Egypt After Mubarak: Beyond the Idolatry of the State
A. Rashied Omar
“The People Want to Bring Down the Regime” (Al-Sha`ab Yuridu Isqat al-Nizam), reads the biggest banner waving in Egypt’s Tahrir (liberation) Square. It represents the unequivocal goal of the protesters in the streets.
A Transformative Moment
What we are currently witnessing in Egypt is a transformative moment, a historical juncture that has been described by the pro-democracy demonstrators in the streets of Cairo as a Tunisami, a wave of social activism that has swept a Tunisian despot from power and seems destined to do so in Egypt.
No matter what happens next in Egypt, after these remarkable events, Egypt, Tunisia, and indeed the Middle East and Africa will never be the same again. The three decades old despotic rule of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is over. It is almost certain thanks to the resilience of the Egyptian protesters, who have kept their street demonstrations going for more than two weeks now, that Mubarak will not see out his so-called mandate to (mis)rule until the planned September elections.
An Organic and Grassroots Social Movement
Ordinary people in Egypt have re-discovered the efficacy and power of collective action and social solidarity in shaping their own destinies. The movement for social change and transformation has been organic representing a grassroots movement from every sector and strata of Egyptian society. The pro-democracy protestors cut across all sectors of the society, poor, the middle class, young, old, men and women, educated elites and workers. The protests have not been externally initiated nor orchestrated by a radical group of Islamic extremists as the Mubarak regime is trying to characterize it. It is widely acknowledged that this “uprising” is a genuine grassroots movement for social change and emancipation.
If there is any significant element to the current protest movement in Egypt it is the inspiring role of young people. They are creatively employing innovative social media, such as twitter, Facebook, and the internet, in mobilizing the social movement. Many analysts have pointed out that there is not one dominant party in the opposition movement nor a single charismatic leader who is leading the protests. Perhaps this should be viewed as an advantage rather than a liability, since it allows for a resilient and organic leadership to be forged in the trenches in Tahrir Square, Alexandria and elsewhere on the streets of Egypt. In the meantime al-Baradei and the Muslim Brotherhood present useful transitional conduits through which to engage the faltering regime.
Claim No Easy Victories
While many observers are getting weary of the standoff with an obstinate Mubarak the courageous protesters are keeping up the pressure to achieve their demands. They are rejecting the outcome of back-room deals and negotiations and remain firm and resolute that Mubarak has to go. The sacrifices that the Egyptian people are currently making for transforming their country are indeed enormous, but the lesson they are learning and nurturing is priceless. Real change will only come if independent civil organizations and strong social movements in Egypt, and elsewhere in the world, hold their leaders and all those in power accountable for their moral and political mandate. The Egyptian people cannot become weary or let their guard down in the struggle for social justice and transformation. Every day that Mubarak holds on, should be viewed as a new opportunity to reinvigorate and strengthen their collective efforts at mobilizing and organizing the masses for social change. Such organizational strength and resilience will stand the Egyptian people in good stead in the post-Mubarak period when they have to face up to the difficult task of transforming and building a new social order.
Poverty Eradication: The Barometer of True Democracy
A recent report by Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al-Masri al-Yawm, released information from Egyptian authorities investigating the former ministers, businessmen, and officials who were banned from travelling and whose assets were frozen. It shows many of the former Egyptian cabinet ministers are millionaires, with Mubarak leading the flock, having assets conservatively estimated at beyond 70 billion Egyptian pounds. All this while close to 20% of Egyptians live under the poverty line and unemployment is estimated to be as high as 30%."
This report speaks to the endemic corruption and greed that Mubarak’s regime has flaunted in the face of its struggling and poverty stricken citizens for the past thirty years. The real challenge facing the Egyptian social movement will be not only to concern itself with free and fair elections in September, but more importantly, to build new democratic institutions that will root out endemic corruption and address the needs of the poor.
The Cairo School: Going Beyond the State-Centered Paradigm
I am optimistic that the rudiments of such a platform for social change do indeed exist within some young organic intellectuals in Egypt. In the late nineties I was exposed to the innovative thinking of such a group who described themselves as the “Cairo School”. Drawing on the great intellectual legacy of Islam as well as the seminal work of the Italian social critic, Antonio Gramsci, the “Cairo School” argued that the pervasive power of the modern state has disempowered the masses and led to their political marginalization. Real people become a faceless electorate and mere statistics devoid of the ability to act in the modern state. Furthermore, the modern state has bred in individuals and groups low social and political ambitions and inertia. They thus argued that social activists needed a paradigm shift; a shift in thinking and action. What is desperately needed, they proposed, is for citizens to rid themselves of the ill-founded obsession that their fate lies with the state. They proposed that social activists focus their energies and resources away from the state in the search for solutions to societal problems.
The innovative insights of the “Cairo school” resonated with my own experience in post-apartheid South Africa. After the first democratic elections in 1994, civil society organizations that were at the forefront of the struggle for liberation in South Africa became progressively weakened as a result of its dynamic leadership being drawn into state structures. As a consequence, civil society in South Africa has become reliant on the state to provide solutions for the myriad of social challenges that still remain, and has lost the cohesiveness of the social movement that led to the demise of the apartheid state.
Moreover, as we have had to learn, the power of the state to transform its political economy and shape its own course and destiny, has been drastically reduced and curtailed in the globalizing era in which we live in the twenty first century. Powerful global economic and political forces will do just about anything to protect their economic and geo-strategic interests in the world. Small wonder the United States was willing to annually provide 1.3 billion in foreign aid to prop up the oppressive Mubarak regime and is now ambivalent in public, but resolute behind the scenes in securing its interests.
The lesson to be learnt from the South African experience is to guard against civil organizations being fully co-opted by the state and to strive towards mantaining strong and critically independent civil society organizations and social movements. These civil society organizations include trade unions, the media, educational institutions, civic bodies, youth and women’s organizations, environmental groups as well as religious institutions and organizations – in short it is made up of those non-government organizations which are constituted by, represent and serve the ordinary person.
The Struggle Continues After Mubarak
The Tunisami that has inspired a huge and powerful social movement in Egypt, the Middle East, and Africa and indeed across the world cannot retire, whenever Mubarak is forced out. It will have to maintain its momentum and continue to pressure its new leaders and indeed world leaders to fulfill all of our aspirations for a more just and humane world.
The critical question now is: Will Egyptians realize — as we South Africans have had to agonizingly learn to understand and appreciate — that the end of a repressive regime is not the change, but rather an opportunity for change