Egypt: Hopes for the future

In the clash between a past that refuses to be past and a present that has yet fully to come into being, we must all reaffirm the essential values of the Arab Spring – Published on Al-Ahram weekly online, by Galal Nassar, Dec 17, 2013.

When the young Tunisian fruit-seller Mohamed Bou Azizi immolated himself in the town of Sidi Abu Zeid on 17 December 2010, the Arab dream of change seemed to be out of reach. However, Bou Azizi’s desperate act sparked a flame and that flame leapt from village to town to city and across national boundaries. Change was now at hand amidst all the confusing tumult.  

Its momentum built up so rapidly that in some places it seemed as though a curtain had fallen on a play that had dragged on too long and then had risen again to reveal a totally different set and a new cast of characters.
Regimes that had once seemed to be invulnerable had crumbled and because of their structural weaknesses had quickly collapsed. Even the few that had put up a fight only succeeded in plunging their respective countries into protracted strife, the outcome of which was determined in advance and the costs of which were exorbitant, especially in terms of stability and security and not to mention the heavy human toll.

Had the rulers of these regimes read some history, their peoples could have been spared much tragedy. Sadly, these rulers were just as poor at reading the present as they were the past, which was the reason why they had become so detached from their societies and had grown so isolated that they were now girding themselves in their isolation behind the barricades of authoritarian power and self-delusion.

As necessary as change was and regardless of the form it took, it was inevitable that it would generate various forms of violence and unrest. Such is the nature of all major political changes, especially after the collapse of an existing form of legitimacy, bolstered by its security agencies, entrenched bureaucracy, legal edifice and vested interest groups resistant to any form of change.

Violence and anarchy are all the more likely in the absence of a national consensus over a new form of legitimacy and against the backdrop of the array of accumulated socio-political ills bequeathed by the former regimes that require extended periods of time to remedy them. These in turn complicate the periods of transition necessary to establish and give root to a new legitimacy.

Following the mass uprisings that started at the outset of 2011, the Arab world experienced a revolutionary movement with new dynamics in which young people played a fundamental and critical role. The process was far from painless. There were security breakdowns, social rifts, breaches of the rule of law, abuses of public assets, and spikes in violence and corruption. But what was certain was that the past needed to be definitively consigned to history and that the way forward was to pursue the aims and aspirations of the Arab movements for change, as epitomised in the revolutionary chants calling for freedom, dignity and social justice.
It was equally clear that a new legitimacy, antithetical to that which had prevailed under and sustained the former regimes, was what was needed in order to translate these principles into realities on the ground. The cornerstones of the new legitimacy were democratic transformation, the rule of law, the institutionalised state, the principles of full and equal citizenship and social and political plurality and diversity, and the rotation of power through periodic free-and-fair elections in which the people vote for their legislative and executive representatives.

Yet, as straightforward as this may seem in theory, realities on the ground pose huge challenges. Among these are the obstacles created by remnants of the former regimes in order to undermine the revolutionary drive and sap the resolve of the new forces of change. Another problem is the internal squabbling and divisions among the latter, which sometimes degenerate into verbal and even physical violence.

In general, however, the current situation could be described as a clash between a past that refuses to be past and a present that has yet to come into being. For the moment, it appears that the forces opposed to democratic change are more cohesive and more harmonious, while the forces of change are more disunited and acrimonious. This adds up to a precarious situation for the new legitimacy, especially in view of the alliances that exist between certain old and new forces.

As a result, in sharp contrast to the rosy visions that prevailed at the outset of the Arab Spring revolutions, the movements for change have been drawn into a gruelling battle against the background of an eruption of repressed rancour and resentments, intransigent vested interests and entrenched patterns of corruption, and sectarian tensions, all of them part of the legacy of the autocratic past, combined with an explosion of conflicting political and ideological views and ambitions and vying economic interests and opportunisms in the vacuum created by the fall of previous regimes.

The broadening religious and sectarian divides, the acrimonious factionalism, and the rampant violence and destruction that have swept Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen in the post-revolutionary periods and that have been perhaps at their most virulent in Syria since 15 March 2011, have been aggravated by foreign intervention of various forms and degrees. For many people, such factors now define the regional map, and as they contemplate this landscape, seeing the apparent destruction of the state and the deterioration of security, they may begin to ask which is the lesser of the two evils … //

… (full long text).


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