Several significant anniversaries we commemorate this week provide us with much food for thought about events across the Middle East at one of its most dynamic and difficult moments. This week marks:
• four years since mass demonstrations across Egypt demanded the transitional military council transfer power to a legitimate elected government;
• three years since the election of President Mohammad Morsi;
• two years since he was overthrown by street demonstrations and a Nilotic nudge from the military headed by then Field Marshal Abdelfattah Sisi;
• one year since Sisi became the more or less elected president of Egypt (in the modern Nilotic tradition of elections where most of the opposition fears to raise it head and is arrested and hounded soon after the election ends);
• one year since the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) declared the establishment of the “Islamic State” and its “caliphate”;
• 51 years since American President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law;
• 239 years since the Continental Congress of the American colonies resolved with the Declaration of Independence that the colonies, “are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states”; and,
• 61 years since Elvis Presley recorded the song “It’s All Right Momma” at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, and effectively launched the world into the important and wondrous era of rock and roll.
The common relevant element here to our troubled Arab condition is that individual human beings have always struggled, and often died, for the freedom and the right to be themselves, to achieve their full personal and civic potentials. This universal quest for personal liberty is not absolute, but ideally is defined within a constitutional framework of order and the rule of law that protects the equal rights of all citizens.
The United States of the eighteenth and twentieth centuries reminds us that an initial burst of democratic pluralism and freedoms often needs to be completed decades later with further political and legal action to ensure that all citizens enjoy the fruits of liberty in practice, rather than only on paper. Egypt today still provides the best, yet most complex and erratic, demonstration in the Arab context of how difficult it is to transition from military or colonial rule to genuine national sovereignty anchored in equal personal liberties. Egypt’s violent moment reminds us of one problematic reality, and also fortifies us with the inspiring memory of another.
The recurring Egyptian problem on display is that neither of its two dominant public forces of the past century—the Muslim Brotherhood and the armed forces—is operationally or politically qualified to govern efficiently, and with consensus legitimacy. When one group tries to dominate or eliminate the other, all Egyptians suffer. They suffer now more dramatically than ever, because of the proven ability of groups like the ISIS-affiliated “Sinai Province” militants to undertake large-scale military attacks against the Egyptian armed forces in Sinai and kill senior public officials in the heart of Cairo.
The one-year anniversary of ISIS’ “caliphate” reminds us that if an orderly political process does not lead to a legitimate governance system, darker forces of frustration and desperation will prevail. ISIS is the consequence of that desperate darkness that has hollowed the hearts of millions of Arabs, and lured some of them with the false promises of instant redemption on earth and in paradise. ISIS’ limited but real expansion through mostly tiny affiliates — some no larger than motorcycle gangs, someone should tell David Cameron — in over 15 countries should remind us more of the dire conditions that define the lives of hundreds of millions of mistreated people, rather than of the actual limited strength of ISIS.
More than anything else, however, this moment of commemoration should remind us again and again of that shining moment in 2011-13 when the Egyptian people repeatedly confronted the transitional military government and agitated for a full transition to legitimate civilian authority; they also sought dearly to hold accountable the previous military regimes under Mubarak and others that had run their wonderful country into the ground—and that also had set the stage for the kinds of political atrocities and buffoonery now performed routinely by the current Sisi regime, such as mass death sentences in laughable “trials” and almost total silencing of any peaceful opposition protests.
The spirit and the specific reasons behind those recurrent public protests for democratic and constitutional pluralism three years ago across Egypt remain valid today, but not operational. The goals of the original January 2011 revolution—basic social, economic and political rights under a framework of law applied equally to all citizens—remain active, and will be achieved one day.
And Elvis? Well, Elvis reminds us that liberties include the right to enjoy life in any manner that pleases us and does not harm others. When he speaks to us who hear his voice now and then, he reminds us not to take ourselves too seriously, and to enjoy life, while trying to improve it for ourselves and others.
Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly in the Daily Star. He was founding director and now senior policy fellow of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut. On Twitter @ramikhouri.
Copyright ©2015 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global