End of stagnation
Momentum towards change cannot be stopped, but a clear vision, on all levels, is vital if the opportunities are to be grasped, writes Hala Mustafa*
The Arab political state is always described as chronically stagnant; that is to say, irresponsive, silent, static, not sending nor receiving messages while, all around, the world moves forward at a dynamic pace. Even in the best-case scenarios, Arab messages, though loud, remain devoid of significance. Arab societies lack political processes, seemingly held back by the decades-old shackles of past socialist experiences, unilateralism, "one voice" systems of leadership, directed media and lack of freedoms. Real freedom of expression and the right to disagree are considered unpatriotic and remain off limits. Internalised feelings have come to suffocate their owners and society as a whole, to the point that the condition is now self-perpetuating.
The status of the Arabs at the beginning of their renaissance two centuries ago was markedly different from that which they have been living with for the last five decades. I do not wish here to revel in the nostalgia of past glory nor to seek an explanation for Arab demise, but rather to examine the present as a precursor to the future we desire. Despite the bleak analyses of the Arab situation that we have become accustomed to in recent times, history has a way of pushing things forward. There is now a wave of change sweeping the Arab world that no one could have failed to notice. Be its path smooth, violent, swift or slow, it is moving ahead and it cannot be stopped. Its effects are clear: from Lebanon to Morocco to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the pace of developments is leaving social and political analysts behind.
President Hosni Mubarak recently breathed life into Egypt's political scene when he announced the beginning of a new era of political reform, starting with an amendment of the constitution to allow for multi-candidate presidential elections. If this initiative is followed through, the new era will be witness to a revitalisation of politics in Egyptian society. When politics receded in Egypt, political parties were replaced by alternative political platforms, mainly mosques. Therefore religion and politics became intertwined; a phenomenon that spread throughout the Arab region as a result of the long process of depoliticising Arab societies since the 1950s. Egypt has always been a pioneer in the Arab world and has contributed to crafting the modern political history of the region through its national, political, parliamentary and partisan, as well as media, literary and cultural heritage. It is fitting, then, that Egypt continues to lead the way.
But the "new age" must be the one of no fear; political breakthroughs and a vibrant political life are not possible in an environment of fear and oppression, nor without freedom. These statements are no less significant than the change to the constitution that has since been the focus of debate in political circles and the media. Democracy is inextricably linked to freedom, and to freedom of expression in particular.
One of the main international criteria for measuring democratic development in a country is what is referred to as the "public political climate". Without creating such a climate the progress of constitutional, legislative and legal reform, the level of multiparty activity, the structure and frequency of elections and the strength of civil society will be far-off goals. The extent of freedom, of course, is difficult to measure, though it is felt by those who consider or engage in political, social or literary activities, and thus, by extension, by society as a whole. Political commentators, as a result of the specific nature of their work, are often the most aware of where the boundaries of freedom lie.
Autocratic and totalitarian systems are antithetical not only to party pluralism but the pluralism of ideas and opinions, i.e. freedom of expression. Those seeking to replace the ideology of "dictation" must deal with prohibition, suppression, exclusion and isolation. For these reasons freedom today is needed to direct the process of reform. Political reform and the creation of a democratic system cannot be introduced in half measure: change must be comprehensive, within the framework of a clear vision based on sound logic and a firm philosophy. Haphazard, disorganised change, as past experience shows, has dangerous consequences.
While I do not claim that there is a ready- made agenda for change and development, there are a number of basic issues that must be debated and actively addressed, above all in an atmosphere of tolerance that allows for the expression of all points of view. Top of the list is determining of the substantive framework of reform. Will the process, and emerging policies, be guided by a liberal, socialist, Islamist or pan- Arab vision, or will it be influenced by any combination of these? When this is decided, we should also ask if this framework seeks to realise partial or comprehensive objectives; i.e. whether it is focussed only on certain fields -- economy, politics, legislation, media or culture -- rather than all. If the options are not defined, it will be impossible to address comprehensively all the necessary aspects of reform. Conflicting policies can be expected and will lead to a state of confusion. Change would be merely cosmetic, the substitution of one generation for another without the introduction of new ideas and different political background.
With the same logic we can raise many other questions regarding regional and international relations. On the first level, although Egypt signed its peace agreement with Israel 25 years ago, there is still no clear-cut framework identifying a particular strategy. As a result, related political activities often take markedly different courses, at times contradicting each other. It is difficult, then, to imagine launching a new process of reform and change in politics if priorities and options are not clearly identified.
The same applies, on a second level, to Egypt's relations with the US. At times emphasis is placed, in form, on the depth and significance of the strategic dimensions of this relationship. At others, a clear and incessant rejection of all of its outcomes appears. The contradictions can be explained in light of the substantial change in US policy towards the Middle East in recent decades. Following WWII, US policy in the region was governed by a utilitarian approach -- the aim being to secure both the flow of oil and the signing of peace agreements between the Arabs and Israel -- based on maintaining the status quo, regardless of its validity. This policy was largely pragmatic and not based on any comprehensive political ideology or long-term strategy. This has changed. Moreover, the new orientation is not the policy of a single administration but a long-term strategy, comparable to the US approach towards the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War; enduring, in the latter case for nearly five decades, whether the administration be Republican or Democrat, "conservative" or "moderate".
We thus need to remind ourselves, as we stand at the threshold of this new era, that we must change our logic and equations. Reiterated slogans of hatred towards America, or merely waiting for things to change over time, are not characteristics of a reasonable, rational policy that considers gains and losses. We can move beyond this fruitless duality by finding common ground between what we declare as a strategic relation on one hand and our acceptance and adaptation to its changing rules on the other.
Finally, the possibilities for change or reform are largely dependent on the nature of the political discourse of the state, its content and its long-term objectives. We must ask: are we working to develop our political discourse? Is it flexible enough to adapt to changes in the international environment? Is it able to assimilate new ideas and concepts, or is it held back by the language of the past? Does it reflect a specific identity or is it a combination of disharmonious, sometimes disparate, elements? While some of these questions may seem straightforward to the eyes of some, to others they are formidable. Answers in all cases require a clear vision and defined political options, in addition to the settlement of pending issues. Are we now prepared to endorse new options?
* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqratiya (Democracy) published by Al-Ahram.