Tahrir Square or reality?

By Adel Al Toraifi


Millions of Egyptians headed to polling stations on Saturday March 19th, to cast their ballots for the referendum on proposed constitutional amendments. At the same time, a large segment of Egypt’s revolutionary youth believed that holding a referendum to amend the “old” constitution was a continuation of the former regime, and as a result they launched a major “no” campaign, demanding the rejection of the proposed amendments, and the drafting of a new constitution. Yet around 77 percent of voters said “yes” to the constitutional amendments, so did the Tahrir Square youth lose?
For the last few weeks, we have been told that the Arab World is changing, and that the “Facebook” youth, who had been leading the protests of change, have not been deterred by ideological differences, or the scarecrows raised by the former regime, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, terrorism, the Iranian threat, or security anarchy. These issues were once promoted by the media of the former regime, which now seems to have converted into the “revolutionary” media overnight.
What raises more questions is the Arab cultural discourse which supported the youth revolutions, and promised that we were standing before a new dawn, where the youth would determine the future of the country and the region. But from what we have seen so far, it seems like the youth, or at least those who have been heralded by the media, have failed their first democratic test. Today it is no longer possible for the youth to accuse the regime of electoral fraud, or undermining their political rights. The fact is that most Egyptian people want the current crisis to end, and for security and economic growth to return, so they agreed to amend the old constitution, despite its flaws.
On March 21, 2011, The Financial Times stated: “Official results from Egypt’s referendum on constitutional change showed a large majority of voters supported the reforms sponsored by the country’s military rulers.” Subsequently, the Tahrir Square youth, who have fluctuated between fear and suspicion, have become unable to impose their will, or pressure the Supreme Military Council. The nationwide referendum has revealed a popular desire to accelerate the transitional period, and reject any attempt to delay it under youth claims of a “counter revolution” being orchestrated by the army, the remnants of the former regime, or the Muslim Brotherhood.
At a closed door symposium attended by elite political scientists and sociologists this week in Europe, the organizers hosted a number of “bloggers” and “activists”, who had called for the January 25th protests, and put a series of questions to them. The most significant questions were as follows:

– Do you consider what happened in Egypt, and what is now happening in the Arab World, a revolution which will change the characteristics of society and citizenship?
– To what do you attribute the success of this popular uprising? To a shift in social structure, the rise of new ideas, or just a security clash that exposed the regime’s fragility?
– If the majority of the Egyptian people vote for the constitutional amendments you reject, will you return to protest in Tahrir Square?
The online activists offered contradictory answers, and championed slogans like democracy, freedom of expression, human rights, the dignity of citizens, corruption, torture…and so on. The vision they presented was closer to a “utopia” than it was to the reality of Egyptian society, and the challenges it faces on the ground. One of the participants from Egypt said that they would carry on protesting in Tahrir Square if they lost the referendum. Then one of the professors commented by saying that “The Arab youth have to learn to accept the results of the ballot box, and that change by revolution cannot occur every day, or work with every issue. They will have to learn that change comes from within society, and cannot be externally imposed under any name”.
In a country that suffers from poverty, poor economic performance and limited sources of income, the events of the past two months have terrified categories of Egyptian society, in the absence of security, the disruption of institutions and services, and the closure of stores and shops. Social and political life has reached a stage of total paralysis. We have seen a number of Egypt’s intellectuals, artists and celebrities in a state of distress on satellite television channels. People have begun to panic, holding on to whatever they can to defend their homes and livelihoods. Some might say that this social deterioration has been deliberately fostered by the former regime, but the result remains to be the same. The civil Egyptian state has collapsed for the first time in its modern history, at a moment of unprecedented dramatic conflict.
The youth, and those who advocate eternal revolutions, must learn that a state cannot be built or developed through words and slogans alone, and that political differences are part of the nature of society. Change must manifest itself in a positive way, and the problems of the state and society cannot be solved by denying their existence, or disregarding them, but rather by confronting them with realistic solutions.
The first step toward reform begins with the youth realizing the limits of the state’s capacity, and that the ills of society and its religious, political and economic problems are not entirely the creation of the former regime. Many of these predicaments are genuine issues. The youth of Tahrir Square must be aware of the fact that they are only one part of Egyptian society, and not all of it. Thus they are part of the solution, not all of it.
Some of the opinions and thoughts expressed by the Egyptian youth are important and influential. Nevertheless, their role is limited in their ability to deal with reality, as just like everyone else, they do not possess the ultimate truth. They are humans who make mistakes like the rest of us. What they have done in terms of demanding reform, calling the state to account, rectifying the practices of government bodies, calling for democracy, and upholding human rights, is certainly a noble effort. However, they must understand that the protests they staged have brought about heavy casualties, vast material damage, ongoing violations, and dangerous social divisions. The youth cannot reject responsibility for the casualties and damage incurred. They chose to risk many lives in order to achieve their goals. They must realize that although they have been right in many ways, they have been wrong in others, and must ultimately conceive that they are only part of the solution.
As we speak, thousands of Arab youths in several countries, from Libya, Syria, Algeria, Bahrain, Morocco, Jordan and Yemen, have taken to the streets under the slogan “down with the regime”. In Yemen, the state looks set to be dismantled before the regime is even ousted. These youths must understand that calling for the overthrow of the regime is not necessarily the solution, because the problems of the state and society cannot all be blamed on the regime. Moreover, regimes vary in their ability to respond to the requirements of reform and political change. Some Arab presidents have outstayed their terms in power, and have slackened in adopting the necessary reforms at the right time. As a result, they have placed the stability of the entire country, and its legitimacy as an all-encompassing civil establishment, in peril.
Arab regimes have never been inherently evil. Some of them have been a mixture of good and bad, where the regime practiced various sorts of corruption, injustice and aggression. However, some of those regimes, at certain periods in history, have carried out a series of undeniable political, economic and judicial reforms.
The political earthquake that has struck the region is ongoing, and we won’t be able to assess its impact until sufficient time has passed. This sensitive period calls for wisdom and caution, as well as considerable tolerance, because advocates of change can easily turn into the authoritarian figures of the past. When you are unable to differentiate between Tahrir Square and reality, you will have to think carefully and choose between living in the world of illusion, or the world of reality.


First Published in Asharq Alawsat Newspaper on Thursday 24 March 2011. 

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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