According to a popular thesis, Egypt serves as a space where the conditions of the Arab world are measured and evaluated; whatever happens there will occur in other Arab countries later.
Supporters of this thesis refer to the fact that Arab nationalism began in Cairo, during the reign of Jamal Abdul Nasser, and that Islamist groups across the Arab world were inspired by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.
Culturally, Egypt has always constituted the intellectual authority of the Arab world and from it, the movement to renew Arabic music with Mohammed Abdul Wahab and Umm Kulthum, was launched.
Without wishing to analyze the thesis in detail or propose a few minor amendments, it is safe to say that the dynamic of political change in the Arab world, has already started in Egypt and not in the wreckage of Iraq, which the US administration has advocated as a beacon of change in the region.
Of course, the makeup of the leadership has remained the same, the political system continues to appear stable and the forces of change do not seem strong or numerous. However, a more detailed examination of the latest developments in Egypt enables us to pinpoint the moment of qualitative change, which is following several paths.
Perhaps the most prominent tendency is the change in the Egyptian political dialogue, from the issue of who will succeed President Hosni Mubarak to a discussion of the “second Egyptian republic”, which has become a pressing constitutional and political demand, connected to the shape of the political establishment itself.
The limited constitutional amendments that were approved last year as part of a campaign to re-elect President Mubarak, were part of this dialogue. The latest legislative elections pointed to a retreat of the ruling national democratic party, in favor of the Muslim Brotherhood and independent candidates. Nevertheless, the most important indicator of change is the uprising of civil society, in its different parts, demanding reform through mobilization and struggle, both methods used for the first time in Egyptian politics. This has created a new reality and imposed an unprecedented internal balance, expected to have a great impact on the future of Egyptian politics.
It is clear that the situation here has to do with an essential transformation in the strategy of political involvement, including its addresses and mechanisms. It is recognized that in the past, Egypt witnessed two different types of change: the popular revolution, centered around political and party figures with a large popular following, such as the al Arabi Pasha’s uprising in the late 19th century and the military coup, which sought ideological and social revolutionary, such as Nasser’s movement. The latter continues to form the base of legitimacy of the political regime in Egypt despite the vast differences between the original model and its current manifestation.
As for the existing movement for change, it has followed a different path and its political engagement has centered on making use of the media and exploiting the existing civil society networks, in order to make its protest voice heard.
In addition to the Kifaya (Enough) movement, an umbrella organization joining different leftist cultural and political currents, the wave of protest has extended to the Judges Club, the Lawyers’ Union, the Journalists’ Union and student organizations, taking on increasing political significance. Undoubtedly, this development is connected to the crisis of political parties in Egypt. This has included the longstanding national parties, including the Wafd Party, which has become a cadaver and the Nasserite Party, now a weak brittle organization. Even the banned Muslim Brotherhood, despite obtaining tremendous results at the last parliamentary elections, has failed to renew its political and intellectual discourse and is no longer capable of attracting young people, many of whom are attempting to establish a new party, which has yet to be legally recognized (Majmoua al Wasat).
While it is true that the decline of traditional Egyptian parties is due to local reasons, the trend has repercussions that go beyond Egypt; political parties, as a base for political engagement, are no longer able to grasp protest demands and express them for a host of reasons. They are, therefore, no longer able to bring about change. This phenomenon is occurring even in democratic societies.
Nowadays, the most prominent and most successful framework for political activity takes places through the media, with its mass appeal and elitist dimensions, and centers on a group of universal values that overcome the narrow contradictions and rivalries of dogma.
This voice has been raised in Egypt. Tomorrow, it will constitute an effective pressure force in the streets and affect other countries. However, will it lead to a qualitative chance in the political landscape?