Little over a year ago, no political analyst I know would have argued that the leaders of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen would be deposed in the immediate future. This set of leaders, cumulatively, had been in office for more than 100 years. Nor would anyone have projected that there would be uprisings in Bahrain and Syria. Clearly, 2011 was the Year of Revolution in the Arab World.
I believe that Arab revolutions have started, that they are widespread, and that they will succeed. The price of success will vary from one country to the other and will, in almost all cases, be more costly than need be. Nevertheless, these revolutions will redefine the relationship between the governed and governing in the Arab world. That is a momentous achievement in and of itself.
However, much more has occurred. Political parties have been legitimized, from Islamist political trends to liberal secular movements. Parliaments have been disbanded. Constitutions are being rewritten. Former officials have been killed, or are being put on trial. Most important, the average Arab feels empowered and is asserting his and her right to be governed democratically. It is self-evident in the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria, that the old axiom that authority rules is being challenged every day, almost to a fault.
Another positive development is that Arab governments and Arab societies are finally dealing openly with their reality. An Islamist opposition leader heads the newly established Moroccan government. Tunisia has distributed leadership positions in its interim arrangements between the majority and opposition. Islamist political parties gained a wide majority in Egyptian parliamentary elections, and voices of dissension are heard throughout the rest of the Arab world. Open discussion about the role of religion in society and government, as well as the role of the military and the powers of the executive branch versus legislative bodies, is ongoing and vibrant. The active engagement of youth–over 50 percent of the Arab population–in political expression is also of paramount importance, for theirs are the voices of the future. One cannot have a democratic or representative political system that is not reflective of society. It is this sense of empowerment and expression that ultimately provides the kernel of self confidence required to engage in public issues domestically, regionally, and internationally. And it is the inclusiveness of the system that gives it the credibility, which will ensure that it be taken seriously. These are among the strongest reasons for my optimism.
There were also disappointing and tragic events in 2011. The widespread use of force by the former Libyan regime against its people, the loss of Egyptian revolutionary martyrs in protests even after the change in Egyptian government, the killings in Yemen and Syria, and the human rights violations in Bahrain are all testimony to the high price of change. Regrettably, many of these losses could have been avoided had the entrenched regimes moved swiftly to accommodate the legitimate demands of the protesters. Where this did occur, such as in Morocco and Tunisia, less physical violence was witnessed and a political consensus towards the future seems to be emerging, though some real differences still simmer under the surface.
The Egyptian case is exhilarating and frustrating at the same time. As society stood up unified around the goal of “change” from January 25 to February 11, expectations for rapid transformation into a truly democratic Egyptian society were widespread. Together the people’s voices were clearly stronger than an entrenched and deep-rooted security system. Power in the country was being redefined. United, the people quickly succeeded in removing the head of state, reshuffling the government several times, and dissolving the parliament. Then the process lost track.
Egypt attempted to engage in democratic processes, such as competitive party elections, before developing a constitution, which should have provided the basic parameters for how the country would be governed in the future. As such, the united popular forces dispersed to compete for ownership of Egypt’s future without laying down the foundations of the new republic or creating a balanced playing field for the different stakeholders. In essence, they have embarked on picking the fruits of the revolution before actually nurturing it to ensure a bountiful harvest.
The real challenge of the coming period in Egypt will be the development of a constitution that is reflective of the strategic outlook of the nation, rather than the immediate political strengths of existing political trends. Going to parliamentary elections early has made this process all the more difficult and will lead to highly volatile debate in the weeks to come, as well as potentially numerous revisions in the years after a new constitution is agreed upon. As frustrated as some of the youth movements may feel, they are duty bound to rise above their differences and again unite to ensure that the new constitution guarantees the values of equality, democracy and the rule of law that they demanded so proudly a year ago.
For the constitutional process to have any chance of success, the provisions of the constitution must ensure four basic principles:
Information should be accessible to Egyptians if they are to participate in determining the public interest. And they have the right to know how and why decisions were taken. Lack of clarity breeds corruption, while ambiguity fuels innuendo and false accusations.
The constitution must remain a foundational document for all Egyptians, irrespective of their beliefs, creed, gender, etc. If they are expected to sacrifice equally in war, or share the benefits of peace and prosperity, they must have equal rights and find pride in their national identity.
To ensure productivity and integrity, Egyptians in positions of authority must know that they are to be held accountable for their actions. To encourage the respect necessary to participate in policy making, business, or public life, authority figures must recognize that their efforts have consequences.
The constitution must create a system that does not only provide equal opportunity in theory, but in practice as well. Legalizing autocracy was not the objective of the revolution.
These four principles, applied to all of the sensitive issues in Egypt, be it the role of religion in politics, the rights of the individual, the roles of the military and political system, and the balance of power between the presidency, government and parliament, are the best possible assurance for the success of the Egyptian revolution.
These principles provide foundations for the political compromises that will be required to satisfy the different stakeholders and unite varying opinions. They create a framework through which all our most contentious issues may be introduced, torn apart, then finally and equitably resolved in the elegant chaos of the democratic process. Without such a framework the threat of renewed autocracy will never truly recede. With it, we may enjoy the fruits of January 25, and ensure a sustained, if belated, harvest for the years and generations to come.
Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo. He served as Egypt’s ambassador to the United States from 1999–2008, and as envoy to Japan between 1997 and 1999.