Feb 10th 2011

Egypt's Days of Glory

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

I want to begin this column by first applauding the Egyptian people. I applaud them not only for their heroism, but for their tenacity, their deep sense of commitment to their fellow countryman, the responsibility they have displayed and their perseverance to see their people's revolution through to its ultimate success. Perhaps none of this is surprising - Egypt, after all, is a country with more than four thousand years of continuing history with unsurpassed cultural riches, a cradle of civilization that has enlightened one generation after another. The revolutionaries stood fast, drawing from their country's glorious history - a history which imbued them with inner strength and determination to rise again and live up to Egypt's future destiny.

Regardless of how many stages and setbacks this revolution will experience, it cannot and will not fail. It has set in motion a wave of awakening, and neither Egypt nor any of the Arab states will be the same again. Regardless of how the Egyptian revolution ends, its outcome will set the tone for the entire Arab world. No Arab leader will be immune from the revolutionary transformation that will sweep the region, and there is no better time for Egypt to reassume the mantra of leadership as exemplified in the manner in which the revolution is unfolding. The quiet deliberations of a few wise men including the former Egyptian Ambassador to Washington, Nabil Fahmi, the former head of the IAEA, Dr. ElBaradei, Google Executive and compassionate voice of protestors, Wael Ghonim, Muslim Brotherhood Leader, Mohammed Badie, Ghad Party Leader, Ayman Nour, former Member of Parliament and Vice President Omer Suleiman and others were filled with symbolism and a hard core reality. They were not torn between their loyalty to President Mubarak and the welfare of their people-it was a far gone conclusion that Mubarak must leave. For them, the question was how to orchestrate his departure gracefully, knowing full well that the whole world was watching and that how they conduct themselves will have serious and lasting reverberations throughout the Middle East and beyond.

Although the revolutionaries are tempted, perhaps for good reason, to oust President Mubarak immediately, they must first pause and consider that pushing Mubarak out of power disgracefully will not automatically bring about the reforms they seek. Moreover, his abrupt removal from power will not only humiliate Mubarak himself but will reflect on Egypt as a country and people who have lost their bearings as they have been engulfed in a revolutionary fervor. Everyone-including President Mubarak-knows that his reign is over. What Egypt needs now is an orderly transfer of power, a transitional period to allow him to finish his term with dignity, albeit with substantially reduced power. The people who have tolerated the Mubarak regime for more than three decades must demonstrate, for Egypt's sake, that regardless of their president's shortcomings, they must act from an historic perspective of Egypt's place and its future role in the Arab world. Mubarak would rather fall on his sword than leave office in disgrace. Those who are negotiating a dignified exit for him must be given every opportunity to finish their task, as long as they remain accountable to the Egyptian people and committed to modernization, economic progress and political freedom. Finally, Mubarak's ultimate fate will send a very strong signal to the rest of the Arab states. No Arab leader wants to leave his office in disgrace; they will resist and resort to any coercive means at their disposal to stay in power. Egypt can provide an example of an orderly transfer of power allowing its leader to depart in a manner befitting Egypt's standing. What the revolutionaries can-and indeed must-do is insist on the immediate repeal of the emergency laws that gave near unlimited power to the police and other internal security apparati that have been known to flagrantly abuse their power. Repealing the emergency laws will give the government some credibility to follow through with other promised reforms.

What is also striking about the Egyptian uprising is the remarkable caring and compassion that most Egyptians displayed to one another. However chaotic the situation, ordinary Egyptians took care of each other, providing food and medical care where needed. They were not directed by any leaders but assumed their own responsibility-they chanted together, resisted together, cried with one another, and raised the banner of revolt together. This was nothing short of a feat, a remarkable display of discipline and a capacity to deal with any adverse situation as the uprising evolved. And when they were intimidated and attacked by thugs who appear to have been dispatched by the Interior Ministry, they fought back together demonstrating solidarity and an iron-clad will to prevail-and they prevailed. The Interior Ministry realized that this is not a battle they want to win because the consequences of such a ‘victory' will be far more calamitous.

Also remarkable is the revolutionaries' focus on their own plight. They did not seek a scapegoat to blame for their dismal states of being. They did not blame Israel or the United States for their country's failures and instead pointed the finger at their own leaders. Here again, unlike many other Arabs who blame Israel, in particular, for all the ills that infect their society, the Egyptians appear to appreciate that peace with Israel is positive. Whereas Mubarak has failed the Egyptian people by stifling social, economic and political developments, he has managed to engrain the peace agreement with Israel in the national psyche of the Egyptian people. Even the Muslim Brotherhood vowed to keep the peace treaty with Israel. Indeed, no revolution can make social, political and economic progress by becoming hostile to its neighbors, especially, in this case, Israel-a nuclear power with formidable conventional military capability and with whom Egypt has no quarrel. In fact, Egypt can only benefit from the bilateral relations as it has in the past. Moreover, the Egyptians understand that each country looks after its own best national interests, including Israel and the US, and it would have been up the Egyptian authorities to look after the interest of the Egyptian people. It is in that sense that Egypt will again set an example to be emulated by the rest of the Arab states.

Another unique phenomenon is how the Egyptian military behaved throughout the revolutionary process. Being a part and parcel of the Egyptian people, the military assumed the responsibility of keeping order in the midst of a chaotic situation. They guarded the interest of the nation as a whole and did not follow the government instinct to subdue the uprising by force. In fact, the opposite was true. The Egyptian military recognized the right of the people to participate in peaceful protest, and refused to take sides while taking security measures deemed best for the country. The military, to be sure, played an extremely constructive role and must now continue to play such a role by insuring the there will be a peaceful transitional period while respecting the social and political reforms that the various civilian opposition parties will agree upon. The military will have to continue to act as the guarantor of the state's security, both from within and outside the country. By its own action and behavior, the Egyptian military will send a clear message to other Arab militaries: the military was created to protect the nation mainly from any outside enemy and not to suppress its citizens.

Finally, as the largest, most culturally advanced Arab country that sets the trend for much of the Arab world, Egypt must now rise to assume its pivotal role in a region riven with instability and competition for regional hegemony, especially between Iran and Turkey. A weak Egypt could leave the Arab world leaderless, creating a vacuum that non-Arab Iran, a predominantly Shiite state, and Turkey, a largely Sunni country, are more than eager to fill. Only Egypt can rise again, not only to lead, but shield the Arab world from being dominated by a non-Arab state.

The revolution in Egypt has occurred in a most critical time in the Middle East history. Peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab world remains precarious at best, Iran is racing to acquire nuclear weapons and Islamic extremist groups are poised to take advantage of failed Arab regimes. The Egyptian revolution offers a clear sign that the old order is finished. The Egyptian people will now shape the new order not only for themselves but for the entire Arab world. The young and brave Egyptian revolutionaries must remember that they-and they alone-will determine Egypt's destiny.

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