Conditional rights

Confronting Arab Old Men with Guns

By Rami G. Khouri
Released: 9 Feb 2011

BOSTON — The historic developments on the streets of Egypt in the past two weeks appeared in the last few days to reflect the modern Arab tradition of the enduring incumbency of men with guns. In the face of unprecedented challenges to the ruling elite, the government headed by President Hosni Mubarak is reminding the Arab world as a whole that this region must continue to be ruled by old men with guns. So in the ongoing battle for the destiny of Egypt and the modern Arab world, this week we can identify four principal issues that have risen to the surface of the debate about what should happen next in Egypt; two of them are bogus diversions, and two others are critically and historically important.

The two bogus issues are fears about democratization because the Muslim Brotherhood might emerge stronger and perhaps even dominate the new government; and, concerns that a transition to democracy in Egypt might jeopardize the 30-year-old peace treaty with Israel and constitute a new threat to Israel.

The two significant issues are about who really represents the majority of demonstrating Egyptians and thus should negotiate the changes ahead with the Mubarak government and the armed forces that underpin it; and, what kinds of practical changes should occur for this historic revolt to result in tangible democratization rather than merely superficial and hollow adjustments.

The first two bogus issues are so troubling — especially in the United States where these arguments are now commonplace — because they reflect the ugly view that democratization in the Arab world should only occur when it guarantees results that a priori meet with the approval of Americans and Israelis. Arabs, in other words, do not have rights that are inalienable, as the American constitution declares are the rights of all human beings, or God-given, as Israeli-Jewish ethics declare is the case with Moses’ transmission of the Divine message. Arabs, one concludes, have only conditional human, civil and national rights, and if they elect Islamists to power or express hostility toward Israel they forfeit those rights. This attitude is doubly grotesque, because beyond its being immoral and unjust is the added fact that it is also factually wrong.

Anyone who knows Egypt and the Arab world would conclude that the Muslim Brotherhood has grown into a strong social and political force primarily by default, rather than by its own competence. Because autocratic Arab regimes destroyed all other civic political opposition forces, anyone who wanted to complain about or politically challenge an Arab government could only turn to the Muslim Brotherhood and other such Islamists. Their ranks swelled because no other ranks were available for ordinary citizens to join. Yet they rarely were able to transcend their passionate sloganeering against Arab regimes, Israel, the United States and occasional other foes, and almost universally failed to provide practical political and national development programs that delivered to citizens equitable development and sustained wellbeing.

For the most part, therefore, Muslim Brothers and other Islamists who assumed or shared power in Arab countries failed the test of competency, and remained a small minority. The absence of the Islamists from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolts largely affirmed the axiom that when citizens have the option to follow secular and national political movements that enjoy clear aims, the majority will follow such groups rather than the Islamists.

A corollary to this is the likelihood — and we can only guess at this because hard evidence is lacking — that the majority of Egyptians would preserve the peace treaty with Israel. Yet they also would use their logistical capabilities and political leverage to assist the Palestinians who suffer the degradations of Israeli occupation, siege or assault. In the increasingly frequent exhortations — American, Israeli and others — that Egypt’s democratization should be slowed down because of possible danger to Israel, we witness another example of the racism that designates Israeli rights and security as the paramount yardsticks of personal or national behavior by anyone in the entire Middle East.

The two issues that really matter in the coming days and weeks are about who speaks for the Egyptian demonstrators, and what kinds of changes should occur for their demands to be satisfied. The legitimacy and efficacy of the negotiators who emerge will help determine whether this populist cry for democracy and dignity will bring about substantive changes in how power is exercised, or that the Arab old men with guns will reassert their grip on power, supported by American, Israeli, European and other governments around the world that do not fully understand the pain that comes from national degradation, dehumanization and marginalization so severe that it causes men and women, young and old alike, to stand up and confront the guns and tanks of the Arab old men. Those who demonstrate are aware of, but simultaneously oblivious to, the threat of death — because the promise of life is so much more precious, but still so elusive.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.

Copyright © 2011 Rami G. Khouri — distributed by Agence Global or or

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