"Dawn in the Arab World," One Year after Egypt's Revolt
NOTE: In light of the one-year anniversary of the revolt in Egypt, following is a story about one of the many Aspen Ideas sessions about the Arab Spring. It was first published in The Aspen Idea.
In the wake of the incredible changes across the Arab world, Nicholas Burns, director of the Aspen Strategy Group, moderated a vibrant discussion with Marwan Muasher, vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment and former prime minister of Jordan; Dahlia Mogahed, executive director at the Gallup Center for Muslim Studies; and Nabil Fahmy, founding dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.
Burns: The American press and the Aspen Institute say “Arab Spring.” But is it really a spring?
Mogahed: I call it the “Arab uprising.” I prefer not to call it the Arab Spring because it sounds too easy. This move- ment, this phenomena, has been incred- ibly difficult. It has been bloody in many cases, mostly civilians getting killed by security forces. And it almost trivial- izes how difficult it is, and it makes us impatient because spring is a very short season. And this is going to take a very long time.
Muasher: I’d like to call it “Arab awak- ening.” We are the only region of the world that has not had any significant progress on governments in the last 30 or 40 years. Every other region of the world made some significant strides there. But something has happened that is irreversible: The feeling of powerlessness, which has permeated across the region for decades, is no longer there. People now feel empowered, feel that they can effect change peacefully—something that truly has not been the case throughout many, many decades in the Arab world, where people felt powerless over decisions. It will take decades to unfold, but in the end will result in a much healthier and better Arab world.
Fahmy: One should not underestimate what’s actually happening here. There is a revolutionary change occurring. We have not yet reached the goal that we’re trying to achieve, but the change is extremely significant. And it’s not about activists alone; it’s about all of society, the relationship between those being ruled and the ruler. So I’ve used “revolutionary.” I very frequently will use “empowerment.” This is all about Arab empowerment. Arabs want to have a say about their future. They want to participate in it. Everybody in Egypt now is demonstrating, whether it’s about poli- tics, economics, social change, women’s rights—you have a problem, you go out and demonstrate. Also, I don’t use “Arab Spring,” because we don’t have spring in the Middle East.
Burns: Is there a regional awaken- ing and reform effort for all the Arab people?
Mogahed: Yes, there is desire for change. We found that people across the region aspire to what we all hold dear: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and a gov- ernment that represents the aspirations of its people that can be held accountable. These aspirations that were always there, and yet the reality looked very different. Finally, we’re seeing an equilibrium. We’re seeing that force taking shape on the ground.
(Watch the full session)
Burns: How do you see the prospects for reform in Egypt?
Fahmy: A quarter of the Middle East lives in Egypt; 83 million live in Egypt out of 300 million. Half of them are 25 years or younger. It’s approximately the same ratio throughout the Middle East. So, if this is a major trend, it will pick up because the demographics are similar. But it will pick up in different ways and different forms. Now, whether we’re going to succeed or not, I think we will. The main test will be if we have the same kind of participation by society as we’ve been having over the last couple of months. You cannot turn on a television station, you can’t go into a coffee shop, go to a dinner party, without talking politics today in Egypt. Everybody’s engaged. In the past, we’d have single-digit or 10 percent participation on a referendum. We had 44 per- cent participation in the first referendum after the revolution. Frankly, if we get 55 to 60 percent participation in the next elections, you will see a result that repre- sents Tahrir Square. ... If they continue to participate, we’ll come out of this suc- cessfully, whether we do it by January or we do it by June. We’re 7,000 years old; four or five more months are not going to kill anybody.
Burns: Will there be attempts in some countries by Islamic groups to take power through the barrel of a gun?
Muasher: The Islamists need to be included. They’re a very important part of society. In Egypt, they command 15 percent of the population. This is not insignificant, but by no stretch is it a majority. When you have an open system, where people compete, then they have a chance to choose among differ- ent alternatives and then the Islamists will get their fair chance. I have always argued in response to the conventional wisdom that, if you open up the system up, the Islamists will come in. Really the opposite is true: If you don’t open up the system, the Islamists will come in. The principle of political pluralism: One cannot use democracy to come to power and then deny the right of oth- ers to organize, but any political party should employ peaceful means and peaceful means alone. If these principles are enshrined in constitutions and are practiced in societies, then one should not really be afraid of the Islamists or any other political force in society. I don’t think that, after January, people are going to replace secular autocrats with the religious autocrats, no matter where they come from.
Mogahed: I’m not afraid of Islamists taking over. The government will have to reflect the people’s values, because people are fearless now and empowered. We shouldn’t be afraid. We asked the Egyptians if there was a country that they would model a future Egypt on—a political ideal. Less than 1 percent of Egyptians said Iran. This is not a country that is trying to become a theocracy.
Burns: I mean how do you assess the role of the US government so far in these six months?
Muasher: There cannot be a one-policy-fits-all, because the Arab world is not monolithic. You cannot expect the United States to behave the same way in Libya as in Bahrain. Another important issue for the United States is the Arab-Israeli peace process. People still behave here as if the Arab uprising is not there when it comes to the peace process. The United States will not be able to maintain a policy where it tells the people of the region, “If you’re Egyptians yearning for freedom, we are with you; if you’re Libyans yearning for freedom, we support you; and if you’re Palestinians yearning for freedom, it’s complicated.”