(photo via theworld.org)
The universe has a curious way of aligning levels of circling circumstance to produce perfect coincidence in the course of its unconcerned forward march. At 4:59 p.m. on July 3rd, 2013, I pondered the perfect clicking of any number of existential gears that had brought me to be sitting in Beirut at a lecture on the Arab Spring at the exact same point in time that General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi’s 48 hour ultimatum to Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood was set to expire in Cairo, Egypt. As we sat in a small lecture hall and waited for Rami Khouri to start his discourse, we knew that millions of Egyptians stood in Tahrir Square, hurtling towards the brink of some type of drastically new dawn for their country. Khouri writes for the Daily Star and Agence Global, and is the director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at American University of Beirut. He is an excellent speaker, and provided us with a strong and relatively unbiased historical context for the events we were witnessing in real time, but could contain neither his excitement at the success of popular will in bringing about dynamic change nor his disgust at Mohamed Morsi’s performance as Egypt’s first democratically elected president.
As Khouri most eloquently put it, “The Brotherhood stands on claims of a legitimate electoral process even while it seeks to rob that democracy of its legitimacy . . . the system was polarized and paralyzed at the same time.” He called Tahrir Square “the symbolic heart of populist legitimacy,” and noted that on the 1 year anniversary of Egypt’s first election, the largest (documented) organized political movement in the history of the world took to the streets to reject what it viewed as failed leadership. Egypt is in the spotlight, but there have been similar protests and rebellions of varying scope in Morocco, Tunis, Syria, Lybia, Yemen, and Kuwait. Khouri sees all of these populaces consistently demanding three things, albeit at different levels of intensity: constitutional reform, guaranteed rights for citizens, and social justice. What Khouri appeared to be driving at when he spoke about Egypt was that people throughout the region are beginning to take what leaders refuse to give to them; As Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood tried to restrict civil liberties and restructure the government to give themselves more power, the people wrested their country from his grasp, took the streets back with the strength of their own legs and the stamp of their own footprints, and shouted down what they viewed as broken promises and empty rhetoric.
It is important to remember, however, that the Egyptian people did not rid themselves of Morsi unaided. Whether people choose to call what transpired in Egypt a coup, a revolution, a popular recall, or any other name they can find, it was the Egyptian military that deposed of Muslim Brotherhood rule in Egypt and it is the military that continues to detain Morsi and shape the parameters of the interim government. In the two weeks since the will of the people prevailed, Egypt has been struggling to tread in the waters of uncertainty. The military has killed peaceful protesters, and there have been violent clashes between the factionalized population, with passions running high on both sides and people more than ready to die defending their beliefs. The relationship between government and governed changes slowly and painfully, and it is very evident to the people of the Middle East both that progress comes with a price and that most political coalitions are uneasy power arrangements. Blood is thicker than water, and also seems to run more freely at times. Khouri attributes this partly to the scope of the change people are fighting for; “The Arab Spring is dealing with religion, women, civil rights, all of these things at once. It’s almost mad, but it’s a madness we embrace.”
(AP Photo/Tara Todras-Whitehill)
A key takeaway from events in Egypt seem to be that while the population of Egypt and of the Middle East in general is overwhelming religious, people want to see their secular governments adhering to religious values rather than being run by religious figures. Another is that this situation, like most in the region, is not nearly as crystal cut as media likes to make it. Real life gets messy, and Egypt is more a tangled web of forces colliding sideways than a political battleground divided cleanly into diehard jihadists versus young people clamoring for some western-type democracy. There is the Tammarod (“rebellion”) movement comprised of a huge coalition of religious, business, and civil rights interests, there is the Muslim Brotherhood, there is the Salafist Al-Nour party, there is the Egyptian military, there are holdovers from the Mubarak regime, and there is everybody in between. In the coming days, it will be interesting to see whether or not Khouri’s optimism and belief in the people of Egypt are borne out in a step forward for civil rights and political inclusion, or are squashed by sectarian conflict and authoritarian attempts to maintain stability. History is being made, examples are being set, and political drama in Egypt is playing out on a world stage. Most of all, however, human beings are being human, and demanding that the powers-that-be recognize their universal humanity. We would do well to recognize the populist roar in Egypt that refuses to be silenced, and encourage ourselves and others to let the growl in our guts grow into a voice that speaks with conviction.