Nabil Fahmy: “The Future of Democratization Following the Arab Spring”
November 9, 2011
Belfer Center Programs or Projects: The Future of Diplomacy Project
“What happens in Egypt will affect the rest of the region in one way or another”, said Ambassador Nabil Fahmy in his lecture on ‘The Future of Democratization Following the Arab Spring’ on November 7. Fahmy, founding Dean of the School of Public Affairs at the American University in Cairo, is a 2011 Fisher Family Fellow of the Future of Diplomacy Project.
In his speech he identified three main causes of the Egyptian revolution: governance, connectivity and the youth bulge. The gap between the government and the governed in Egypt during the Mubarak years had been a failure of governance, he said. A second gap existed relating to connectivity. In the past, the only way to engage internationally had either been through travel, which had been difficult due to government regulations, or by becoming a diplomat. Satellite television programs and social media sites narrowed this gap. Finally, the current youth bulge had an important effect in creating an environment, in which the potential for action could take hold: people between the ages of 15 and 29 now form the largest segment of the population in Egypt. This generation had limited opportunities for their own futures during the Mubarak regime.
“It created a ‘perfect storm,’“ Fahmy said in reference to the events in Tunisia and their aftermath. Without Tunisia, the revolution in Egypt would not have occurred as it did in the spring of 2011. Fahmy dismissed the argument that the driving force behind the revolution was poverty. Although the Egyptian economy was growing, the income gap between rich and poor was also increasing. Yet, it had little bearing on the initial impetus for the revolution. Fahmy said that during the 19 days of demonstrations in Tahrir Square, none of the protesters mentioned poverty. Instead, the protesters were demanding to have a say in governing their country. A disregard for rules that were not consented to began to emerge among the protesters, for many of them, it was the first time they had seriously challenged the authority of the state in a public manner.
The biggest challenge facing Egypt after the initial euphoria of the revolution was to find a way to develop a new social contract between the government and the governed according to Fahmy. Egyptians and the rest of the Arab world would now have to relearn “how to disagree.” Majorities in elected legislatures would have to learn to respect the rights of minority groups and minorities in elected legislatures would have to accept the results and continue their engagement in electoral politics, he said. The most important aspect of the upcoming elections in Fahmy’s view was whether or not violence would occur. A peaceful election process would be the best result as it would set yet another precedent in the Arab world. With regard to the Egyptian military, Fahmy explained that the key question would be the extent to which it will be subjected to civilian oversight.
Fahmy highlighted that the effect of the revolution on Egypt’s foreign policy would only really be felt in the long term. The groups that led the revolution were primarily concerned with domestic political issues. Egypt’s foreign policy in the short term would therefore likely be reactive, responding to events as they occurred. In the long term, the legitimacy of a democratic process would give the government more leverage in the region. He asserted that Egypt will continue to abide by its core foreign policy positions of moderation and peace with Israel, yet it will have to balance long term strategic objectives with short term domestic political considerations and the opinions of its electorate.
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