By Ihsan Bal
The people who fill Tahrir Square believe, as Robespierre put it, “that the time has not yet arrived when honest people can serve their country without being punished.”
As covered in the first lessons for students of political science, democracy is a lengthy social process and comes from a flow of historical events full of maneuvers which may be annoying and sickening. Egypt is the scene of magnificent demonstrations with crowds going into the streets to demand democracy. This makes it not just an important laboratory for other Arab countries, but one which is creating the milestones toward democracy through them. There have been marches in many Arab countries, but international public opinion has preferred to use Tahrir Square to symbolize the movement for change. Egypt’s place and standing in the Arab world made Cairo the real axis of the revolutionary movements.
Egypt occupied a vanguard position both because of its independence struggle and as the center of Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Arab nationalism. Thus, it still keeps its importance in the Arab world, even if it has no recollections of holding Arab heads high against Israel. Egypt is the leader as Arab thinkers say, not because it succeeded but because that is how the Arabs think. This is a widespread opinion but no one knows how true it is, however, most of the news regarding the march to democracy still comes from Tahrir Square.
What does Tahrir Say?
The answers to many questions are framed from the perspective of the protesters in Tahrir Square: What is happening to the Egyptians? How will they succeed and how far have they come in their year-long march for democracy? What was being written a year ago? What is being written today on the first anniversary of the revolution? What slogans are being shouted? All of these questions are very important. Contrary to this however, Tunisia has progressed much more quickly. The values for which Mohamed Bouazizi set fire to himself have generated a forceful succession of events and acted like yeast. But in democracy’s marketplace, and particularly when the Arab world is discussed, the currency comes from Tahrir Square.
So, what has changed in one year? Initially, the people of Egypt demanded that the regime change and later that the administration of Hosni Mubarak be overthrown. Vigils were kept. The people’s attitude did not lose any of its intensity and excitement. The demonstrations continued drawing their support from different sections of society. In the end, the Egyptian people succeeded in doing what tanks could not do in other countries. Hosni Mubarak, the symbol of the regime, was overthrown and is currently being called to account in court. Beyond this point matters are open to debate. It has become clear that democracy involves a learning process and that different groups in Egypt do not have the same understanding of democracy. The new obstacle which the Tahrir marketplace is facing today is the discovery that it is the army which has managed to take hold of the inheritance of the state.
But the point reached today is one where the army is understood to be planning democracy for Egypt only to the extent it wants and permits. The people in the squares have protested violently against this. On the first anniversary of the resistance at Tahrir, slogans are being shouted about a second revolution and the flame of revolution is burning again, having turned this time into a challenge against the armed forces. Consequently, Egyptians are pouring into the squares to create the democracy that they deserve rather than just the one on offer to them, and it may be understood that they are ready to pay the price for this. One flower does not make a spring, but when one considers that millions of people are prepared to pay this price, this clearly demonstrates the determination there is in Egypt to persist with their demands and climb up the slope toward democracy. The balance sheet of one year shows that the millions in Tahrir are not artificial but a fact. The demand for democracy in Egypt is a project which belongs not to the West but to the people and the Egyptian street. That is why things do not stop with Mubarak, and a transparent trial of Mubarak and his administration is not enough.
Dying is Easy, Living is Difficult
This local project presents as many risks and costs as it does potential gains. The Egyptian army does not want to be overseen. It aims to keep the powers of the parliament, which were created after the elections finished in January, extremely limited. It does not accept the power of the people who have been elected over appointments. The objection is not just to financial supervision—the armed forces desire having a decisive position where politics is concerned, that is to say they wish to prolong the power of the military tutelage over civilian politics. This amounts to military tutelage in the last resort determining the fabric and spirit of the document establishing the 100-member Constitutional Commission due to be created by the elected parliament.
At the same time, the Tahrir marketplace is violently opposing the army’s attempt to turn Egypt into a dictatorship. Should there be interference in the Arab Spring by the outside world, carried out against the Egyptian army where American influence is high, one can understand in the currency of Tahrir that there would be a fierce wave of protest in response to it. But it is not only the Egyptian army which stands against the people in Tahrir and wants to prolong its tutelage; there is also the troubled economy of the country. Tourism revenues have hit rock bottom and support for the economy has dwindled, so the likelihood that determination will go on with the resistance is weak. You can convince people to be ready to die, but it is much harder to convince them to live in hunger.
As the process unfolds, another option for the protestors is to review what they have won on the front for democracy and obtain guarantees for them, proceeding step by step with these new gains. Democratization in Eastern Europe and Latin America has been full of exactly these kinds of rising and falling waves. The years ahead of us will show how much the Egyptian experiment constitutes an exception to these lessons from history. But we should be aware of how far Egypt has come in a year and that this progress should not be belittled. Just the fact that the percentage of voters turning out at the ballot boxes has increased many fold is striking confirmation that Egyptians are making a transition to democratic methods of doing things.
We know how democracy was established in South Africa. Nelson Mandela said “I am ready to die” and paid a high price for it in his prison cell on Robben Island. The story of heroism while under siege in Sarajevo owes much to the vision and leadership of Alija Izetbegovic, who declared “We worked to become human and to stay human and we were successful.” The leaders who change history in the Arab awakening have not yet emerged. But in their place a broad social base is being formed which proclaims the values that these leaders will believe on its banners. Shares in democracy in the Tahrir marketplace may not be as much in demand as they were a year ago, but it is clear that people are going through a process of maturing and learning.
The crowds in Tahrir now believe that, as Robespierre put it, “the time has not yet arrived when honest people can serve their country without being punished.” In essence, Tahrir is the name of a symbolic place where the leadership became societal and this is itself a huge gain for Egypt.
Head of USAK Science Committee
Turkish version of this column was published in ANALIST Journal.