Tasks and difficulties ahead of the Arab revolution

Abdul Ilah Albayaty, Hana Al Bayaty and Ian Douglas, Sunday 1 May 2011

The revolution in Egypt — and all Arab countries — will succeed if it avoids ideological division and mobilises the people to build a civil and democratic welfare state

It is “le temps des cerises.”* Since Mohamed Bouazizi’s tragic death in Tunisia, the same mechanism of popular uprisings has sparked to life across the Arab world, without exception, with all its pain and hope. The people use the same slogans repeated hundreds of times since a century: liberty, unity, social justice and Palestine is Arab. They failed hundreds of times, and in hundreds of places before, but this time it seems the uprisings reached a level of maturity similar to the cherry in springtime. The Arab Spring is a revolution of democracy.

When we wrote our articles on Tunisia and Egypt, think tanks — even Arab ones — were doubting the sincerity and possible extension of the uprisings to other countries, for the notion of Arab as one nation escaped them, as well as the existing solidarity that mobilises people in the living creatures that are societies. Due to their ideologies, they were surprised that a revolution can be born in the street.

That the Egyptian revolution was born in the street on 25 January does not mean it is merely a conspiracy of some youth who used Facebook. There was an accumulation of struggles and demands spanning years. Workers strikes and sit-ins, political party meetings and campaigns, the protests of professional unions, artists and writers, youth demonstrations, trials, scandals, the refusal to implement judicial decisions, and so on, were for years the events of everyday life in Egypt. Every observer, including the head of the regime, was aware of the growing discontent among Egyptians. But the US and the EU, the Arab oil regimes, the IMF — the “they” opposed to the people — were satisfied as they controlled three strong pillars: the corrupted and corrupting comprador class, the repressive apparatus, and the means of communication, including the party, the newspapers and satellite channels; they didn’t bother with this discontent. Along with the enriching of the comprador elites, there was the deterioration of the living standards of the middle class, the suffering of the poor and the desperation of the youth, regarding the present and the future.

The spontaneity with which all existing currents of the youth joined Tahrir Square on the second day of protest showed that the revolution was not — and would not be allowed to be — governed by specific ideological currents, as well as the lack of need of a leader, individual or organisational, to develop the revolution. These two characteristics of the revolution made it impossible for the regime to suppress the growing masses in Tahrir. No leadership needed to impress, or possible to imprison and decapitate, and no ideology to divide or frighten the youth.

From 28-29 January when the youth defeated the police of the regime until 11 February when the army received the power to lead the state in a transitional period, the revolution became all the people of Egypt in a non-written coalition of forces whose character is anti-dictatorship, anti-corruption and anti-falsification of the people’s will. The first step in a successful revolution has begun: public issues are discussed by the public in public space, in a scene of liberty and general participation that has never been seen before in the Arab world.

Not only legitimate but legal

It is natural in such a scene that thousands of agendas flower, each pretending to be the real revolution, but we can generally distinguish two main currents. One avows stability and order, so as to make the transition successful; the other seeks rapid and deep change, so as to ensure the revolution’s success. Until now both are useful. One prevents the revolution from being a failed adventure. The other prevents the revolution from being merely a changing of faces. The result, as this was conducted through peaceful public dialogue, is that change is achieved through law and without violent clashes. Important decisions for change are taken by enforcing existent legal procedures and institutions. This is one of the characteristics of the Egyptian revolution that distinguishes it from the revolutionary heritage of the past. It is not only through legitimacy that it advances, but through legality too.

Much has been achieved to dismantle and punish the former alliance between political power and the comprador class that stood against the interests of Egypt and the people of Egypt, and all agree that much remains to be done to build a new democratic state by reforming the old one. The constitution, the structure, and the practice of the state should be changed, so that the state can defend public property and resources and at the same time benefit the poor and those on low salaries by adopting a new way of redistributing revenues. Also, so that the state can punish dictatorship and corruption and at the same time prevent the creation of new modes of dictatorship and corruption by democratising decision making and by reinforcing institutions and means of evaluation and control by popular participation. The state should create mechanisms for the protection of civil servants against the arbitrary and the corrupt, an independent system of administrative justice, an independent institution that investigates and evaluates all public spending of all state branches, guarantee the liberty and equal rights of all citizens, men and women, and at the same time enable them to live peacefully together by respecting diversity and the rights of minorities, whether political, religious, cultural or other.

The ongoing public discussions should produce clear programmes for the tasks to be accomplished, and associations to mobilise and organise the people. We believe they should step away from the circle of generalities and ideologies so as to produce coalitions on immediate and mid-term tasks and programmes.

By depending on the people’s interests and will, the Egyptian revolutionaries can lift Egypt from blindly following US imperialist and compromising comprador agents’ diktats and build, both politically and economically, an independent Egypt that bases its policies on the interests of the Egyptian people and on reciprocal benefits with its friends. The imperialist crisis, the failure of liberal and neoliberal globalisation, Egypt’s potential together with Arab solidarity and cooperation, would help in building a strong democratic modern and advanced Egypt in which its people live in prosperity, justice, dignity and freedom.

Parallel tasks of the revolution

Apart from exterior and international policies around which all Egyptians are in agreement, making the security and the interests of Egypt, and international conventions signed by Egypt, the guide for Egyptian foreign policy towards other states and in exterior relations,the deepening of interior changes is the actual role of the revolution. In this domain, from our point of view, there are three parallel tasks before the youth and progressive forces.

First, succeeding in the transitional period through efficient policies and decisions and by enlarging public liberties in order to resist internal and external counter-revolutionary pressures. The alliance between the army, the middle class and the youth should be preserved so that Egypt passes the transitional period without major difficulties, especially in terms of disorder and economic necessities. Differences should be solved through acceptable means of dialogue. The just demands of sectors of the population should be adopted, transformed into means of political organisation of masses, and a progressive programme.

Second, succeeding in the writing of a new constitution to guarantee a civil, democratic and functional modern state that can answer the challenges of liberty, good management and functionality. Progressive forces should avoid black and white clashes regarding the identity of the state. Egypt is an Arab-Muslim country whether it is stipulated in the constitution or not. This appurtenance is neither religious nor ethnic, but cultural and geopolitical. Giving the right to decide the legitimacy of laws to any persons other than the representatives of the people and the apparatus of the democratic state creates unnecessary divisions, threatens the principles of peaceful coexistence, establishes a non-elected elite model of the state, and would block the adaptation of Egypt to the new realities of society. Therefore, refusing Article 2 of the 1971 Constitution is just, but it is necessary to avoid a clash on this issue, pushed by reactionary Islamist or Coptic extremists, framed on identity. We would suggest a formula to this end: Laws are decided by the people, inspired by Islamic fiqh(jurisprudence), international laws and conventions, and values of peace, equality of citizens, tolerance and justice for all.

Third, we believe in any country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy the essential issue in the constitutional battle should be directed towards preventing corruption, preventing marginalisation of minorities, preventing repression, and developing the state to be a welfare state that is responsible for, among other tasks, delivering and developing public services in education, health, justice and equality, transport and communications, energy, electricity, water, money and exchange, measures and qualifications, preserving and recovering heritage, material and cultural development, and just revenues to all. Regarding the tasks of the state, the most important are: the administration of public riches and the national economy, the security of citizens and the territorial integrity of the land, the justice and the liberty of citizens, communities and groups.These should be accomplished by the institutions of the state with transparency, efficiency and democratically. The mechanisms to guarantee these should be clearly embedded in the constitution.

Much could be said about profiting from the past constitutional experiences of Egypt and other countries. We mention some urgent points:

The state is the state of all Egyptians. Public interest is imperative. Nothing in its laws, structures, procedures, and the behaviour of its agents should serve — or show any form of discrimination against — any particular individual, group, or ideology, even if initiated by the government.

Justice and enforcement of law should be independent. No individual or group has the right to enforce his own idea of justice. Only the state and its policies and decisions of justice can be enforced. Armed gangs and militias should be forbidden, and political and religious violence outlawed.

Developing the civil modern state

The development of Egypt will be solid and effectual if its aim and practice is to develop all its regions and mobilise all its resources. Solidarity between the capable and the weak, between generations, between rich regions and poor ones, is not only a moral obligation but is also an economic factor for an efficient economy. Enlarging the internal market and local production, both in agriculture and industry, mobilising all national resources, the recovery of the capacity of creation, initiative and production, as well as social peace, pass through this solidarity.

A modern state develops local elected institutions through decentralisation and democracy while preserving the unity of the state and its control and by being cautious not to create local feudalism through rights and funding. Local institutions weaken bureaucracy, oversee state actions, increase the people’s participation in public life, and are a school of political leadership. To increase participation, and accordingly the participation of all, we suggest a proportional system in local elections, and to fund local institutions via just and non-discriminating rules of funding in the budget.

The liberty of association in non-profit civil society organisations, in whatever domain and without arbitrary state interference, is necessary for modern societies to promote the legal activity and actions of its members. Only financing and finances are monitored by the state, to avoid their use for activities outside their declared purposes.

Discrimination in appointing, seconding and upgrading civil servants should be abolished in order to ensure that the right women or men are in the right place, and to combat corruption and the corrupting. Wherever possible, appointments should result from anonymous written examination, or be based on educational attainment and certificates. Civil servants should act according to the public interest, avoiding conflicts of interest, abuse of power, and serving any particular interest. Trade unions should defend civil servants and participate in matters concerning them individually or collectively. A system of administrative justice should be developed to make institutions work correctly. The regime that was and remains the target of the revolution is more than the sum of its persons. It is also an ensemble of administrative practices that in their everyday function constitute an apparatus that must be addressed by new democratic procedures and technical competence.

As for the choice of a parliamentary or presidential system, we believe Egyptians should decide on this question, including by looking at the experience of other countries. A fragmented parliament without a clear majority undermines the possibility of stability and long-term policies. A president with sweeping power ends up personalising the state. We suggest a combination between a majority two-stage mode of elections for parliament, two houses of parliament, the protection of the minority in parliament to prevent a dictatorship of the majority within it, the independence of the judicial branch, especially the constitutional council, the state council, an independent institution that investigates all public spending of all state branches, the independence of local powers, civil society, trade unions, media, specialists, and liberties of communication so as to monitor and prevent the government from using state institutions incorrectly. The president is the representative of all the people and the guide of all institutions. He has the right to stop unconstitutional actions and take his decisions with the aid of state institutions.

The role of trade unions is primordial in social change. Its weapon is the strike, but its policies are different under savage capitalism or in a welfare state. In a welfare state, trade unions should be integrated in decision making in all institutions — this is their way for developing the interests of their members, the economy, and how via the acceptance of efficient policies these could be achieved. Their weapon should be dialogue and negotiations, and strike as a last arm when demands are essential.

Equality of opportunity in funding political groups makes for a healthy democracy. The state should ensure that no outside agendas control national currents, but at the same time open up local and state funding and media to all groups.

A new model of revolution

Discussion on the constitution will continue as intellectual speculation if the coalition that made the revolution — the youth, the middle class and the army — does not continue as a coalition. The revolution would not win the elections and so realise a programme of change. The counter-revolution, although defeated politically, has the force of the statue quo ante and is capable of changing its skin in order to prevent the building of a civil democratic state. The forces of change have the ability of winning if a clear coalition is made, if conviction is maintained, and if ideological slogans are refused; this combined with a clear mid-term programme that can mobilise the people for change. Analysis of the constitutional amendments referendum shows it is possible. The 30 per cent that voted No could easily be turned into 60 per cent if it is well guided by a programme for calm, non-violent necessary change. Beginning a revolution is a matter of will. Succeeding in it is a science.

The Egyptian revolution heralded a new kind of revolution that is adapted to a large country of 85 million in the Third World in the 21st century. Its social forces by consciousness or necessity forced all revolutionaries of the world to re-examine their ideas of revolution because of what is accomplished: a large bloc without leadership enter in coalition to change the regime without using armed violence and to build a new state through legal procedures. The future tasks should be accomplished through the same maturity and spirit in order to not endanger the revolution or Egypt, for it is evident that the counter-revolution, internal and external, counts on divisions, chaos and economic difficulties to raise its head.


* “Le Temps des cerises” is a song written in France in 1866 and is associated with the Paris Commune.


Abdul Ilah Albayaty is an Iraqi political analyst. Hana Al Bayaty is an author and political activist. Ian Douglas holds a PhD in political philosophy and is a specialist in the geopolitics of the Arab region.

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