Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Momentous Return Of The Arab Citizen

By Rami G. Khouri  
This commentary was published in The Daily Star on 04/06/2011 

Egyptians refer to their “revolution” in describing the overthrow of President Hosni Mubarak last February, and they revel in its continuing afterglow, appreciating how significant and satisfying was their deed.

The post-revolution phase under way in the country represents a more difficult challenge than the weeks of street demonstrations that sent Mubarak into retirement. He, his sons and some senior officials are detained and will soon be tried in court.
Everyone asks one question every day in Egypt: Did the revolution really change much beyond removing the top layer of officials from office, and will a democratic system fully take root in the country?

It was to answer this question that I spoke with a cross-section of ordinary Egyptians, professionals, academics and activists in Cairo this week.
I also found a rich vantage point from which to understand the deeper political issues at play in Egypt when I participated in a two-day seminar of 30 representatives of non-governmental organizations, from a dozen Arab countries, who gathered to discuss what the organizers described as “paths toward democratic changes and equitable development in the Arab region: toward building a civil state and establishing a new social contract.”

The meeting – convened by the Arab NGO Network for Development, the Arab Institute for Human Rights, and the Egyptian Association for the Community Participation Enhancement – clarified what I see as the three most important political dynamics to emerge from the Egyptian experience (which is also taking place in Tunisia).
First, the Tahrir Square experience was an exhilarating case of mass empowerment of once helpless individuals who all came together and were able to remove their disliked previous government.

Second, the concept of “the consent of the governed” is now operational in Egypt, as “people power” has become the legitimate source of authority and governance, but without ideological expression or anchorage.
And third, the spirit of Tahrir Square must now be translated into a new governance structure and social contract that provide citizens with both their political and civil rights and also the promise of more egalitarian socio-economic development prospects.

The NGO activists who came from all corners of the Arab world to discuss these issues in Cairo this week knew instinctively from their decades of experience that they had to achieve one overriding imperative if the newly forged assets of the popular rebellions across the Arab world were to be translated into long-term gains for all citizens: the new governance systems of the Arab world must be based on rights of citizens that are both clearly defined in constitutions and implemented and enforced on the ground through credible legal and political structures. Among the critical elements that must define a new social contract and credible constitutionalism are a strong, independent judiciary, and a new relationship between the military-security sector and the civilian population.
The political contest under way in Egypt today sees the spirit of Tahrir Square continuing to manifest itself in several forms (street demonstrations, legal action, new political parties, civil society activism, dynamic media) that seek to define a new governance system in the face of the two most powerful forces hovering over the society – the military and the Muslim Brotherhood. Many Egyptians increasingly see a growing alliance between the military and the Islamists, which some activists even refer to as a quiet coup d’etat.

The new element at play now is the Arab citizen, who has been empowered and energized by his or her confrontation with the autocratic old order. Masses of Arabs today feel that they have the ability not just to demand, but also to enforce, their rights as citizens in the pluralistic and constitutional democracies they seek to construct from the wreckage of the Arab security states they endured for many decades.
The polarization, fragmentation, or even the violent collapse of some Arab states – Somalia, Yemen, Lebanon, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Palestine, Algeria and Iraq to date, with others lined up to follow suit – is the natural consequence of political systems that fail to provide their citizens with the rights they expect. Rehabilitating and rebuilding more stable Arab states and governance systems today requires addressing the equal rights of all citizens in the political, civic, economic, cultural and social fields, and “constitutionalizing the protection of citizen rights,” as one Moroccan scholar called it.

The historic change that Tunisia and Egypt have triggered is simply that Arab citizens are now players in this process, having been mostly idle bystanders in the past four generations when Arab statehood proliferated without any real citizen sovereignty taking root in parallel. This struggle to define the new Arab world will go on for some years. The important thing is that it has finally started in earnest, and its outcome will be determined largely by the interaction among indigenous actors that now include the once-vanished but now reinvigorated protagonist in the saga of statehood: the Arab citizen.

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