The reform revolution

Abdel-Moneim Said
Tuesday 2 Apr 2024

Abdel-Moneim Said sounds an optimistic note against the odds


Little comfort is to be had from the current situation in the Arab region. In the forefront is the fifth Gaza war, with its ongoing genocide, massive destruction, and additional looming perils, including its potential to escalate into a horrific regional war. The historic centrality of the Palestinian cause and Palestine’s geopolitical centrality in Arab consciousness account for much of the sensitivity and attention surrounding this war. However, if bloodshed, destruction, and displacement are measures of deterioration, they are extremely prevalent in Sudan, testifying to the cruel folly of a schism in the national army. Sudan’s tragic circumstances have played out historically in Darfur and elsewhere, and they remain the same – always high on the list of this region’s lethal conflicts. Sudan paid the additional price of partition into two states, both of which then plunged into their separate intermittent or ongoing civil wars.

To the north and east, the conflicts in Syria and Yemen are among the products of the so-called Arab Spring, reaping hundreds of thousands of dead and wounded, cities laid to waste, regional and international interventions, and waves of terrorism. Recently, in some countries, militias dominate the scene and claim to speak and wage war in their country’s names. A prime example is the Houthis in Yemen and their war against maritime traffic and global trade.

There is no scientific formula or magical key to unravel the mystery behind this state of affairs other than to study the failure of the modern Arab state since independence. One gets the impression that the state was at a loss as to how to deal with its newfound freedom and autonomy of will, unrestrained by former colonial powers or ousted “reactionary” regimes or whatever pervious cause of backwardness and subjugation. Any review of the performance of these states leads to the absence of a national reform project dedicated to state institution building, fostering its national identity, establishing a robust economy, comprehensive nationwide development, and opening paths of participation to the younger generations for whom colonialism is a distant memory, if that. In addition to that lack, we find an attachment to permanent conflict with colonialism and its extensions such as globalism, neo-colonialism, and other names for Western influence. Another common factor is the permanent captivity in the cycle of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the perpetual state of no war- no peace.  

One way to understand the problem is by comparing countries caught in the web of civil strife, institutional deterioration, and international pity, with those that not only survived as a state but, more importantly, embarked on ambitious reform processes of a previously unimagined scope and scale.  

The Egyptian experience offers a lot to behold and contemplate, given where we stand today compared to where it stood ten years ago. Egypt is fortunate in that it possesses all the components of a state since antiquity. These include a people or nation forged by the common bond of the Nile, a territory whose boundaries have remained unchanged, and an enduring central authority. Throughout the ages it has withstood waves of invasion and colonial aggression, which were variously absorbed into the Egyptian entity or repelled. Egypt’s modern era, as historians date it, began with the Viceroy Mohamed Ali Pasha who set into motion a modernisation project. Over the course of the nineteenth century, all the components of the state grew more robust while the country’s strategic value increased with the construction of the Suez Canal. Perhaps more important in this regard, are the study missions Egypt’s rulers sent abroad to develop the professional cadres of the state. These included 324 missions that formed the initial kernel of the modern Egyptian elite who returned with socio-political visions that ranged across the ideological spectrum. Throughout the twentieth century a kind of tension or dialectic existed between their radical currents (whether on the conservative religious right or the liberal to Marxist left) and their reformist currents which espoused gradual cumulative change.

With the beginning of the twenty-first century, signs of instability began to gather in the region. In Egypt alone, about 222 protests took place in 2004. These jumped to 690 in 2009 and in 2010 there was an average of protest actions a day. One logically concluded that revolution was on the horizon, but there were two approaches to dealing with that prospect. One was reformist and held that the revolution could be averted if the ruling authorities outpaced the anger curve by implementing serious political and economic reforms in the framework of a comprehensive national project to rebuild the state. The other approach, espoused by the conservatives, insisted on maintaining the status quo. As we know, the revolution erupted, and the country was delivered into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood who planned to establish a state modelled on the Iranian one.

What followed was the fastest possible collapse of a Muslim Brotherhood state. It happened in exactly a year thanks to a massive grassroots revolution and the support of the Egyptian Armed Forces in keeping with the major role it has played in the Egyptian state for two centuries. The pillars of the state thus weathered the crisis, avoiding the endless civil warfare and strife that afflicted other states (if a state could be established at all, which did not occur in the Palestinian case). The next ten years witnessed, firstly, the re-consolidation of the pillars of the state and its institutional mechanisms; secondly, the launch of the Egyptian national project beneath the rubric Vision 2030, initiating the revolutionary geographical and demographic shift from the Nile valley to the shores of the Mediterranean and Red Sea; and, thirdly, the confrontations against terrorism, Covid-19, and the economic fallout from regional and international wars.

Egypt was fortunate to have a great reservoir of national identity, strong state traditions and a national project capable of saving the state from adversity and disintegration and putting it safely on course to the future. These are requirements all Arab states should meet and preserve.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 April, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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