Syria and Egypt – especially their capital cities Damascus and Cairo – for millennia have influenced events far beyond their borders. Developments in both countries in recent days and months have captured the two dominant trends in the Arab world, as some shattered countries and hollow regimes shake and crumble, while others reconfigure themselves and embark on new eras anchored in revived legitimacy, credibility and efficacy.
This reality was nicely captured in a snapshot of both countries Monday: Syrian Prime Minister Riad Hijab defected and fled the country to join the opposition trying to topple the regime of President Bashar Assad; and Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi went to Al-Arish in the Sinai region to assert that the Egyptian army would regain full control of the area after 35 militants attacked a border post and killed 16 soldiers, before trying to enter Israel.
Given Egypt’s and Syria’s influence over the Arab world, their course of events is likely to find echoes in many other Arab lands. Old regimes are collapsing in the face of concerted opposition from millions of men and women, while new systems of government are slowly taking shape, with the aim of representing the values and policy views of all Egyptians or Syrians.
Egypt’s regime collapsed fairly quickly in January-February 2011, when the military establishment refused to shoot protesting civilians in order to save the President Hosni Mubarak’s regime, and took command of the country’s transition. Syria’s transition from autocracy to democracy has been much more violent, as the regime has fought back ferociously and the peaceful protests to unseat the regime have expanded to include a full-blown military insurrection.
The defection of the Syrian prime minister on Sunday was a dramatic blow that will hasten the Assad regime’s collapse, because it reflects a critical loss of faith by an individual who represents two important constituencies for Assad’s clan-based rule: the Baath Party and the state bureaucracy. Hijab had been a faithful party member who held senior posts across the country mainly because of his loyalty. For him to defect from the top government position sends a powerful message in several directions: It tells the Assad clan that they can trust nobody in their service anymore, and it tells the hundreds of thousands of rank-and-file Baath Party members and supporters that the charade is over, and they should abandon a sinking ship.
If, as we are told, Hijab had been planning his move for the last two months since he was appointed as prime minister, one wonders what damage he could have done to the regime during his days in office. He certainly would have had plenty of time to help the opposition in various ways, even though he was not in the decision-making circle on security issues. His departure will speed up the collapse of the Syrian regime from within, leaving only a hard-core political brigade of Alawites and Syrian domestic mercenaries, whose hold on power reflects gang or militia power in tightly proscribed bits of territory, rather than that of a legitimate government.
Egypt, on the other hand, is moving in a different direction. The authorities have worked to re-establish government legitimacy and credibility with the population through cascading democratic processes and the occasional standoff in the streets. The government has reflected the values of the population, which include elements of nationalism, Islamism, Arabism, secularism, constitutionalism, republicanism and just plain enjoying life every day.
Mursi’s visit to the Sinai captured a critical dimension of any legitimate government: the need to control its territory and provide security for its people. For several decades, bits and pieces of Egyptian territory had slipped out of the full control of the government, both in rural and desert regions as well as in poor urban neighborhoods in the large cities. Islamists mainly filled those vacuums in services and identify that defined the lives of millions of Egyptians, and rode that wave to political incumbency today.
The weekend attack by Egyptian militants follows dozens of other such incidents in recent years, and the new government in Cairo has signaled its determination to end the power vacuum in the Sinai and regain state control. This will not be enough for the government to assert itself militarily in the area. Previous Egyptian governments had done the same, as have most Arab governments in their own lands, asserting the central role of security in Arab regime policies without sufficiently offering their citizens credible doses of equitable services, social justice, or accountability. The result has been the current uprisings and revolutions defining Arab countries whose citizens now demand more from their governments than a soldier on every corner.
Egypt and Syria today are aptly capturing the great Arab saga of our age. Inefficient and hollow security states are collapsing and new and young governance systems anchored in greater populist legitimacy are beginning to take shape.
(Rami G. Khouri writes twice weekly for the Daily Star Lebanon, where this article was first published on August 8, 2012)