Many historic things have happened across the Arab world since December 2010, when Mohammad Bouazizi’s self-immolation in Sidi Bouzid town in rural Tunisia sparked the uprisings and home-grown regime changes that continue to define much of the region. To my mind, the single most profound event to date was the Egyptian presidential election that took place last Wednesday and Thursday. I write this on Friday, before knowing the results, but then the results are not the most important thing about this election. That distinction goes to the mere fact that the election took place, with 50 million Egyptians eligible for the first time in three generations to choose their president from a field of candidates that offered real choices.
Like 350 million other Arabs, I watched this spectacle from afar with awe, excitement and much hope. I was thrilled for every one of the 80 million Egyptians who have had to endure 64 years of humiliating military rule, during which they had regressed in most fields from being the leaders and pioneers of the Arab World to its buffoons and mediocrities in many arenas, redeemed from a total loss of their humanity only by their indomitable capacity to tell jokes about themselves and the hard world and condition that had engulfed them.
This election is significant for Egypt and the entire Arab world for two reasons. The first is the political trajectory that it may portend for Egypt and other countries, and the second is for the faith that it restores — in all Egyptians, Arabs and human beings everywhere – in the capacity of ordinary men and women to struggle against all odds, and to affirm life over death, freedom over servitude, and dignity over despair.
The political implications of this election in turn comprise two dimensions. The first is the immediate result of the voting and what it will tell us about the spectrum of ideological and cultural sentiments throughout Egypt. Of the thirteen candidates who ran for president, the five most prominent represented a range of perspectives that included former Husni Mubarak era ministers from both the civilian and military spheres, a Muslim Brotherhood leader, an ex-Muslim Brotherhood leader with liberal tendencies, and a Nasserite ex-opposition member of parliament who was prominent in several movements that challenged Mubarak.
The parliamentary elections last year took place in the wake of the overthrow of the Mubarak regime, and their results (nearly 80 percent of elected MPs were Islamists of some sort) reflected the distortions that are inherent in holding elections at such a time of immense emotionalism, when non-Islamists had huge organizational advantages over all other contenders. This presidential election will provide a more accurate picture of political sentiments across the country, with less distortion from a disproportionate number of votes going to better organized or more trusted Islamists. Many who voted for Islamists have expressed disappointment with their performance to date, and will probably vote differently this time. This election will give us the best snapshot of the spectrum of political sentiments in Egypt that we have had for generations.
The second political dimension of this election is about establishing the precedent of a free and fair electoral process – largely self-managed and monitored – that will reverberate around Egypt and the entire Arab world for generations to come. Everywhere across this land of 80 million free and proud citizens, most men and women will now participate more diligently in public life because they know that their voice counts, their opinion matters, and they can indeed change the world, or at least their government’s policies on issues like bread subsidies, relations with the United States, Israel or Iran, or education, health and employment policies.
A dead political landscape has come to life, resuscitated by the will to live free of its own bludgeoned peasants, clerks, and professionals. I imagine many young men and women in their 20s and 30s across Egypt are now wondering if they should enter politics, and a few of them are even pondering one day running for president. Hope and ambition have returned to the lexicon of human emotions in Egypt, and that will reverberate around the rest of the Arab world in ways we cannot possibly fathom now.
The symbolic importance of this election also transcends the land of Egypt and touches people everywhere, who marvel at the sheer determination and heroism of the tens of millions of Egyptians who endured three generations of uninterrupted military rule — since the 1952 Nasserite revolution – yet never lost their sense of what it means to be a whole and functioning human being. They were beaten, dehumanized, jailed, exiled, pauperized, intimidated, corrupted and more, but Egyptians never forgot that the rights to think, speak, debate and create emanated from God and the human concept of constitutionalism, not from the heartless and greedy despots who invented and then exported that modern Arab monstrosity called the Ministry of Information.
The presidential election marks a major step forward on Egypt’s road back from national disgrace to national integrity and regional leadership by example.
Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.
Copyright © 2012 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global
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