If one lesson is to be learned from the remarkable events unfolding in Egypt, it is that Arab public opinion matters. For too long Arab voices have not been listened to, nor have Arab sensibilities or aspirations been respected. The Egyptian people have not only risen up, demanding to be heard, they have also challenged other Arabs and the West to pay attention to what they are saying.
Last Thursday night, I watched a remarkable scene unfolding on television. As my dinner partner, Patrick Seale, and I sat transfixed watching the BBC, there, on one half of a split screen, was president Hosni Mubarak making a last ditch effort to save his rule. On the other half screen were throngs in Tahrir Square.
The disconnect was real. Mubarak was talking, but he simply wasn’t listening. He played every card at his disposal: the caring father, the patriot, the xenophobe, the reformer and more. Maybe, I thought, he was reaching out beyond the square to those he thought might also be listening. But if his imagined and hoped-for audience was there, they were not responding. The crowd in the square was listening, and his lack of responsiveness to their concerns only served to inflame them and deepen their resolve.
It was the immovable object squaring off against the irresistible force. In the end, the force won. The protesters rejected Mubarak’s promises and his appeals as “too little, too late”, and began to pour out beyond the square to take new space and demonstrate their discontent.
Now the president is gone. The throngs have won this round, and they are empowered to seek more change. It is not the end, just the beginning, of a process, the outcome of which is still uncertain. With the military in charge, it will now be up to them to listen.
Questions remain. Will the military cede space and open the political process to real reform? Will they be more responsive to the growing aspirations of their young who are demanding jobs in an expanding economy where wealth is shared, an opportunity to participate in the shaping of the future of their country, and the freedom to express their discontent with and seek to change policies they find deplorable, without fear of repression?
In some ways, after 11 February much has changed. In other ways, the struggle remains the same. A movement that has won a round now becomes a potentially formidable force. But a regime that fears losing control is also a force that must be reckoned with. In the weeks and months ahead we will see this drama play out in the streets and in negotiations. The constitution must be changed. Mubarak had promised as much. The concerns of the demonstrators have been acknowledged by the military, who have said they are listening. Now we will see if they, in fact, were.
The problem of not listening to Arab voices is not only a problem for those presidents who have fallen or those who are still at risk; it is a problem for the West as well. For too long, the US, Great Britain and others have ignored the concerns and sensibilities of Arab people. Arabs have been treated as if they were pawns to be moved about on the board. While those in the West paid attention to their own needs and politics, Arabs were left to make do or accommodate themselves to realities created for them, as the West sought to protect its interests, not theirs.
This is not a new phenomenon. The cavalier dismissal of Arab voices began with Lord Balfour, who famously rejected the first survey of Arab opinion conducted for US president Woodrow Wilson at the end of World War I. When the survey found Arabs overwhelming rejecting the European powers’ plans to carve up the Arab East into British and French mandatory entities, and the creation of a Jewish National Home in Palestine, Balfour balked saying, “we do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the present inhabitants of the country… Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad… is of far greater import than the desire and prejudices of the Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
As blatant as that rejection was, this practice of ignoring Arab concerns did not end. Until this day, all too often the West has acted across the Middle East as if Arabs were objects without sensibilities or concerns. The US invaded Iraq without understanding the impact this might have on Arab opinion. The West has continued to ignore Palestinian suffering and aspirations (recall Condoleezza Rice’s dismissal of the plight and rights of Palestinian refugees with a casual, “bad things happen in history”). And the US has engaged in widespread profiling and other forms of deplorable treatment of Arabs and Muslims, paying no attention to the toll that these and other wildly unpopular policies were having on the legitimacy of Arab governments who were Western friends and allies.
Now all this must of necessity change. When the Egyptian people organised themselves demanding to be heard they introduced a new and potentially transformative factor into the political equation of the region. It will no longer be possible to operate as if Arab public opinion does not matter. It will no longer be possible to act as if policies can be imposed and blindly accepted.
No longer will the West be able to consider only the Israeli internal debate or the consequences on Israeli opinion in its calculations. Arabs have been inspired by Egypt and empowered to believe that their voices must be heard and respected. It will make life more complicated for Western and some Arab policy-makers. But this complication is a good thing, as it represents change that has been a long time coming.
As US President Barack Obama has said, this is just the beginning, and after today nothing will be same. The reality is that this transformation will not only affect Egypt. The change that is coming will be bigger than any of us can imagine.