By Tariq Ramadan
8 February 2011
Popular pressure is mounting with every passing day. The Egyptian people have defied their autocratic government for more than two weeks now, writing a new page in History as they do. The decisive moment is at hand. Should Moubarak’s dictatorial regime fall, like that of Tunisia’s Ben Ali before it, the potential consequences, regionally and internationally, will be immense. With the collapse of the Egyptian regime, given its vital economic, geopolitical and security position, everything suddenly becomes possible in the Arab world and the Middle East. World governments, beginning with those of the United States, Israel, Europe and the Arab countries, know it, can feel it and are maneuvering in the shadows, hoping to prolong the public face-off in the search for alternatives, to protect their interests and to prepare for the best—or the worst (or to attempt to infiltrate and control a mass movement that no state actor, no political party and no organization either initiated or been able to guide). Behind the smoke screen of fulsome praise for democracy, liberty and human rights, cold and cynical calculations are underway. From Washington to Tel-Aviv, from Cairo to Damascus, Sanaa, Algiers, Tripoli or Ryadh, the fundamental concern is the same: how best to control this movement, and if possible to turn it to advantage.
For who, at the end of the day, wants a genuine, independent, transparent democracy in Egypt or in the Arab world? Aside from the people themselves, and the voices of civil society, who really cares if the mass protests now shaking Egypt attain their objectives of freedom, dignity and true democracy? We hear Barack Obama, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and others admonish the people, as they explain the meaning of democracy and of popular choice. These are the very same leaders who, for decades, showed no scruples about coddling the worst of dictators, including Hosni Mubarak whom they call upon today to become more democratic. Who is naïve enough to believe their fine words and their crude attempts at political manipulation?
The voices that come to us from within Egyptian civil society and the ranks of the opposition now face historical choices. The regime’s propaganda machine (its television, its attempts to divide the population) is working full time, and has succeeded in undermining solidarity and sowing division among the citizens of Egypt. The opposition must remain mobilized, non violent and united in its demands, as reflected in the extraordinary images of Egyptian Copts and Muslims arm in arm on Cairo’s Liberation Square. They must remain clear-eyed and courageous: liberation will not be as “easy” as it was in Tunisia; attempts to take over the revolutionary movement will be continuous and complex. The stakes are high: if the Egyptian people are able to overthrow an autocratic regime and bring about a minimum of true democracy, nothing will be the same, and the Arab world will witness the dawn of the new era to which all democrats aspire.
To get there, it is not enough to demand Mubarak’s departure. His entire corrupt regime and the system based on cronyism, torture and systematic theft must be dismantled. The Mubarak family (including son Gamal, not to mention their many allies) fortune is thought to be worth tens of millions of dollars invested in banks, in wholly controlled or fictitious companies or markets. The women and men, the political and intellectual leaders, and the representatives of civil society or of the opposition (from the Left to Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood) are now facing a moment of truth: either they agree to set up an opposition front that respects the people’s will, or they attempt to take over the popular movement at the risk of dividing the revolution and leading it to certain defeat. Neither the Left, the trade unions nor the Muslim Brotherhood can claim the exclusive right to represent a mass movement much greater than any of them, and which they must serve. The future of the Arab world will depend on the intelligence of the opposition forces that make up the movement: should they fail they will have only themselves to blame. Some religious representatives (like the Mufti of Egypt) have come down on the wrong side of history by condemning the protests: if institutional Islam, the Islam that serves the State cannot (or lacks the courage to) oppose the government that employs it, it would have been better to remain silent and not attempt to politicize religion. The future will depend on the people’s ability to create platforms that unite the voices of the pluralist opposition and work for democratic elections that will eventually judge the legitimacy of those who claim to represent the people.
The freedom loving citizens of the West face their own moment of truth. They can pretend to believe the rhetoric of their respective governments. They can continue to allow themselves to be manipulated, to imagine that the United States and the European countries fear revolution in the Arab world because they “sincerely” fear the Islamists might seize power and betray human rights, the rights of women, and more fundamentally, the very principles of democracy. Did the United States, Europe and the United Nations (with Israeli agreement) not organize the first free and fair elections in the Occupied Territories, accepting that the Islamist movement Hamas change its name on the electoral rolls, before going on to win as expected…only to punish and to stifle the Palestinian people for their historical error? Strategic relations between Western governments and Islamist movements have a long history, frequently involving alliances: their relations have always been determined by economic and geopolitical interests, and Western governments have never had the slightest hesitation at allying themselves with extremist groups.
Western citizens, however, must remain true to their principles and demand that their governments respect democratic principles and the people’s choice. They must cease to close their eyes (consciously or not) to the selective demonization of opposition movements in the Arab world and in Muslim majority countries. Our responsibility as Westerners is immense: because we enjoy freedom, because we have access to information and to education, it is our duty to support legitimate popular demands without hypocrisy and without illusions. Populist, conservative and potentially radical opposition forces exist in all Eastern and Western societies; democratic principles require that we confront them in debate and by political means as long as they respect the rule of law, the principle of free elections and the democratic process (before and after elections). It is no longer acceptable for the “democracies of the North,” in the name of security or of their economic and geopolitical interests, to countenance dictatorship, repression and torture. The Israeli government’s recent appeal to the West to support the dictator Mubarak is nothing short of astonishing coming from the country that purports to be the sole democracy in the region, as if its security depended on being surrounded by dictators who suppress their own people. A country truly dedicated to security and regional stability does not conclude peace treaties with torturers, but with free peoples whose dignity is fully respected.
Since the great terrorist attacks of a decade ago, there have been attempts to launch debates or forums for “dialogue” or the “alliance of civilizations.” In the light of real events in the Arab world, these efforts now stand revealed either as purely theoretical exercises or stratagems designed to draw attention away from real political issues. The world is changing; the Middle East is quaking. The West can go on repeating to the point of satiation that opposition forces in the Arab world are dangerous (because they are exclusively Islamist or radical) and that, implicitly, it would be justified to limit (or control) Arab and Muslim access to democracy. Or citizens in the West can stand shoulder to shoulder with peoples in their march toward freedom. The issue is one of human values and political ethics. As for the defense of “our” interests that often causes us to forget our principles, we would do well to remember that in the long term the respect of peoples and of their dignity is the only way to ensure the security of the West. Only when the peoples of the Global South are free and enjoy full access to their wealth can we correct the international disequilibrium that feeds forced migration and insecurity. Our futures are linked—and shared.