Upheaval in Egypt

It is as if it was only yesterday that I arrived in Cairo, at the beginning of my first assignment as an overseas reporter.

Tahrir Square, the scene of the recent upheaval and confrontation between the supporters and opponents of the Egyptian president was almost as chaotic at the time as it has been seen on TV screens over the last two weeks. Not that there was a revolution going on, it was just the daily melee of poorly regulated flow of traffic, complicated further by careless and arbitrary drivers and pedestrians, carts drawn by mules or donkeys and vendors moving their three-wheel pushcarts regardless of the color of traffic lights.

On that day in 1987, Hosni Mubarak had already been the president of Egypt for seven years, as he is still today.

Although many observers and political pundits may see the latest turbulence, first in Tunisia and later in Egypt, as heralding the end of “one-man rule” and the beginning of a trend of democratic governance in Middle Eastern countries, I beg to differ, although I would love to be proven wrong some day in the future.

The reason for my lack of faith in the ability of peoples of those countries to establish properly functioning democratic state mechanisms lies in my knowledge and observation of the processes that constitute the major undercurrents that have kept those societies rolling for decades.

First and foremost, their religion, Islam, which literally means submission, has an overwhelming role in determining the relationship between the ruler and the ruled.

One might be interested to know that there is no Arab nation, as an ethnic stock, but that the only common element that all Arab countries share is the language, and that language is shared only because it is the language of the Quran.

With their national identity being a function of their adoption of the religion and its language, Arabic societies of the Middle East, actually populated mostly by tribal communities, do not have the urge, in their collective psyche, to organize into civic entities to challenge the political authority within a context of rule of law.

That is why the only meaningful opposition to political authority in most Middle Eastern countries has to either emerge as an Islamist movement or seek allegiance of Islamists to have any chance of success.

Parallels are being drawn between the Eastern Europe of 1989 and today’s tumultuous Middle East with questions being asked whether democracy is coming to the troubled region.

We will be well advised to remember that following the fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe, not everything is as rosy as we would want to believe: Russia has slowly but surely returned to autocratic rule; Yugoslavia was literally dismembered, Czechoslovakia was divided, Bulgaria and Romania are still struggling to establish stability. And this is in countries with at least some level of industrialization.

Collapse of central authority in more of the traditionally structured Middle Eastern countries will only mean emergence of stronger influence of Islamic movements on future governments.