The populist political revolt sparked in Tunisia and capturing its biggest prize in Egypt will transform the Middle East, because in the realm of politics and culture, what starts in Egypt always ends up spreading to the entire region. From Pharaonic empires five millennia ago to Islamism, socialism and Arabism in the past century, from peace treaties with Israel to modern cinema and terrorism, major phenomena born in Egypt spread to the rest of the Middle East and sometimes to the world. We should expect history to repeat, as Egypt pulls out of a self-imposed mediocrity and marginalisation of the past four decades and regains its role as the dynamic centre of Arab ideology, politics and culture.How Egypt transforms itself remains to be seen, as it will surely experience bumps, diversions and regressions on the road from military-backed authoritarianism to civilian-based democracy. We’re likely to see a free and broadly democratic Egypt develop that elusive prize denied to the people for the past century: a stable, self-defined governance system, credible and legitimate because it’s based on fair representation and real accountability. Axiomatically, democratic governance in Egypt at the heart of the Muslim world must reflect the four principal value systems and social configurations that define the Middle East to various degrees, namely Arabism, Islamism, tribalism and cosmopolitanism. Such a system that faithfully reflects public opinion is likely to trigger changes in policies around the region and the world.
Several clear implications can be identified as this process starts, related to six principal actors with whom Egypt interacts across the Middle East: Arab countries, Iran, Israel, Turkey, the USA and Europe. A democratic Egyptian government that reflects public opinion will support democratic transformations and more accountable governance throughout the region. Egypt first gave the Arabs a sense of their own collective Arabism in the 1950s and 1960s, and is likely to regain a regional role as the spearhead of a new pan-Arab identity anchored in the twin processes of genuine self-determination and a collective commitment to democratic governance that’s deeply desired across the region. Critical will be the role played by rule-of-law institutions that Egypt pioneered nearly a century ago, including a free press, an independent judiciary, credible rather than sham constitutionalism, and dynamic institutions of civil society, human rights activism, lawyers and other professional associations.
The peace treaty with Israel will remain intact because war is not a desirable option for either country, yet the current Egyptian-Israeli cold peace will be radically re-balanced. Widespread indignity felt by Egyptians who see themselves as the jailers of Gaza on behalf of Israel and Washington will give way to a realistic policy by which Egyptians use their ties with Israel to push the latter to adopt a more law-abiding stance towards the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese. Just as the US maintains peaceful ties with Russia and China, but needles them constantly about human rights and other problem issues, so will Egypt keep peace with Israel, but raise the temperature on issues of profound national concern to Arabs.
The Palestine issue remains a principal lens through which most ordinary Arabs view their relations with Israel and the US, and Egypt’s resumption of a leading regional role will reflect this in its relations with Israel. The hope is that Israelis would put away frenzy and zealotry and understand the profound significance of a democratic Egypt. The US and Europe will react in bewilderment at first, as has been the case in recent weeks. The pair is unsure about how to navigate the transition to the ultimate end of colonialism finally underway, and remains confused about how to deal with self-confident Arabs and defiant Muslims. Arab governments can engage the West on the basis of shared values and common interests, while the West can once more try to come to terms with the structural Arabism and Islamism in public opinion that will permeate new Arab secular governance systems.
Egypt’s transformation, with Tunisia’s and others to follow soon, will quickly affirm that the three principal tests of American and European sincerity in the period ahead are whether: These Western countries act with civility and composure in dealing with Islamists who participate in free democratic systems, instead of repeating the mistake of boycotting Hamas when it won the Palestinian election in 2006. They give the same priority to Arab human and political rights as they do to Israeli fears;They accept that 350 million Arab men and women can forge stable, productive and satisfying societies only if the rights of citizens are affirmed above the self-inflicted distortions.It’s hard to exaggerate the impact that a democratic Egypt will have on the entire region, as Cairo resumes its role as the fulcrum and wellspring of Arab identity, ideology and influence, after two generations of self-induced irrelevance – Khaleejnews