Throughout the last two centuries Cairo has been a source of many lessons for the Arab world, and the region around it. These lessons have not always been pleasant or “progressive”, but in every case they have proven useful both positively and negatively. Negatively when it was necessary to avoid the Egyptian example, and positively when it was beneficial to follow it. As the days, years and decades passed, Cairo also learned many lessons from its environment. In times of prosperity Beirut was a source of arts and press freedom, and a decade ago Dubai was a source of envy and wonder for many in the Gulf and North Africa, until the economic crisis came and put the whole experience in doubt. Certainly, with regards to conservative Egyptians at least, the resilience of the Arab monarchies in the face of the Arab Spring has shown that the ability to steady the ship in rough waters stems from established norms and traditions, rather than unauthentic institutions.
Cairo has caused confusion to its Arab brothers more than it has given them clarity. The Mubarak regime seemed solid and close-knit; it knew its beginning from its end, and there was sizeable confidence in it. Yet the regime fell faster than anyone could have imagined. Some people thought that now was the hour for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), having been long obscured by the long shadow of the Egyptian presidency. But this military rule soon departed at the same speed in which the regime was ousted before it, and was replaced by Muslim Brotherhood rule and their allies from the Salafis and former and current jihadists. Now politics is being mixed with religion, and all this is being mounted on the shoulders of a new generation of Brotherhood politicians who do not know much about the concept of the “Arab regime”, and what they do know they doubt and suspect, even if the “conservative” ideology is a common factor.
But the Arab world has changed. Conservatism may still be the dominant feature of the governing regimes, a feature that others look upon with apprehension, doubt and sometimes fear as the winds of change pass through the Arab Spring states. Yet governance is one thing, and economic and social systems are something else. For example, many rulers and leaders in the Gulf states are now much younger, with exceptions of course. More importantly most of them (whether they are involved in companies, provincial governorates or the general management of society) are part of a young, better-educated elite that belongs to a modern middle class responsible for building the cultural and political platform in the future.
This phenomenon happened some time ago. I still remember accompanying former President Mubarak on a visit abroad to the Gulf states. During a meeting at the Emir’s palace in Al Ain, United Arab Emirates, I could not help but compare between the Emirati and Egyptian elite in terms of their age and knowledge of the world, although Egypt at that time was passing through a silent revolution that was pushing a new type of elite to the foreground. The difference was significant, and the catalyst for change in the Gulf was economic progress, whilst in Egypt a revolution was required to bring the new young elite to prominence.
Yet the Egyptian revolution and the Arab Spring experience are yet to bring substantial benefits or happiness. The period of chaos has lasted longer than estimated, and it has quickly appeared that the revolution will not necessarily take Egypt forwards, but could actually hold it back. But because of Egypt’s size, historical impact and the fact it is too important to be ignored, the past few weeks have witnessed a historic accumulation of Egyptian civil movements. We can now see how far the new Egyptian middle class has come, with its intellectual and cultural expressions, even its bureaucracy and judiciary. All of this as a whole has the potential to change the political course that has been overturned since the January 25th uprising, or at the very least the potential to greatly influence it.
Before the January revolution there were two trends of change in Egypt: Firstly, there were those who wanted a revolution to get rid of corruption and oust the ruling classes that had aged in their thrones and were seeking to bequeath power to their children. Secondly, there were those who wanted, through the revolution, to change Egypt’s infrastructure by updating, manufacturing and widening the middle class. In the end there was no guarantee that the change would bring about democracy and the rule of law.
The revolution was carried out in the name of the first trend but because history operates in a strange way, it was undertaken by a young middle class who had been nurtured by the forces of the former regime with their focus on a market economy, expanding means of communication and new technology, and rapid economic growth. Yet because these youths lacked political experience the older forces quickly inherited the scene, whether SCAF, the Muslim Brotherhood, or even members of the former regime itself which was still being represented through ministers, heads of ministries, governors and parliamentary and party leaders. In all simplicity, we can no longer claim the revolution was undertaken by the middle class and Facebook. In fact, the only entities who did not participate in the Lotus Revolution were a few partisan or political structures who incited riots and unrest from time to time, but had no leaders, titles or political bodies to express themselves. The end result was not a return to the old order, but rather the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power. The origins of this organization date back to 1928, four years after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, although the group acts as if it fell only yesterday.
The somewhat failed political experience in Egypt does not mean the economic, social and cultural origins have changed. Indeed, it has been proven over the past days and weeks that it is possible to generate new energies of change, which may not be able to make a major breakthrough in Egypt’s future but can certainly stop a retreat into the past. Here the real moment of truth was President Mursi’s constitutional declaration, and the constitution that the Muslim Brotherhood’s constituent assembly rushed to draft in order to create a religious state radically different to the traditional Egyptian civil state that has been in place since 1922. In the space of one year, by virtue of young and old forces, a new generation of leaders has been born, even though they differ from those who undertook the revolution in the first place. Power was quickly handed over to those more informed and with a greater understanding; those who are more capable of dealing with a complex world at this time. The picture is now clearer; democracy and a civil state are still the goals for many in Egypt and they have a good support base located in Cairo and the northern provinces, where education, industrialization and modernity are more than just buzzwords. However, the reality is dictated by wealth, power, popular influence, a collective mindset and a common ideology. The lesson from Cairo here, in its many details, is that investing in a middle class infrastructure can prevent backwardness and decline in the future, but this infrastructure must continue to grow through sustainable development.