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by Abeer Bassiouny Arafa Ali Radwan

The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints of the government she represents.

The Rise of Popular Sovereignty

The Egyptian revolution has swung the balance of internal and international relationships in favor of the weight of people in all fields: social, economic, political and foreign. If previously the basic entity in the world was “the state”, in our time this has been revolutionized to public or popular sovereignty. The supremacy of the people has become the distinctive characteristic of our world. Popular sovereignty uses soft power — the ability to get desired outcomes because others want what you want. It is the ability to achieve goals by means of attraction rather than coercion. Or, more accurately, it is coercion without violence.

The Egyptian Revolution inspires popular sovereignty internationally
Egypt’s popular revolution has changed the history of revolutions, especially in the non-Western world, by confirming — after a long period of disregard — the moral force of nonviolence. The spontaneous character of this revolution confirms the doctrine of popular sovereignty with all of its charcteristics (leaderlessness, non-professionalism, public scrutiny, masses vs. elites, people raising their issues — including personal and/or union demands — in the street and seeking to resolve them there, …etc). This could not have happened absent the impact of the population’s youth bulge, which comprises over 60% of the total inhabitants. The ability to “organize” several million protest rallies at the same time in different jurisdictions throughout Egypt illustrates the full power of the winds of protest. There are, of course, several grassroots factors of unrest throughout the region such as: authoritarian regimes; non-democratic societies; lack of opportunity; and rising expectations; to say nothing of widespread corruption and injustice. Economic hardship, the spread of poverty and the decline of the middle classes have been major causes for the uprisings sweeping across Middle East. With the impact of international financial and economic crises sweeping over developed and non developed countries compounding the continuous price rises of food and essential services, the economic factors have ignited the revolution of popular sovereignty throughout a wide range of the world.

Egypt changes

The most important effect of the Egyptian revolution has been the transition from the excessive use of violence inherited from dictatorial regimes to the peaceful management of political disputes. Barriers of fear and lack of self-confidence have been demolished, to be replaced by “Egyptian pride”. It is no longer acceptable for rulers — or distinguished citizens — to evade accountability for their crimes and misdemeanors.

On the other hand, the collapse of the political system has triggered excessive violence in other contested areas, with waning confidence in the legitimacy of “current” laws as the best mechanism to resolve these issues. It appears that the excessive confidence in the people’s role has inclined the Egyptian people to believe in only their own sovereignty. The current dilemma is how best to determine who speaks for the people when there is no consensus on a system to recruit representatives of the people’s sovereignty. The almost total absence of any social contract to govern the conduct of citizens has underscored the necessity of national dialogue.

This explains the non-stop confrontation between different factions in Egypt with the aim of establishing “new” rules for the game. For example, the strikes of civil service employees to secure permanent contracts and raises; the work stoppage of other workers to increase their minimum wage; the rallies expressing religious or social demands in specific areas (like to rebuild destroyed churches; confirm the rights of Christian girls to convert to Islam without interference of the church; or proper medical care and compensation for those who participated or lost relatives to martyrdom during the revolution).

It is important to understand that even though most of these requests are justified, they still address non-collective demands at the level of the state. Thus, internally, governance by popular sovereignty reflects the persistence of confirmation of the pre-eminence of “active” people over the state and any systems acting on its behalf. So, the intentions were not only to change the political system but also to influence (if not change) all of the legal, economic, security, social and cultural systems in a way that satisfies the people.

This explains the competition among activist groups and individuals to organize rallies of millions of supporters in the public squares, especially AL-Tahrir square, to demonstrate their social power (not political power inasmuch as they have not yet presented their political programs) which is sometimes described as “show of muscle.”

Still, it is the search for “the national” consensus on the “national” priorities or interests and “national” principles or standards which characterizes the current turmoil in Egypt. Therefore, everything is on the agenda for discussion — even proposals on the role of media, laws, religion, women, modernity, tradition…etc. Some of these discussions are really worrisome; there is an absence of mature debate and most of the orators tend to be raconteurs rather than experts.

Some important outcomes, however, are already apparent in the Egyptian case. The most important being the demystification of the Muslim Brotherhood opposition movement, the largest organized group in Egypt that has long operated covertly. By virtue of having to practice real-world politics and day-to-day bargaining, the Muslim Brotherhood has been brought down to earth as a movement of ordinary mortals among the opposition. The role of the army also, in standing side by side with the Egyptian people, has had a remarkable result in authenticating the sovereignty of the people. Unlike the tradition of military interventions in internal politics, where the army favors the ruling powers, the Egyptian revolution has reversed this custom to the advantage of the people. The army is now a strict guardian of civilian popular supremacy.

Through popular sovereignty, Egypt — the oldest nation on the earth — rejuvenates itself, as will other civilizations. This time the impact of the Egyptian experience is not only for effect as were Egypt’s own version of the 1968 student rebellions, for example. But this time Egypt is a wake-up call for “old” and “aging” civilizations to invigorate their nations. This is why the map shows us that it is the “oldest” civilizations that have been affected most by the style of Egypt’s revolution (like Syria, Yemen, Greece, Spain, China, etc.). They all represent countries which have forgotten inherited civilizations and have major youth bulges in their populations.

Global domino effect

Egypt’s revolution has polarized very important trends in international relations via the so-called “civilization effect” creating “the age of popular sovereignty”. It has forced world powers to adjust the shortsightedness of their ideological lenses after failure to predict or cope with the turmoil in the Arab World and other regions. Popular sovereignty on the international level stimulates the better understanding and promotion in foreign policy circles of the principles of nonviolence as a powerful tool.

The first and most important product of the Egyptian evolution is “localization” and the reacquisition of the power of identity. Popular sovereignty acknowledges no centralization of civilization since people vary from one region to another. It believes in the changes achieved through mutual will and the sense of ownership of their diverse creators. The “new” world, with its multiplicity of cultures, will surely participate in realigning the international relations paradigm.

Meanwhile, in a contradictory trend, which nonetheless still underlines the importance of localization, the idea of racial and religious discrimination has prospered and grown in the shape of calls for the purification of race or region (holy war) from the impact of other races, religions or even cultures. Consider, for example, the widening support for supremacist groups (like white supremacy in USA, or anti-Islam and anti- immigrant movements in Europe represented by “rightist” or conservative groups). Recently, it no longer requires mass movements or groups to launch such holy wars; individuals can be very influential catalysts for these tensions that can easily escalate to violence. The Oslo attacks of July 22, 2011 dramatically illustrate such an individual war. This represents the most destructive and counterproductive outcome of re-acquired lost identity. At the same time, on the other side, oppressed groups have reached their limits with their inferior and injustice situation and will no longer tolerate further offences to their dignity and pride.

Localization in the global arena means the Islamic perspective will contribute, once more, its great values of constructiveness, benevolence and justice to international relations. It also means that “new” Islamist countries, now fueled by democratic ideals, will be accepted as the Jewish country of Israel has been. The religious factor is by no means diminished but, rather, prospers as the main “local” factor. This also means the civilizing role of the state returns to play an essential role in the balance of values that soon will replace the customary balance of the traditional power system.

On the other hand, a truly multilateral system has finally had the chance to be applicable as demonstrated lately by the high coordination between BRIC group (Brazil, Russia, India, and China), along with Germany — but outside the hegemony of the United States — in taking decisions (i.e. on war and peace in Libya). This raises the issue of the “public war” concept and develops “public diplomacy” tools. Regionalism or regional powers now have the preeminence over their regions and their problems and it is certainly their responsibility to find solutions.

The leaderless nature of the Egyptian revolution and the emphasis on individualism versus institutionalism has affected the whole world in a series of “rebellious events”. An immediate example was the crackdown on the concept of “collective bargaining” and the immense difficulty of reaching “consensus”. This effect was noticed in democratic countries as the failure of social groups (unions for instance) or even political parties to achieve results expected by their members and supporters in confrontation with their opponents. We have seen this demonstrated by the occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol by angry teachers; or by street demonstrations by labor in Europe — especially Greece and Spain — surrounding their Parliaments, Government and even union premises.

In addition the Egyptian revolution has shifted public diplomacy from the state’s domain to private sector and non-institutional domains. For example, the mission to Uganda of the Egyptian Public Diplomacy delegation — formed from a totally non official group — has succeeded in convincing Uganda to postpone the entering into force of the “new” Nile treaty between the Nile’s source countries that had been signed without the consent of Egypt and Sudan one year ago.

On the Global Economic side, popular sovereignty persists in prioritizing the moral aspects of the consequences of economic growth. The price of democracy will surely burden the budgets of all countries especially United States, in the form of humanitarian assistance and military aid to toppled dictatorial rulers. European countries should do more to establish much needed social justice among their southern borders, to help these countries in developing their economies and create much needed jobs for the youth to fight the spread of social malaise. With the ongoing financial and economic crises, the passive side of globalization will prevail economically, and the huge negative effects on poor classes will induce another wave of revolution.

Meanwhile, within the economic domain, popular supremacy, as a result of these popular revolutions, has confirmed the changes in the economic concepts of development and the weight of the economic indicators for welfare and growth. According to the World Bank, for instance, Tunisia and Egypt were on the right track economically. If so, why there have been deep economic roots for these revolutions? This means development from now on should be concentrated on targeting peoples’ welfare, not merely on statistics of resources and production. This is not communist theory and is certainly more than any traditional textbook model welfare state. The World Bank has recently announced that the experiences of the third world are important to the World Bank’s including concepts of social justice and employment to the role of the state, and their use of anti- poverty measures and others tools to the formulation of new World Bank strategy.

Regional Effects

It is without any doubt that the impact of the Egyptian revolution affects a wider region. The enormous impulse of the Egyptian people to protest has inspired the climate of revolt. Huge waves of revolution reflect the prevalence of deep socio-political problems. It also emphasizes the role of Egypt as the cradle of all civilizations and the leader of the Arab world so that when it rises against its rulers, all other Arab nations do. While this does not necessary revive the idea of Pan-Arabism, it does raise awareness of the unsettled problems that present areas of vulnerability. Foremost of these problems in the Arab region is the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In spite of the absence of slogans or calls addressing the Palestinian issue during the Arab demonstrations in general, it has always been the most important issue that matters in any denunciation of Arab rulers. After the Arab revolutions, Israel is no longer the only democracy in the Middle East. The pressure for a Palestinian State is vast now and the opportunity is there also. If this opening is passed over, the idealistic and unrealistic resolution shall prevail and no Arabian or Israeli government will accomplish any agreement. There will be more critics of Israel and the United States, which might develop seriously damaging consequences.

Abeer Bassiouny Arafa Ali Radwan
Abeer Bassiouny Arafa Ali Radwan

Abeer Bassiouny Arafa Ali Radwan is a diplomat, currently posted to The Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt in Oslo, Norway as Deputy Chief of mission. She has been employed by the Egyptian Ministry of Foreign Affairs since 1995. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Economics and Political Science from the Cairo University, a Master of Business Administration (MBA) with a focus on Information Technology and Management from the Maastricht School of Management, Netherlands, as well as a second Master’s Degree in Political Science with a focus on International Relations and Humanitarian Intervention from Cairo University, and a doctorate from Cairo University in International Relations with a focus on International Organizations.


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