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Reader Comment on: How the Egyptian Revolution Emphasized the Sovereignty of the People

October 10, 2011

Letter to the Editor:

Abeer Bassiouny Arafa Ali Radwan has written an effusive, optimistic essay (“How the Egyptian Revolution Emphasized the Sovereignty of the People”) that makes several important points.

First, she points out that the Egyptian revolution has enabled millions of Egyptians to assert new identities free of any tie to the former regime of Hosni Mubarak. She explains in some detail the importance of having a personal identity and how the April revolution liberated most Egyptians from decades of oppression under the previous regime.

Second, she emphasizes the role of the people of Egypt in developing a new system of government and states that the revolution “inspired popular sovereignty.” She wrote that the Egyptian revolution has “confirmed the moral role of non-violence” in effecting political change. She makes reference to “the doctrine of popular sovereignty” and ties this to the “youth bulge” in Egypt. The revolution has greatly boosted personal self-confidence and a new faith in the sovereignty of the people. She points to several sources of factionalism and declares that “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.” Then she states that Egyptians are currently struggling to achieve a “national consensus” on key issues that will determine the form and structure of a model for new governance.

She is more optimistic than I in claiming that the revolution “demystified” the Muslim Brotherhood and brought it “down to earth” in its pursuit of political objectives. She overlooks the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood has existed for decades and has followed a specific Islamist ideology in the face of brutal repression. She fails to mention that Ayman al-Zawahiri, an Egyptian physician and former member of the Muslim Brotherhood and of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad, is now the leader of al Qaeda and an international fugitive. In her optimism she ignores possible future actions by al Qaeda in Egypt and any links it may have with the Muslim Brotherhood. And she claims that the role the Army played in the revolution has helped “in authenticating the sovereignty of the people.” She claims that now the Army is “a strict guardian of civilian popular supremacy.” Again she ignores any internal motives that senior Army leaders may have had in protecting their political and economic interests in the face of the fall of Mubarak.

All of her statements reveal great hope and pride in what has taken place in her country. Still, it remains to be seen what political agenda the Muslim Brotherhood wishes to pursue and whether the Army will remain neutral, if it ever was, as the revolution moves to a new phase in developing a more democratic government. The Army constitutes an almost independent economic power within Egypt and is almost certain not to relinquish what it has. She is too uncritical and trusting of the motives of both groups. Recent government violence against peaceful protestors in Cairo and the tightening grip of the army generals on the reins of power contradict her optimistic assessment. And, if one interprets Secretary of Defense Panetta’s recent remarks after his return from Cairo, U.S. policy seems to be leaning towards supporting the generals and some form of “stability” in Egyptian politics while paying lip service to the democratic aspirations of the protesters in Tahrir Square.

Ali Radwan’s claim that the Egyptian revolution sounded a wake-up call to other “old” civilizations ignores the fact that the Arab Spring began with a popular uprising in Tunisia, inspired by the street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi who set himself on fire in December 2010 in protest against the mindless bureaucracy that had taken away his means of supporting his family. It is not a stretch to claim that events in Tunisia inspired young Egyptians to move to the streets in protest against their oppressive and corrupt government. Thus, if anything, it was Tunisian protestors who first braved bloodshed and struck the spark that fired greater outbursts of popular protest in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria.

I agree in part with her claim that events in Egypt have forced other governments to adjust their foreign policies and to take into account the spreading popular sovereignty of Egyptians. I would add as well popular sovereignty among Tunisians, Libyans, and other oppressed peoples. It is a stretch to claim that all of this came about as the result of events in Egypt alone. Just as Egyptians have been able to acquire a new personal and societal identity, so too have people in other Arab countries where popular protests have challenged long-standing regimes and power structures.

In her discussion of religion and Islam, she makes what I consider contradictory claims. While, on the one hand, she praises the emergence of new popular sovereignty, she states that, “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.”

What does she mean by the “balance of values” and that the state will play “an essential role” in re-establishing this balance? This seems to contradict her earlier claims about popular sovereignty as the driving force of personal and societal identity and her claim that popular sovereignty is the new mainspring for developing more open, democratic government. She claims that the Egyptian revolution was “leaderless” and that it now serves as an example for “rebellious events” in other parts of the world. Still, it remains to be seen how political parties in Egypt will organize and develop platforms to win voters in open elections and whether the outcome of a general election will lead to a more representative government with the generals relinquishing their current power.

Her claim and hope is that popular sovereignty will persist in defining the moral aspects and consequences of economic growth in newly liberated countries. She asserts that this will burden the budgets of countries, especially the United States, with demands for more humanitarian assistance. This is an old argument and ignores the fact that other countries, especially the United States, have national interests that may or may not intersect with those of newly independent states.

While I grant that the events in Egypt have sent shock waves beyond its borders, most especially in Israel, it remains to be seen what form a new government in Egypt will take and what policies that government will pursue. Even though “popular sovereignty” may be more critical of and outspoken against the Egyptian-Israel relationship, it remains to be seen whether a new Egyptian government would abrogate the treaty between the two states. And if this were to happen, what new policy would Egypt pursue with Israel? Would it help to bring about a more constructive dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians? Would it work to decrease the influence of Hamas and other militant organizations in the Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, should this resume in earnest?

Ali Radwan omits entirely the influence of Iran on Arab politics while focusing on the role that the U.S. and other Western democracies have played and may play as new, democratic institutions emerge in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, and other Arab nations. One cannot ignore Iran in regional politics, for it has long exerted its influence and supported and funded militant anti-American and anti-Israeli groups. If there is any state to challenge the growth of popular sovereignty in the Arab world, it would most certainly be Iran. The last thing its revolutionary government wants to see is the spread of popular sovereignty among its Arab neighbors. For this reason it is to Iran’s advantage to keep an atmosphere of tension and violence boiling in and around the Palestinian people. Iran seeks to maintain instability in West Asia and to limit the influence and power of Egypt and other Arab states. This deserves closer analysis.

While I admire her positive analysis of recent events in Egypt and elsewhere, I am less sanguine about the emergence of truly representative, democratic governments under constitutions that are the products of popular determination. I would be delighted if constitutional democracies were to emerge as a result of popular revolutions. Still, one must not forget the Napoleon factor in post-revolutionary nations. The Egyptian people have succeeded in tearing down one form of repressive government. It remains to be seen what new form of government they will construct and whether this will be a model for other countries to emulate.

Bruce K. Byers

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