Middle East

Worldpress Roundtable: Egypt and the Middle East

Egyptians protest for the ouster of President Mubarak in Tahrir Square on February 1.

Osama Diab

Traditional opposition groups under Mubarak's regime were an essential part of a fake democracy show created by Mubarak to give a false impression of political diversity. What the revolution in Egypt stands for is its fight against tyranny, authoritarianism, emergency rule, but most importantly, the revolution is there to end the idea of a central strongman figure around which all the country's institutions revolve. Egypt has known no other way of rule throughout its long history.

Many analysts pointed out that what this revolution is lacking is a leader to represent it and negotiate with others on its behalf, but it is very possible that this is the reason behind its power and continuity for a third consecutive week. The reason why the turnout for the Tahrir square demonstration is very high and increasing can partially be attributed to the fact that no central figure or political group stands behind it.

Additionally, one of the reasons behind its resilience is that the protests were organized in no relation to the traditional political powers in Egypt such as the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Wafd, etc. Many people are as cynical about the opposition operating under the Mubarak regime as they are about the Mubarak regime itself. Many protesters see this opposition as part of a political system they are trying to completely get rid of.

"The absence of a clear leader is so far a positive thing, in my view. As soon as you put a name forward, people will start disagreeing on it," says Alya El Hosseiny, a 22-year-old female student who's been taking part in the protests for 12 days. "I think this is also why the government is insisting to have us choose someone to represent us despite our clear and succinct list of demands."

El Hosseiny believes that traditional opposition has a long history of shadiness and striking deals with the government in return for things like a bigger representation in the parliament or more leeway in the press. "Consequently, most of us are wary of them and see them as opportunistic and useless. In Tahrir Square, this is pretty visible, with several signs to the effect of, "I'm not in a party or the Brotherhood, I just want my freedom," adds El Hossieny.

Even the Muslim Brotherhood's role in this revolution was very minimal. For those who are afraid the Muslim Brotherhood will take over, the voice of the protesters I personally talked to says otherwise. The Muslim Brotherhood was believed to be Egypt's biggest and most organized opposition group, which might have been true when Egypt had no real opposition and a very stagnant political life. The number of its members was large back then relative to politically active citizens who would go to the ballot boxes that traditionally suffer from a very low turnout. However, since January 25, Egypt has proved to have only one really powerful opposition group—people who were formerly politically inactive. No one knows whom they would give their vote for under a democracy.

Chinua Akukwe

Regime change occurred in Tunisia, and the struggle for the political soul of Egypt is still ongoing. There are timeless lessons to take from these political earthquake.

First, dictatorship and autocratic leadership can never stabilize the polity in any country or region. From struggles in feudal Europe to the struggle for America’s independence, the French revolution and the independence struggle in Africa, Latin America and other parts of the world, dictators and autocratic governments always build their foundations on quicksand. You never know when the quicksand will shift and collapse. Collapse, it will, eventually.

Consequently, building long-term strategic relationships with autocratic governments, internal and external, is inherently risky and short sighted. Repressive governments attempt to control personal freedoms by assaulting personal dignity, dictating the limits of personal goals and determining the limits of family prosperity. It should not be surprising that such regimes engender rage and opprobrium from their citizens

Second, dictatorship combined with exclusive control of the economic space is a recipe for disaster. In Tunisia and Egypt, the citizens of both countries faced not only dictatorships but also a government that stifled and controlled the economic space. The two governments controlled every aspect of the economy through a dizzying maze of regulations and webs of cronyism. In both countries, the way to get ahead economically is a direct connection to the ruling family and the regime. For Tunisians and Egyptians with their ancient roots in private entrepreneurship, the control of the economic space was a major slap on their collective psyche

Third, the fear of inability to pay for bread eventually overcomes the mortal fear of bullets. In all grassroots revolution, a time eventually comes when the fear of hunger overcomes the fear of repressive instruments of the state. It is no secret that the rise in staple food prices in the last few years as documented by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has fueled riots and upheavals in many countries. When it becomes impossible for a family breadwinner to have access to basic food stuff and this is juxtaposed against the conspicuous opulence of the ruling class, the ingredients of a massive grassroots revolt is set in concrete. In Egypt and Tunisia, growing poverty at household levels amidst opulent living standards of the connected few is a major cause of the continuing rage on the streets of the two countries

Fourth, the youth is and will always be the future of any nation. To think otherwise is to ignore reality. In the last 60 years, Western voting populations have turned over political leadership in their countries in critical periods of their history to younger generations to not only rejuvenate politics but also governance. Tunisia was ruled by basically the same group of individuals that came to power in 1987. In Egypt, the government has relied substantially on the same cohort of core leaders since 1981. It is not surprising that the youth led the revolt in Tunisia and are leading the uprising in Egypt. Any country that excludes its youth from governance and has a growing level of unemployed university and technical school graduates should be prepared for street revolts sooner rather than later

Finally, governance in the 21st century has evolved, with ominous consequences for brutal, repressive regimes. In this century, information technology is speedily linking people irrespective of ethnicity, country of origin, geographical region or economic status. More people know what is going on in their countries. More individuals, especially the youth, have access to various forms of information technology that keep them connected to global events and expose them to the living standards in other countries. Immigration is fueling movement of thousands of people across countries and continents. Any government in the 21st century that is relying on the suppression of vital information flows to its citizens to stay in power is deeply mistaken.

Today, ordinary citizens revolted in Egypt and Tunisia against repressive regimes. Tomorrow, the uprising can begin in any country that as a matter of policy denies its people access to democracy. Individuals living in countries without population-based democracy, the rule of law and respect for basic human rights will one day rise up against its ruling class. The chances of a revolt are much higher in a country that in addition to dictatorship denies economic space for private entrepreneurial activities for its people, excludes its youth from governance and pretends that it can control information flow. In all likelihood, the Jasmine Revolution of Tunisia and the Lotus Revolution of Egypt are the first warning shots that dictatorship will not be a viable form of government, in the Middle East or anywhere.

Basir Chand

Recent uprising in Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Tunisia paint an alarming writing on the wall for all the undemocratic and prolonged rulers of Islamic states. Many politicians and media anchors in Pakistan are predicting that the fallout of this unrest will bring home a revolution on Pakistani soil as well. People of Pakistan may find many commonalities with those regimes, like bad governance, corruption, inflation, unemployment, and a lack of law and order. However, the political scenario in Pakistan is much different than in Arab nations currently facing regime change.

Pakistan’s socio-political situation differs greatly from the political canvas in Egypt, Yemen and Tunisia. Among those differences, the most important is the prolonged dictatorship by a single person or family. For instance, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak has been ruling Egypt since 1981. Others in the region, such as Lybia's Muammar al-Gaddafi, have been ruling for decades.

In terms of its economic situation, rather than the political issues, Pakistan has more in common with troubling developing Arab nations. But the biggest yardstick by which to measure unrest is the right to choose leadership. That is the root cause of the uprising in Egypt. They do not have the mechanism by which to elect one of their own representatives to lead the nation. Therefore they are not settling for less than Mubarak's removal.

Pakistan has been through the turmoil and revolution of throwing out its military dictator in 2008 and restoring the independences of its judiciary. In other words, the people of Pakistan did in 2008 what the rest of the Arab nations are doing today, electing their president with a two-thirds majority and sending more than 1100 representative to represent them.

That being said, still many socio-economic realities of Pakistan have common denominators with volatile Arab countries: poverty, inflation, unemployment, corruption. These are not minor issues. Pakistanis face constant problems with the supply of electricity and gas.

The bottom line is that hardship and oppression will not be tolerated. Whether a political body is held to the fire by the ballot box or popular revolt, you can be sure that those in power are on watch.

Dr. Chinua Akukwe is a former chair of the Technical Board of the Africa Center for Health and Human Security at the George Washington University, Washington, D.C. He has written extensively on health and development issues, including five books.

Professor Basir Chand is currently serving as a senior policy analyst at the Statesman Institute, and a visiting faculty at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad. In the pursuit of good governance, human dignity and democratic institutions, he is also conducting extensive analytical research to find resolutions for poverty, social justice, establishment of democratic institutions, and energy and food security.

View the Worldpress Desk’s profile for Osama Diab.