I should preface this post by saying that I am hardly a scholar of the Middle East or revolutionary politics. I simply took a few college courses and read the newspaper. With that in mind, thank you for reading on:
On the two-year anniversary of the beginning of the Arab Spring in Egypt, the Egyptians celebrated in style. More protests are the call of the day. The protesters are up in arms over the apparent hijacking of the revolution by the Muslim Brotherhood.
I guess she hasn’t been following the news. Egypt’s last round of elections witnessed the rise of President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood and the rise of an Islamist-majority bloc Parliament dominated by the Brotherhood and al Nour, Egypt’s fundamentalist Salafi Party.
Since the election, the constitutional order and judicial system has been circumvented and undermined at critical moments. It’s interesting to me that Egypt’s secular, well-educated youthful population is outraged and ready to take the streets when it perceives the threat of authoritarianism, but are incapable of organizing in any other political fashion. If these groups were serious about not seeing their revolution taken over by one group or another, you would think they’d be willing to get past their fractious infighting and try to gain political sway in political institutions. Whether they’ll figure that out in time remains a mystery to most, certainly to me.
And then there’s Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi. Just months after he and President Obama twisted enough arms to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the Egyptian leader’s history of anti-semitism was back in the news. First it was the very public digging up of some comments he made back in 2010, referring to Jews such as myself as “the descendents of apes and pigs.” While I acknowledge that I am in fact probably a descendent of apes, I take serious offense to the feelings behind this remark and to comments he made earlier in that speech in which he urged Egyptians to raise their children to hate Jews. Following these comments, Morsi stuck his foot further in his mouth when he suggested to a group of U.S. Senators that the Western media portrays him poorly because Jews are pulling the strings. Please, I thought we were past all of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion stuff. It is hard to believe that a leader of a country who talks that way is serious about his commitment to lasting peace between Israel and Palestine. I suppose President Obama was right to say that Egypt is not a true ally right now. (He was right to say it isn’t our enemy either. Regimes change and so do attitudes. Diplomacy is always a good thing.)
This, of course, is not what is bothering the Egyptian people. The Egyptians are taking to the streets to challenge Morsi’s authoritarian turn. Hopefully, they will continue to stand up their own brand of political equality that will, over time, move from imperfect vision to even-more-imperfect-but-better-than-this reality. A more populist Egypt with a government that is responsive to the will of its people will likely not be a friend to Israel or the United States, at least not at first, but that is no reason not to remain engaged in helping them make a more egalitarian political system. We should respect the right of people to representative government, though we don’t have to support every idea they come up with. If we want to see the day when Egyptian politics derive power from a politically moderate population rather than religious, secular or military autocracy, we should think about the sorts of institutions they are cementing for the future.
The current convulsions in Egypt, over the nature of their political institutions, the value of the judicial system, and the content of the constitution speak volumes about the future of this experiment. I wrote a paper at Brandeis about the development of American national political identity in our revolutionary period. My findings suggested that the concept of American unity built during the war against the British ultimately did not last through the period of the Articles of Confederation where regional interest and the inability of the central government to pay back soldiers for their service took precedence. It was not until American leaders came together again in debate to create the Constitution that the sturdy foundation of American identity was first forged on the (imperfect) principles of equality, representation, the strength of a federal system and the checks and balances on its leaders and institutions. If you’re interested in reading more about this, let me know and I can send you a copy. (Ha. Right.)
While it is NOT always wise to compare the historical moments of different societies in different times, I want to draw this connection now in order to refocus our attention. Just as the identity and values of the American revolution did not take hold until the Constitution immortalized them in our documents, so too the identity and values of the revolutions in Egypt and other parts of the Arab world in 2011 might not take hold until they are cemented into new, respected political systems. It seems that the revolution in Egypt remains mired in uncertainty and frustration and can easily turn into a failure that not only denies the Egyptian people of the representative system many are longing for but also replaces an amenable regime to the U.S. with a hostile one. I have not interviewed any of the Egyptians protesting today, but I would bet they have a sense of this. Their failure to effectively organize politically at election time might cause them to lose the struggle to define the shape of the order they sacrificed so much to change.
With all of the attention given to the uprisings in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world in 2011, it has been too easy to turn away while the hard work of establishing political institutions and norms began. Now they might not form at all. I shy away from the neo-imperial hubris that might suggest that the United States and the West can single-handedly help “right the ship,” but I would suggest that greater attention on our part might help to support the aspirations of the secular, democratic elements that have proven incapable of effectively organizing into a single entity to challenge first the military and now religious elements.