Three decades ago angry young men changed the rules of the game in the Middle East. They deposed the Shah of Iran, attacked and took over Islam’s holiest shrine in Mecca and then hordes turned into jihadis to fight the Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
The world has paid a high price for what happened in 1979, as it has battled a befuddling but toxic compact of Islamic extremism, terrorism and a widening chasm between the western and Muslim countries.
What’s happening on Egypt’s street today will change the global contours again. That, for many in the Arab world and elsewhere, is the big challenge — a test that could either compound the misery of the rulers or the people. At stake is the long-term stability of a region that matters a huge lot to the world, not only because parts of it feeds its need for oil but also because it is the cradle of an ancient civilisation which today stands at the doorstep of a revolution. How do we deal with it?
Egypt’s problems of course stem from a combination of rising unemployment, a political system that was stagnating at best for the past many years and a large young population looking for jobs that weren’t there — all very good reasons for a revolution, as we have seen in many parts of the world in the past.
Hosni Mubarak’s reluctance to leave has only aggravated matters as his supporters and protesters have clashed on the streets of Cairo. Blood begets blood, and the blood of young people splattered on the streets only strengthens the resolve of others. The Egyptian president has done wrong to himself and to his countrymen by delaying his departure. More importantly, he has done wrong by allowing his country and people to stagnate all these years through use of force.
Most young people in the region — except probably in a few oil-rich Gulf nations where expatriates dominate the population — have felt disenfranchised for long under stifling governments, widespread corruption and lack of opportunities. They have seen the rest of the world move into the Internet age. They have seen how education and technology have improved the lives of their counterparts in the West and the East. The Arab youth has lived in hope all this while, waiting to be able to express their views, to find a job that pays for the family and live in a society where aspirations are respected and they have the freedom to voice their views.
Statistics show that nearly 25 million of Egypt’s 81 million people are below the age of 29 and youth unemployment is anywhere between 22 and 25 per cent. These are frustrated people eager to contribute, but without opportunities. In the years to come these numbers are only going to rise, given that traditional state institutions that provided help are under immense pressure due to demographic shifts. With youth waiting for up to three years in some cases to get their first jobs, the social fabric is under stress too. A 30-year-old former Egyptian colleague once told me that he was desperate to find a wife, except that he could not afford one even though he so keenly wanted to start a family.
Long-lasting governments in the region, many backed by the United States, have done little to address the aspirations of their people, and that cocksure lethargy is now translating into trouble. There are hard lessons to be learnt from the streets of Cairo — for all governments in the region, including Israel, which has consistently managed to find reasons not to engage in a meaningful dialogue with the Palestinians. Stalemate — whether political or economic — doesn’t ever work. Reforms are necessary because change is the only constant.
A lot of what is happening in Cairo and elsewhere is also about Egyptian nationalism. The country, led by the likes of Gamal Abdel Nasser and then Anwar Sadat, had for decades provided leadership to the Arab world, as it emerged from the throes of its colonial past and set about building a future for its people.
Since Mubarak emerged from under a pile of chairs at a Cairo stadium after soldiers killed Sadat and others 30 years ago to take leadership of his shocked nation, things have changed for Egypt. Mubarak took power just two years after the cataclysmic events that seeded extremist Islamic thinking in the region, and he used that potential threat well to keep opposition in check and allies happy. Egypt’s peace treaty — signed by Sadat — with Israel ensured Cairo’s strong relations with the United States and a degree of stability in a region where brutal wars have been fought in the past.
Khaled Fahmy, chairman of the history department at the American University in Cairo, recently wrote: “Mubarak’s regime, its strong ties with the US and Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel all stand to suffer — paradoxically — from Mubarak’s unimaginative, cautious attitude — one that has forsaken the true aspirations of the Egyptian people and undermined the stability of the Egyptian society.”
Whenever Mubarak goes, and he will, expect another round of changes — maybe as shocking as those after the events in 1979 — that will redefine ties in the volatile region and the world once again. The big challenge that his successors will face will be to stabilise the country and its status through imaginative and acceptable internal and external policies which would once again earn for it the Arab leadership role that was lost during Mubarak’s rule. That would also redefine change for the Arab world.
The author is former editor of Khaleej Times, Dubai and currently president, public affairs at Genesis Burson-Marsteller, Delhi