The Arab World’s Glorious, Yet Uneasy, Steps Towards Democracy

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WASHINGTON – A recent US public TV documentary featured Gigi Ibrahim, one of the young stars of the Egyptian pro-democracy uprising. She was also featured in the cover of TIME magazine, (The Generation Changing The World, February 28, 2011), along with other young Egyptians. Gigi is a young woman, enthusiastic, well spoken, with an endearingly earnest spark in her eyes. In flawless English she conveys the simple and yet fundamental aspirations of her generation: accountable government, freedom of speech, genuine representation. There is nothing outlandish, let alone sinister in any of this. I believe American viewers could easily identify with her and her peers. After all, the American Revolution was fought more than two hundred years ago to secure more or less the same rights.

Gigi Ibrahim is the Face of the Revolution

And while all traumatic, sudden political upheavals are cause for some worry, much better to have the engaging Gigi Ibrahim as the face of the Revolution than what we were mostly used to: Osama bin Laden and his semi-deranged followers clothed in their theatrical, medieval robes, issuing proclamations and promising endless fights and a bloodbath for all enemies of the true faith as the necessary preconditions for ushering in a new Caliphate that will create a just Islamic society.

We are all winners if reasonable politics prevail

If Gigi Ibrahim is the true representative of a modern Egypt trying to assert itself, we all win. The Egyptians win. The West wins, as it will be easy to establish friendly, mutually respectful relations with this new society. Pro-poor modernization wins, as a modern, enlightened Egyptian leadership will elaborate better policies that will benefit larger segments of a society until now frozen in time.

Al Qaeda loses

And –most fundamentally–Islamic radicalism, until yesterday the only loud “voice” clamoring for political change, will be the real loser, as this youth-led rebellion proves that there are genuine, mostly secular, alternatives to autocracy that have sprung from within Arab societies.

The protesters in Tahrir square in Cairo where demanding basic freedoms. Certainly they were not advocating jihad or the establishment of fundamentalist Islamic societies. Instead of threatening death to their enemies, much more politely they were chanting to their ossified leaders: “Leave, leave, leave”.

The most powerful message here is that, in order to have positive change in an Arab society, you do not have to join al-Qaeda.

All is well?

And so, all is well? Can we say that in this momentous 2011, from Tunisia to Egypt, from Yemen to Bahrain, we are finally witnessing an Arab political and social coming of age? And can we say that this awakening is powered by universal human aspirations that will hopefully lead to the empowerment of now mature societies in which civilized debate about policy choices will replace tribalism, sectarian ideologies and obtuse autocracies? And can we say that this will be really the end of regimes incapable of promoting economic and social advancement, as they have been mostly concerned with the perennial preservation of their unenlightened rule?

Many pitfalls ahead

Well, of course it is a long shot from spontaneous, Facebook driven, protest to the creation of well oiled democracies. History is littered with the corpses of failed attempts to go smoothly from autocracy to democracy. And, of course, the realists point out that these Arab societies, while their more mature middle classes may have basic good instincts, are still composed of mostly illiterate citizens. And so they are woefully unprepared to build viable, representative institutions and learn how to live within their rules. These people are behind the curve, due to their long, forced separation from modern currents of thoughts –the currents that in turn spark good governance models and also entrepreneurship, innovation and modernization.

The reality of underdeveloped societies

Indeed, despite oil wealth in some of them, these Arab countries are still mostly poor, many of their citizens are illiterate and unskilled, while the dominat culture has been traditionally hostile to outside currents of thought and inimical to modernization. On top of that, they have to deal with a demographic boom; most of their citizens are young and without jobs. Overall, they do not have the seasoned political forces that can successfully take over from autocrats.

Such fragile environments may fall pray of extremists or of different kinds of autocrats. Just as the French Revolution ended up with Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, devastating wars and then the restoration of the old monarchy, it is not inconceivable that, in the face of possible chaos and anarchy, another general may come along promising order and security. Or we may have different but equally unpleasant scenarios.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt

Case in point, many in Egypt fear too quick a transition from Mubarak autocracy to a new democracy that may prove to be too weak and fragile, with the end result of allowing the Muslim Brotherhood, ostensibly the oldest and best organised anti-regime political group, (it was founded in 1928), to eventually take over, due to the inexperience of all the others.

Eddin Ibrahim: joy and concerns

Concern for what may be the road ahead in Egypt, (by far the most important Arab country, with a population of 80 million and a tradition of cultural leadership within the Arab world), is expressed in an interview with Eddin Ibrahim by The Wall Street Journal , (A Democrat’s Triumphal Return to Cairo, Feb. 26-27, 2011). Eddin Ibrahim is a leading Egyptian sociologist and a leader of the anti-Mubarak resistence who was imprisoned for his political opposition.

While rejoicing, Ibrahim does not hide his preoccupation regarding the ability of the new opposition to properly organize and thus create viable institutions and workable political debates in a future Egypt. And if this is the case in Egypt, a country that, despite all, has a sizable educated and internationally savvy middle class, what can we hope in much more backward Yemen or Libya, a country in which all voices were silenced by the bizarre 42 year old Gaddafi-led tyranny?

In Europe a long and bloody road from autocracy to democracy

In European history, the path from autocracy to democracy has taken centuries, and it was hardly linear. The emancipation of Eastern Europe had to wait until the end of 1989 –and the aftershocks of the fall of Communism are still felt, while autocracy survives in Belarus and Putin’s Russia is hardly a democracy the way we understand it . In Europe, the added complication was in the proliferation of ideologies –beginning in the 19th Century– that, while opposed to the absolute monarchs, proposed other forms of authoritarianism as the best alternatives.

Revolution, Terror, Communism, Nazism

And so, from the Terror unleashed by the Jacobins in the early stages of the French Revolution, to the ideological poison of Marxism, (The Communist Manifesto was published in 1848), and all its political manifestations through many Socialist and then Communist parties, to Mussolini’s Fascism and then Hitler’s Nazism, Europe became the battle ground of a variety of illiberal creeds that halted the advance of modern representative democracies.

Finally, in 1989….

It took revolutions, dictatorships, repression, two World Wars and the happy ending of a long Cold War against a totalitarian Soviet Union to get to democracy in the whole of Europe. A path started in Great Britain with the Glorious Revolution of 1688 against King James II reached its minimal objective of accountable, limited government for the whole of Europe only in the 1990s.

The Arab uprisings in context

If we place today’s uprisings affecting Arab societies within this broader historic context, it would be foolish to expect clean, linear developments leading to well functioning democracies in the Middle East. On the contrary, expect a lot of turbulence and possibly setbacks. Setbacks that, because of the Western dependence on the oil exported by some of these countries, may cause serious tremors within western industrial democracies that, so far, have found no alternatives to this precious hydrocarbon. (While there is oil all over the world, 40 per cent of what is consumed is produced by OPEC countries; and most of the OPEC oil is in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Iraq. Libya is a relatively small player within OPEC. And yet the Libyan uprising immediately caused oil prices to jump).

Eddin Ibrahim: the Muslim Brotherhood has evolved

In the interview with the WSJ referenced above, Eddin Ibrahim, with some caution, indicates that the once feared Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt has evolved. He thinks that they may have abandoned the more strident fundamentalist components of their creed. Is it so? It is possible, as all ideologies evolve and they tend to moderate over time. But, if it is not so, then turbulence in Egypt’s future –with repercussion in the region, as strong fundamentalist voices would not want friendly relations with Israel– is almost a given.

Let’s support the reasonable voices of this democratic revolution

Whatever may happen in a post-Gaddafi Libya, in a post-Ali Abdullah Saleh Yemen, or in a post-Mubarak Egypt in which the people (with concern) depend on the generals to introduce pluralism and democracy, it is heartening to hear mostly voices of reason, people who demand forcefully very basic political freedoms.

But let also remember that unfortunately in many past revolutions, (Iran in 1979 is the most painfully obvious), the “moderates” quite often have been crushed by the better organized and more motivated radicals. History does not have to repeat itself, but it may.

Mindful of that, in the meantime, let’s do all we can to support the likes of Eddin Ibrahim and young Gigi Ibrahim, Egyptians of different generations united in a cause that we all understand. Let’s hope that their politics of inclusiveness and reason will eventually prevail.

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