Last Updated: Mon Feb 07, 2011 19:34 pm (KSA) 16:34 pm (GMT)

The boiling pot in the Arab world

Fatih Okumuş

The flame ignited by Mohamed Bouazizi in Tunisia turned out to be a catalyst for the chain of fires that have been breaking out across the Arab world. As it turned out, everything was just waiting for a single match. And when that match was lit, the pot began to boil.

Now in the wake of Tunisia, Egypt is in turmoil, a kind of turmoil which makes it difficult to understand what exactly is going on. For this reason, as events are still fast unfolding, I am not going to question what is going on in the Arab world in general these days. Instead, I am going to approach the topic by querying exactly what has not happened or unfolded in Egypt these days. And after finding the answer to these questions, I am going to speculate about what may occur in Egypt in the near future.

What has not happened in Egypt?

What is occurring in Egypt is not any sort of fight for survival based on hunger or financial inequities. There are enormous disparities in income, unparalleled levels of unemployment and growing difficulties facing social institutions such as marriage; but none of these factors that help make up a terrible socio-economic tableau was anything new for Egypt. In a Cairo, a city of 18 million people, there are a full 3 million who live in the city’s ancient cemeteries. If poverty and general despair were to have pushed anyone into uprising, the people of Egypt would have risen up countless times since the 1970s.

What is occurring in Egypt is also not an Islamic uprising. The second article in the Egyptian Constitution states that the Arab Republic of Egypt is an Islamic state, and that the main source of its laws is Shariah. As for the strongest of the traditional Islamic movements in Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood, it has adopted the slogan, “We wish not to govern according to Islam, but to be governed according to Islam.” Despite the fact that there are sects and political movements throughout Egypt who would like to see the country ruled 100 percent by Shariah law, the majority of the people of Egypt do not support these views. During my interviews with young (aged 25-35), educated, employed and unemployed Muslims and Coptics in Cairo and Alexandria around five years ago, I discovered that most were distant from both the Muslim Brotherhood as well as the government.

These youth were respectful towards religious sensitivities, though not in favor of imposing them, and they were filled with a longing for a political regime in which they could feel more participatory. As for the older generations, they appeared to have convinced themselves that the best way to serve their nation and people was to try to do what they could from within the system.

What is occurring in Egypt is not a foreign provocation. The global system after all has been, up until now, quite pleased with the stance and direction taken by this docile child of the Nile. What the global system needed was not to overturn, but rather to protect the Egyptian leadership. But now the Western imperialists, who looked out on the horizon of political alternatives from the glasses of the regime, find their policies bankrupt. They were not expecting these developments. While there was a plan B and C on hand if plan A was to collapse, the fact is, all of these plans were based on the inner workings of the system, and its makeup, so to speak. Now the people on the street have risen up and are demanding change. The street movement is powerful enough to bring down the regime, but not powerful enough to create a new one to take the old one’s place. There is a need for a leadership cadre to set up the new order in Egypt. But in Egypt, no such leadership has emerged.

What won’t occur in Egypt?

Since, as stated previously, these are not battles for survival, these protests are not of the type to be quieted down by simply tossing food in front of the people. Egypt and some other Arab countries were in fact the stages for what were termed “bread uprisings” in the 1970s and ‘80s. There were, at those times, hundreds of people killed during violent events, which then settled down. But this time around, the anger on the streets is not of the kind to be quenched by gas bombs or bullets. The army will not crush the people, as it is a part of the people. The Egyptian army has always been more patriotic than the government itself. The army lives, not in separate barracks, but amongst the people. They share the values, the hopes and the fates of the people. I am guessing that the said army will soon be getting around to bringing about public order, and that it will not act as a brace for regime that is fast collapsing.

Since this is not an Islamic uprising, it will not be a theocracy that takes this regime’s place. And thus one of the more gilded fabrications about the Arab world that persists will finally die down. We will see that the oft-repeated “if we retract our support from that dictator, the Arabs will want Shariah and radical Islamists will come to power,” which the West is so fond of repeating, is a complete fallacy.

Since this is not an uprising created by provocations from outside of Egypt, it will not be a puppet regime that takes the place of the current one. At the same time though, the UK, Israel and the US will all try to surround whichever new ruling regime does settle into power, using every carrot and every stick they can find. As for Hosni Mubarak’s son, Gamal Mubarak, we also know that he will not (be able to) take his father’s place in power. But had this uprising not taken place, he would have, and Egypt would have been a base for the US in the region. We also know this.

So will happen in Egypt?

The state of emergency that has been in place since 1952, when royal rule was replaced by a military regime, will be lifted. A more all-inclusive, participatory democracy will be formed. Labor syndicates may play an influential role. In the new order to come, the youth of the nation will be more effectively represented. Political figures who embrace not so much traditionalist Islamic movements but rather socialist and even possibly an Islamic dialogue rooted in Arabic history may gain prominence.

Economic policies and social projects which balance out income disparities will be implemented. The expansion of freedoms will have a positive effect on the economy, and foreign investment will increase. There is, at this point, no place for worry in regards to the Turkish investments in the country.

Turkey’s influence will increase in Egypt, and the arena occupied by Israel will narrow. At the same time though, no matter who comes to power in Egypt, I doubt that relations with Israel will arrive at a breaking point. The eccentric and stringent policies embraced by Egypt up until now within the Arab world as a whole will become more inclusive and more sincere. In fact, Egypt may start playing a more influential role within the Arab and Islamic worlds, and may contribute to more change in a positive direction, as it starts to behave more like itself.

No matter how much the United States may not have played any role in triggering the current situation in Egypt, it will exert efforts to see that it is holding the reins during this period of transformation for Egypt. The whole effort to see Mohamed ElBaradei foisted on Egypt from the United States as some sort of imported and temporary head of state -- if not purposefully put there to overshadow a different, deeper plan -- is a very amateur move that will not work.

There is as yet no leader who has emerged whom the people of the nation can trust, someone who is religious but not radically so and who can fulfill the needs of both provincial and city-dwelling Egyptians, not to mention those of the Arab and Islamic worlds. Such a leader will definitely not be a supporter of either the US or Israel. It is possible that at some point during 2011, a great leader will emerge, as did Sa’d Zaghlul in 1919 and Gamal Abdel Nasser Hussein in 1954. But this leader will not, as Zaghlul did, turn his back on Alexandria and look towards the Mediterranean. Nor will this leader neglect Egypt as Abdel Nasser Hussein did in the name of the lofty ideals of the Arab Union. First and foremost, such a leader will strengthen Egypt itself, and to do so, will have to rely more powerfully on the geography and history of Egypt.

The result

The chain of transformations which will take place within the Arab world, as Jawdat Said, the Syrian student of Algerian Malek Bennabi imagined, will make possible the formation of a Middle Eastern Union resembling the European Union. What’s more, the creation of this union will not need military force backing it, but will be possible through civilian methods.

The current goal at hand should be bringing about the free circulation of everything, from ideas, to goods, money, experience, the labor force, education, tourism, entertainment, and everything having to do with life within the area that goes from the ocean to the gulf, from the Adriatic to the Caucuses. This union will include mostly Muslims of course, but at the same time, will embrace all cultures and experiences in the region.

As the era of colonization comes to a close in North Africa and the Middle East, a new era is beginning. My wish and desire is that the leaders in the region understand and work along with this change and transformation. If they need to go, they should do so and thus display a sense of honor before being kicked out or overthrown. Otherwise, these are floodwaters which know no stopping.

In ancient Egypt, when the Nile overflowed, it brought fertility and abundance to the country. I hope that the current overflowing we are witnessing by the children of the Nile similarly brings ultimate fertility and abundance to their nation.

* Published in Turkey's TODAY'S ZAMAN on Feb. 7

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