Friday, December 23, 2011

Egypt's progress

By Ali Ezzatyar

Approaching the one-year anniversary of the Arab spring, it's very easy to forget that the events of 2011 would have been unthinkable last Christmas. Browse through the op-ed pages of every major newspaper or foreign policy journal, or the title of any of the books that were being published on the region this time last year: not a single clear, quantifiable notion that one man's self-immolation in Tunisia would light the entire region on fire. One of the earliest, and perhaps the most important, of these fires, was Egypt. I venture to say, contrary to many, that things are going fine there a year later. 

It's not ideal that the ruling military establishment remains effectively in power even now; its promises to step aside and hand rule over definitively to elected civilians are still unfulfilled. It is also clearly tragic that about 200 Egyptians have lost their lives since the stepping down of Hosni Mubarak, in continued clashes with each other and the security forces. But, almost a year after Egyptians rallied past security forces and into Tahrir square, the signs appear more positive than negative.

One big fear of mine was that, with the ouster of Mubarak, the leaderless mass movement comprising most of Egyptian society that ousted him would get complacent. That could have happened for many reasons. It could have happened because a society that is not allowed to demonstrate in mass for decades out of fear of reprisal can easily lose focus when its immediate goals are achieved. It could also happen, like it did in Iran, because an event or series of events from outside of Egypt would allow the military to consolidate its power at the behest of the people. In fact, Egyptians have demonstrated remarkable resilience and intolerance for the continued vestiges of authoritarian rule. With the help of social media, activists have continued to organize and maintain focus on the goal they espoused on the eve of their revolution. They are keeping the pressure on the military, including through democratic elections and continued reforms.

Additionally, the extreme elements of Egyptian society, notably the Islamists who were supposed to fight for an Islamic State, never showed up. I don't know if they existed, existed in such a small number, or are singing another tune post-revolution, but the reality is clear: The largest Muslim block in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, has not espoused ideas that are any less democratic than most "Western" countries. They are also being watched closely by those same Egyptians watching the military, since their inactivity in the early revolution has discredited them, and their unwillingness to confront the military head on continues to do so. This is all healthy. While the Muslim Brotherhood probably has a plurality of Egypt's support, there are probably more people who, together, could combine to make their lives very difficult when they step out of line. So, while the military has always acted as a counterbalance to the Brotherhood, a large cross-section of the Egyptian population now has the tools at its disposal to create its own counterweight, and it has done so.

Finally, while fully-fledged democracy hasn't been born overnight in Egypt, nobody can say the revolutionary project has unraveled. It is a work in progress, and it is moving forward. Continued strife, even oftentimes despotic rule by the Egyptian military, has not slowed it down. The more the military ratchets up its behavior or words the people don't like, the more people are pouring back into Tahrir square. The Egyptian blogosphere is as active as it has ever been. Everyone is under scrutiny by everyone else, and the system in place now is moderately democratic and moving in the right direction.

We can't say we are happy with Egypt as it is today, but a status quo takes years to build. Perhaps we can say, at least (and with tacit encouragement for Egyptians to continue), that we are happy with its progress, less than one year in.

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