Saturday, July 06, 2013

Egypt's Unfinished Revolution

That seems to be the verdict of the majority of Egyptians at the fall of Mohamed Morsi, the first democratically-elected president of Egypt a year ago.

Although the country is in a state of flux and the future remains uncertain, two lessons stand out from the fall of Morsi.

First, democracy in name only cannot be a substitute for the rule of law and the welfare of the people. Morsi rode the wave of support ordinary Egyptians extended to the long-repressed Muslim Brotherhood after the tyranny of Hosni Mubarak. But he turned out to be another Mubarak in disguise, authoritarian, intolerant, incompetent, given to blatant cronyism and oblivious to the sufferings of Egyptians. As the opposition, Muslim Brotherhood did well in providing public services where the state failed. (We must acknowledge that the Brotherhood is the most successful Non-Governmental Organization in Arab history). As the party in power, however, it focused exclusively in solidifying its control through paranoia (ratcheting up blasphemy prosecutions, for example), while failing miserably to address soaring unemployment, economic stasis, chronic food and gas shortages, collapse of tourism and other industries and most significantly, in sustaining the hope that the Arab Spring had awakened in the hearts of Egyptians three years ago.

Second, religion as a tool of statecraft not only does not work, it demeans religion. The clergy has shown time and again in every country where it ascended to power that it does not understand how a modern society functions and what it takes to unleash the creativity of its people. The self-styled custodians of religion think God is exclusively on their side and if hunger and unemployment afflict the masses, it’s a small price to pay so long as their souls are saved. What arrogance! By forcing the Brotherhood from office, Egyptians have rejected the party’s false premise and made clear they will not be manipulated in the name of religion.

Egyptians are calling the fall of Morsi and his party a coup by popular demand. The army, long the national villain, is being praised for its intervention and for its promise to hand over the reins of power to a more enlightened democratically-elected government of checks and balances soon.

There are misgivings, and rightly so, about the intention of the generals but two words should inspire confidence about Egypt’s future: Tahrir Square. Egyptians have crossed the Rubicon. The army, the power broker until now, knows that if it veers from its promise, the Nile will turn red with the blood of protesters who will again mass in millions in the historic Square. There is no going back to square one.

Adly Mansour, a judge and the interim president, called upon all parties, including the Brotherhood which still enjoys about 25 percent of the voting public, to unite for the common good of the country. As Morsi was being deposed, General Abdul Fatah al-Sisi, chief of the armed forces, gathered prominent opposition and Coptic Christian and Muslim leaders to announce a new roadmap for Egypt’s future that include the rewriting of the constitution for a more tolerant and inclusive government than what the Brotherhood had dictatorially orchestrated.

It now appears (although denied by several sources) that Mohamed ElBaradei, 71, the Nobel Prize-winning diplomat, has become the interim prime minister. Whoever gets to hold the reins of power, however, must turn lofty declarations  into deeds. Otherwise, the Tahrir revolution will continue, even if radicals try to subvert it through violence.

The Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, with the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia. There are many in the West who bemoan the glacial rate of progress in Egypt and other Arab nations since the Arab Spring. We will do well to look into our own history.

The Declaration of Independence signed on July 4, 1776, for instance, contain this oft-quoted and stirring line: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Unfortunately, the new republic began by keeping most of its African-American population enslaved, for whom “inalienable rights” became a bitter and deathly irony. It took almost a hundred years and a terrifying Civil War before Abraham Lincoln could issue his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, freeing the slaves. (That’s why some scholars contend that the Civil War was the unfinished business of the American Revolution). It took another hundred years and the Civil Rights movement before Lyndon Johnson was able to pass the Voting Rights Act through Congress on August 6, 1965, outlawing discriminatory voting practices that effectively kept African Americans disenfranchised.

And if anyone thinks that progress cannot be rolled back in the West, consider this: On June 25, 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The Act made illegal the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, moral tests and economic intimidation to deny the ballot to African Americans. By a 5-4 decision, however, the Court ruled last month that this particular provision, enacted almost half-a-century ago and considered the crown jewel of the Civil Rights movement, cannot be enforced any longer!

If this isn’t regress, what is?

Back to Egypt, the world’s oldest nation state. That dictators and generals in that region have seen, or are beginning to see, the handwriting on the wall is already a milestone by any historical criterion. Progress maybe glacial, and sometimes may even regress, but the inexorable tide of history, aided by the instant reach of social media and the Internet, is slowly but surely moving Egypt forward. Is it too far-fetched to imagine that Egypt may even have its own Nelson Mandela soon?

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