Egyptian protesters in the streets of Cairo (photo credit:MELANIE LIDMAN)

The roots of democracy on the Nile

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Our ability to empathize with the Egyptian masses rather than to only fear them would be greatly enhanced if we learned more about the opposition groups.

It is quite amazing how little we really know about Egypt. Thirty-two years of peace have not had a deep impact on our awareness, knowledge or even curiosity about the largest of our Arab neighbors. Of course every Israeli knows the names Hosni Mubarak and his son Gamal. Many even knew the name Omar Suleiman before he was recently appointed vice president, because of his significance in the security world that so dominates our comprehension of the world.

There is no doubt that Egypt’s policies of keeping the peace cold and the cultural boycott have not encouraged Israelis to seek greater knowledge and intimacy with Egyptian society and culture. It is really a great pity, because had we made the effort to reach out, we would have a much richer understanding of the televised revolution of Tahrir Square.

It is also a pity that many of those appearing on our television screens, alongside the experts on Arab affairs, are the military analysts who possess an amazingly one-dimensional understanding of what is going on. Our ability to empathize with the Egyptian masses rather than to only fear them would be greatly enhanced if we had the opportunity to learn more about the social, political and religious dimensions of the Egyptian street and its various opposition groups.

We would profit greatly by knowing the personalities behind the uprising. We would be surprised and perhaps even inspired to know some of the women who have deeply influenced the passion of this people’s struggle for freedom.

A great example is Ghada Abdel Aal, 32 a single pharmacist, author of the best-selling I Wanna to Be a Bride and very popular blog of the same name, who experts claim represents millions of Egyptian females from 25 to 35 who are pressured by society to get married.

The social pressures of the patriarchic Egyptian society, supported by the political and religious establishments and the rumor mills that surround unmarried girls, especially those seeking a professional career, have created a lot of the unrest which has fermented the socioeconomic revolution that we are witnessing.

Getting married has become prohibitively expensive – prompting an explosion of mass weddings, with hundreds of couples simultaneously marrying to cut costs. Surprisingly the Middle East has one of the lowest marriage rates in the developing world. Almost 50 percent of men 25 to 29 are unmarried, compared to 37% a generation ago.

A lot of the blame for this is placed on the political and religious elites who make the poor poorer and divert the wealth of the nation to their own pockets.

The economic situation in Egypt makes it almost impossible for young, educated women to marry out of choice and a lot of their pent-up frustration is expressed freely on the social networks of Facebook, Twitter and blogs like Ghada’s and have fueled the gatherings in Tahrir Square.

THE APRIL 6 movement of young people is the core of the January revolution. This movement was launched on Facebook in support of the workers in El-Mahalla el-Kubra, an industrial town, who were planning to strike on April 6, 2008. By January 2009 this group had more than 70,000 members, mostly young, mostly educated, mostly secular and mostly fed up with the lack of freedom and democracy under Mubarak.

One of their primary targets for debate in Facebook over the past year has been the planned takeover of the country by Gamal Mubarak. The November parliamentary elections, with their obvious falsified results, stirred a lot of anger among these young people and a resolve to bring about change.

The Al-Ghad (tomorrow) movement which has also helped to fill Tahrir Square, is a secular, liberal movement started in 2004 by Ayman Nour, who in the 2005 presidential election was reported as winning about 12% of the vote. This movement stands for human rights, constitutional reform, democracy and economic reform.

Along with Al-Ghad, the Kifayeh (enough) movement also came to life in 2004 in preparation for the 2005 elections. This is another grassroots movement against the Mubarak regime and especially against the possible takeover by Gamal Mubarak.

THE MOST organized part of the opposition is of course the Muslim Brotherhood. We have very shallow knowledge of this movement, its leaders and its platform. With completely open and free elections, there is a justified fear that the Muslim Brotherhood could win a large part of the vote. We can expect it will participate in the next elections and if surveys and public opinion research are correct, it will win about 25% of the parliament.

The current leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood says openly that Egypt is not Iran. They are not ayatollahs and are not advocating a Shari’a state. They have no expectation or demand to be the ruling party and from the voices we hear in the square and from the spokesmen of the Brotherhood, this seems to be an authentic reflection.

The Muslim Brotherhood has linked itself for the time being with the leadership of Mohamed ElBaradei’s National Party for Change. No doubt this is a strange and curious marriage, but it serves the interests of both. ElBaradei has no grassroots following and the Brotherhood wishes to gain legitimacy in the wider Egyptian public and in the world that the former International Atomic Energy Agency chief brings.

This marriage of convenience should also dispel immediate fears regarding the future of Israeli-Egyptian peace. When the platform of the Muslim Brotherhood last year proposed reopening the peace agreement, central leaders of the movement such as Abdel- Moneim Abul-Futuh immediately responded that Egypt must honor its international commitments and that the peace treaty was an Egyptian interest.

As far as we know, the Muslim Brotherhood, unlike its Hamas sister in Gaza, does not have an armed wing and it makes great efforts to present itself as a legitimate political movement aimed at working within a democratic system, whose goal is not to hold democratic elections only once (as the joke in the Middle East goes).

The popularity of the Muslim Brotherhood certainly comes from the successful work it has undertaken in real social needs, poverty, education and also against urfi marriages – a form of temporary marriage popular in the Shi’ite world that is essentially a form of prostitution and abuse of women’s rights. These marriages were supported by some of the religious establishment, and the Muslim Brotherhood has worked for the ability for young people to marry legitimately.

In 2002, Egyptian dentist Ala Aswany published a novel focusing on the deep corruption in Egyptian society. The book immediately became a best-seller and was also turned into a successful film. The young activists in the square say that the reality of Egypt in 2011 as presented in the blog of Ghada Abdel Aal and through Twitter and Facebook networks makes Aswany’s Yacoubian Building look almost tame.

The Tahrir Square revolution is not yet over. The drama is still taking place. The regime of Hosni Mubarak is finished and a new Egypt is emerging.

There are many reasons to be concerned about what may eventually develop. The more I learn about the revolution and the opposition forces, the more encouraged I am that the roots of real democracy are being planted along the Nile.

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin

Gershon Baskin is one of the most recognizable names in the Middle East Peace process. His dedication to creating a culture of peace and environmental awareness, coupled with his impeccable integrity, has earned him the trust of the leaders of all sides of the century old conflict. Few people have such far-reaching and positive impacts on promoting peace, security, prosperity and bi-national relationships.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.
Gershon Baskin