Egypt: An idea whose time has come

Egyptians are finally seizing democracy for themselves, but the country’s immediate fate rests on a smooth transition.

darth mubarak
Egypt’s contemporary equivalent of an American-style civil rights movement has finally occurred, and could prove to have an equally significant impact [Getty]

Egyptians have revolted. They have done so within an uprising akin to what one could only describe as Egypt’s very own civil rights movement. 

The youth of Egypt called for a march in support of specific economic and political grievances concerning unemployment, raising minimum wages and ending being in a constant state of emergency law.

In response, Egyptians of all walks of life, socio-economic classes, religious backgrounds, and ideological positions have joined the movement and peacefully marched on January 25 in support of specific demands. A display of what a true democracy would look like in Egypt.

This was an “exercise in citizenship”. Based on this day, no matter how the current events will be written down in history, one thing is certain: The relationship between “government” and “citizen” in Egypt has changed forever.

Origins of revolution

On the 25th of January we heard the Egyptian demonstrators chant “Peaceful. Peaceful. Peaceful”, as they pre-emptively stopped any potential clashes with the riot police, showing utmost civility and self-restraint.

Without any identifiable leadership, or specific organizers, the Egyptian people in the hundreds of thousands have proved to themselves and to whoever was watching that they can maintain order as they become more resolute about their demands.

But as president Mubarak remained silent, with no official response till the end of that first day, perhaps in a typical “business as usual” attitude, the demonstrators had started by then to formulate a collective image of themselves as “constituents” with urgent demands to be met.

Expectations became higher and the decision to return on Friday the 28th was made. Christians and Muslims, religious and secularists, rich and poor, peasants and urbanites were to converge at Tahrir Square in the heart of Cairo. By now, the sentiment among Egyptians turned to anger for having not been taken seriously enough by their president.

In the few days to follow, since Friday’s “day of rage” till Tuesday’s “million man march”, the State cut off the internet and disrupted phone services.

The Egyptian people were separated from the outside world in a gesture that could be be seen as collective punishment. Arguably, that was done in an attempt to isolate, intimidate and terrorize people as they were deliberately shown how prospects of chaos and instability would look like.

The police were pulled out; the army was deployed in Egyptian cities. In what looked like a chess game, the State seemed to be “dealing” with the Egyptian people. Violence and clashes ensued due to the disappearance of the police from the Egyptian streets. This could be categorized as “state terror” if indeed reported allegations of the State’s involvement in the acts of violence proved to be true.

Yet in response, and despite the dire circumstances, the demands of the Egyptian protesters have only evolved from specific grievances to a general call for an end to Mubarak’s regime. Perhaps, what the regime did not factor in was the proposition heard among many Egyptians: “If Mubarak is still in office and on his watch all this terror and looting occurred, then how could his presidency be synonymous with order and stability?”

As Mubarak finally gave his first speech four days after the beginning of the protests, announcing a change in government, this was received by protesters as “too little, too late”. Since this moment onwards Mubarak has been playing catch-up with an intensified sentiment among the Egyptian people that he must step down.

Yet Mubarak gave another speech showing no intention of resigning, albeit announcing that he will supervise constitutional reform and that he will not run for another term.

This is when the events became even more “fluid” than what White House press secretary Robert Gibbs had described earlier in the week.  Following Mubarak’s second speech, where he used rhetoric such as “I was born in Egypt and shall die on its soil”, the Egyptian people started to show signs of sympathy toward Mubarak, resulting in what seemed like divisions on what course of action should be taken next.

As the events, Mubarak’s concessions, their details and interpretations became more slippery by the minute, one indication remains clear: There is no going back to where Egypt was before the 25th.

Finding a way out of crisis

After all the visuals of protesters burning Mubarak’s images, of thugs looting and beating, and of the hundreds of Egyptians killed and injured thus far, the collective memory of the Egyptians cannot be erased.

That said, there is still a way out of this crisis.

Based on iterations in op-eds published in different sources this week and earlier by distinguished Egyptian national symbols in the sciences, business, and law, such as Ahmed Zewail, Naguib Sawirs, Ahmed Kamal Abul Magd, Farouq Elbaz, and Magdy Yacoub the following could be proposed:

First, forming a council of men and women, including Egyptian youth, to write a new constitution based on citizens’ liberties and rights to insure an orderly transfer of power.

Second, judiciary independence must be safeguarded.

Third, parliamentary elections must be held to account for allegations of fraud in last November’s election. As for the presidency, elections should be held within one year under the supervision of the independent judiciary branch.

Fourth, a transitional government must be formed. Current vice president Omar Soliman may play a transitional role until the next elections.

In fact, these proposals seem to be agreed upon among most Egyptians. For this to happen the Egyptian people are to remain unified and in solidarity. They are not to internalize the paternalistic attitude that they are not “ready for democracy”, or that they are not keen on “freedom” as if this is a value exclusive to western cultures.

Indeed the Egyptian people have started a spontaneous yet orderly series of protests that has remained peaceful and civilized, despite the constant attacks and provocations by state apparatuses.

Yet for the vision to succeed, the military must retain its independence and allegiance to the protection of the nation and the people of Egypt and not to Mubarak’s crumbling regime.

Additionally, political parties and civil society must assume their roles in Egypt’s democratic future by understanding the core of democracy, which is based on diversity of opinions, ideologies and even collision of agendas, yet – and this is crucial – maintains itself as a democratic system in which those numerous positions and inclinations exist and still function without the monopoly of a single voice over the rest of the voices representing different constituents within the society.

Moreover, the demonstrations reflecting tremendous diversity within the Egyptian people show enough evidence that the people of Egypt are ready to peacefully take their country in their own hands. As one of the protestors put it, “We have proven that we can keep this country safe… we have proven that we can take this country forward.”

In the end, this has been an “organic” revolution coming from within and will be marked down in history books worldwide, if for no other reasons but its inception. Egyptians today refuse to be locked and burdened by a history to which they have not contributed their own writing.

Now they are making history anew. The world needs to follow this tide that has already begun, because Egyptians have made it clear that they are here to stay as free and dignified citizens.

Senator John Kerry was right to say there is a need for the United States to align with the new Egypt, for democracy in Egypt is indeed an idea whose time has come. And as Victor Hugo said, nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.

Marwa Maziad is a fellow at the Middle East Center and faculty at the Jackson School of International Studies at the University of Washington and also a contributing writer to Egyptian newspaper Almasry Alyoum.