Egypt after Mubarak

Those Who Preach Democracy …

The moment of truth has come for everyone in Egypt. While the country's major problems have not been solved by Mubarak's resignation, the revolution that began on Tahrir Square could mark the dawning of a new era. According to Rudolph Chimelli, however, the West must be more consistent in its support for the new democracy in the Middle East

Jubilant demonstrators stamp on a poster depicting Mubarak in Cairo (photo: AP)
Relief after the overthrow of the pharaoh: "What happened in Tahrir Square might have looked like a happening, but it will go down in history as a revolution," writes Rudolph Chimelli

​​In the midst of all their celebrations since the overthrow of Mubarak, the fact that the Nile flows from the South to the North is probably one of the only things of which the Egyptians can be certain. Even if everyday life quickly settles back to normal, the next few months and years are sure to be very difficult for them. After all, Egypt is a nation without reserves, a country where most people continue to live from hand to mouth.

What happened in Tahrir Square might have looked like a happening, but it will go down in history as a revolution. In the middle of the euphoria, it is easy to forget that the victorious crowds lacked both a leader and shared ideas, two things that are now needed for a constructive new beginning.

It remains to be seen whether General Hussein Tantawi, one of Mubarak's closest allies, has what it takes to carry the hopes of the nation or whether he only stepped in to safeguard not only the fatherland, but also the privileges of the officers. Nevertheless, Egypt's importance and the radiating effect of its revolution alone mean that a new era is dawning in the Middle East.

In a situation such as this, no-one should expect a divided opposition that has been oppressed for decades to be able to serve up ready-made projects at the drop of a hat. Freedom, more democracy and fair treatment for those who have been downtrodden would in themselves be massive achievements.

The major problems in the Nile Valley and the region have not gone away; the poverty, unemployment, lack of prospects for young people and destruction of the environment remain. The presidents, generals, and monarchs, the Ben Alis and Mubaraks of the Arab world, were not able to heal these ills; how can their inexperienced former opponents – people equipped with nothing more than a burning desire for reform – be expected to make things better immediately?

The Islamist spectre

It goes without saying that some people on Tahrir Square prayed; after all, political Islam is the only opposition force in the country with an established structure. Although it was banned, the Muslim Brotherhood has spread its network of clinics, kindergartens, and other social facilities throughout the whole country.

Unlike the functionaries of the old regime – not all of whom can be ousted – the brotherhood does not have a reputation for stealing. The last time its candidates ran in elections as "independent" candidates, they won 88 of the 424 seats, despite all the obstacles thrown in their path. How strong they will become in the future depends on the amount of Egyptians they can win over to their vision of society. A majority is unlikely.

The Muslim Brotherhood's spokesmen emphasise that the organisation is not striving for a dominant role, but wants to play a part in the democratic game. They are also quick to stress that the brotherhood will not be putting forward a candidate for the upcoming presidential election and that the peace with Israel should be respected. The Muslim Brotherhood can no longer be excluded from political life. That, in itself, is a first.

After the Second World War, the Federal Republic of Germany tried to hamper recognition of the GDR by claiming it had the exclusive right to represent the entire German nation, a strategy known as the Hallstein Doctrine. Similarly, the West has adopted a kind of "Hallstein Doctrine" of its own towards the Islamists. The Americans and the Europeans have been treating Islamists like a kind of spectre that might hopefully go away if ignored for long enough.

When this didn't happen on the southern shores of the Mediterranean – i.e. when Islamist parties won the rare free elections that did take place there – they applied a different formula: Islamist = terrorist. In two areas, this attitude translated as "We don't talk to Hezbollah" and "We don't negotiate with Hamas". The fact that Hamas won the freest elections to be held in the Arab world under the scrutiny of foreign observers did not prevent it from being boycotted.

By conjuring up the image of the Islamist spectre, Arab despots earned themselves some breathing space and good press. Their false argument – "It's either me or the ones with the beards" – worked every time. The things that have now been revealed about the dictatorships in Egypt and Tunisia, the things that might yet be revealed to frightened western eyes in other Arab states, should be grasped as an opportunity to break with the hypocrisy that has been practiced to date. The end of the illusion is nigh. One should never continue to make the mistake of believing one's own propaganda. The lessons of history are too clear.

Wishful thinking gets us nowhere

Initially, it was not about democracy or dictatorship. A brutal despot such as Pakistan's Zia ul-Haq faced little opposition because he was anti-Communist, which meant he fit neatly into the American world order.

Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islamic fundamentalism and its cash machine, still maintains good relations with its secular arms suppliers. Even the very epitome of Islamism, Osama bin Laden, was permitted to arm Afghan franc-tireurs with the CIA as long as the Russians were still the enemy. It was not by obliging women to wear veils or by imposing Sharia-based punishments that a regime became a pariah, but by insisting on national independence.

During the Shah's reign, Iran was a pillar of the American alliance in the Middle East, just like Egypt was until the end of last week. Sometimes historical coincidences are just too good to be true: on the day Egyptians celebrated Mubarak's resignation, the Iranians celebrated the anniversary of their revolution. As soon as the revolutionaries claimed victory 32 years ago, the new rulers in Tehran announced the end of their allegiance to the United States. And that's the crux of the matter; this is where the bitter dispute began. All of the problems – up to and including the dispute about nuclear power – could have been solved.

The moment of truth has now arrived for everyone in Egypt. Wishful thinking and empty phrases will get the West nowhere. Those who preach democracy have to accept the conditions that result from free elections. The Americans defeated the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. One of the unwanted consequences of the war is that a regime of Shia Islamists with close ties to Iran now rules Iraq.

If the West continues to pursue two mutually exclusive objectives elsewhere – namely democracy and a compliant regime – it will only lose even more credibility. From the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic, wherever people are given the chance to realise their political goals, a similar outcome to the one in Iraq is possible. After all, almost all Arabs despise the people that rule them. However, since the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, they are much less afraid of them than they used to be.

Cairo is not Tunis; nor is it Sanaa. What happened in Egypt is exemplary. This is where the heart of the Arab world beats; this is where many of its leading minds live. Most importantly, however, Egypt is Israel's next-door neighbour. It is here that strategies for freedom or confrontation are drawn up, and it is these strategies that determine the actions of the estranged Palestinian brothers, Hamas and Fatah. Even in its early days, the New Middle East faces realpolitik problems that are not diminishing.

Rudolph Chimelli

© Süddeutsche Zeitung 2011

Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan

Editor: Arian Fariborz/Qantara.de

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