Over the past two centuries, Cairo has been the origin of many lessons for the Arab world and the surrounding region. They were not always happy lessons or what some would describe as “progressive” and, hence, beneficial ones. But, negative or positive, they were useful in the sense of illustrating what types of pitfalls to avoid or learning the types of experience that can be beneficial. Over the course of years and decades, Cairo, too, has received some lessons from its regional environment. In times of ease, Beirut was a source of insight into the arts and press freedoms. A decade ago, Dubai began to arouse the envy of everyone from the Gulf to North Africa until the global economic crisis hit and put that whole venture in jeopardy. For conservatives in Egypt, at least, the ability of Arab monarchies to withstand the surging waves of the Arab Spring offered proof that stability and firmness of the ship of state in troubled waters can be better secured by traditions and conventions than by non-indigenous institutions.
Certainly, over the past couple of years, Cairo must have caused its Arab peers considerable perplexity after long years of certitude. The Mubarak regime had seemed so solid and familiar. They knew it thoroughly and trusted it. Suddenly it fell, faster than anyone could ever have imagined. Eyes turned to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) as a possible source of continuity even if screened from view in the deep shadow of the Egyptian presidential establishment. But this, too, went and in the same speed as the previous militaristic version, and it was replaced by the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood backed by its Salafist, ex-jihadist and still jihadist allies with their admixture of politics, revolution and religion. Burdens of government were now shouldered by a new generation of politicians who did not know much of the “Arab order” and what they did know inspired scepticism and apprehension, even if they shared the “conservatism” with that order.
But the Arab world had changed. “Conservatism” may remain the dominant trait of the regimes that are eyeing the winds of change blowing from the countries of the Arab Spring with circumspection and, sometimes, trepidation. But governments are one thing and the social and economic order is another. For example, the governments of the Gulf country have become more youthful, with some exceptions of course. More importantly, in the companies, regional government and other institutions for managing societies in all these countries there are new young elites that are better educated and truly members of a modern and vibrant middle class that is laying the groundwork for cultural and political structures in the future.
This has been the case for some time now. I accompanied former president Hosni Mubarak on one of his last trips abroad, which was to three Gulf countries. One stop included a meeting in the emir’s palace in Al-Ain. I could not help but to make a comparison between the Egyptian elites that were on hand and the Emirati ones in terms of relative age and world knowledge. Although Egypt at the time was undergoing what we call a silent revolution that was propelling younger qualities to the fore, the gap in age between our delegation and theirs was still big. In the Gulf, the engine of generational change was economic progress. In Egypt, we needed a full-fledged revolution.
This said, the revolution and the spring has not brought much benefit and nor have subsequent developments inspired great happiness. The period of chaos lasted longer than people thought and soon it appeared that instead of moving forward, the revolution might be dragging us far backward. But since Egypt is far too big, historically influential and important to ignore, the world was given a good glimpse at the cumulative accretion of the Egyptian civil movements, industrial expansion and the growth of the middle class. This middle class with all its cultural, intellectual and, indeed, bureaucratic and judicial expressions has just demonstrated that it has the power to shift back the straying compass of the January revolution or, at least, to set some firm boundaries on how far it can swerve off course.
Before the January Revolution there were two chief approaches towards change. One espoused a political revolution in order to uproot corruption and an entrenched ruling elite that had grown decrepit in their seats of power and probably planned to bequeath these seats to their children. The other sought an infrastructural revolution through modernisation, industrialisation and expansion of the middle class so as to ultimately generate a guarantee that change would be democratic and ruled by law.
Because of the curious ways in which history works, Egypt had the first type of revolution. Those who spearheaded it were children of the middle class that the previous regime and nurtured and strengthened through promotion of a market economy, expansion in modern communications and electronics technologies, and rapid economic growth. Unfortunately, political experience was lacking as a result of which the older generations re-entered the centre stage. They hailed from SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood or even the former regime itself, from which came some ministers and prime ministers, governors and political party leaders and MPs. Simply put, this was no longer the revolution of the middle class and the Facebook generation. All that remained of the “Lotus Revolution” was some political structures and entities that may have caused commotion from time to time, but they had no leader, no title, and no political bodies to express them. Ultimately, the result was not the return of the old order but the arrival to power of the Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1928, four years after the fall of the Ottoman caliphate, the memory of which, in the minds of the Muslim Brotherhood today, is as fresh as though it occurred yesterday morning.
But just because the political experience failed, this does not mean that its economic, social and cultural roots have failed too. As the previous days and weeks have shown, these roots are capable of generating new energies for change. Perhaps they may not yet be powerful enough to thrust our country forward into the future, but they are certainly strong enough to keep it from sliding backwards into the past. They showed this at the moment of truth with the president’s constitutional declaration and the draft constitution that was railroaded through the Muslim Brotherhood’s Constituent Assembly which tailored a document designed to pave the way for a theocratic government that will lead Egypt far away from the secularist traditions that gave rise to the state in 1922.
It was by no means easy for the youth to generate, within the space of only one year, new leaderships. But they did and they are qualitatively different to those that waged the revolution and then handed the reins to people they had believed were more knowledgeable and more adept at dealing with a complex world. Also, this time the picture is much clearer. Democracy and secularism is the aim and it has a broad demographic base in Cairo and the northern provinces where education, industrialisation and modernism are not just idle words but rather concrete realities in terms of wealth, power, popular influence, collective awareness and shared ideas.
The lesson from Cairo then boils down to the following: investment in the infrastructure of progress yields returns that can counterbalance, and perhaps resist, retrogression until the foundations are laid to help the rest of the country catch up to the present and move to the future through processes of continuous and sustained development.