- Egypt:Diplomacy and the Politics of Change
Pressure for change at all levels — individual, family, and state — preceded the 2011 Arab uprisings. It will continue, driven by inexorable factors including demography, education, Internet-based connectivity among like-minded groups, wage-based employment of women, and changing business models.1 The following analysis of the Egyptian case provides a background for understanding Egypt’s challenges in the wake of President Mohamed Morsi’s July 2013 ousting and the military’s takeover.
Consider this example of changing realities. A young, female Egyptian university graduate working successfully in the information and communications technology sector, merchant banking, or advertising, with peer-reviewed performance evaluation and achievement-based rewards, is experiencing for the first time, like some others of her generation, the realization of her creative potential amidst the demands of a competitive global marketplace. She will not take easily to expectations that she should reconcile herself to authoritarian values, dictated by others, when she leaves the office in the evening.
Demands for justice, dignity, and government accountability are the product of such cumulative forces of social change. These forces represent a paradigm shift in the Arab world in favor of popular political empowerment, from which no state ultimately can remain immune. Although change is a phenomenon that may be delayed, and perhaps even reversed from time to time, it will not easily be denied.
For the present, however, the values that underpin the authoritarian character of pedagogy and education, sustain gender imbalances, and support patriarchal family models remain the bedrock structural factors in both the social order and the political systems of the Arab world. Arab leaderships may pass their expiration date, but the systems from which they arise live on.
Except perhaps in Syria and Libya, where the corrosive social and political impact of armed conflict has been extreme following the Arab Spring, states remain stronger than civil society. Although their political authority has weakened since 2011, Arab states remain the primary mediator between civil society and world society.
Arab governments will therefore continue to determine how far, and in what ways, other governments, organizations, and individual parties may be part of the process of change in justice and accountability. They will be resistant to unsolicited advice. They [End Page 581] will mostly be offended, not persuaded by criticism, well-intended or otherwise. This is not to argue against making such criticism, where avoiding double standards of values demands it, but rather to be aware that doing so may have unpredictable effects.
Many Western governments have significant foreign policy and security interests at stake in the outcomes of the unfolding debate concerning the civilizational benchmarks of Arab societies. They would wish their values to be respected, and hopefully admired, in the emerging Arab world. The same is true of the ambitions and concerns held among leaders of conservative Arab states of the Persian Gulf. In the latter case, however, the values Gulf leaders wish to prevail and the interests they seek to pursue are very different.2
In the volatile political environment of the years following the Arab Spring, external parties associated in Arab minds with ‘the West’ and seeking to participate in shaping an intricate, multidimensional Arab playing field, do so at their peril. This is the case even where change has begun taking place from within Arab societies, and where reform of traditional values and practices, with regard to human rights, has long been recognized as overdue by Arab intellectuals. The most important risk to avoid, particularly by many Western countries, is that of causing political disadvantage to reformists within Arab countries who advocate the values most Western countries would wish to see prevail, not only in regard to constitutional and ideological issues, but also in regard to human rights values.
Egypt and the Politics of Change
Against that general background, the contest of values unfolding in Egypt is of far-reaching importance. A generation of Egyptian activists whose aspirations were shaped by the experience of 2011 and now, the events of 2013, must define their relationship with a government in which regressive forces are poised once again to play a significant political role. Although they will continue...