Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Egypt and the Moroccan Model

Well, I certainly picked an interesting couple of weeks to be out of the country.

I recently got back from 16 days abroad in Granada, Spain and Rabat, Morocco. The revolution in Tunisia made for a particularly dramatic time for my first visit to a predominantly Muslim country.

Last Wednesday, the Wofford faculty group I traveled with had the chance to meet with Mustapha Khalfi, Director of Publication of Attajdid, one of Morocco's leading newspapers.  We had an extended discussion with him about the Tunisian revolution and its possible ramifications in the Muslim world.

As a self-proclaimed moderate Islamist living under the Moroccan monarchy, Khalfi had unique insights into the recent historic events in the region.

Since I'd had a both a busy schedule and somewhat limited access to media, I was eager to hear his take on what had happened in Tunisia.  I asked Khalfi if the revolt there might spread to Egypt.  It was unlikely that events would follow the same pattern, he said, because in Tunisia the military sided with the protestors, while Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, who came from the military, could likely count on the support of the armed forces.

As has become apparent in the days since, the military likely is the key variable in this volatile situation.  There have been signs that the protestors have embraced the military as (at least) a lesser evil than the police and security forces, and that the military has reciprocated by showing restraint.  As the protests have continued—perhaps culminating in a decisive confrontation today—the military promised that it would not fire on peaceful protestors.  If it abandons Mubarak, it is hard to see him staying in power, and another North African domino may fall.

Whatever the next days and weeks bring, it seems inevitable that change will come to Egypt, but what kind of change that will be is impossible to say at this point.  The collapse of the regime's authority may well leave a power vacuum in Egypt, and that is where the danger lies.

It is inspiring to see people take to the streets demanding freedom.  It is thrilling to imagine a dictator driven from power by the force of popular resistance.  But what replaces the dictatorship?  As the U.S. found out in Iraq, a functioning democracy requires more than the removal of a dictator.

This was the most compelling point that Khalfi made: the necessity of civic institutions in any democratization movement.  He held forth his own country of Morocco as a model of moderate change, a people building those institutions under the relatively progressive leadership of a young monarch who has both political legitimacy as king and religious legitimacy as "Commander of the Faith."

Sadly, Mubarak has spent nearly 30 years undermining such institutions because he saw them as threats to his power.  Now his power is disintegrating, and no one really knows if there will be anything to replace it that can give the Egyptian people a sustainable balance of freedom and order.

That has ever been the problem with regimes that can isolate themselves from public opinion—they seek to make themselves indispensable by destroying viable alternatives, but that tactic itself helps insure that when they finally fall, their societies lack the political resources needed to construct new institutions.

Khalfi painted a picture of Morocco as a nation aware of this pitfall, and working hard to avoid it.  For his sake, and that of the other Moroccans we met on our trip, I hope he's right.

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