Learning democracy in Iraq and Egypt

Rami G Khouri writes: The events in Iraq and Egypt these days are particularly important to follow and understand as best we can, because of what they tell us about how some Arab citizens and leaders behave at stages of the process in which they have the opportunity to shape their own political governance systems. For in Egypt and Iraq, most dramatically, alongside less striking events in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other Arab countries, the most basic elements of state integrity, national identity and the legitimacy of power are all being challenged and reshaped. The bad news is that process includes political intemperance, violence and death. But the good news is that it mostly occurs nonviolently and will keep moving some Arab countries on the slow path to stable democratic republics.

It is not realistic to chart a single dynamic that explains disparate events in different Arab countries. However, the developments across half a dozen countries these days suggest to me that we can spot common features amid the political turbulence and violence all around us. The two most dramatic new examples in the past week to my mind have been the events in Fallujah and other parts of west-central Iraq, and the violence and unrest across several Egyptian cities. In both cases, local citizens have not only challenged the decisions of the democratically elected central government represented by the president of Egypt and the prime minister of Iraq; to some extent, they have also questioned the leader’s legitimacy in both cases, or at least challenged the leader to translate legitimacy into credibility. These are not isolated cases, either, for a deeper crisis of political integrity is spreading across many parts of the Arab world these days.

In Egypt, several local municipalities defiantly ignored the president’s curfew and martial law Monday, taking to the streets in the thousands to play football at 9 p.m., when the curfew was supposed to start. A few, like Mahalla, Suez and Alexandria, have even symbolically declared their autonomy or independence from the central government. They are not challenging the integrity of the Egyptian state, but rather the efficacy and equity of the central government’s policies.

The same applies to the tens of thousands of demonstrators in Iraq, who, like their Egyptian counterparts, are protesting the killing of demonstrators by the security services as well as a wider sense that the central government is not addressing the socio-economic and political rights of all citizens with diligence or fairness. In both cases, many ordinary citizens feel that one group is trying to monopolize power and seize control of the state. The Iraqi and Egyptian leaders have both acted with an authoritarianism that remind us of their predecessors’ policies in many ways., which Arabs now wish to leave behind them for good. [Continue reading…]

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