The Arab revolutions have started and they are widespread. And I believe they will succeed, although the price of success will vary from one country to another and will, in almost all cases, be more costly than it need be. Nevertheless, these revolutions will redefine the relationship between the governed and the governing in the Arab world, and that alone is a momentous achievement.
Already though, much more than redefinition has occurred. Political parties have been legitimized-from Islamist political trends to liberal secular movements. Parliaments have been disbanded. Constitutions are being rewritten. Former officials have been killed or are being put on trial. And most important, the average Arab feels empowered and is asserting his and her right to be governed democratically. It is self-evident on the streets of Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, and now Syria, that the old adage of authority rules is being challenged every day, almost to a fault.
Another positive development is that Arab governments and Arab societies are finally dealing openly with their realities. An Islamist opposition leader heads the newly established Moroccan government. Tunisia has distributed leadership positions across its interim government between the majority and opposition. Islamist political parties gained a wide majority in Egyptian parliamentary elections. Voices of dissension are being heard throughout the rest of the Arab world. Open discussion regarding the role of religion in society and government, as well as the role of the military and the powers of the executive branch versus legislative bodies, is ongoing and vibrant. The active engagement of the youth-forming over 50 percent of the Arab population-in political expression is also of paramount importance, for theirs are the voices of the future. One cannot have a democratic or representative political system that is not reflective of society. It is this sense of empowerment and expression that ultimately provides the kernel of self confidence required to engage public issues domestically, regionally, and internationally. And it is the inclusiveness of a system that bestows credibility, which then ensures it is taken seriously. These are among the strongest reasons for my optimism.
There were also disappointing and tragic events in 2011. The widespread use of force by the former Libyan regime against its people, the loss of Egyptian revolutionary martyrs during protests even after the change in Egyptian government, the killings in Yemen and Syria, and the human rights violations in Bahrain are all testament to the high price of change. Regrettably, many of these losses could have been avoided had the entrenched regimes moved swiftly to accommodate the legitimate demands of the protesters.
The Egyptian case is simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating. As society stood unified around the goal of “change” between January 25 and February 11, expectations for rapid transformation into a truly democratic Egyptian society were widespread. United, the people quickly succeeded in removing the head of state, reshuffling the government several times, and dissolving parliament. Then the process lost track.
Egypt attempted to engage in democratic processes, such as holding competitive party elections, before developing a constitution, which would have provided the basic parameters for how the country should be governed in the future. As such, the united popular force dispersed to compete for ownership of Egypt’s future without having laid down the foundations of the new republic or having created a balanced playing field for the different stakeholders. In essence, Egypt embarked on picking the fruits of the revolution before actually nurturing them to ensure a bountiful harvest.
The real challenge facing Egypt is the development of a constitution that is truly reflective of the strategic outlook of the nation, rather than just the immediate strengths of existing political trends. Holding parliamentary elections early has made this process all the more difficult. As frustrated as some of the youth movements may feel, they are duty bound to rise above their differences and unite once again to ensure the new constitution guarantees the values of equality, democracy, and the rule of law that they demanded so proudly a year ago.
For the constitutional process to have any chance of success, the provisions of the constitution must ensure four basic principles:
Information must be accessible to Egyptians if they are to participate in determining the public interest. And they have the right to know how and why decisions are or were taken. A lack of clarity breeds corruption, while ambiguity fuels innuendo and false accusations.
The constitution must remain a foundational document for all Egyptians, irrespective of their belief, creed, gender, etc. If citizens are expected to sacrifice equally in war and share the benefits of peace and prosperity, they must have equal rights and find pride in their national identity.
To ensure productivity and integrity, Egyptians in positions of authority must be, and know they will be, held accountable for their actions. To garner the respect necessary to participate in policy making, business, or public life, authority figures must recognize that their efforts have consequences.
The constitution must create a system that not only provides equal opportunity in theory, but in practice as well. Legalizing autocracy was not the objective of the revolution.
The application of these four principles to all the sensitive issues facing Egypt, from the role of religion in politics to the rights of the individual and from the role of the military to the balance of power between the presidency, government and parliament, forms the best possible assurance for the success of the Egyptian revolution.
These principles will provide a sound foundation for the political compromises that will be necessary to satisfy the different stakeholders and unite varying opinions. They will create a framework through which our most contentious issues may be introduced, torn apart, then finally and equitably resolved within the elegant chaos of the democratic process.
Nabil Fahmy is the dean of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo.