CAIRO, Egypt — Egyptians have a reputation for being brash. Their renowned gall served them well throughout the popular uprising in January and February that unseated former President Hosni Mubarak.
Without a doubt, Egyptians’ brazen demands, fearless tactics in battling riot police and insistence that indignities of the former regime be brought to light and rectified made citizens formidable opponents of the country’s entrenched authoritarian establishment.
But within Egypt’s fragile state of transition, the audacity of the Egyptian people may prove a liability as they take on too much, too soon.
The timetable for Egypt’s political transition — benchmarked by parliamentary and presidential elections in the fall and the drafting of a new constitution to follow — is rapid. Though citizens’ eagerness to steer the country’s transformation is admirable, citizenship and democracy are largely uncharted territories for Egyptians.
Under Mubarak, democracy was a sham. Before the era of Mubarak, Egyptians lived under the authoritarianism of Anwar Sadat and Gamal Abdul Nasser. And before that, they lived under colonial rule or influence. The vast majority of Egyptians have thus never exercised a political voice, a task which, to be done meaningfully, requires education of the individual, a pluralist political culture and strong institutions to carry out the will of the people.
Yet the reality that most Egyptians are dipping their toes for the first time into the tumultuous waters of democracy has not tempered their haste. While some liberal voices have cautioned that Egypt’s roadmap for democratic transition is too hastily drawn, more than 77 percent of Egyptians voted in the March constitutional referendum to move full speed ahead.
FACTIONS CALL TRUCE
Nascent political forces now are scrambling to contend in parliamentary elections that are set to take place as early as September.
Concerns about whether it is logistically possible to have free and fair elections so quickly and whether competing parties will be truly representative of the Egyptian public are being subordinated to the notion of tangible progress.
Speaking of uncharted territory, Egypt’s recent moves in the foreign policy arena have also set the country on the fast track toward the unknown.
This month, Egyptian intelligence quietly brokered a reconciliation deal between the Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, an achievement that, while untested, may have far-reaching implications throughout the Arab world.
Recognizing that recent unrest in the Arab world has jeopardized the patrons of both factions — Fatah’s being Mubarak and Hamas’ being Syrian president Bashar al-Assad — Egyptian leadership stepped in to steer Palestinian relations through regional chaos. Through this surprise move, Egypt has resumed quickly and decisively its role as the Arab world’s most powerful voice at a trying time.
BOLDNESS OVER GAZA
Even more boldly, Egypt will permanently open the Rafah crossing to the Gaza Strip in a matter of days, thus ending in one stroke Israel’s almost six-year blockade of the tiny, destitute territory. Speculation abounds as to what this development could mean — for example the beginning of Gaza’s long economic and social recovery, a better armed Hamas, closer relations between Hamas and Egypt, and perhaps a crucial opportunity for the Israeli government to open dialogue with its enemies.
The Egyptian people are not waiting to see what will unfold in Gaza once the siege is lifted. A convoy of activists left last week with the intention of crossing the Rafah border and participating in a “third intifada.”
The group of activists and journalists seems unfazed by the uncertainties of their mission, whether the border will actually be open and whether the Egyptian military will block their convoy. They are determined to make their move anyway.
Lastly, Egyptian society is in a state of upheaval, thanks in part to the rapid reassertion of radical Islamist forces in post-Mubarak Egypt that has fanned sectarian tensions.
Shortly after Mubarak’s fall, scores of prisoners associated with Egyptian jihadist and Salafist groups were released from prison. Many more are returning from exile abroad, as their names have been lifted from Egypt’s “wanted list.” Although the number of these returnees is negligible within the context of the Egyptian Salafist population at large, these moves have certainly emboldened the radical Islamist movement.
Reintegration of these groups and social reconciliation may have an appropriate place in today’s Egypt, but the sudden presence of these radicals has contributed to the explosive confrontations between Salafists and Coptic Christians in the last month.
IDEAL OF CHANGE
Egyptians deserve praise for the big strides they have taken since the fall of Mubarak to ensure that the sweeping changes they demanded become reality. They simply will not accept anything short of dramatic reform, despite the unknowns they face.
However, it may be wise for Egyptians to slow down. At the moment, they are sitting on an explosive combination of lingering resentment toward the old regime, unanswered demands of the revolution, politics in overdrive as new forces emerge and old ones shift alliances in time for September, and a sectarian feud that deepens by the day.
Barring a more gradual approach to reform, it may take only a small spark to derail Egypt’s so-far heralded path toward democracy.