Egypt’s Agonizing Choice

First in Tunisia and now in Egypt, the people have spoken and made clear that they do not want to live under authoritarian rule and are fed up with regimes that hold power for decades.

In the end, the voice of the people will be decisive. The Arab elites, Egypt’s neighboring countries and the world powers should understand this and take it into account in their political calculations.

The events now unfolding will have far-reaching consequences for Egypt itself, for the Middle East and for the Muslim world.

Yet a lot of anxiety has surfaced in comments by politicians and the media. Many voice the fear that the popular movement could lead to chaos and then to fundamentalist reaction and confrontation between the Islamic world and the international community. Behind these fears is mistrust of the Egyptian people and of other Arab nations.

For too long, conventional political thinking about the Arab world was based on a false dichotomy: authoritarian regimes or fundamentalism, extremism, terrorism. The leaders of those regimes also seemed to believe in their roles as guardians of stability. Behind the façade, however, severe social and economic problems kept mounting. Stagnating economies, pervasive corruption, the widening chasm between rich and poor, and a life of frustration for millions of young people fueled social unrest.

Egypt is the key country in the Middle East and in the Arab world. Its stable development is in everyone’s interest. But is stability tantamount to living under a perpetual state of emergency, which for nearly three decades “suspended” all rights and freedoms and gave the executive branch unlimited powers, a license to arbitrary rule?

The people who filled Tahrir Square in Cairo and the streets of other Egyptian cities wanted to end this charade. I am sure that most of them equally abhor authoritarianism and extremism, religious or otherwise.

By announcing his decision not to seek another presidential term, Hosni Mubarak in effect recognized that the country’s problems couldn’t be solved within the old system.

Just as everywhere else, the only way forward in the Arab world, with its tortuous history, unique culture and numerous risks and dangers, is toward democracy, with the understanding that the path is difficult and that democracy is not a magic wand.

Mubarak could have played a role in the difficult transition. But that did not happen.

Mubarak made an undeniable contribution to the search for a peaceful settlement of the Middle East conflict, and he has his supporters in Egypt. I met him, and I know he is a man of strong character and willpower. But the majority of Egyptians saw the transition process he announced as nothing but an attempt to play for time. The Supreme Military Council, to which power was handed after the president’s resignation, must keep that in mind.

The equation to be solved in Egypt and other countries of the Arab East has many unknowns. The most unpredictable is the Islamic factor. What is its place in the people’s movement? What kind of Islam will emerge?

In Egypt itself, Islamic groups have so far behaved with restraint, while outside the country some irresponsible and provocative pronouncements have been made.

It would be a mistake to see Islam as a destructive force. The history of Islamic culture includes periods when it was a leader in the development of world civilization. Its contributions to science, education and literature cannot be disputed. Islamic doctrines strongly advocate social justice and peace. An Islam that emphasizes those values can have great potential.

Already, democratic processes and genuine socioeconomic achievements in countries like Turkey, Indonesia and Malaysia offer optimism.

Everyone involved in Egypt’s transition must now behave with utmost responsibility and a sense of balanced judgment and action. The lessons to be learned from the events in Egypt concern more than just the Arab world.

Similar regimes exist just about everywhere. Their ages and origins differ. Some resulted from rollbacks that followed popular democratic revolutions. Others took hold due to a favorable trade environment and high commodity prices. Many have focused on speeding economic development, often with success.

At a certain point, many observers concluded that these regimes and the people had struck a kind of bargain: economic growth in exchange for freedom and human rights.

All these regimes have one serious flaw: the gap between government and people, the lack of feedback, which sooner or later leads to unaccountable and uncontrolled power.

The leaders of such regimes have been served a warning. They may continue to persuade themselves that their case is different and that they have the situation “under control.” Yet they must wonder how sustainable that control is. In their hearts, they must understand that it can’t last forever, because much of it is a sheer formality.

So the inevitable question emerges: What next? Continue to go through the motions of fake democracy, which invariably gives the ruling group 80 percent to 90 percent of the vote? Or, just maybe, seek a transition to genuine democracy?

It’s an agonizing choice, and the second alternative is daunting. It means ensuring that there is a real opposition, and knowing that a real opposition will come to power sooner or later. Then abuses will come to light, the networks of corruption leading to the top will be broken, and someone must be held accountable for all that. Is that a prospect an authoritarian regime wants to contemplate?

One needs to muster courage for real change, because power without accountability cannot last. This is what hundreds of thousands of Egyptian citizens, whose faces we’ve seen on television, stated loud and clear.

Looking at those faces, one wants to believe that Egypt’s democratic transition will succeed. That would be a good example, one the entire world needs.

By Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union from 1985 until its collapse in 1991.

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