Remembrance of a Conversation in Doha
Posted by Michael Wahid Hanna
When I spoke by phone to my fellow blogger Shadi Hamid yesterday, he reminded me of a conversation we had this past summer in Doha. I was passing through on an overnight in Doha on my way to Islamabad and Kabul, and had spent the previous two weeks in Egypt. The conversation naturally focused on the perennial issue of Egypt and reform. At the time, the country’s opposition groups were trying to come together over a common strategy for the upcoming parliamentary elections.
The conversation split along traditional lines with me filling the role of pessimistic skeptic and Shadi assuming his more optimistic take on the chances for reform and change. Much had taken place in the previous year with the establishment of the change campaign following the return of the former IAEA chief Mohammed el-Baradie to Egypt, the galvanizing moment of Khaled Said’s death by torture at the hands of the state, and continued labor unrest. All the signs pointed to the necessity for political change, but Egypt had long resisted any and all indicators for imminent change, whether of a controlled or cataclysmic nature. Egypt, once the proud leader of the Arab world, was a mere shell of its previous incarnation: a defensive regime paralyzed by an obsessive focus on the issue of succession where governance and diplomacy had ceased to be a concern. The political malaise that gripped the country was pronounced.
One longtime opposition leader I know had shifted his hopes for change onto military intervention to block Gamal Mubarak’s succession and no longer gave much credence to the prospects of organized pressure campaigns to lead to reform. The petty rivalry that had fragmented and debilitated the already diminished opposition camp was alive and well as various groups and parties began debating participation in the parliamentary elections. Of course, the weakness of the opposition was not simply a self-inflicted state of affairs, but the result of nearly sixty tears of repression of political participation. Parties had been banned for a large portion of that time. Once a small, controlled opposition was deemed to be a useful and cosmetic safety valve, the parties had been infiltrated by state security and the mukhabarat
I also remained fixated at that time on the inability of the opposition ranks to broaden their appeal to the wider populace and tap into the general discontent that pervaded Egyptian society. This disconnect (in addition to savvy repressive behavior on the part of the regime) had kept the labor movement apolitical and unconnected to the currents of oppositional political activity. For me, the signs heading into the fall’s elections seemed gloomy, particularly due to the attitude of retrenchment emanating from the regime.
Shadi had also visited Egypt recently, but his time there had left us with divergent interpretations. Without putting too many words into his mouth, Shadi was less downcast and thought the nature of organization had changed and that positive changes were afoot. A greater level of coordination now existed between opposition ranks and serious thought was being given to strategy. In this environment, and given the growing frustration of Egyptians, this seemed to him to be an indication that the environment was shifting.
When he raised the conversation with me yesterday, it was in the shadow of the most significant political events in the country since Egypt’s revolution against British colonialism in 1919. And it was hard to fathom just how much had changed in such a short time. Egypt is now a fundamentally different country and society than it was a mere week ago.
But what exactly had changed to make these events possible? Clearly Shadi was right to point to the various signs of ferment and activity in Egypt. For me that still leaves the important question of why and why now. And in the end, it comes back to Tunisia and the absolutely stunning developments that have emerged there over the past month. The Egyptian uprising cannot be understood without its Tunisian forerunner. By virtue of its size and historical and cultural importance in the Arab world, these events in Egypt will have greater spillover effects, but without the exogenous shock represented by Tunisia, the Egyptian revolution would not have materialized at this juncture. This is not to say that the root causes of these events were absent. Clearly the protest movement is a reflection of historical trends unique to Egyptian society. However, without the Tunisian catalyst, the current events are not comprehensible. This uprising would not have happened without now without it – the Tunisian uprising is in a real sense its proximate cause.
So as we take in the stunning developments in Egypt, we should not forget the historical importance of Tunisia and the demonstration effects it has had for the entire region. Political life in the Arab world will never be the same because of it.
To the extent I was mistaken and underestimated the potential for change in Egypt, I am happily so. After years of looking on and wondering how the status quo could continue and even deteriorate, I had long since stopped attempting to prognosticate events that never materialized. But the series of developments touched off by an act of self-immolation in the city of Sidi Bouzid would hardly have been believable to anyone familiar with the region and its contemporary history.