The events in Iraq and Egypt these days are particularly important to follow and understand as best we can, because of what they tell us about how some Arab citizens and leaders behave at stages of the process in which they have the opportunity to shape their own political governance systems. For in Egypt and Iraq, most dramatically, alongside less striking events in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other Arab countries, the most basic elements of state integrity, national identity and the legitimacy of power are all being challenged and reshaped. The bad news is that process includes political intemperance, violence and death. But the good news is that it mostly occurs nonviolently and will keep moving some Arab countries on the slow path to stable democratic republics.
It is not realistic to chart a single dynamic that explains disparate events in different Arab countries. However, the developments across half a dozen countries these days suggest to me that we can spot common features amid the political turbulence and violence all around us. The two most dramatic new examples in the past week to my mind have been the events in Fallujah and other parts of west-central Iraq, and the violence and unrest across several Egyptian cities. In both cases, local citizens have not only challenged the decisions of the democratically elected central government represented by the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Iraq; to some extent, they have also questioned the leader’s legitimacy in both cases, or at least challenged the leader to translate legitimacy into credibility. These are not isolated cases, either, for a deeper crisis of political integrity is spreading across many parts of the Arab world these days.
In Egypt, several local municipalities defiantly ignored the president’s curfew and martial law Monday, taking to the streets in the thousands to play football at 9 p.m., when the curfew was supposed to start. A few, like Mahalla, Suez and Alexandria, have even symbolically declared their autonomy or independence from the central government. They are not challenging the integrity of the Egyptian state, but rather the efficacy and equity of the central government’s policies.
The same applies to the tens of thousands of demonstrators in Iraq, who, like their Egyptian counterparts, are protesting the killing of demonstrators by the security services as well as a wider sense that the central government is not addressing the socio-economic and political rights of all citizens with diligence or fairness. In both cases, many ordinary citizens feel that one group is trying to monopolize power and seize control of the state. The Iraqi and Egyptian leaders have both acted with an authoritarianism that remind us of their predecessors’ policies in many ways., which Arabs now wish to leave behind them for good.
Syria, Yemen, Lebanon, Palestine, Bahrain, Jordan, Morocco and other Arab countries are all experiencing milder variations of these grievances and citizen responses. What makes Egypt and Iraq so important is that in both cases the central government leadership was democratically elected – in other words it is legitimate and as such is a rarity in the Arab world. Nevertheless, citizens risk their lives to protest its policies, defy its decisions, and even distance themselves from its authority, in order to seek local alternatives to delivering essential public services. This does include just water, jobs, security and medical care, but also credible political representation and participation, and assurance of basic rights.
Neither Nouri al-Maliki nor Mohammad Mursi have used their democratic legitimacy as freely elected leaders to develop the kind of trust, credibility, integrity and efficacy that are the true hallmarks of quality leaders. They – with the multitudes of defiant demonstrators – remind us once again of two critical lessons that we in the Arab world are learning for the first time through actual experiences on the ground: that elections alone do not necessarily lead to a stable democratic system, and that even democratically elected legitimate leaders must practice equitable and diligent policymaking, through rule-of-law-based consensus-building, in order to achieve a stable and productive governance system.
In other words, we are witnessing perhaps the most extreme example of the principle of “the consent of the governed” actually being implemented, as disgruntled citizens take to the streets and defy their government to ensure that their views, interests and, most importantly, their rights as citizens are taken into account by the state. No doubt, both the government and the demonstrators or opposition leaders are making some mistakes, and sometimes behave immaturely and impulsively.
This is understandable, since neither party has any real experience in democratic political contestation, and is learning on the job. The occasional bouts of violence here and there should not blind us to the greater fact that serious, citizen-based, political contestations have taken root across parts of the Arab world, and the process of legitimate state-building is under way for probably the first time ever in modern Arab history.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. You can follow him on Twitter @RamiKhouri.