Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first freely elected president, met the Egyptian Military Council on Monday before taking office. (AP)
If there is one thought that summarizes the strength and weakness of the Arab awakenings, it’s the one offered by Daniel Brumberg, a co-director of the democracy and governance studies program at Georgetown University, who observed that the Arab awakenings happened because the Arab peoples stopped fearing their leaders — but they stalled because the Arab peoples have not stopped fearing each other.
This dichotomy is no surprise. That culture of fear was exactly what the dictators fed off of and nurtured. Most of them ran their countries like Mafia dons operating “protection rackets.” They wanted their people to fear each other more than the leader, so that each dictator or monarch could sit atop the whole society, doling out patronage and protection, while ruling with an iron fist. But it will take more than just decapitating these regimes to overcome that legacy. It will take a culture of pluralism and citizenship. Until then, tribes will still fear tribes in Libya and Yemen, sects will still fear sects in Syria and Bahrain, the secular and the Christians will still fear the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia and the philosophy of “rule or die” will remain a potent competitor to “one man, one vote.”
You would have to be very naïve to think that transitioning from primordial identities to “citizens” would be easy, or even likely. It took two centuries of struggle and compromise for America to get to a point where it could elect a black man with the middle name Hussein as president and then consider replacing him with a Mormon! And that is in a country of immigrants.
But you would also have to be blind and deaf to the deeply authentic voices and aspirations that triggered these Arab awakenings not to realize that, in all these countries, there is a longing — particularly among young Arabs — for real citizenship and accountable and participatory government. It is what many analysts are missing today. That energy is still there, and the Muslim Brotherhood, or whoever rules Egypt, will have to respond to it.
Precisely because Egypt is the opposite of Las Vegas — what happens there never stays there — the way in which the newly elected president, Mohamed Morsi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, ultimately learns to work with the secular, liberal, Salafist and Christian elements of Egyptian society will have a huge impact on all the other Arab awakenings. If Egyptians can forge a workable social contract to govern themselves, it will set an example for the whole region. America midwifed that social contract-writing in Iraq, but Egypt will need a Nelson Mandela.
Can Morsi play that Mandela role? Does he have any surprise in him? The early indications are mixed at best. “As Mohamed Morsi prepares to become Egypt’s first democratically elected president,” Brumberg wrote on foreignpolicy.com, “he will have to decide who he really is: a political unifier who wants one ‘Egypt for all Egyptians’ as he said shortly after he was declared president, or an Islamist partisan devoted to the very proposition that he repeated during the first round of the election campaign, namely that ‘the Quran is our constitution.’
“This is not so much an intellectual choice as it is a political and practical one,” he added. “Morsi’s greatest challenge is to unite a political opposition that has suffered from fundamental divisions between Islamists and non-Islamists, and within each of these camps as well. If his call for a government of national unity merely represents a short-term tactic for confronting the military — rather than a strategic commitment to pluralism as a way of political life — the chances of resuscitating a transition that only days ago was on life support will be very slim indeed.”
It is incumbent on the Muslim Brotherhood to now authentically reach out to the other 50 percent of Egypt — the secular, liberal, Salafist and Christian elements — and assure them that not only will they not be harmed, but that their views and aspirations will be balanced alongside the Brotherhood’s. That is going to require, over time, a revolution in thinking by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and rank-and-file to actually embrace religious and political pluralism as they move from opposition to governance. It will not happen overnight, but if it doesn’t happen at all, the Egyptian democracy experiment will fail and a terrible precedent will be set for the region.
The U.S. has some leverage in terms of foreign aid, military aid and foreign investment — and we should use it by making clear that we respect the vote of the Egyptian people, and we want to continue to help Egypt thrive, but our support will be conditioned on certain principles. What principles? Our principles?
No. The principles identified by the 2002 U.N. Arab Human Development Report, which was written by and for Arabs. It said that for the Arab world to thrive it needs to overcome its deficit of freedom, its deficit of knowledge and its deficit of women’s empowerment. And, I would add, its deficit of religious and political pluralism. We should help any country whose government is working on that agenda — including an Egypt led by a Muslim Brotherhood president — and we should withhold our support from any that is not.
-This commentary was published first in the New York Times on 26/06/2012