This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 01/06/2011
Egyptians individually are easy-going, fun-loving, and self-deprecating people who treat the world and their place in it in a live-and-let-live manner.
They endure hardships, celebrate small achievements, ridicule the government, take care of their family and friends, praise God for the bounty of their lives, and wake up day after day to do the same things they and their society have done for nearly 6,000 years: manage the business of statehood and nationhood on a cosmic scale, because everything Egypt initiates has a way of spreading around the Middle East and other parts of the world.
That cosmic enterprise was interrupted 30 years ago when Anwar Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel and reoriented his country and its economy toward the United States and the West, and transformed Gamal Abdel Nasser’s authoritarian state into the Sadat-Mubarak prototype of the modern Arab security state.
Now, after the Jan. 25, 2011, revolution that sent the Mubarak family regime into exile, Egypt once again performs that epic nationalist spectacle by which a land of substance struggles to define itself in a manner that asserts the three great determinants of quality statehood: the affirmation of popular social sentiments, the legitimacy of state institutions and authority, and balanced interaction among the pluralistic centers of identity and power in society (such as religion, labor, the private sector, family and sect and security services).
A visitor to Cairo quickly sees how this land is in the grip of two competing forces: pride and concern. The pride is everywhere, on people’s faces and in their demeanor, starting with the illuminated banners at the airport arrivals lounge in which foreign leaders attest to the heroism of the Egyptian people’s leap to freedom and its ability to inspire others around the world.
Even as we recognize the cost in lives lost and the pain of thousands of Egyptians who were imprisoned and tortured, we can admit that the overthrow of the Mubarak security state nevertheless proved to be quick and easy when compared to the much more violent and prolonged situations in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Bahrain. The sense of achievement is powerful and pervasive, especially in contrast with the last 30 years of Egypt’s national mediocrity and self-marginalization on the regional and global stage.
Yet the pride is now matched to a large extent by concerns that also manifest themselves in any conversation with any Egyptian. The main concern I encountered among a wide cross-section of Egyptians is not primarily safeguarding the gains of the revolution – those seem pretty secure, in broad terms – but rather completing the process started in January. This requires moving ahead to reconfigure and redefine the state, and re-legitimize the governance system. Once again, as they have already done half a dozen times in recorded human history, Egypt and the Egyptians battle the demons of provincialism, dependence and mediocrity, to define a quality of statehood and nationhood that captures the attention – and envy – of others worldwide.
That struggle now sees tens of thousands of Egyptians interacting in different arenas to define “a new social contract at the heart of a civic, democratic, modern and secular state” – as this process and goal were described at a two-day gathering of Arab non-governmental organizations I attended in Cairo. The seminar of 30 representatives from a dozen Arab countries was convened by three players with considerable on-the-ground experience and credibility – the Arab NGO Network for Development, the Arab Institute for Human Rights and the Egyptian Association for the Enhancement of Grassroots Participation.
The cosmic struggle under way again in Egypt now occurs in a very public way, and it is about who will define the popular sentiments, state legitimacy, and internal balance of power among multiple actors who comprise the three great determinants of quality statehood. What I encountered in Egypt and see regularly across the Arab region keeps me confident and optimistic that the struggle for decent, stable, modern and productive statehood will prevail over both our recent nemesis, namely Western predators and the homegrown Arab thugs whom they supported, armed and funded for decades.
The non-ideological and populist celebratory fury of the revolution has given way to a prolonged political contest among several main players who have emerged with their interests and ideologies. These are the armed forces, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists, weak remnants of ruling or opposition parties, multiple, but also fragmented, youth and labor groups who ignited the revolution, the private sector that in some cases has entered the political arena, and hundreds of civil society and populist organizations that have worked for decades, largely unsuccessfully, to guarantee the implementation of constitutional rights of citizens that were usually left unimplemented by the modern Arab security state.
The single most important element in this process – its operational center of gravity – is constitutionalism and republicanism. How the rights of citizens are guaranteed in practice through a governance system anchored in the rule of law and the consent of the governed is the promise that looms ahead – for Egypt, Tunisia and all Arabs one day soon. Egypt is now in phase two of the struggle to transform the revolutionary promise into a functioning constitutional, democratic and civic state that actually protects citizen rights across the board, in the political, economic, social and cultural fields.
This is the great drama that is now playing itself out in a great-again land, which I will assess in more detail in my next column. In the meantime, I will enjoy the lingering after-effects of self-esteem that once again reverberate from Egypt, inspiring others in the region and drawing the attention of the entire world.