"People underestimate the fact that this relationship [with Israel] is anchored in mutual interest,'' an Egyptian diplomat told me last week when I asked about the deal that finally released Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity. "Nobody has an interest in seeing it break down."
Those mutual interests have not been in great evidence since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in February. Months of crisis, from a cross-border Israeli raid which killed six Egyptian soldiers to the ransacking of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo, have dominated the bilateral agenda. But Egypt's role in brokering the exchange of Shalit for over a thousand Palestinian prisoners demonstrated that fears of a major break between Egypt and Israel have been wildly overstated.
IDF via Getty Images
On Sunday evening, Egyptian plainclothes police and the army attacked a protest by peaceful demonstrators. Dozens were killed and hundreds wounded, while state television spread inflammatory news of Copts attacking soldiers. Many immediately concluded that sectarianism was to blame, rather than the military command which oversaw the bloodbath. The ability of Egypt's Supreme Council for the Armed Forces (SCAF) to avoid accountability for its actions lies at the heart of the problems in today's Egypt.
This myth about Egypt's transition runs deep. It blames the stagnation of the country's transition on the divided protest movement, unsatisfied public sector workers, factory labors, and rural farmers. When this narrative does not suffice, the established but ineffective political parties, various Islamist parties greedy for electoral competition, and weak cabinet members are marshaled from their supporting roles to take the fall. Either way, they implicitly place the blame for Egypt's shaky transition on the doorstep of the civilians who made the revolution. Even the focus on parliamentary elections, the policy positions of Egypt's current presidential contenders, or a constitution yet to be written diverts the focus from where it belong -- the people actually in power.
Tech. Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey/AFLO/Zuma Press
Civil society is an essential component of any democracy and it will be a key factor in determining the success of the democratic transitions now underway in the Middle East and North Africa. In his May 19 speech, President Barak Obama identified "a vibrant civil society" as one of four areas in which Egypt and Tunisia should set a strong example for the region. Speaking to a global forum in Sweden last month, Secretary Hillary Clinton described civil society as "a force for progress around the world," while noting that "in too many places, governments are treating civil society activists as adversaries, rather than partners." Sadly, nowhere is that now more true than in Egypt, where the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has steadily escalated a campaign against this community which is even more repressive than during the Mubarak era.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
Egyptian activists took to the streets on September 9 calling to "correct the path" of a revolution which they see slipping away. They particularly focused their ire on the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which they see as leading a counter-revolution against the will of the Egyptian people. But part of their problem is that, according to a survey carried out by the Arab Barometer this summer, 94.5 percent of Egyptians responded that they trusted the SCAF and 93.5 percent thought it was doing a good job -- far more than they do any other part of Egyptian society.
While 78.7 percent of Egyptians agreed that "despite its problems democracy is the best for form of government," their support for democracy is at least in part driven by a belief that such a system is good for the economy. Of the respondents, 64.4 percent defined the most essential characteristic of democracy as either a low level of inequality or the provision of basic necessities for all citizens. Another 12.1 percent stated that it is eliminating corruption. By contrast, only 6.0 percent defined democracy's most essential characteristic as the ability to change the government through elections and only 3.9 percent defined it as the right to criticize those in power. With 84.2 percent of respondents saying that the economy represents Egypt's greatest challenge, these findings should offer some powerful lessons to all of those interested in supporting Egypt's transition.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has been ruling Egypt since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. But the SCAF's erratic decision-making process and its complete lack of transparency has left nearly everyone confused about its ultimate intentions. Many think that it aims to re-impose de facto military rule, and rumors swirl about its counter-revolutionary schemes and alleged secret deals. Activists routinely accuse the SCAF of blocking systemic change and continuing the repressive rule of the former regime.
My recent discussions with individuals close to the military leadership left me with a more complex picture of a military establishment uncomfortable with its public role, unsettled by continued protest, and hampered by an authoritarian mindset that continues to guide its thinking. The key to understanding the SCAF is that it has used its expanded power with a single-minded determination to restore the country to what it perceives to be stability and return it to normalcy. Without a clear roadmap for transition, the council has been reactive and inconsistent, ensuring continuation of the very activity it has sought to bring to an end -- namely, public agitation and demonstration.
MOHAMED HOSSAM/AFP/Getty Images
In recent weeks Egypt's interim military rulers, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), have stepped up attacks on civil society leaders and pro-democracy activists, accusing them of peddling "foreign agendas" and various other seditious activities. These attacks, while disturbing, paradoxically are a sign of progress in Egypt's political transition. Members of civil society have become sufficiently effective and sophisticated as to warrant a concerted international smear campaign by Egypt's highest authority.
At first blush, the attacks appear to be a rerun of the tripe authoritarianism for which former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and his fellow Arab dictators are famous. When one cannot address the people's legitimate grievances, it's rather expected to revert to unfounded accusations of foreign sabotage, espionage, and any other external factors that distract the population from domestic problems. Viewed through this lens, the Egyptian military exposes its true colors as simply Mubarak-lite bent on preserving the status quo with only superficial changes in leadership. And this was the motivation behind the reformers' three-week sit-in in Tahrir Square until they were forcibly removed by the military.
The trial of deposed President Hosni Mubarak alongside his two sons, his ministers, and their business associates, resumed Monday after launching on August 2. Many Egyptians expressed satisfaction at seeing the dictator on trial by the country's own judicial system, and hope that his conviction would stand as an emblem for a new Egypt. But others had reservations about his treatment. Those mixed feelings reveal how even the prosecution of Egypt's head of state can only represent a first step in a longer-term and more comprehensive process toward transitional justice. The drive for retribution and punishment must not eclipse the need for truth telling, accounting, and transparency.
Egypt is not the first country to struggle with the question of how to bring leaders of a deposed regime to justice. Transitional justice is generally associated with holding accountable perpetrators of massive violations of human rights. But in recent years, activists and scholars have shifted attention to the ways in which transitional justice can facilitate the transition from autocratic to democratic government. For Mubarak's trial to play this role, Egyptians need to rethink what they want from transitional justice. While punishing the old regime for its crimes is necessary and important, the prosecution of deposed officials will ultimately prove an empty victory if the process does not help consolidate a new and meaningful democratic order that ends impunity, reconstructs state-citizen relations, and institutionalizes accountability and rule of law.
"All Americans think I'm a terrorist," 34-year-old Salafi political organizer Mohammed Tolba exhales with his trademark belly laugh. He grips his gearshift and accelerates to 115 miles per hour down a winding overpass in Cairo. "But I only terrorize the highways." Since the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, Tolba has constantly been on the go. "The media says we all wear galabeyas (long Islamic dress), put our women in niqabs (a face veil), and will cut off people's hands," Tolba says, dramatically feigning a yawn. "We're the new boogey-man, but people need to know we're normal -- that we drink lattes and laugh."
To this end, the silver-tongued IT consultant shuttles regularly from the modish offices of popular television personality Bassem Youssef (he's starring in a segment on the "Egyptian Jon Stewart's" highly anticipated new show) to the considerably less shiny quarters of Cairo's foremost Salafist centers. He's been conducting leadership and media-training workshops for Salafis. "These guys don't know how to talk to the public," says Tolba, rubbing his eyes in exhaustion. "Once they open their mouths and face a camera, man, they ruin everything."
The same might be said for their debut on Egypt's main stage last Friday, as hundreds of thousands of Salafis joined other Islamist groups in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Droves of people from governorates across Egypt got off buses near Tahrir Square, chanting "Islamic, Islamic, we don't want secular." One Salafi, Hisham al-Ashry, beamed with pride as he walked back from the square to his tailor shop downtown. "Today is a turning point, we finally showed our strength." Meanwhile, "the liberals and the leftists are freaking out. God protect the nation and revolution," noted popular blogger Zeinobia.
Who are the faces and voices of an oft-deemed bearded and veiled monolith that packed the square? And what exactly do they want?
Al-Shaab Yureed Tatbiq Shari'a Allah! The people want to implement God's Sharia! That chant rang through my ears as I struggled through a jam-packed Tahrir Square on Friday, as hundreds of thousands of Islamists packed the symbolic home of Egypt's revolution to demand that their presence be known. Two days later, the ill-advised occupation of Tahrir Square by mostly secular and leftist political trends which began on July 8 largely ended, as most groups decided to pull out and then security forces cleared the remains. Feelings are running raw in Egypt as the revolution approaches yet another turning point. The galvanizing events of the weekend mark a new stage in one of the most urgent battles in post-Mubarak Egypt: who owns the revolution, and who may speak in its name?
GAZA CITY — A predominant, if misguided, narrative holds Gaza to be a Mediterranean secret, where food is plentiful and joy is unabated. Such statements are not exactly false. As a Gazan, I can say I have laughed, dined out (not just falafel), and been able to embrace my proclivity for consumption -- recently purchasing a 37" flat-screen TV. But this has been a product of the stubbornness and creativity of capitalism under an enforced closure (where goods flow into Gaza, but what goes out is very limited). Not to mention the sheer luck that I hail from an elite class and of the simple fact that humans, in desperate circumstances, still muster the ability to "look on the bright side of life."
Two recent developments in Gaza have propped up the "there are no problems in Gaza narrative," and will undoubtedly feature in a soon-to-be-shot promotional video by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One is the pool-hall-cum-lounge called Carrino's; the other, Munib Al-Masri's six-star Movenpick hotel.
CAIRO — Since June 12, half of the 18,000 workers who operate and service the Suez Canal have been on strike. They are employed in maritime services by seven subsidiary companies of the Suez Canal Authority in Suez, Isma‘iliyya, and Port Said. In contrast, those employed directly by the canal authority have always received higher wages and better benefits. Long before January 25, 2011 subsidiary company workers raised the demand for parity, effectively a 40 percent wage increase.
Management of the subsidiary companies accepted this demand in April, an expression of the new possibilities of the post-January 25 era. But the interim government has maintained that wages and working conditions of public service workers are established by parliamentary legislation, and therefore, no changes can be made while the parliament is dissolved. The strike expresses workers' rejection of this logic.
Egyptian workers have achieved increased strength and self-confidence in the course of the revolutionary movement. This is expressed by the capacity to sustain a five-week-long strike in an industrial sector linked to the economically and strategically critical Suez Canal and by insisting that economic demands be met despite the absence of the legal framework established by the old regime. Labor unions continue to rebuff myriad accusations in the press and by some of the "revolutionary youth" that workers' economic demands are narrow "special interests" rather than "national interests." In this respect, workers share the achievement of all Egyptians who heeded the revolutionary call, "Lift your head high. You are an Egyptian" -- the recovery of their human dignity.
It has now been a little more than five months since Hosni Mubarak was forced to resign as president of Egypt. While no one predicted that the post-Mubarak transition would be a stroll in the park, many Egyptians seem genuinely surprised at the extent of post-revolutionary divisions in Egypt. The transition has not been helped by a disturbing tendency of conflicting political forces to accuse their political opponents of working secretly for the "counter-revolution" or prematurely raising "particular" interests at a time when all citizens should be thinking only of the public good. And, as yesterday's front page of the New York Times reported, the Egyptian military is exploiting ideological divisions among Egyptian civil society to entrench its status as an extra-constitutional actor, with the connivance of some liberal forces including one sitting justice on the Supreme Constitutional Court. Has revolutionary momentum in Egypt therefore ground to halt, confronted by the harsh reality of the complexities of governing a country of over 80 million people that suffered 30 years of institutional rot under the Mubarak administration? And if so, what can be done to renew revolutionary momentum?
While many liberals believe that regaining revolutionary momentum requires focusing their energy on establishing a bona fide liberal constitution as exemplified in the "constitution first" slogan, I believe the revolution would be better served by focusing on establishing the foundations for an accountable and effective government that would allow Egypt to make the structural changes its economy needs in order to establish a stable and prosperous democracy for all Egyptians in the long-term. Only after those conditions have been satisfied will it make sense to discuss the thornier and much more divisive questions like the relationship of religion to the state.
A few months back I had a quick exchange with President Obama about the U.S. standing in the Arab World. When I mentioned that we would be conducting a poll to assess Arab attitudes two years after his Cairo speech, he responded that he expected that the ratings would be quite low and would remain low until the U.S. could help find a way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Well, the results are in, and the President was right. In our survey of over 4,000 Arabs from six countries (Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE), we found that favorable attitudes toward the U.S. had declined sharply since our last poll (which had been conducted in 2009 after Obama's first 100 days in office).
Back then, Arabs were hopeful that the new President would bring needed change to the U.S.-Arab relationship and the early steps taken by his administration only served to reinforce this view. As a result, favorable attitudes toward the U.S. climbed significantly from Bush-era lows. But as our respondents made clear in this year's survey, those expectations have not been met and U.S. favorability ratings, in most Arab countries, have now fallen to levels lower than they were in 2008, the last year of the Bush administration. In Morocco, for example, positive attitudes toward the United States went from 26 percent in 2008 to a high 55 percent in 2009. Today, they have fallen to 12 percent. The story was much the same in Egypt, where the U.S. rating went from 9 percent in 2008 to 30 percent in 2009, but has now plummeted to 5 percent in this year's survey.
After six months of ongoing peaceful protests, a fracturing of the armed forces, and ongoing violence in numerous parts of the country, Yemenis face increasingly dire conditions each day. And yet they keep showing up. While non-democratic (nay, anti-democratic) neighbors fitfully engage in mediation efforts while also giving refuge to President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the U.S. continues to interpret the crisis through the lens of counterterrorism. Concerned about the risk of an emboldened al Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the U.S. has offered tepid support for the aspirations of the country's majority, pinned its hopes on an atavistic autocrat, and opted to increase controversial drone attacks in some of the most unstable parts of the country.
This strategy is mistaken. It presupposes a narrow understanding of U.S. interests centered on counterterrorism, which I and others have argued against elsewhere. But it also assumes that working against the revolutionary aspirations of millions of Yemenis is, in fact, the best way to counter the threat of AQAP. Supporting the development of a democratically-constituted Yemen and offering support to its leaders as they build legitimate state institutions makes more sense. This Friday, the Organizing Committee of the Revolution, which is advocating for Saleh's immediate transfer of powers and the formation of a transitional council, has issued a call for a march in pursuit of a "Civil State." Yemenis from across ideological, occupational, generational, and class lines will gather around the country to demand a state accountable to its rights-bearing citizens. It will be the twenty-fifth Friday on which they have done so, camped out in the squares for the weeks in between.
"We were not in love with combat...if there was a way to hold a government accountable, Sadat would probably be alive today...we didn't know another way to change things." That is how the Jihadist icon Abbud al-Zumur, a former leader of Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri's al-Jihad Organization, recently explained the most famous assassination in modern Egyptian history. Zumur is currently an elected member of the Consultative Council of the Egyptian Islamic Group (IG). Until last March, he was also the most famous political prisoner in Egypt.
Zumur was one of the eight IG leaders who signed a unilateral ceasefire declaration in July 1997. The Initiative for Ceasing Violence ultimately transformed into a comprehensive process of abandoning and de-legitimating armed activism against political enemies. Zumur was the only one of the eight signatories who was not released from prison. While he agreed to abandon political violence, he did not agree to stop vocally opposing Mubarak. His commitment to political opposition, combined with a principled rejection of violence, represents the current face of Egypt's Islamic Group as it faces a rapidly transforming Egypt.
CAIRO — Under a baking hot Egyptian afternoon sun, old women in full face veils mingle with teenage boys in designer jeans. Coptic Christians stand next to conservative Muslims, chanting together that they want freedom. Factory workers from the Nile Delta sit in tents, reading pamphlets passed out by web-savvy activists. The whole country is watching. On a Friday 147 days after Hosni Mubarak resigned from Egypt's presidency, tens of thousands of Egyptians are again taking to downtown Cairo's Tahrir Square to pressure their government to listen to their demands for change. Many are saying they will not leave the square until their demands are met. Meanwhile, other cities around Egypt are seeing similar protests.
If the scene is reminiscent of last winter's dramatic three-week uprising -- scorching heat aside -- it is not by coincidence. July 8's protest is an extension of the revolution, which many Egyptians believe has not yet been brought to fruition. The feeling has been reinforced in recent weeks by the perception that justice is not being served for dozens of corrupt officials who ran the country and then ordered the killing of protesters during the uprising. "Revolution First," reads a common protest sign in Tahrir.
KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images
January 28, 2011 was one of the harshest days of clashes during the Egyptian uprising. Hundreds of thousands of people ended up in Tahrir, battling against the regime, unarmed, while the police fought with tear gas and bullets, producing an eventual death toll of almost 1,000 people. The day was pivotal in the success of the revolution that toppled former President Hosni Mubarak. Exactly five months later on June 28th, thousands of protestors returned to Tahrir. So did the police, firing tear gas at unarmed protestors...just as they had done on January 28th.
The clashes last week reveal the deep confusion which now grips Egypt over where to go next, what type of constitution to have, what the military does or does not plan to do vis-à-vis elections, what steps are or are not being taken over bringing elements of the former regime to justice, what moves are happening to alter the deep inequality that exists between the rich and the poor...and more. This unresolved confusion was, and still is, just waiting to bubble over into conflict. For disaster to be averted, Egypt's leaders, both those at present and those who will hopefully take over in September, must move decisively to answer these urgent questions.
The moment that Hosni Mubarak stood down from the Egyptian presidency and it was apparent that his hastily appointed vice-president, the long-time intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, would not be succeeding him, it was clear that much would be changing in Middle Eastern politics -- including for Palestinians.
Easily the most populous Arab state, and one with a central location abutting Israel/Palestine, Egypt has always had the potential to play a huge role on the Palestinian issue. That role was lessened after Egyptian President Anwar Sadat split with the PLO leaders after the 1978 Camp David accords. But in recent years, Mubarak had become a linchpin in U.S. and Israeli efforts to steer Palestinian politics in a direction amenable to them.
Mubarak and Suleiman had two major ways to exert direct influence over Palestinian politics. First, Egypt has the only land border with the Gaza Strip other than the Strip's much longer border with Israel. The sole legal crossing point on that border, at Rafah, years ago became the only way that most Gaza Palestinians could ever hope to travel between the Strip and the outside world. (Goods, by contrast, are not allowed through Rafah. Under the 1994 Paris Agreement between Israel and the PLO, all goods going into or out of Gaza must go through crossings that go to Israel.) Cairo's control over Rafah has given it a huge ability to put pressure on Gaza's 1.6 million people and the elected Hamas mini-government that administers the Strip.
A wide array of political groups and young-people movements called for the second "Day of Rage" last week -- the first being the first Friday during the 18-day uprising that led to the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. A small, but vocal minority were calling for a new presidential council to replace the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) until elections could be held later in the year, as well as demanding a constitution be drawn up now, not after the elections. Far more wanted a trial for Mubarak and his clique, as well as a restraining of the military against those who decided to protest and an end of military trials. On Friday, May 27, all of these demands and many others were present in Tahrir.
The day went without violence, and most left the square in the early evening, satisfied that they had made their point and that they had renewed their commitment to the revolution. But the day raised key strategic concerns for the future of the revolutionary forces and their success for a changing Egypt. The first relates to perceptions of the revolutionary forces by the wider public -- and the second is the possibility of deepening splits among those forces.
Soon after I began teaching, a student came to my office hours because she had been ill and missed a portion of the class. That was not unusual -- but what did seem a bit out of the ordinary was that she brought her mother. I explained to the student that she could take an incomplete but that I advised this only as a last resort, since it would not be easy to make up the work after she had begun a new set of courses the next semester. Her mother piped in, "He's right honey. You know how I feel about incompletes." I had encountered my first "helicopter parent"-- those who hover closely over their grown sons and daughters, monitoring their choices, offering unsolicited advice, and intervening in their daily interactions.
There is no image that better captures the behavior of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood toward the political party it claims only to be launching, and that may be a problem for Egyptian democracy. The new Freedom and Justice Party will be free, says the parent Muslim Brotherhood, to make its own choices. But the Brotherhood as helicopter parent cannot resist suggesting to its offspring who the new party's leaders will be, what it stands for, how it will be organized, who should join it, and who its candidates will be. The party is completely independent in decision making -- so long as it does precisely what it is told. And actually, it is not only the party that is being told what to do -- individual members of the Brotherhood movement have been told to join no other party and to obey movement discipline in the political realm. This kind of relationship between movement and party is already making the Brotherhood a difficult partner for other political actors; over the long term, it may make the Islamists awkward electoral actors.
Last time I was in Washington D.C., a government official put it to me bluntly, if somewhat tongue-in-cheek: "Couldn't you get the Egyptian protestors to change the day they protest the most? With the time difference and everything, Fridays are awfully inconvenient for us in D.C. -- it really cuts into our weekend." In the old days, Fridays in Egypt always used to be good for one fairly mundane thing -- it was the best day for traffic. It's a day off, and before the Muslim congregational prayer around midday, the roads are completely clear, which means you can get anywhere in a fraction of the time it would take on any other day. Otherwise, it's like a Sunday in D.C. -- dead.
Now, it's rather different. Tahrir Square in Cairo has been a focal point for protests for months now, since the dramatic events which brought down former President Hosni Mubarak. There are demonstrations on and off Fridays, but Friday is always going to be the day when the most people come to protest, particularly after the masses depart the mosque after Friday congregational prayer. Those protests -- who comes, what they are protesting about or for, how long they stick around, when did they arrive -- have become a key, if unscientific way, to take the pulse of people. Three different protests in downtown Cairo this Friday each represented something quite different. There were two in Tahrir Square itself, and one outside the nearby television headquarters in Maspero -- and each of them had a different story to tell about the emphasis and priorities of the Egyptian public.
Egypt was once again the scene of sectarian conflict when an angry mob gathered in front of a Coptic church in Cairo on Saturday night in the false belief that a Christian convert to Islam was being held against her will, setting off hours of fighting in the streets. The latest incident in the poor working-class Cairo district of Imbaba resulted in the deaths of 12, six Muslims and six Copts, with more than 200 wounded and two churches burnt. The identity of the perpetrators and instigators remains to be determined. What is clear, however, is that this latest incident of sectarian strife has deep roots in recent Egyptian history, and raises the specter of broader communal violence. Coming at a delicate moment during Egypt's transition toward multiparty elections, it also represents a clarifying moment for the Muslim Brotherhood and a vital test for Egypt's emerging democratic order. Egypt's latest descent into sectarian madness is ultimately a reflection of longstanding discrimination against Copts and the unchecked climate of religious intolerance that has increasingly come to mark Egyptian society. How the evolving political system deals with these issues may be the most urgent test of how much Egypt has actually changed since the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Last New Year's Eve, the bombing of the Two Saints Church in Alexandria brought millions of Egyptians, both Muslims and Copts, out into the streets to protest the wanton violence directed at a Christian house of worship. The attack was one more indictment of the sclerotic regime of former president Hosni Mubarak. The scenes of cross-sectarian solidarity that ensued helped galvanize popular sentiments and influenced the trajectory and tenor of Egypt's unprecedented popular uprising which began on January 25. A common sentiment linking public outrage was that this was not the Egypt that many Egyptians knew -- sectarian violence of this sort was what happened in Lebanon or Iraq, but Egypt was different, and the faiths lived side by side harmoniously. But, in fact, sectarianism and bigotry are a part of Egypt, as is the attendant denialism that has underplayed these growing trends. There are reasonable suspicions that sectarian tensions are now being manipulated for political ends by members of the former regime. The role of the state in fostering the sectarian divide was reinforced for many when the former Minister of Interior, Habib al-Adly, was accused formally of orchestrating the Alexandria church bombing. How the state now responds will answer lingering questions about the extent of its transformation.
Across the Middle East and North Africa, unprecedented upheavals are creating historic opportunities to expand the circle of democratic societies. But the success of emerging democracies like Egypt and Tunisia will hinge on building strong and inclusive economies that improve people's lives. Alongside our partners in the Middle East and Europe, the United States stands ready to support these democratic transitions through renewed multilateralism. As economic leaders convene in Washington this week for the G7 and G20 finance ministers meetings, we hope to advance this partnership.
Over the last two decades, under their previous authoritarian governments, Egypt and Tunisia moved toward market economies and privatization, but corruption and weak institutions created an uneven playing field, with the benefits of growth not widely shared. Where reforms occurred, implementation was often inconsistent. Whether it was a new firm seeking a license, a new university graduate applying for a job, or a newly married couple securing a loan, the rules of business, employment, and finance were unclear. The status quo too often protected incumbents and excluded new talent.
MISAM SALEH/AFP/Getty Images
Cairo -- For those of us that thought the Egyptian revolution had run out of steam, the experience of last Friday's marathon "happening" in Tahrir Square was firm evidence that any death knell remains premature. Equal parts political rally, religious celebration, Woodstock (Egyptian style), carnival, and family outing, this was Egyptian society--suddenly free--and exuberantly expressing itself. I watched toddlers happily having their cheeks painted the colors of the Egyptian flag, a group of veiled women camped out under a bush taking refuge from the hot sun, a teenager beating a drum while held up by his buddies, an old man with his granddaughter on his shoulders proudly displaying a handmade poster proclaiming "rescue the revolution," a couple of guys sitting and chatting with a poster reading "Facebook... Reload" propped up beside them, and the eminently entrepreneurial souvenir sellers. The enthusiasm and optimism evoked the spirit of an American political rally -- with the buttons and banners showcasing the "January 25 Revolution" to boot.
As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Cairo's Tahrir Square during her first visit to post-revolutionary Egypt last month, I watched the news unfold from several miles away in the damp, sparse offices of the Muslim Brotherhood's parliamentary leaders.
"Why doesn't she meet with us?" asked one Brotherhood member.
"We know why," said another.
And then they both fell silent.
Egypt's opposition campaigned vigorously for a "no" vote in the referendum on revisions to the Constitution, while 77 percent of Egyptian voters voted yes. But that electoral setback is misleading. In fact, the Egyptian opposition won some important battles over the content of the new Constitution. But the process has been so confusing and opaque, nobody seems to have noticed.
From the beginning, many Egyptians worried about the fast pace of the transition, the rush to any kind of elections, and any attempt to work with the 1971 constitution even on a provisional basis. The opposition argued instead for a more protracted process that explicitly promised a new constitution, an explicit abandonment of the 1971 constitution and its substitution with a provisional "constitutional declaration," and the formation of a "presidency council" with a civilian majority. They lost the referendum, but some of their most positive ideas have actually been adopted.
The real problems in Egypt lie in the process, not the content, which has been obscure and sometimes seems haphazard. In contrast with most post-1989 transitions in Eastern Europe -- and even with Tunisia -- Egypt's interim leadership is making even its most sensible decisions in the most opaque manner possible. Such an exclusionary, confusing, and obscure way of redesigning the Egyptian polity is a strange and probably inadvisable way to proceed. Egypt's ruling junta, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, needs to learn to consult more publicly, regularly, and transparently if it is not going to deepen suspicion and mistrust.
CAIRO, Egypt — The need to establish stability during a period of great uncertainty was a central issue in Egypt's constitutional amendment referendum held on March 19. Advocates of a "yes" vote championed an immediate path to political, economic, and social stability through amendments to the most offensive provisions of the constitution, which would be followed by parliamentary and presidential elections in the coming months. Only then would a new constitution be considered. While 77.2% of Egyptians approved the referendum, the vote will not bring clarity and assurance to the country. Even though a new sense of confidence has come from the process of the referendum, the implementation of its provisions threatens to spur a new kind of instability and uncertainty.
The referendum asked voters to approve or reject several amendments intended to quickly fix aspects of the constitution dealing mainly with the emergency law and presidential elections. The vote also paved the way for the drafting of a new constitution. None of the amendments were particularly controversial in substance, but an opposition movement quickly developed to denounce the amendments as a mere "patching" of an unacceptable constitution that had become null and void as a result of the revolution. Opponents of the referendum also expressed concern that starting with parliamentary elections would benefit existing power structures-the remnants of the National Democratic Party (NDP) and the Muslim Brotherhood in particular-to the exclusion of new and fledgling parties. Thus, the parliament that would oversee the new constitution would fail to be truly representative, they argued.
When the famed author Paul Bowles first caught a glimpse of Morocco, he quickly became convinced it was a "magic place."
The Moroccan government long ago embraced this fantasy, selling itself as a bastion of calm in a troubled region, the Arab world's model of reform. And American policymakers bought it. In sentiments repeated regularly by her successors, Madeleine Albright called the North African kingdom a "leader in democratic reform" -- boasting that "other countries are moving in the right direction, but Morocco is showing the way."
If Morocco's political system was our model all this time, then perhaps our standards were too low. Having the least-worst record of democratization in the region should never have been enough. Every time the U.S. government lavished praise on Morocco, we sent a message to all Arab citizens: This was the most they should ever hope for.
Colonel Qaddafi's decision to drag Libya into the jaws of hell by unleashing merciless fire against the opposition substantiates the pessimistic view that the gradual, peaceful change achieved by the Tunisian and Egyptian people will likely be denied to other Arab lands for several reasons. While Arab despots and autocrats may live in splendid insulation and solitude reminiscent of those similar fictional characters that inhabit the novels of Gabriel García Márquez, they are not all alike, occupying a range of places in the hierarchy of despotism. Moreover, the different social, cultural, ethnic, tribal, and religious structures of these societies -- as well as their different historical experiences, varying levels of economic and political development, and differences in the way the ruling political classes, as well as the opposition, see themselves, their neighbors, and the world -- weighs heavily on how dissent is viewed and dealt with.
The creative, peaceful, and moderate tactics used by the leaders of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt -- two largely homogeneous countries enjoying a clear national identity and a relatively developed civil society -- are likely to face an insurmountable resistance in the heterogeneous societies of Algeria, Sudan, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Bahrain, and Yemen. Qaddafi's brutal suppression quickly turned an initially peaceful uprising into an armed insurrection. Qaddafi's destruction of Libya's nascent civil society and state institutions, replacing them with primitive popular committees; his exploitation of Libya's tribal structures and regional differences, partially explain Libya's current convulsion. Without external intervention, it seems very likely that the Libyan insurrection will grind into a halt and probably be reversed.
For the U.S. government and media, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been treated as a stepchild of sorts to the revolutionary events sweeping the Middle East. This was clarified to me recently by a prominent American journalist who confided he was unable to report on Israel/Palestine because "they're just too far from the news right now."
Gaza certainly continues to be ignored. Yet on the evening of March 14--one day earlier than planned--2,000 Palestinian youth and numerous civil society organizations gathered in a square in the middle of Gaza City calling on Hamas and Fatah to end their divisions and restore democracy in Palestine. Yesterday, March 15, thousands of people protested on the streets of Gaza, including young Hamas supporters, small groups loyal to Fatah and other small Palestinian factions, as well as Facebook activists. In Ramallah, some 8,000 demonstrators, the majority of whom were university students and young people, marched through Al Manara Square demanding national unity. Gazans are seeing their protests move to cities in the West Bank, creating a coordinated and strengthened movement.
The Middle East Channel offers unique analysis and insights on this diverse and vital region of more than 400 million.