of individuals from the former Mubarak regime accused of graft and killing; and the visit to central Hama by Robert Ford, the American ambassador to Syria.
These two very different events converge in focusing our attention on the ultimate issue at stake in the Arab revolts, the prize, if you will: national sovereignty. This has been the heart of the ongoing political confrontation between Arab citizens and their ruling authorities since the current revolt started in December in Tunisia. However, in reality the contest over Arab sovereignty dates back many decades.
The question of sovereignty is about who holds ultimate power and who is in charge of national decision-making in the independent countries that have defined the modern Arab world during much of the past century. Most national decisions in a majority of Arab countries for much of the past century have been made by small groups of unelected men forming the political elite. The current revolts impose, at their core, the reconfiguration of this power system, to give citizens a major role in national policy-making.
In fact, this is not simply a struggle between rulers and the ruled. Four and a half parties can be identified as contenders for the sovereign authority in the Arab world: existing governments, security agencies, and citizens are the three key ones; but many Arabs also feel that decisions in their countries are actually being made by major Western powers, and even by Israel (my half-party in the four and a half list), which is often accused of driving decision-making in some states, especially Egypt, Jordan and Palestine, where deference to Israeli wishes is institutionalized in assorted peace agreements.
The developments in Cairo and Hama this week are significant because they go to the heart of the matter of who ultimately shapes national policy in Arab states. Egyptians who return to the streets in their hundreds of thousands send the message that they see power as being vested in the people, and thus expect their government to pursue policies that are shaped by citizens and respond to their demands and rights. It is important to recognize the political and historical significance of this development at this delicate and decisive transitional moment that will shape for many years the nature of national political sovereignty in Egypt.
What happens in Egypt influences developments in other Arab countries. A revolution that began in January overthrew the Mubarak regime, but it has not yet been replaced by a credible new governance system, and the transitional Supreme Council of the Armed Forces still holds ultimate power. The demonstrators want to make sure that power remains anchored in the will of the citizenry, thus affirming in practice the consent of the governed. Some Arabs are finally experiencing the same thrill that French and American citizens experienced in the late 18th century, followed by many other democracies: the exercise of citizen sovereignty.
Robert Ford’s visit to Hama touches on a different dimension of this same process. However, it includes the added complexity of how foreign powers relate to events within the Arab world. The State Department explained that the Ford visit had been a show of solidarity with the residents of Hama, saying that the ambassador had “spent the day expressing our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.”
The battle in Syria, as in the entire Arab world, is not only about peaceful assembly and self-expression, of course; it is about defining the ultimate authority for the exercise of power, and thus about sovereignty itself. The United States says it believes that the citizens of Syria should participate in this process, and the ambassador’s visit was a dramatic gesture of support for citizen rights.
I ignore for now whether this is an appropriate ambassadorial gesture, and whether anyone believes Washington is sincere or credible in its support for Arab citizen rights. What matters is to grasp the historic nature of this seminal moment in modern Arab history, when national sovereignty is at stake and being reshaped – in Cairo, Hama and hundreds of other cities and town across the Arab world.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.