Can Egypt’s new president be its Mandela?

If there is one thought that summarises the strength and weakness of the Arab awakenings,it’s the one offered by Daniel Brumberg

Written by New York Times | Published: July 2, 2012 3:16 am

THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

If there is one thought that summarises the strength and weakness of the Arab awakenings,it’s the one offered by Daniel Brumberg,a co-director of the democracy and governance studies programme at Georgetown University,who observed that the Arab awakenings happened because the Arab peoples stopped fearing their leaders — but they stalled because the Arab peoples have not stopped fearing each other.

This dichotomy is no surprise. That culture of fear was exactly what the dictators fed off of and nurtured. They wanted their people to fear each other more than the leader,so that each dictator or monarch could sit atop the whole society,doling out patronage and protection,while ruling with an iron fist. But it will take more than just decapitating these regimes to overcome that legacy. It will take a culture of pluralism and citizenship.

You would have to be very naïve to think that transitioning from primordial identities to “citizens” would be easy,or even likely. It took two centuries of struggle and compromise for America to elect a black man with the middle name Hussein as president and then consider replacing him with a Mormon!

But you would also have to be blind and deaf to the deeply authentic voices and aspirations that triggered these Arab awakenings not to realise that there is a longing — particularly among young Arabs — for real citizenship and accountable and participatory government.

Precisely because Egypt is the opposite of Las Vegas — what happens there never stays there — the way in which the newly elected president,Mohammed Mursi,the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood,ultimately learns to work with the secular,liberal,Salafist and Christian elements of Egyptian society will have a huge impact on all the other Arab awakenings. If Egyptians can forge a workable social contract,it will set an example for the whole region. America midwifed that social contract-writing in Iraq,but Egypt will need a Nelson Mandela.

Can Mursi play that Mandela role? Does he have any surprise in him? The early indications are mixed at best. “As Mohammed Mursi prepares to become Egypt’s first democratically elected president,” Brumberg wrote on foreignpolicy.com,“he will have to decide who he really is: a political unifier who wants one “Egypt for all Egyptians” as he said shortly after he was declared president,or an Islamist partisan devoted to the very proposition that he repeated during the first round of the election campaign,namely that “the Quran is our constitution”.

“This is not so much an intellectual choice as it is a political and practical one,” he added. It is incumbent on the Muslim Brotherhood to now reach out to the other 50 per cent of Egypt and assure them that not only will they not be harmed,but that their views and aspirations will be balanced alongside the Brotherhood’s. That is going to require,over time,a revolution in thinking by the Muslim Brotherhood leadership and rank-and-file to actually embrace religious and political pluralism as they move from opposition to governance. If it doesn’t happen at all,the Egyptian democracy experiment will fail and a terrible precedent will be set for the region.

The US has some leverage in terms of foreign aid,military aid and foreign investment — and we should use it by making clear that we respect the vote of the Egyptian people,but our support will be conditioned on certain principles. What principles? Our principles? No.

The principles identified by the 2002 UN Arab Human Development Report,which was written by and for Arabs. It said that for the Arab world to thrive it needs to overcome its deficit of freedom,its deficit of knowledge and its deficit of women’s empowerment. We should help any country whose government is working on that agenda — including an Egypt led by a Muslim Brotherhood president — and we should withhold our support from any that is not.

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