Saturday, June 4, 2011

Egypt Revolution Still Searching For Identity

By Gabriel G Tabarani

Next year, the Egyptian revolution will mark its sixtieth anniversary. We are of course referring to the coup d’etat led by Gamal Abdel Nasser on July 23rd, 1952 – whereby his Free Officer movement overthrew and expelled King Farouk. They subsequently established their republic to spearhead and finally deliver a long-held ambition: the creation of the "Arab Ummah" (Arab Nation), a single nation pan-Arab and united nation stretching "from the Gulf to the Ocean". This ideal of pan-Arabism, up to this point, had to endure marginalisation at the hands of the era’s Real Politik.

These dreamers came and went and were succeeded by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak – ruling for eleven and thirty years, respectively. Mubarak having recently been ousted following an unprecedented uprising, started in al-Tahrir square, whose shock-waves continue to be felt across the Arab world up to now.

Following Nasser’s ideologically optimistic rule, the Sadat regime was defined by the establishment of a cadre of “fat cats” who gorged themselves on their nation’s wealth and the trappings of power. This system was replicated and refined further under the Mubarak regime, Mubarak having been Sadat’s vice-president and thus well versed on the abuse of authority for personal gain. The result: galloping population growth, rising illiteracy and increasing unemployment – all unwavering in their consistency.

Today, three-and-a-half months after the fall of the last of the modern-pharaohs, Egypt is still rife with uncertainty. Following the hedonism of revolution the mood is currently very sobering. Queries now focus on national identity; this is of vital importance to Egypt given its history as one of the great ancient civilizations, its role as a major regional political and military power and its current responsibility as a mirror to the broader Arab psyche.

Whilst Egypt asks itself these soulful questions, as well as coming up with an institutional frames upon which to establish them, the baltaguiya (loosely translated as vagabonds or thieves) of the Mubarak regime remain. All the while the Muslim Brotherhood has begun to emerge from the underground where it has hidden for nearly six decades. Furthermore and consequently, there are rising sectarian tensions; as demonstrated by the May 7th Imbaba events between Muslims and Coptic Christians – the two largest elements of Egypt’s religious jigsaw.

The above tensions are overlaid with the machinations of the latest demonstrations in Cairo’s al-Tahrir square (as well as other major cities across the country). These reflect the anxiety and uncertainty amongst the core-elements of the popular movement that led January’s revolution. Liberals, leftists and moderate activists feel that – thus far – the protests that ousted President Hosni Mubarak have yet to achieve much: their demands are as yet almost entirely unfulfilled.

Aspirations to make Egypt a prosperous democracy are fading due to the inefficiency of the current, military led, interim administration. Despite its role in allowing the recent revolution to take place, the military is still tainted somewhat by association to the Mubarak era. The interim administration has to deal with, not only, traditional parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood but also more unpredictable elements such as comical old opposition groups, business interests that flourished under Mubarak and of course good old-fashioned tribal alliances.  

Despite these inherent challenges, Egyptians across the board are working out how to square their unique circle to ensure that diversity, tolerance, stability as well as progress and national identity are established and fostered. One hopes that, given the era of “strongmen” has passed its norms will soon too become history, replaced instead with a robust formula to allow the desires of Egypt’s modern revolutionaries to be fulfilled.

These challenges cause immense strain on the Egyptian psyche, like the cracking the seams of the corset too long imposed on the people. Egyptian society is very much faith based - and whilst Muslims and Copts still strive to present an image of a nation united by the slogans of its revolution – it is still a heavily fractured society. As sectarian as Bahrain or Syria, as tribal as Libya or Yemen and as religious divided as Sudan where Muslims and Christians are perpetually at each other’s throats. In all these comparative countries we see the spectre of a disastrous enterprise in “democratization” initiated by George W. Bush.

Support for Hezbollah in Egypt is low; one could even say that the group is unpopular. However, the Muslim Brotherhood has learnt valuable lessons from the Lebanese-paramilitary force in winning hearts and minds. In an article published by the New York times the new role assumed by the Muslim Brotherhood is discussed with a villager referring to an effective presence at all times: “They set the tents, he says, they provide free meals, medicines for patients etc....” What does this mean? Simply that the state is absent, sadly, replaced by a party that wants to be seen as interested in the needs of the people. Membership will come later, when those satisfied persons want to thank the Brotherhood for its generosity for giving them the most basic needs.

Whilst President Obama can deliver rhetoric about the billions needed to revive a sluggish Arabic economy, everyone knows that he is struggling to find the bottom of the abyss that is the US fiscal deficit. As such, this particular foreign policy conundrum will require his full arsenal persuasive powers to draw upon Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries to provide the necessary stimulus – whether sufficient funds can be raised to effectively stimulate the Egyptian economy remains to be seen. However, this remains a vital step in legitimising whatever regime emerges following the interim administration as well as minimising groundswell support for ideologically and politically motivated groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Egypt, and the Arab world with it, find themself at a crucial cross-roads where eventually a multitude of possibilities will have to collapse to form a single reality – and in a similar vein to a famously falsely attributed to AndrĂ© Malraux - "the twenty-first century will be religious or it will not be at all" as will Egypt and the Arab world have to decide to select national consciousness over sectarianism. 

In a similar vein, the Greek philosopher Anaxagoras commented (correctly in my eyes) that "nothing is born or perishes, but things already existing combine and then separate again." Translated into political-speak: everything is cyclical – structures and paradigms are established, decline and collapse only to be replaced with new ones. In the here and now, this means that the Arab world is beginning to dismantle the political, and potentially territorial, scaffolding created after the First World War. If this is the case, the ramifications for the region and the World generally will be immense.

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