It was a rare moment in modern Arab political history. Earlier this month in Egypt, 1,000 demonstrators gathered in front of the country’s Supreme Judicial Court, protesting President Hosni Mubarak’s plans to run for a fifth six-year term.
It was the first explicitly anti-Mubarak rally ever, in a region of the world so resistant to change. The 76-year-old leader has been in power for nearly a quarter-century.
Protesters stood in solemn defiance, with yellow stickers stuck to their mouths that read “enough.”
“This is a historic protest,” said protester Magdi Ahmed Hussein. “We’ve entered a new phase.”
Some might ask why only 1,000 people turned out in a bustling metropolis of more than 15 million. But demonstrations, rallies, and protests -- unless they have received prior government approval -- are banned in Egypt, where Emergency Laws have been in effect since 1981. Public expressions of anger are rare, though the government and the ruling party are widely disliked.
The protest is cause for hope. But it would be dangerous to see this as a harbinger of great things to come. This is not Ukraine, where hundreds of thousands rallied in the icy cold in jubilant solidarity. In much of the Middle East, the status quo maintains its authoritarian grip.
If anything will break the status quo, it is the imposing shadow of 9/11. There is a new global consensus that change in the Arab world is no longer a luxury, but an imperative of the highest order. The United States has realized, in its own clumsy way, that promoting democracy is in keeping with not only its ideals, but also its national strategic interest. Republicans and Democrats alike agree that brutal Arab dictatorships have created a poisonous atmosphere conducive to the rise of extremist violence. In other words, the war on terrorism and the struggle for greater democracy are two sides of the same coin.
Today, the United States has the opportunity to prove in practice its rhetorical commitment to the promotion of democracy in one of the most undemocratic region in the world. This is, of course, complicated by the fact that Mubarak, like so many other Arab strongmen, is supported by America, to the tune of more than $2 billion in annual economic and military aid. But the very fact that Washington provides Egypt with so much aid gives America the leverage needed to exert diplomatic pressure on Mubarak’s regime in the months ahead.
Those who care for the future of democracy, in both Egypt and America, must capitalize on this small but significant opening. Real political reform will only come about with a potent combination of external prodding from the United States and the European Union on one hand, and internal pressure from pro-democracy secularists, nationalists and Islamists on the other.
Hopes for greater democracy in the Arab world have sprung up before, only to be crushed. Dr. Saad Eddine Ibrahim, a noted Egyptian activist, said in 1989 that there were “beginnings of democratic transformation” in the Arab world and that Egypt was “on the road to democracy.” More than a decade later he was languishing in the notorious Tura prison, home to countless Egyptian dissidents. Ibrahim was released in early 2003, due partly to pressure from Washington.
I spoke with Dr. Ibrahim—a former professor of mine and as sprightly as ever despite his declining health—a few days ago at a conference in Amman, Jordan. He still holds his indefatigable belief in Egypt’s potential for change.
The Arab world is frequently rocked by alternating currents of hope and despair. Yet today, something different is in the air. For those of us who have watched the dreams of a proud and resourceful people shattered time and again, we hold on, ever so tightly and now with renewed vigor, to the belief that a new, democratic Egypt will one day come about.
Shadi Hamid, an Egyptian-American, has lived and traveled throughout the Arab world. He is currently a Fulbright Fellow, conducting research on democratization and political Islam in Amman, Jordan.