An old Syrian joke tells the story of a man who gets in a traffic accident involving his own beat-up car and an immense and shining limousine. The poor man leaps from his vehicle and begins hurling obscene and colourful abuse at the limousine’s driver and its unseen occupant. After several minutes of this, the limousine’s back window slides open a crack and a voice speaks from the darkness inside: “Do you know who I am?”
When the man says he does not, the occupant pushes a card through the window identifying himself as Hafez al-Assad, the late dictator of Syria, who has since been replaced by his son, Bashar.
The man glances at the card for a moment and then replies: “Do you know who I am?”
Puzzled, the dictator admits he does not. “Thank God,” says the man, and flees into the surrounding crowds as fast as he can.
The joke works in societies where citizens are crippled by fear of those who rule them. Egypt, until days ago, was like that. So was most of the Middle East. But this, with the overthrow of two dictators in less than a month, is changing. Fear is ebbing away, and its absence will transform the region.
The old order of authoritarian strongmen suppressing a population that is resentful but too afraid to revolt is over. Some dictators will fall. Others will redouble their repression. And some will scramble to enact enough reforms to placate newly emboldened citizens, likely diluting their power base and weakening their hold on power in the process. The region will not look the same in five years. Egypt and Tunisia are just the beginning.
“I HATE TO be chauvinistic about this, but Egyptians are the Americans of the Middle East,” says Egyptian dissident Mahmoud Salem, who blogs under the moniker Sandmonkey, and whose activism in the midst of the recent demonstrations resulted in his arrest and detention. In other words, what happens in Egypt matters across the region. It is the most populous nation in the Middle East, the traditional bastion of Arab power. Egypt’s borders cannot contain explosions of change within.
Some of the uprising’s ramifications were tangible and immediate. King Abdullah II of Jordan sacked his prime minister and cabinet. In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 32 years, promised not to run again and will not bequeath power to his son. Bashar al-Assad of Syria lifted a ban on the social networking site Facebook. All these moves were designed to quell or avoid popular unrest that erupted after Egyptians poured into Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Anti-government protests have also rocked Algeria and Bahrain, where at least two protesters were killed in clashes with security forces.
In Iran on the Monday following Mubarak’s fall, anti-regime protesters defied the government to fill the streets of several major cities by the tens of thousands. They were confronted with tear gas and batons. At least two people died. Reports from demonstrators suggest the number might have been higher. Conservative members of Iran’s parliament called for opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to be tried and executed.
While it was the successful revolution in Tunisia that triggered the street demonstrations in Egypt last month, Iranians also revolted nearly two years ago, following the seemingly rigged election that returned to power President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Although these demonstrations were brutally suppressed, “The protests in Iran showed Egyptian organizers how to use the modern social tools, social networking, Twitter, citizen journalism, to organize a revolution,” says Potkin Azarmehr, an Iranian democratic activist living in London. He notes that the Egyptians, in turn, showed Iranian dissidents that once a massive crowd is assembled, as happened in Tehran on June 15, 2009, it shouldn’t disperse. Egyptian democrats never relinquished their hold on Tahrir Square and were ultimately triumphant.
In the midst of the Egyptian uprising, Wael Ghonim—a Google executive who helped organize the initial protests, was detained for 10 days, and whose eventual release reignited the opposition movement—paid tribute to democratic activists in Iran. “I would tell Iranians to learn from the Egyptians, as we have learned from you guys, that at the end of the day, with the power of people, we can do whatever we want to do,” he told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. “If we unite our goals, if we believe, then all our dreams can come true.”
The lessons at least one Egyptian activist took from Iran were not as uplifting. “We saw Neda Agha-Soltan, people being killed and shot,” Mostafa Hussein, a blogger, psychiatrist, and postgraduate student, told Maclean’s, referring to the young woman whose murder during anti-regime protests in Tehran became an iconic image of Iran’s 2009 uprising. “It informed myself as an activist that what we’re doing as activists is a burden, and we’ll pay a heavy cost if we do anything like that, and it might not finish successfully.”
But Hussein and millions of other Egyptians pushed past this fear. They were motivated by the success of Tunisia’s uprising against its now deposed president, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. “When things happened in Tunisia, people understood that this invincible regime, with its state security forces and with its torture, can be overcome if our numbers are large enough and if we can stop being intimidated by them,” Hussein says. Then they took courage from each other. Hussein says he first went to Tahrir Square on Jan. 25 hoping to force some reforms from the government. It was only when he saw tens of thousands of his compatriots that he began to believe something much bigger was possible.
What made the previously unimaginable possible was this collective triumph over fear—or, to give it the word it deserves, courage. Poverty and unemployment, lack of freedom and state brutality fuelled it. Tunisia inspired it. The Internet and blogs allowed Egyptians to document the abuses they suffered. Satellite television showed Egyptians they didn’t have to live as they did. Facebook and Twitter provided forums to share and organize.
“They emboldened people everywhere to band together and confront the regimes that had ruled with an iron fist. A decisive threshold has been crossed and, once opened, this Pandora’s box will be almost impossible to reseal,” write Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, David Held, and Alia Brahimi of the London School of Economics in a recent essay. “Caught between the spotlight of instant global media and an energized and youthful social movement, these police states are being exposed as anachronistic, brittle and incapable of meeting the requirements of modern societies. This is the storm moving through the Middle East and radically reshaping the nature of state-society relations.”
According to Scott Carpenter, a Keston family fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, “Monarchs and autocrats in the region will probably not sleep well tonight. I can’t imagine that what’s happened in Egypt doesn’t somehow impact other countries in the region.” Among the wobbliest dominos, says Carpenter, who worked on Middle East democracy issues in the State Department during the George W. Bush administration, are Jordan and Algeria—though he notes that the proven willingness of Algerian security forces to shoot people may stifle dissent. But no one really knows where a movement will erupt next. “Everybody’s nervous,” he says. “Hosni Mubarak! It’s like an earthquake.”
Hussein, the Egyptian blogger, sees change spreading in Egypt already. Strangers in the subway discuss politics. Others publicly display photos of those killed in the recent unrest. This sort of challenge to the state wouldn’t have taken place only weeks ago. He is convinced it will expand. “There will definitely be a positive effect all over the Arab world. I think this is going to be a pan-Arab revolution, if not through the Middle East as well, including Iran. I hope it spins out to Africa. This would be fantastic. It is definitely a citizen-led movement. Arab citizens saw the regime using hired thugs, phalanxes of policemen, people on horses. They’ve seen how brave Egyptians would defend the square, the areas they occupied, the use of non-violent confrontation, spreading the protests to different cities, to strategic locations. They’ve seen all of this, and I’m sure the lessons have been learned by everyone.”
THERE ARE reasons to temper this optimism with caution. It may be premature to talk about the spread of democracy when it is not yet established in Egypt. The revolution, says Hussein, is “partially completed.” Mubarak is gone, but his political appointees remain in positions of power, and an unelected military junta rules in his place. The military promises to transition quickly to civilian rule, but in the meantime is clearing protesters out of Tahrir Square. “Some of their actions could be interpreted as attempts at restoring order, or attempts at democracy, and nobody knows so far,” says Mahmoud Salem, the blogger known as Sandmonkey.
Egypt’s military is entwined in the country’s economy and power structures, says Kristian Coates Ulrichsen, a research fellow at the LSE’s Global Governance centre. Despite Mubarak’s departure, this “military security state” is still in power. “The visible success of getting rid of
Mubarak is almost the easy thing,” he says. “Dismantling these hidden networks of patronage and influence, this political and military symbiosis, that’s going to be the really difficult thing on the road ahead.”
It’s a reality that worries Salem. He fears some of Egypt’s military leaders will seek ways to maintain the wealth and privilege they have come to enjoy after almost 60 years of their alumni running the country. For now, though, he’s willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. And if the army doesn’t shift control to elected civilians, Salem is comforted by the thought that Egyptians will no longer put up with it. “The population, as much as it is peaceful, has become quite militant,” he says. They’re not afraid.
Yet there are those who claim Egypt isn’t “ready” for democracy, that it lacks a democratic history, and that political freedom will inevitably lead to chaos or, worse, an Islamist state. Egypt’s own recently deposed vice-president, Omar Suleiman, said as much in the midst of the protests that felled his government. Fears that Egypt’s largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, will subvert the uprising are widespread.
Such arguments are common in Israel, where it is widely believed that stable and friendly neighbours are better than free ones. Peace with Egypt, even a peace guaranteed by a dictator, has been a cornerstone of Israel’s security policy for three decades. Many in Israel now fear that treaty is in danger. Yet Egypt’s new military rulers quickly affirmed they would respect existing treaties. And among the demonstrators in Tahrir Square, there was little overt hostility toward Israel on display. “This is not a challenge to their existence,” says Salem of Israeli fears. “They should shake off their existential worries, their ideas that they would be wiped out by violent crazy Arabs who don’t understand anything but blood.”
This is not to say a democratic Egypt would support American policies in the Middle East, especially toward Israel, in the same way that Mubarak did. Democracies, even allies, clash. Turkey, for example, refused to allow the United States to invade Iraq from its territory in 2003. But that partnership persists, as does Turkey’s strained alliance with Israel.
Building a democracy in Egypt, however, remains an enormous challenge. “Practising democracy is a whole different ball game than just toppling their regime,” says Ibrahim Sharqieh, deputy director of the Doha Center at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. “A democratic system does not necessarily mean that it’s going to resolve the unemployment problem, at least in the foreseeable future. So the Tunisians and the Egyptians will have to learn that they’re going to be living with high unemployment [both have an unofficial uneployment rate of more than 25 per cent] and a high percentage of poverty. This is going to be with us for a long time. The hard work has just started.”
And yet dismissing Egypt’s chances to build a genuine democracy reeks of snobbery. New democracies are almost always deemed “not ready” by those invested in the old regime, or those who fear change. The same argument was made in the last 50 years about Spain, Greece, and Poland. And what may have been most remarkable about the movement that overthrew Mubarak is its diversity.
“The outpouring and protests and chants for democracy and for universal values show that they actually are universal values,” says Ulrichsen. “That’s been the inspiring thing. People have been demanding development and democracy and political opening, rather than, for example, more overtly religious or politically Islamist slogans. It’s been an affirmation that democracy isn’t an alien concept in the Middle East, and people there would like it just as much as in other areas.”
IT IS THIS massive support for pluralism and for other liberal values that may yet result in the most significant change to the landscape of the Middle East. The region’s yearning for democracy is also a rejection of al-Qaeda, and if successful may sideline the extremist group.
Jihadists in al-Qaeda and similar radical Islamist groups have always scorned democracy. Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who led al-Qaeda in Iraq for a time before his 2006 death in a shootout with U.S. forces, described it as “the big American lie.” In a 2005 Internet posting, he said, “We have declared a bitter war against democracy and all those who seek to enact it. Democracy is also based on the right to choose your religion [and that is] against the rule of God.”
Equally scorned by Islamist extremists have been Hosni Mubarak, Ben Ali of Tunisia, and other pro-American, largely secular dictators in the Middle East. Al-Qaeda urged their overthrow and promised an Islamic alternative. Indeed, radical Islamists presented their brand of religious extremism as the only other option. They found a receptive audience among some Egyptians. Mohamed Atta, one of the 9/11 hijackers, was Egyptian, as is al-Qaeda’s deputy leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri.
But now Egyptians calling for democracy and pledging unity between Muslims and Christians have forced out Mubarak, accomplishing in a few weeks what religious extremists failed to do in decades of terror and bloodshed. It’s a stunning blow.
“These are regimes that al-Qaeda has been campaigning against for years,” says Ulrichsen, referring to the rulers of Tunisia and Egypt. “The fact that they were swept from power due to political and social and economic reasons, for greater development and participation and openness, rather than any jihadist or violent ideology, that is transformative. It’s basically the ideological defeat of al-Qaeda. It shows that people want change for the same reasons that they want change anywhere else in the world.”
This is why, despite the loss of a close ally that Mubarak’s fall entails, U.S. President Barack Obama was likely right to embrace change in Egypt, while keeping his distance from the uprising lest more overt support taint the demonstrations with the whiff of American influence. An unstable but free Egypt will be a better long-term friend to the United States than one ruled by a compliant dictator. “I’ve been arguing for decades that democratic reform is the antidote for al-Qaeda’s militancy,” says Carpenter of the Washington Institute. “People always ask what’s our alternative narrative to al-Qaeda, as Americans. We only have one narrative. We can’t make something up and tailor it to fit. We either believe these things or we don’t. And we believe that societies that are democratic have the necessary shock absorbers in the system to maximize good for the most number of people.”
According to blogger Mostafa Hussein, a transition to democracy in Egypt will make al-Qaeda “irrelevant.” Empowered citizens won’t look to extremist groups “because there is no reason to join them when you can speak, speak loudly, and tell people your ideas.”
Politicians, whether democratic or not, come and go. But these new emotions unleashed among Tunisians, Egyptians, and other residents of the Middle East—this courage, hope, and belief that change is possible—will persist. They could change everything.