We are witnessing a historic moment in Egypt and the Arab world. The youth of the region have a revolutionary opportunity to enfranchise citizens---this is the antithesis of the entire post-colonial formula. I am trying to identify the tangible but radical changes that can take place. Clearly there are many forces in Egypt that might undermine this revolutionary situation. The old political parties, and most importantly the Muslim Brotherhood—might try cutting deals. I think the most that may come out of this is a serious democratic revolution--not a small achievement--to alter relations of power, and promote a serious agenda for socio-economic justice. The role of youth and the street is crucial, and their new form of organization (network as opposed to hierarchical) is an advantage but it has its pitfalls and limitations. It is unparalleled, but who and what will play a crucial role in reversing the social and political relations? I am unable to provide an answer for this from Orange, CA.
The Arab pro-democracy movement first in Tunisia and now in Egypt is both welcomed and feared across the Arab world. Fear of the power and wrath of dictators (Ben Ali, Mubarak, King Abdullah, and Ali Nasser, to name only a few) contributed to despair, de-politicization and demobilization. But the fear of fear is over, as we are all witnessing via the media. This is a revolution in the making, sparked by youth who are determined to alter the dominant paradigm of politics and power that precludes the central idea which undergirds democracy—citizenship under a social contract.
Since December 2010, the pro-democracy movement has found new energy. Initially its demands were mostly economic, but within days and hours of the start of the current revolt they have added the need for liberty, equality and fraternity. Sound familiar? Together Arab youth, e.g., 6 April movement in Egypt, respond to the violence of the state with a call for the renegotiation of the existing national and social contract.
Mubarak’s designated vice president, Omar Suleiman, was interviewed by Egyptian national television on the 3rd of February, which was carried live by al-Jazeera. The interviewer/sycophant, as expected, failed to pose any hard hitting questions. Suleiman’s words bear scrutiny, for they represent the dominant paradigm that undergirds authoritarian discourse.
Speaking on behalf of Mubarak, Suleiman took center stage to try to quell, co-opt, and undermine the ongoing revolt. He made several claims. First, the regime has already met the demands of the youth movement-- obviously without the knowledge of this movement. He has invited various political forces and parties to engage in dialogue with the state, which could lead to serious negotiations. He claims that together the state and these forces can set an agenda for change and reform. He promises to bring to justice the perpetrators of chaos, but fails to note that it is the state and its security apparatus that are the main instigators of chaos and violence. He also propounds a theory that explains the chaos—it was the work of outside agitators, unnamed political parties with nefarious agendas, and of course the dreaded international media. Not only al-Jazeera, but even CNN’s Anderson Cooper are risks to Egypt’s stability and security.
Most importantly, Suleiman thanked Egypt’s youth and told them that their message is loud and clear. Hence, he urged them to go home so the adults can take care of the real business of reform. Notice the choice of words. He speaks, in this context, of Mubarak as the “Father-Leader” of the Egyptian nation. He heard you he tells them. He (the regime of adults) will therefore take care of his children (the nation), but they must remain obedient. The language betrays the problem.
Egypt like other post-colonial states, established a form of populist authoritarianism predicated on the need to safeguard the unity of the nation. In this paradigm the state acts on behalf of the people and incorporates them into the state as subjects who can enjoy only national but not individual rights. In this capacity the state guarantees the welfare of its subjects through various economistic modernization programs. For the subjects to receive this state largesse, they must postpone their rights as citizens. This paradigm thus defines any form of protest and dissent as a threat to the nation, and its perpetrators are dubbed as enemies of the people.
In the past, the people’s acquiescence to such a trade-off prevented the formation of a viable pro-democracy movement. But the Arab revolt today (Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere) is clear evidence of the emergence of a counter paradigm. Simply put, Arab youth are leading a profound revolt whose central objective is the transformation of former subjects into citizens with agency and voice to make demands of their rulers. The rulers are expected to be servants of their citizens—nothing less is acceptable.
The streets of Egypt, in Cairo, Alexandria, Suez, and all the other municipalities, are demanding the end of the authoritarian paradigm, and the construction of a democratic order predicated on the consent of the people as vibrant and active citizens. Yes, this is revolutionary, which is precisely why the Mubarak regime is adamant on remaining in control. They will use violence to prevent the spread of the Arab democracy movement.
Where does the United States stand on these issues? Our national discourse in the US is anchored in fear--Islamophobia, the threat to oil resources and Israel, and our strategic savants in government and think tanks are wed to stale paradigms and dated geostrategic assumptions. They need to learn from the young who are struggling and dying for their freedom—echoes of Patrick Henry. Instead of recoiling in fear we must embrace the makings of the Arab equivalent of the French revolution, animated by the ideals of Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity. The great ideals of the French revolution led to violence—we can help avert the violence by standing with the people of Egypt who want the dictator out.
I would like to end by invoking a personal note and a reflection [or observation] on how a revolution led by Arab youths is challenging our old understanding and assumptions of what revolution actually entails.
My parents left Egypt in the early 1960s, ostensibly to guarantee a better future for their Armenian children. Upon arrival to the United States they abandoned our Egyptian citizenship. As of 25 January, I feel blessed that our youths have bestowed upon me my lapsed citizenship.
The Egyptian and Arab youth movement is clearly supplanting my generation’s understanding of revolution. Like many of my generation I engaged in progressive politics by affiliating with the struggles of Palestine and Lebanon. Our action was mostly framed through anti-imperialism, and we paid lip service to questions of social and economic justice. Our organizational structures were mostly top-down, namely we mobilized but failed to organize effectively. For example, instead of expanding labor, student, women, and other syndicalist organizations, we used them to extract political pronouncements to support narrow factional interests. In contrast, the new understanding of revolution emerging from the public square (Tahrir and elsewhere) is grounded in the pursuit of socio-economic justice, the respect of human rights, and the restoration of dignity to all. Organizationally it is more like a network than our outmoded top-down structures. This organizational modality should inform the new political structures and parties that will surely arise. As Ahdaf Soueif reports, the “revolution that is happening in our streets and our homes is the Egyptian people reclaiming their state, their heritage, their voice, their personality.” The democratic revolution has started, but no one knows how long it will take to yield the results we all seek. The state will try to defeat it or co-opt it. But from 25 January 2011, the authoritarian state in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world has been stripped of legitimacy—this is an historic achievement.