The Magazine

Democracy in Egypt

Why the West should welcome a political upheaval in the Middle East

Feb 14, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 21 • By REUEL MARC GERECHT
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Other convulsive social problems add to this volcanic resentment. Imagine a deeply conservative society where men cannot afford to marry, where male honor revolves around married life, around having a home where each man, no matter how low in class, can find peace, a little dominion, and bit of bliss. Envision 30-year-old jobless men who have never had sex with a woman, dream about it constantly, prowl tourist neighborhoods to put a hand on foreign flesh, and engage alone or with other men in sexual practices that the society officially loathes, and it’s astonishing that Egypt hasn’t suffered more spontaneous riots. Now combine government and social dysfunction with frustrated idealism—the Western ideas that have become common aspirations throughout the Middle East. The good side of Western modernity—its emphasis on civil rights, democracy, and the individual’s right to pursue a bit of happiness—has married up with Islam’s historic and often rebellious concern with justice, that rulers, too, have obligations to abide by the rules laid down by the Almighty. 

Hosni Mubarak and the other presidents-for-life, kings, and emirs of the Middle East have the bad luck to rule when the democratic wave has finally arrived. They have the bad luck to rule in an age when even Islamists are wrestling with the challenge and seductiveness of representative government. One hundred and eighty years ago when William Lane was living in Egypt, the average Egyptian, even a member of the local elite, had no conception that he had a right to participate in the government of the Nile Valley. This right belonged to Turkish-speaking Ottoman overlords, of whom Muhammad Ali, an Albanian, became the founder of an “Egyptian” dynasty. Today, a vast swath of Egyptians—secularists, Islamists, and everyone in between—really do believe that they have a right to choose their leaders. 

Both liberal and fundamentalist literature is full of this democratic ethos. The concepts of masuliya—that the people can be responsible for their own fate—and hurriya—“freedom,” an ancient term denoting a free man as opposed to a slave, which now moves ever closer to the Western understanding of inalienable rights of the individual against the state—are shaking the Middle East before our eyes. This may be a hard truth to swallow for American and European “realists,” who’ve never much appreciated the power of liberal Western ideas in third-world lands. (To read the writings of Zbigniew Brzezinski on democracy and the Middle East—to recall the attention that the media and Washington lavished on him during the dark days in Iraq—is to realize how intellectually parochial and morally flexible “realists” and Washington’s foreign-policy establishment can be.) But after Tunisia and Egypt and the irruptions elsewhere in the Arab world, this obdurateness may, just possibly, diminish. 

This doesn’t mean that democracy is going to succeed in Tunisia or Egypt or anywhere else where we are witnessing demonstrations. The power of Arab police states should never be underestimated. The only things that function relatively well in Arab lands are the internal security services and the armies, the great beneficiaries of modernization. But the chances of democracy progressing are better now than ever before. 

The movement has deeper intellectual roots than most in the West have thought. Arab liberals, especially those who are abroad in the safety of the West, have done a better job than many people have given them credit for of keeping a democratic debate alive. Arabs may not have a vibrant democracy anywhere in the Middle East (Iraq is, slowly, painfully, getting there), but they do have a virtual one, courtesy of the Internet and satellite Arabic television, which, even when controlled by a Wahhabi potentate in Qatar, has developed a remarkable jousting ethos, pitting expatriate and Iraqi liberal democrats against Islamists, and both against the mouthpieces of state power. Al-Jazeera is many unpleasant things, but it has shown with the uprising in Egypt and Tunisia that its heart and money are unquestionably with democrats in both countries. It may be too much to say that the Arab Revolt wouldn’t have happened without al-Jazeera, but the revolt’s speed owes much to al-Jazeera’s (and the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya’s) round-the-clock, intrepid reporting. 

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