What is happening in Egypt is stunning in the context of modern Arab history: Egyptians are compressing into months processes of national self-definition and governance configuration that other countries in the world conducted over decades, or even centuries, in their drive to stable and equitable democracy.
Every day, literally, we are witnessing developments in the Egyptian street and media that define three principal components of democratic transitions, and are particularly poignant in the annals of the modern Arab world’s bitter legacy of persistent security states: the role of the military and security agencies in governance; the empowerment of the citizen as the ultimate reference point for the legitimacy and efficacy of national decision-making; and the checks-and-balances relationships among the principal actors in politics – the citizenry, the presidency, the legislature, the judiciary, the Cabinet, the bureaucracy, civil society, the private sector, the religious-tribal forces.
Egypt today shows why so many of us in the region have felt confident, from the first stirrings of national awakening in Tunisia in January, that the Arab march toward democratic transformation will succeed. Key signs of this in Egypt are that empowered citizens have insisted on both engaging the transitional military council and the government in serious discussions and negotiations, while also resuming peaceful street demonstrations as needed, to achieve the full promises of the January revolution; the three main actors today – the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the youth-led demonstrators and civil society movements, and the Muslim Brotherhood – have all shown that they are prepared to make concessions and step back from confrontation when the national interest demands this; and, through the rough-and-tumble of political contestation and deal-making, Egyptians are simultaneously defining core institutions and parameters of governance, establishing practical mechanisms of political life, and validating the legitimacy of all the actors involved in this exciting process.
I understand better now why Egyptians (and the Tunisians who first lit this torch) are seen again as proud and nimble people. Consider only the main events of the past week in Egypt: Egyptian demonstrators, led by but not limited to youth groups, took to the streets again in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez to demand that the transitional government and military council move more decisively to fulfill the demands of the January revolution, especially putting on trial officials accused of corruption, dismissing or trying police accused of killing demonstrators, and rejuvenating the governance system on the basis of equitable, accountable constitutional democracy. Some marchers wanted the military council to get out of governance, and others shouted, “The people want the removal of the field marshal” (referring to Mohammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of the military council who was defense minister for 20 years under President Hosni Mubarak).
This resurgent revolutionary populism triggered many swift developments. Deputy Prime Minister Yahya al-Gamal resigned (protesters saw him as being too easy on Mubarak regime business cronies); a court jailed several former ministers and a prime minister for corruption and fraud; the judiciary council recommended that court trials of former officials be made more accessible to public scrutiny and televised; Prime Minister Essam Sharaf promised to reshuffle the government soon; Interior Minister Mansour Essawy announced that 671 police generals and officers would be dismissed for their conduct during the revolution (37 of them are charged with killing protesters); the military conceded to protesters by announcing that elections scheduled for September would be postponed some months; and, the military said it would draft guidelines for choosing the 100-member assembly that is charged with writing a new Egyptian constitution (softening the fears of many that an Islamist-led parliament would write a constitution that favors Islamists and weakens secular groups).
Demonstrators also blocked access to some major government buildings and threatened to call a million-man march on the Cabinet office, to which the military rulers responded with a televised statement warning that they would not tolerate those who “deviate from the peaceful approach during demonstrations and sit-ins and obstruct the institutions of the state.”
This has been an extraordinary week of challenges, threats, retreats, enticements, promises, demands, street theater, cajolements, concessions and, ultimately, deals – in other words, the routine instruments of horse-trading-based democratic politics. All these acts together represent the birth pangs of a new Arab world that is legitimate and will endure because it is being crafted by the will of its own people, rather than by Western armies and neocolonial intellectual thugs masquerading as foreign ministers and other top officials.
The most important element to appreciate in this cornucopia of indigenous power and politics is the spectacle of civilian Arab citizens taking the first steps to successfully challenge – and limit – the role of their military and security agencies in public life.
To this we should say simply, in awe and appreciation of those brave men and women on the streets of Tunisia and Egypt who have inspired so many others in the Arab world: Hallelujah.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR.