In the frenzied turmoil on the Egyptian street, the dichotomy between liberty and Islam arose. The explicit message evoked from the spirit of Egyptian youth was a cry for freedom from a dictatorial president and annulment of emergency measures, and the holding of free elections. Islam was a parallel but not a predominant theme in the dramatic unfolding of events.
Egypt is a country with a culture of calm confidence, accommodating despair through humor; a place where religion competes with patriotism, and merges with it, for the hearts of the people. In Iran, the Shah repressed and reviled Islam, leading to a radical turn toward religion as a revolutionary catalyst and theme. But Mubarak did not repress religion – no Egyptian ruler or president ever did; rather he repressed Islamic subversion and blocked Islam from assuming a government form. Thus, Iran’s revolution in 1979 was wrought in the cauldron of Islam, while Egypt’s in 2011 rode the wave of liberty.
Liberty is not an Islamic value: faith, community, and obedience are guiding principles. For Egypt, Islam was not maligned by the dictator. He coexisted with it, while arresting its violent and terrorist operatives. Though Allah was invoked by the crowds at Tahrir Square, this was far more an expression of popular self-identity as Muslims than a declaration of war against Mubarak or a slogan for jihad against Israel.
Egypt is a Muslim country with an Islamic scent, though unwilling to submit to the totalitarian suffocation by religious rulers. There is a century-old liberal tradition in Egypt with intellectuals, lawyers, reformists, and cultural entrepreneurs, of literature and film, who seek the liberating atmosphere of unencumbered public space for thought and action. The Muslim Brotherhood is not destined to come to power in Cairo. Islam is a central part of the life of Egyptians though not the ideal of their political vision.
It was significantly poignant that the banner of liberty was unfurled at Tahrir (Liberty) Square. This place-name now signified not political liberty from a rotten monarchy or national freedom from British imperialism and European neo-imperialism, but personal liberty for all Egyptians from a pernicious native dictatorship. An appropriate slogan to capture the historic moment might read, “Give me Liberty or death” – and a standard dosage of Islam.
The pride that Egyptians feel for their country, which burst out in the revolutionary élan, is a compelling sign that Iran as a model and precedent is alien to their national ethos. As Arabs, they oppose the Persians; as Sunnis, they revile the Shiites.
Iran has become the enemy of Egypt and a threat to her regional strategic interests. As Iran bears down on the Arab Persian Gulf kingdoms, and reshapes the alliances in the Middle East, Egypt finds itself somewhat isolated and weakened. It appears quite helpless to respond with effective authority. Syria’s bolting from the Arab world for friendship with Iran, and Lebanon succumbing to Iran, are odious signs for the Egyptians. And at the root of this menacing political constellation is a fundamentalist Islamic regime in Tehran that is at variance with Egypt’s political culture and threatening to her national interests.
Iran witnessed the political earthquake in Egypt and saw it as vindicating the power of Islam and the spread and unification of a single Muslim empire across the region. But the Egyptian people are not going to submit to an Iranian script and leadership.
The Egyptians, moreover, recovered the Sinai Peninsula from Israel, and any renewed warfare could expose this gain to the hazards of military conflagration. In another Egyptian war with Israel, the Jews will capture the Sinai to keep it. The very thought that Egypt would join with Iran in war against the Jewish state is to accord excessive credit to the power of trans-state Muslim solidarity which has no basis in reality.
A beacon of hope?
So the Egyptian revolution, hardly violent at all, is willing to sustain and dignify Islam but not succumb to its preachers and principles. Unlike the famous mass gender-separated demonstrations in Tehran that carried the revolutionary swell to victory 32 years ago, men and women mingled at Tahrir Square in the sprit of Egyptian ease and tolerance in male/female popular culture. No one defamed Mubarak’s wife Western couture, or even her non-Arabic name.
A more basic question than the religious one is the social aspect of a political revolution. The population that revolted speaks of freedom and the economy, buried in poverty, unemployment, and underdevelopment. A reordering of national priorities must turn to the burning problems of livelihood, housing, health, and educational needs.
When an elected civilian regime surfaces over the next months, Egyptians will expect to be provided services in a way previous governments ignored them. The social hunger for material improvements is not part of the political quest for liberty; and if the former is not adequately addressed, then liberty has no way to eliminate injustices and popular rage. The anger of the mob is a present danger to social stability, and if let loose, liberty convulses into chaos and its horrible repercussions.
A hungry population is not an optimal vehicle for free government, and certainly the Arab world has not known free government at all in its history. Now the Egyptian case, sporting the rhetoric of liberty and the promise of its feasibility with upcoming elections, is a new opening toward self-consciousness and human self-respect. As of this moment, however, the collective glue of national pride and hatred for Mubarak can only go so far in translating the demonstrators into citizens who love liberty and respect it – for themselves and others.
A polity in which different views can freely compete for political approval, in which private property is respected and government is subject to public accountability, where the courts carry out justice and people enjoy liberty, is the great challenge facing the Egyptian people.
Egypt is a land of great human monuments, of religion and culture, political independence and national endurance. The Egyptians have now wrought a revolution that is returning its people to the origin of man’s dignity and rights. They have avoided convulsive destruction; they have not inaugurated the new era in bloodshed against a former president. They are restoring their honor as individuals and a people, not destroying anything sacred or meaningful.
It is tempting at times of revolutionary exuberance to become sentimental and mouth premature moral platitudes and political prognoses about man’s inherent goodness and the triumph of liberty. If the events culminate in a true revolution with the requisite institutional structure and political procedures, whereby the government facilitates and assures human rights and dignity, then it will not be just a revolt against someone and something. A state that succeeds in such an endeavor is a beacon of hope in the Middle East, which has known in so many ways and places in the 20th Century ideological and political oppression under the false guise of liberation.
As we conclude this interim assessment, we recall that a wise traveler once remarked that “anyone who knows the East is not surprised at anything.” Let’s watch and see the next surprise after the promising one at Tahrir Square.
Dr. Mordechai Nisan recently retired from teaching Middle East Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
- Follow Ynetnews on Facebook