January 25 is probably the most meaningful moment to recall the Arab uprisings of 2011, because it captures the dynamics within Egypt that ultimately shape sentiments and events across much of the Arab World. Egypt remains at once both iconic and foundational to the Arab World, in so many realms—politics, economy, culture, sports, religion, secularism, civil society, the role of the military, and, most importantly, citizen rights and the exercise of power in the public sphere.
So January 25, 2011 is the most appropriate date to recall what happened across our region five years ago, why it happened, how it turned out, and where we are today. I do not live in Egypt, but closely interact with and follow the work of dozens of fine Egyptian analysts, journalists and scholars who live and work there. I am convinced that Egypt captures several significant and troubling trends that define most of the Arab region today, and that we must understand, treat, and alleviate through rational debate and practical political developments before they destroy more of our countries.
These trends are visible across the entire Arab World in one form or another and are, in my view:
- The tightening grip of military-backed rulers on all aspects of society;
- The worsening socio-economic disparities among the population, especially in terms of jobs/income, housing, education quality, and health care;
- The consequent polarization of society into those who support the heavy-handed attempt by the state to maintain order by authoritarian police measures and those who seek stability and human development by expanding personal freedoms and political participation;
- The slow fragmentation of the integrity and unity of state and society, resulting in greater human suffering and unmet humanitarian needs, steady emigration of the brightest and most dynamic elements in society, and small groups of militants and the state itself both using violence against each other; and,
- The large-scale foreign interference in these internal dynamics, with money, arms, and diplomatic support pouring in from Arab and foreign quarters, mostly to maintain the authoritarian status quo, which tends to intensify the scope and will of the opposition groups that challenge the revitalized hegemonic state.
Egypt captures these trends and others that are unique to it, and suffers from them more and more every year. Much credible socio-economic data and surveys of citizen attitudes provide ample evidence that underlying material and political disparities, unmet needs, and inequalities only continue to worsen across the board. The citizenry’s understandable emotional embrace of the government of Field Marshal-turned-President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi as their savior and protector now steadily gives way to the realization that the government is unable under present conditions to improve the quality of people’s lives, other than the 15 percent of privileged Egyptian civilians and military elite whose personal and family well-being is guaranteed in perpetuity, as is the case among all Arab elites.
More importantly—because this is what triggered the 2011 Arab uprisings—current trends guarantee that citizens under socio-economic stress and full political powerlessness will have zero chance of improving their and their children’s well-being in the years to come; their suffering and marginalization are life-long, and will be passed on to their children. This catastrophic situation is mirrored across most middle- and low-income Arab countries, which account for about 300 million of today’s Arab population of 370 million.
We do not know how disgruntled citizens will react when their discomfort turns to prolonged humiliation and then to existential desperation, when they do not have the money to buy medicines for an ailing child, or die at home or attempting to flee from aerial bombardments and terror bombs in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, northern Sinai, eastern Lebanon, Libya, Sudan, Somalia, and pockets of other troubled lands. That those bombardments are carried out by their own government, local rebels, neighboring Arab and non-Arab countries, and leading world powers alike means that there is no place to find refuge at home or to flee to abroad.
Egypt is the place where we must all work and pray that rational and reasonable men and women gather quietly to analyze these trends honestly, and seek consensus solutions that can stabilize the deterioration and move the country again onto a path of economic growth, social equity, political dynamics, and national stability. The conditions of discomfort and denigration that define Egypt and much of the 85 percent of non-elite Arabs have worsened in the past five years, and will continue to deteriorate every month if current trajectories are not arrested and reversed.
Egypt remains the critical country to watch for signs of this happening, because it has the human talent, the national coherence, and the burden of being a leader in the Arab World in whatever it does — whether Arab nationalism, politicized religion, terrorism, military rule, cultural vibrancy, intellectual ferment, economic mismanagement, civil society activism, and everything else in between. Just as Egypt in January 2011shook up the entire Arab region, so must Egypt now regain its senses and define the route to a restored genuine stability in our region through legitimate and pluralistic governance based on a social contract anchored in national consensus, rather than the military-based authoritarianism that has only sparked havoc across the entire region since 1952.
I see few signs of this happening, but on this occasion of five years after January 2011 it is useful to recall the constructive, nationalist role that Egypt has played in much of modern Arab history, and to tell it that hundreds of millions of people around the Arab World look to it again to reject the false promises of soldier-saviors on white horses, and instead rise to the challenge of national coherence anchored in the collective goodness and shared values of its people. If South Africa and Burma and others could make this difficult transition, Egyptians with their 5000 years of historical identity and legacy can do the same. Of that I am certain, as I am sure most Egyptians are also.
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 ©2016 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global