Saturday, February 12, 2011

Whither Egypt?

by Richard Crews
Egypt has turned over a new page in history. After 30 years of savage, suppressive dictatorship, a massive popular uprising has thrown out the hated regime. The key question is, where do things go from here?

Egypt has a lot of things going for it. Its culture has storied roots that go back thousands of years. Moreover it is a huge country--with a population over 80 million--and widely respected: it has often been a leader in the Arab world. In addition much of the public elan is peaceful and religiously oriented: it was impressive to see vast throngs of demonstrators break from their agitated activities and kneel facing Mecca for five-o'clock prayers; it was also impressive to hear that "gangs" emerged from the crowds to protect antiquities and prevent looting; millions of people rose up to resist the government without violence, injury, or death--except that rained on them by government thugs.

Also important on the positive side, the uprising in Egypt is taking place on the world stage. Modern information technology--satellite TV, the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, and smart phones--have brought poignant words and images from the streets of Cairo into homes around the world.

There is another important positive factor. The army--not the regime's hated, vicious police--is in charge. And the army has been built up by conscription; it is said that there is not a family in Egypt that does not have at least one young member in the army. During the uprising, the army refused to fire on the demonstrators; the army did much to keep the piece. On the other hand, while the lower ranks of the army are "of the people," the upper ranks are aligned with--and have been enriched by--the dictatorial regime. How the army's role in managing a possible transition to democracy will play out is a very important question.

The transition to democracy--if there is one--may be long and arduous. For 30 years all political dissent has been savagely suppressed; there simply are no political leaders and parties waiting in the shadows. Even the Muslim Brotherhood, the closest thing to a political alternative to the defunct dictatorial regime, has been brutalized.

The future of Egypt, at its best, looks like this:
--Thirty years of "emergency law" will be lifted;
--The Army will shepherd a peaceful transition to democracy;
--The constitution will be amended to limit the term of a president and to strengthen the judiciary;
--Political leaders and parties will emerge;
--Free and fair elections will be held in September under international supervision;
--And a stalwart contingent of activists will continue to hold their ground in Cairo's Tahrir Square, ready to sound the alarm and call the populace back onto the streets if the reform transition falters.

The future of Egypt depends on all of these factors. It is a precarious time. The whole world is watching--especially the Arab world (especially the Arab dictators and their downtrodden people).