By Rami G. Khouri
Editor-at-Large, The Daily Star, Beirut
Keep your eye on Egypt, which is stirring politically after a generation of political dormancy. The implications for the entire Arab world could be significant, because Egypt's political and cultural life has always set an example for others in the region.
In the past several months, various sectors of Egyptian society have engaged in more public forms of political protest and activism, reflecting a significant revival of the country's traditional role as a fountainhead of Arab civil society and political culture.
The signs are important and still developing. The kefaya (“enough”) movement launched last year has organised modest, peaceful street demonstrations of hundreds of people demanding that President Hosni Mubarak not run for a fifth term this autumn, arguing that his four terms and 24 years in office are “enough”. The movement also wants to block the possible presidential succession of his son Gamal, who has assumed a pivotal political post in the ruling National Democratic Party. Kefaya's demands include ending the emergency laws that govern the country since 1981, and holding a real presidential election contested among multiple candidates who all enjoy equal access to the media and public campaigning opportunities.
The Muslim Brotherhood, the banned party that probably has the widest support at the grassroots level, has started holding peaceful protests, also demanding democratic reforms and an end to the emergency laws. Protesters in the last few weeks have included thousands of students at several universities and smaller street demonstrations that resulted in the security forces arresting hundreds of people in towns like Mansura, Zagazig and Fayyum. The government said 400 members of the Muslim Brotherhood had been arrested, while the party itself charged that over 1,500 were detained, including some of its leaders.
More significant has been the new assertiveness of some members of the Egyptian judiciary, long respected for its independence and professionalism in the Arab world, though in recent decades the judiciary has fallen under the nearly total control of the executive branch and the security services. In Alexandria last month, 1,200 judges issued a public demand for judicial independence, and coupled this with a threat that they will not certify the presidential election in autumn if their demands are not met. They want total oversight of the electoral process, independent of executive branch influence, so that they can restore the integrity of both the electoral process and of their own branch of government.
These are profoundly important developments, together signifying a new dynamism and political energy in a country that has been perplexingly dormant and acquiescent in recent decades. The president has already responded in part by promising a multi-candidate presidential election this year. Opposition groups, however, decry the conditions placed on other candidates as unfair, charging that Mubarak will predictably win because his most credible opponents will not be allowed to run, and those who do challenge him will not have an equal playing field in the campaign.
The wider implications of the current dynamism of those who challenge the prevailing order is that Egyptians seem unwilling to put up with the existing political power structure for much longer, as is the case in other parts of the Arab world. Some will claim that such stirrings for democratic reforms reflect the impact of the American-led drive for freedom and democracy throughout the Middle East. Perhaps, but probably not, given the widespread opposition to American foreign policy in the Middle East throughout this region.
Having experienced the street sentiments of demonstrators or talked with leading activists in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Bahrain and others, I would suggest that the most useful place to look for the inspirations that drive Arab democracy activists these days is not the speeches of President George W. Bush, but rather the protest movements among American civil rights activists in the period 1956-1964.
The emotional and political sentiments that drive Arabs today to confront their autocratic rulers, security services, or foreign occupiers are almost identical with the instinct for political liberty and human dignity that inspired the civil rights movement in the United States two generations ago. The Arab world is into its second generation of autocratic rule, security-dominated state structures, and frozen political development. Most Arab citizens have had enough of their own dehumanisation and marginalisation, whether by their own rulers or by foreign powers. More and more Arabs today are politically challenging and physically confronting the powers that subjugate them, because they refuse to remain humiliated and degraded by the state of helplessness and powerlessness to which they have been relegated by their rulers and occupiers.
The same human demand for dignity and self-assertion that prompted young African-Americans to stand firm and hold their ground in the face of the police dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama, and other places in 1962, is manifesting itself among various Arab citizens who demand to be treated like human beings by their own power elites. This spirit for freedom and dignity has been most evident to date in Palestine and Lebanon, both of which have struggled for their sovereignty and freedom, the former from Israeli occupation, the latter from Syrian domination. Segments of Egyptian society are now stirring to liberate the country from the grip of its own ruling power elite.
Like the civil rights movement in the United States five decades ago, the indigenous movement for Arab freedom, dignity and democracy will move ahead on the strength of incremental successes in many local battles for justice, coupled with a sensible, sustained resort to the rule of law as the guarantor of individual rights and communal security and stability alike. Breakthroughs in Egypt will prove to be compelling for the entire Arab world, and they appear to be nearing.