Allah will not change a condition of a people, until they change themselves. (Quran 13:11)
This is a pivotal moment in the current history of the Arab World. If Egypt is transformed, it will transform the region.
Egypt is the moral and intellectual leader of the Arab World. It sets the cultural and political standards in the region. When Anwar Sadat made peace with Israel, the Arab wars against Israel ended. When Egypt decided to suppress its Islamic movement, the rest of the region followed suit and the Muslim brotherhood, in spite of its popularity and institutional reach into Arab civil society, remained marginal and powerless. When Egypt decided that Iran was the new enemy of the Arab people, most of the regimes in the area embraced this posture.
Egypt is the key to the Arab world. Its enduring authoritarian regime is the biggest hurdle to democracy and freedom in the region. Saudi Arabia has long been a rival to Egyptian hegemony in the Arab world. But a country that has never fought a war for its people does not truly inspire the Arab imagination. Whatever influence Saudi Arabia has, it has been bought with petro dollars. Egypt on the contrary has been the engine of Arab imagination, its intellectual and political center. If Egypt becomes democratic, democracy will become the norm in the Arab world.
In the past hundred and fifty years, we have witnessed four major political trends in the Arab world – Arab socialism, political Islam, Islamic modernism and Wahabism.
Except Wahabism – an anti-reason, anti-science, anti-democracy, anti-freedom, anti-tolerance, anti-pluralism ideology that originated in Saudi Arabia, the other three Arab intellectual trends have thrived in Egypt.
Arab socialism was a pan-Arab movement that sought to create a unified Arab nation, based on some of the values borrowed from the progressive movements of the nineteenth century. A combination of populist nationalism and socialism, it eventually degenerated into authoritarianism, as Arab nations failed to unite, failed to defeat their greatest enemy – Zionism – and gradually stagnated on the cultural and economic fronts. Their nominal achievements include the creation of nationalist identities and a rather weak and toothless Arab League. Egypt’s second President Jamaal Abdul Nasser (d. 1970) was the key luminary of this movement.
The current spate of uprisings and protests across the Arab World are perhaps the swan song of Arab socialism. If the Mubarak regime falls, other dictatorships will also fall. If Mubarak survives, the Arab world may continue to languish in despair.
Political Islam or the Muslim Brotherhood, a movement that aspires to create Islamic States, the panacea to all Muslim problems, the magic wand that will replace tyranny with harmony and restore Arab glory, is perhaps the biggest and the most institutionally ready alternative to Arab socialism in Egypt today. It will be the biggest player in a democratic Egypt unless all other factions form a coalition to balance it. However their anti-West rhetoric may alienate Egypt from the West and undermine its economic prospects and tourism industry and effectively fail to resolve the problems that trigger the current uprising. If they focus on symbolic goals then they will tear Egypt apart, but if they moderate their rhetoric and focus more on substantive changes – economy, corruption, job creation — they could become a positive force in Egypt and the region.
There are other groups in Egypt, which are less organized and less influential. There are progressives, old-fashioned Marxists and neoliberals who all desire regime change in Egypt. It is possible that the Egyptian elite that benefitted from the Mubarak regime and his current party, The National Democratic Party (NDP) may reconstitute itself as a nationalist alliance and compete with the Muslim Brotherhood for power. This group maybe more acceptable to the West but it will be tainted by the corruption of the current regime and may not be acceptable to the Egyptian people.
Islamic modernism is an important facet of Egyptian intellectual heritage with experienced its peak during the time of Muhammed Abduh. It combines Islamic values, specially its focus on justice and personal virtue with equality. Islamic modernism seeks to find a path compatible with Islam and democracy, faith and reason, religion and science. Its institutional form in Egyptian politics is the Al Wasat party. It is a bridge between the secularist and the pro-democracy Islamists.
In a free and democratic Egypt, where the youth are aspiring for openness, for global connectivity and for opportunities to fulfill their potential; where the pious still dream of living in a virtuous republic, and the traditionalist hope to find accommodation with the modern and the postmodern, Al Wasat will thrive. It is an option that none will reject outright. The only question remains, can they deliver if given the opportunity?
I am not sure if Egypt will be transformed into a democratic and open society. The possibility that a new strongman will replace the old along with some cosmetic changes is a more likely outcome. But nevertheless Egypt and the Arab World have been presented with a historic opportunity; I pray that they will grasp it firmly.
The Quran suggests that God will not institute change until people themselves change. Systematic change does not come from mere regime changes. Egyptians will have to change their culture, their normative habits and their political concerns to bring about an enduring and beneficial change. Those of us, who wish them well, hope that they will indeed rise to the occasion.
I am reminded of Shakespeare who penned the following words for Brutus but they also speak to the Egyptian people:
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune…
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.
(Photo: Floris Van Cauwelaert)
Dr. Muqtedar Khan is Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Delaware and Fellow of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.