Originally Published 2011-02-05 00:00:00 Published on Feb 05, 2011
Egypt, because of its huge population and central role in history has traditionally been the heart of "Arab Street" in world affairs. It has always been the cultural capital of the Arab world - Egyptian Arabic is understood throughout the Arab world,
Of safe bets and best bets
Is Egypt on the brink of a new order? What would the implications be? A Saturday Special inquiry

Egypt, because of its huge population and central role in history has traditionally been the heart of "Arab Street" in world affairs. It has always been the cultural capital of the Arab world - Egyptian Arabic is understood throughout the Arab world, its television serials and films are standard fare for the average Arab and Egyptians work and live throughout the region. Anything that happens in Egypt tends to reverberate through the region - that is why we need caution and consideration.

The ultimate result, however, remains in balance. It is precisely this uncertainty which has caused governments around the world to be cautious in the positions they adopt. Understandably, they are hedging their bets.

This may be diplomatic and it may be realpolitik - but it is not good enough either for the people of Egypt or even, for the world at large. Whether the Mobarak regime manages to restore order or the protesters win out and forcefully usher in some form of popular government, the fundamental contradictions and challenges facing Egypt would remain. If these are not addressed adequately, any government that the Egyptians create for themselves may degenerate into the corruption, inefficiency and repression that they know so well. The hope and anticipation of this ’Arab Spring’ may still turn to tragic disappointment. The poet Faiz Ahmad Faiz perhaps best summed up this predicament when he wrote:

Phir koi aaya dil-e-zar,
nahin koi nahin.
Rah ro hoga,
kahin aur chala jay ga.

More than a crisis in its heart, Egypt today has an opportunity - to re-assess where things have gone wrong and where they may yet go wrong in the future.

Modern Egypt has had a long and troubled history of being colonised by external powers due partly to its resources but mainly due to its strategic location connecting the Mediterranean Sea to the Red Sea. From Ottoman Turkish rule, Egypt passed into being a British protectorate and then, in 1953, became a Republic. This was the beginning of Egypt’s one party phase of ’Arab Socialism’. At each of these inflexion points only the elite was shuffled - the average Egyptian was nowhere in the picture.

Of course, Western support helped unrepresentative regimes consolidate their rule in the past but it is important to remember that it was the Egyptians themselves who created and enabled the continuation of such regimes. The despotic urge in any such regime would have sought out support - if not from the West or America, then from someone else. The proper focus for Egyptians and their true friends must be towards removing the causes and opportunities for illiberal regimes - and this will necessarily be a slow painstaking task.

One of the reasons why authoritarian regimes have been able to sustain themselves is what has been called the ’Islamic bogeyman’. The argument has been that it is only these regimes that can maintain stability and that without them, Islamist extremists would seize power and, perhaps, create a Sharia-ruled state.

However, this choice between absolutes is fundamentally flawed - it does not factor in socio-economic predicaments and it does not credit the Egyptian people with having the capability to decide what is best for them.

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt for example could, theoretically, create a repressive theocracy. It certainly has the ideological base, the organisation and a large support base. Perhaps it might even have the desire. Even if outside observers fear the prospects of an Islamic revolution in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood has been most conspicuous by its silence. We need to understand that silence - is the Muslim Brotherhood waiting for others to strike the first blow or, does it understand that it has a weakness that would handicap it?

The reality is that the Egyptian Army has a preponderant presence in the State and, in the absence of an external enemy, it has time on its hands. It may not easily give up its influence in politics, and nor would it easily yield power to religious extremists. Till date, the Egyptian Army may be a Muslim army but it is not an Islamic Army. Egypt needs to value and nurture this positive aspect.

More importantly, Egypt today faces a series of challenges that feed into economic stagnation and socio-political frustration. Successive Egyptian regimes have proved to be corrupt, exploitative and repressive. The result has been a growing divide between a very narrow elite and a vast mass of urban (and rural) poor.

At the heart of this set of problems is Egypt’s demographic predicament - one that it shares with much of the Arab world. A large population of about 80 million makes Egypt a heavyweight in the region but, more than the numbers, it is the composition of this population that is important - the median age is around 24-25. This extraordinarily large and young cohort needs phenomenal investments in socio-economic infrastructure - in terms of education, health and employment which, till date, have not been forthcoming from the regime. Equally, young populations tend to be more assertive and demand a voice - this again has been increasingly frustrated by the single ruling party.

Egypt must think beyond regime change and work for a regime transformation. The long-term objective must be to cater to the needs and aspirations of Egypt’s youthful population. If this cohort can be leveraged into a positive and productive future for themselves, we can hope to see a stable, peaceful Egypt. In the immediate future, Egyptians need to focus on a transition that nurtures and enables democracy. Go for democracy but only after laying the proper foundations for it.

For our part, we, from the outside must not try to seek favour with any potential regime but must begin to bet on the Egyptian people. In today’s day and age, we must learn to applaud and encourage the individual in his society rather than particular regimes that we think look like us. If the present crisis in Egypt is to take a positive turn, regardless of which regime finally assumes power, it is important for the individual Egyptian to begin to have a voice and an opportunity to participate in making Egypt. That would be the true revolution.

The author is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi

Courtesy: The Pioneer
The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.