In a symposium hosted by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last week, there was a heated debate between the Managing Director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the Egyptian activist Wael Ghoneim, one of the leading figures in Egypt’s recent events. Reading from an earlier IMF report which praised the economic performance of Ahmed Nazif’s former government, Wael accused the IMF of committing “crimes” rather than “mistakes” against Egypt. Ghoneim concluded his speech by saying: “we have to face criticism and be clear, providing aid to the regimes in our region led to dictatorships, and it was the ordinary people who had to bear the burden of debt from these [aid] programs, while the elite grew richer…we do not need interference in our affairs, but we need to be given the experience and ability to manage our affairs”.
Strauss-Kahn’s response highlighted Ghoneim’s lack of understanding for the function of the IMF, saying “we are not a bank lending money to customers”. He reacted to Ghonaim’s request for international corporations to aid Egypt by asking “”Do you promise not to blame me when we assist the government if it requested to do so?” Ghonaim answered jokingly “as a revolutionary, I should object.” Strauss-Kahn was not amused by this answer, and warned “You must not be a revolutionary just for the purpose of being a revolutionary, but you should have goals to fulfill.” (Asharq al-Awsat, 16 April).
In my opinion, the IMF Managing Director has summed up the status of current Arab popular uprisings, which some in Egypt or Tunisia wish to call “revolutions”. Strauss-Kahn has firstly highlighted that these uprisings are unaware of how to manage a state or government, and secondly, perhaps most important of all, that these revolutions have no specific goals. This is unless we consider slogans such as “leave” or “the regime will be overthrown” as goals in themselves. It is clear that these countries are undergoing a difficult phase with an unpredictable future, but it is certain that in some states, the main impetus at the moment is to “take revenge”. We may even say that there are now considerable attempts to brainwash the people into thinking that the past era was nothing but “corruption” and “deterioration”. This makes it sound as if we experienced no development or positive change over the past decades, which led us to the situation we face today.
For more than two decades, the prominent Lebanese writer Hazem Saghiya has been courageously and fearlessly writing about the necessity of establishing “peace”. He criticized “resistance”, and warned against partisanship fueled by ethnic and sectarian prejudices. He also spoke of Utopia as being propagandized by “nationalist” and “Islamic” movements. Yet, like many other writers, he has entertained a different opinion when it comes to the recent events in the region. Saghiya says that revolutions are rarely “beautiful” events, because they usually involve the killing of civilians, and in turn the instinct of revenge comes to the surface, both characteristics being the worst of human traits. But Hazem argues that the recent “revolutions” across the Arab world have changed this perception, because they did not glorify martyrdom, but rather they were modest and compelling, with no totalitarian or fundamentalist undercurrents. Saghiya went on to warn that these uprisings, although admirable, are still associated with prayer times and Friday gatherings, and that the military and the Muslim Brotherhood are still active in the current events. However, he said that “The clear choice today is between a disaster which has been developing in multiple phases over dozens of years – one that will eventually lead us to a model similar to that of North Korea – and the disaster which is happening en masse at the moment, but may pave the way for foundations for the future” (On Current Revolutions, al-Hayat newspaper, April 16.)
Here, the prominent writer justifies the current chaos, and by doing so, he is committing two mistakes: Firstly, he finds positives in the fact that Arab states are going from bad to worse, and secondly, Saghiya presumes that foundations for the future cannot be laid without a “revolution” – or a disaster as he named it. In this context, both Saghiya and Ghonaim regard the past era as one of pure evil; there were no accomplishments, projects, or a civil state prior to the revolution, and a better future cannot come about unless the regime is entirely eliminated.
No one would argue that Arab regimes have not been dominated by despotic trends, or have not involved gross corruption. Yet I would disagree with the assertion that the regime was the only source of the problem, or that no praiseworthy civil, legal or economic projects were achieved by past governments. Our problem lies in considering all aspects of the past as one, and in presuming that the coming eras will be better. Contrary to what some believe, some Arab states achieved remarkable advancements in several aspects over the past two decades, whereby the economic performance improved, and significant legal and legislative reforms were undertaken. No one can compare the current status of many Arab countries to their situation two or three decades ago. The aim here is not to defend these regimes, for they were undemocratic and despotic, and corruption indeed prevailed, but it is wrong to pass unfair judgments on the past, and say that our status today is worse than the situation two or three decades ago, or say that no positive projects or laws have been passed that should be maintained and promoted.
The “revolutionary” logic, which presumes that societies can eliminate their past and build a future from nothing, is a kind of transcendent Utopia. This only pushes societies into conflict with their own ethnic and social components, whereby some attempt to gain victories over others.
Here we have to be cautious of brainwashing attempts, because Ahmed Nazif’s government did indeed achieve economic growth for years. If that growth did not reach the poorer classes, this is not because the IMF or the government did so intentionally, but because the Egyptian economy – which has and still is based on subsidizing commodities, and excessive recruitment in the public sector – is not compatible with the required economic reform criteria. For decades, the regime continued to work according to this equation to meet the requirements of the poor majority, yet with the sharp increase of prices of foodstuffs across the world, widespread inflation, and the slackening world economy in recent years, the regime reached an impasse. The problem does not lie in placing the responsibility only on the former president or his government, and presuming that matters will improve when they leave.
Egypt’s economic problems were too entrenched to be solved by the previous regime, and they will continue to persist unless prerequisites for serious economic reforms are ensured. No government will be successful in doing so unless it puts an end to squandering state finance, which is lavishly spent on subsidies and recruitment projects. The question is who would dare to do so? When such reform is enacted, it will do even more harm to the poorer classes in the short run.
Hazem Abdul-Rahman says: “It is not wise to bang the drum and cheer just because we ousted the former president and his aides. There is a considerable part of the Egyptian people’s silent majority who remain sympathetic towards him. Mubarak maintained Egypt’s territories and did not leave it under foreign occupation. He raised the Egyptian flag on Taba, and offered unprecedented public freedoms. His reign was distinguished by the significant presence of the opposition in parliament, except for the most recent cabinet which was devoid of all opposition figures, and was marred by vote rigging.” (We Want a Trial, not Revenge. Al-Ahram newspaper, 16 April).
Arab societies have the right to shake off their despotic past, yet it is wrong to think that all problems are solved just by ousting the regime. Arab states are suffering social, religious and economic problems that are not necessarily linked to the former President or his aides. Rather, these all are problems that will continue to persist unless governments confront them with realistic solutions, rather than grand statements, or placing responsibility on the past.
Revolutions are not always positive, and the current phase may not simply be a transitional period, for the current chaos and abuse may continue for decades, and may even give rise to further authoritarian regimes, and create more secluded societies. Numerous eastern European states experienced regime change following the downfall of the Soviet Union, yet after 20 years they have not been able to fully remedy their social and economic ills, despite consecutive parliamentary elections. Three decades after the revolution, present-day Iran is still suffering from an authoritarian rule that far surpasses that of the Shah era. The Iranians are experiencing poor social and economic conditions, a lack of freedom, and far worse oppression worst than in the period prior to the revolution. The crucial factor is not the revolution and its slogans, or the trial of the former regime, using the same authoritarian means. Rather, the crucial factor is to build countries on the grounds of justice and tolerance, and aspire for cooperation with others, understanding that the principles of economic growth are not necessarily “idealistic” revolutionary prerequisites.
Wael Ghonaim claimed that the revolution was a “slap in the face” for those who wanted a “reformative” solution. One should ask here: Why would a reformative solution have been so negative, whereas a revolution is seen as a virtue?
I would say to Wael: revolutions involve both virtue and vice.