Savir's Corner: In the aftermath of the Arab Spring

Egypt has been and will continue to be the clear and undisputed leader of the Arab world.

June 28, 2012 20:58
Mohamed Morsy gives victory speech on Egyptian TV

Morsy victory speech 370. (photo credit: REUTERS)


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There are many uncertainties regarding the situation in the aftermath of the Arab Spring. It is clear, however, that Egypt has been and will continue to be not only the most populous Arab country, but also the clear and undisputed leader of the Arab world.

This is due, to a large degree, to its historical legacy, its cultural roots, its geographical position, its size and population, and its modern-day leaders’ ability to be in the forefront of Arab policy – be they Gamal Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat or Hosni Mubarak.

The recent Egyptian presidential elections resulted in a new balance of power between the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. It will take a long time before there is clarity about the governance of the land of the Nile post-Tahrir. It may even take more than one presidential election.

The current Egyptian political instability is related to a lack of a democratic tradition and of organized democratic political parties, which has left the field open to the two existing organized forces: the army, the biggest military in the Arab world, by definition and experience not democratic, and Islamist forces, primarily the Muslim Brotherhood, which essentially do not believe in real democracy and prefer religious Islamic law.

In the months and maybe even years to come, we will probably witness an extremely uneasy balance of power between military and mosque – somewhat along the lines of the Turkish model, yet accompanied by significant instability.

This scenario is replicated in most countries in the post-Arab Spring era, in which strong security apparatuses coexist in a tense relationship with the influx of Islam – mostly Sunni, linked to the Brotherhood, and partly Shi’ite, linked to Iran.

2011, the year of the Jasmine and Tahrir revolutions, will go down in history as a watershed in what has been a long journey toward Arab democracy. The young and liberal Facebook generation made these revolutions happen out of disdain for totalitarian rule, corruption and impoverished economies. They toppled Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, brought about a regime change in Yemen, and Syria may very well be next in line.

After Tahrir, no Arab ruler, dictator or monarch is safe in his seat, given the ability and courage of the young, who represent 65 percent of all Arabs, to organize and mobilize for change, yet the young Tahrir generation is unable to organize itself into a potent political force.

In Egypt after the recent elections, both camps seem to be failing, as the people are split in their support and, more important, disillusioned with the whole process that did not bring about the desired change.

The inability to organize, in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world, a secular and liberal political force at the center, is detrimental to the creation of real democracy. It stems from the nonexistence of a multiparty political system as well as from a very weak civil society.

The old regime did not allow for the creation of new political parties and a vibrant civil society. On the contrary, the Mubarak regime imprisoned political opposition forces and cracked down on liberal, pro-human rights and peace-building NGOs.

If Arab democracy is to eventually occur, which it probably will in the course of the coming years, it has to emanate from a better organization of the young Tahrir crowds from merely opposing dictatorship to working actively in favor of a value-based civil society which will give birth to new political parties. We see some signs of such a process in two Arab societies – Tunisia and the Palestinian territories.

In Tunisia, after the Jasmine Revolution, a coalition was created by a relatively moderate Islamic party, Ennahda, and a liberal reform party headed by an open-minded, liberal human rights activist, Moncef Marzouki, who is today president. In the transition period, Tunisian civil society played an important and constructive role, as exemplified by an impressive trend of women and youth empowerment, which is also due to a good education system.

The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, though faced with many obstacles and flaws, has been relatively successful in creating both a multiparty parliament, with a dozen parties from the extreme Left to the extreme Right, and a vibrant civil society of about 35,000 NGOs active in social issues and nation-building.

Both these societies are still a far cry away from bringing about Jeffersonian democracy, but they have a chance to become models of Arab democracy in which there is coexistence between liberal secular, religious and security forces. Such coalitions exist not only in the Arab world.

It is to be hoped for that this process of strengthening civil society and the development of a new party system will occur in many Arab countries. The information revolution, Internet connectivity and social networks open a real opportunity for such a process, led by the young generation. And there is also a role for the democratic West, and indirectly also for Israel.

The West, led by the United States, must understand that transition from revolution to democracy in the Arab world is a long and difficult process that must be homemade, with its own cultural distinctions, and cannot be imposed from the outside.

Yet there are ways to encourage such a process – by working with Arab governments on institution-building and on the development of a multi-party system, and mainly by strengthening civil society, primarily social and peace-building NGOs, which are in need of financial and operational assistance. These should create a situation where Tunisia can serve as a model for North Africa, and the future state of “Palestine,” given its symbolic weight, for many other Arab countries.

There is a lesson for Israel as well. Our own democratic success story – today brought into danger by messianic religious forces – was a result of a vibrant multi-party system, as well as a highly active and value-based civil society.

Instead of constantly being so-called experts and interpreters of the Arab worlds, which is the obsession of our media, military and political elites, we have to ask ourselves if we can, out of self-interest, contribute something to our neighborhood and the environment in which we live, while naturally staying out of Arab politics.

The one ability we do have is to contribute to the creation of a democratic Palestinian state at our doorstep, a development that would influence the attitudes of the rest of the Arab world. This can happen in two ways – making peace with the Palestinians, based on a two-nation-state solution; and cooperating more actively with Palestinian civil society, which is open to such cooperation as long as it is done in the context of a viable peace process.

Democracy is first and foremost their responsibility and opportunity, which they have tackled thus far with very mixed results. Yet we can be contributors, as next-door neighbors should be.

We have to remember that probably never in history did two democracies go to war against each other, and that our own democracy will also be well-served to rid itself of a morally corrupting occupation.

So while all eyes are set on Cairo and the aftermath of the elections, one has to understand that change in Egypt happens at the pace of the slow flow of the Nile. Yet positive change toward greater democracy in the Middle East is important and possible in much smaller states such as Tunisia and more important, a future Palestine, which in turn would impact the rest of the region.

The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.

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