CAIRO – There’s nothing’s like walking alongside the Nile to give one a historical perspective on the momentous changes sweeping through Egypt and the Arab region. Watching this ancient nation react to the dramatic developments since the downfall of Hosni Mubarak is sobering.
The latest drama was caused by the recently elected president, Mohammed Morsi, who granted himself broad new powers under the pretext of protecting the revolution from counterrevolutionary forces and of breaking the deadlock over writing a new constitution.
The move set off a political storm. The opposition condemned Morsi as dictatorial, and Egypt’s Supreme Judicial Council denounced him for putting the presidency above the law. Public pressure forced Morsi to rescind the controversial decree over the weekend.
The escalation reinforced the long-held belief among observers of the Arab world that success always carries with it the seeds of failure, and good news is just a precursor to bad.
But realism shouldn’t be confused with cynicism. Needless to say, Egypt faces countless political, social and economic challenges. The Arab revolution has just started. Like Cairo’s traffic, it is chaotic, boisterous and frequently congested, and yet it continues to flow. And like traffic, it will ultimately be measured by how effectively it allows people to reach their desired destinations.
Beyond general demands for regime change, a unifying political agenda or revolutionary philosophy has so far been absent. Bringing down Mubarak was swift; but building democracy and modern nationhood is a generational challenge.
However, Egypt, along with Tunisia, has paved the way for a revolution of consciousness. This has produced new realities with long-term consequences.
First, the revolution fomented the notion of an Arab public opinion, which will slowly but surely replace the Arab street. Long denied access to the corridors of power, people have historically voiced their pent-up political frustrations through intermittent outbursts. Today, elected leaders are wary of public criticism and try hard to win support in an effort to secure renewed mandates. Citizens now realize their political weight and will vote for those who best represent their aspirations.
Second, Egyptians have underlined an overwhelmingly popular wish to embrace the civil state, having rejected the notion of a military republic or a theocratic state. The bulk of Islamists who won election have accepted the principles of a state where civil law – not sharia – is the modus operandi and where religion is neither distanced nor enforced by law. Any attempt by Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to reverse that will be met with popular opposition.
The third major reality is the embrace of constitutional democracy as a system of government. As Egypt, like other Arab countries, faced the postcolonial challenges of war, sovereignty and nation-building, democracy was hardly a national priority, let alone the regime’s wish. Today, democracy’s advocates include those who, until recently, denounced it as un-Islamic and those unable even to fully define the notion of democracy and what it entails.
Meanwhile, the forces that caused a great deal of the tumult after January 2011 continue to either drive or inhibit change.
The security apparatus, military echelon, bureaucracy and old oligarchy have mounted a desperate comeback, but the future does not belong to them. While these reactionary forces continue to exploit the popular dissatisfaction with the lack of change and persistent chaos, authoritarian development has been discredited as a model.
The revolution has also unleashed Islamist and other long repressed primordial furies. Considering the terrible condition of the Egyptian economy and state institutions, the Islamists don’t have specific Islamic solutions to the problems they’ve inherited. But people expect their leaders, once in power, to deliver results, not religious slogans.
Enter the young democrats, liberals and feminists who spearheaded the Arab revolutions in Tahrir Square, as well as countless other public spaces in Egypt and the Arab world, from Sanaa to Tunis. They have been fighting an uphill battle against counterrevolutionary and conservative religious forces since Mubarak’s downfall, and now there is a growing concern that their revolution is being reversed.
Perhaps they left the squares too early, without following through with the process they started. However, they continue to gain experience and build coalitions with other progressive, secular and liberal groups.
The youth leaders I meet are determined activists who, despite the killings, harassment and arrests over the last two years, continued to organize and take their cause directly to the public. Wherever and whenever I meet them, it is clear to me that in their minds and hearts, the revolution continues. They are the future.