Despite the shortcomings of the biped species, there are moments that reflect its potential for grandeur. The Egyptians have shown us one: how a people can rise up, roar for freedom with a single voice and win it.
And so ‘liberty’ comes to the Arab world without the need for American bombing raids, ground invasions by nervous grunts from Nebraska or lessons in democratic capitalism from 25-year-old Heritage Foundation interns. Nor did it require pipe bombs smuggled into cinemas by bearded fanatics, either. We don’t know if the end result will be all we hope for, but we can safely predict that it will be far superior to the debacle created in the name of democracy in Iraq. And there are signs that the Arab populace is not yet done, with new stirrings in Algeria, Jordan, Yemen, even the Gulf.
Rhetoric of democracy and liberation is cheap, but Washington now has to pretend to welcome the reality as well, and only the naïve will expect consistency. If the new regimes are malleable to western interests, a measure of democracy will not be unwelcome; however, as soon as the peoples express themselves in inconvenient ways, tentacles will move to undermine their democratic wishes.
Nonetheless, a powerful force has been unleashed, and it won’t be so easy to cram that genie back into the bottle now that millions of youths have tasted their own power. The decades of cozy security among Arab elites expert at milking every last piastre from their malnourished masses have elapsed. Everyone knows that there is a limit to the theft, greed and betrayal that have marked the region’s dictatorships and that no armies and no secret police can stifle the suppressed rage of the suffering forever.
I hope the Egyptians’ enthusiastic faith in their armed forces is not misplaced, and it would be reassuring to see some of the following in the next days and weeks:
· Lifting of the state of emergency. There is no credible reason to continue the martial law regime nor to repress further peaceful demonstrations or strikes. The country’s economy was badly damaged, but unionization can and should be a part of the democratization process now that people need not fear the secret police.
· Support for an independent judiciary. Corruption Mubarak-style could not have flourished and poisoned the country so thoroughly without a corrupted court system. Will judges now be able to rule on the law without getting threatening phone calls from the mighty?
· A halt to what is now the well-documented, routine torture of both political and criminal detainees. This is axiomatic and can be ordered from above.
· Legalization of political parties and lifting of censorship.
· Negotiations with civilians on the formation of a body to rewrite the constitution. Given the impossibility of organizing in opposition to Mubarak, it may take time to find the the formula for including appropriate representatives that will satisfy competing demands and gain credibility among the population.
· Construction of valid voter registration rolls and safeguards for the electoral process. That is one area where western governments can provide useful advice and resources.
These would be the good signs. Bad signs would be the proliferation of excuses for why none of the above can occur or the steady and repetitive presence of a single army guy in charge of everything, eager to monopolize the levers of state to become the new pharaoh. Despite the dangers, I am cautiously optimistic that such an outcome will not be so easy to pull off.
Meanwhile, let’s hope the auditors are poring over the books and figuring out how much each of the ancien régime’s snakes have to cough up from their decades of thievery.