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The Daily Star - February 10, 2011

by Rami G. Khouri

The historic developments on the streets of Egypt in the past two weeks appeared in recent days to reflect the modern Arab tradition of the enduring incumbency of men with guns. In the face of unprecedented challenges to the ruling elite, the regime headed by President Hosni Mubarak is reminding the Arab world that the region must continue to be ruled by old men with guns.

In the ongoing battle over the destiny of Egypt and the modern Arab world, this week we can identify four principal issues that have risen to the surface of the debate about what should happen next in the country. Two of them are bogus diversions, and the two others are critically and historically important.

The two bogus issues are fears about democratization because the Muslim Brotherhood might emerge stronger and perhaps even dominate the new government, and the concerns that a transition to democracy in Egypt might jeopardize the 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel and constitute a new threat to Israel. The two really significant issues, in turn, related to who really represents the majority of demonstrating Egyptians and thus should negotiate the changes ahead with the Mubarak government and the armed forces that underpin it; and then, the practical changes that are needed for this historic revolt to result in tangible democratization rather than merely superficial and hollow adjustments.

The first two bogus issues are so troubling – especially in the United States, where these arguments are now commonplace – because they reflect the ugly view that democratization in the Arab world should only occur when it guarantees results that a priori meet with the approval of Americans and Israelis. Arabs, in other words, do not have inalienable rights that the American Constitution declares are the rights of all human beings, or God-given rights, as Israeli-Jewish ethics declare is the case of Moses’ transmission of the Divine message. Arabs, one concludes, have only conditional human, civil and national rights, and if they elect Islamists to power or express hostility to Israel they forfeit those rights. This attitude is doubly grotesque, because beyond the fact that it is immoral and unjust it is also factually wrong.

Anyone who knows Egypt and the Arab world would conclude that the Muslim Brotherhood has grown into a strong social and political force primarily by default, rather than through its own competence. Because autocratic Arab regimes have destroyed all other civic political opposition forces, anyone who wanted to complain about or actively politically challenge an Arab government could only turn to the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists. Their ranks swelled because no other ranks were available for ordinary citizens to join.

Yet these Islamists were also rarely able to transcend their passionate sloganeering that opposed Arab regimes, Israel, the United States and occasional other foes, and almost universally failed to provide practical political and national development programs that delivered to citizens equitable development and sustained wellbeing. For the most part, therefore, the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamists who assumed or shared power in Arab countries failed the test of competency, remaining overall a small minority. The absence of the Islamists in the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts largely affirmed the axiom that when citizens have the option of following secular and national political movements that enjoy clear aims, the majority will follow such groups rather than they will Islamists.

A corollary to this is the likelihood – and we can only guess at this because hard evidence is lacking – that the majority of Egyptians would preserve the peace treaty with Israel. Yet they also would use their logistical capabilities and political leverage to assist the Palestinians who suffer the degradations of Israeli occupation, siege or assault. In the midst of the increasingly frequent American, Israeli and other exhortations that Egypt’s democratization should be slowed down because of possible danger to Israel, we witness another example of the racism that designates Israeli rights and security as the paramount yardsticks of personal or national behavior by anyone in the entire Middle East.

The two issues that will really matter in the coming days and weeks are who speaks for the Egyptian demonstrators, and what kinds of changes should occur for their demands to be satisfied. The legitimacy and efficacy of the negotiators will help determine whether this populist cry for democracy and dignity will bring about substantive changes in how power is exercised; or whether the Arab old men will reassert their grip on power, supported by those – Americans, Israelis, Europeans and others – who do not fully understand that the pain of national degradation, dehumanization and marginalization can be so severe that it causes men and women, young and old alike, to stand up and confront the guns and tanks of the Arab old men.

Those who are demonstrating in Egypt are aware of, but simultaneously oblivious to, the threat of death. That’s because the promise of life is so much more precious, even if it remains so elusive.


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