[Viewpoint] And free flows the Nile

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[Viewpoint] And free flows the Nile

For 18 days, during the ebb and flow of protest, it did not seem possible that the end of the Egyptian revolution would come so suddenly, in a terse announcement that lasted no more than a half-minute: “President Hosni Mubarak has relinquished office...” With that, amid roars of victory, an era ended, reaffirming the old saying that “the graveyards of the world are full of those who considered themselves indispensable to their nations.”

In the days and weeks ahead, there could arise occasions when the news from Cairo is not uplifting, but let us never forget that Egypt has taken a giant step, which in reality is a giant step for all Arabs. After all, Egypt is the heart, brain and nerve center of the Arab world. True, it once spawned the radical Muslim Brotherhood, but it also gave birth to Islamic socialism and anti-colonialism, Arab unity and now a democratic affirmation of the people’s will. Pernicious talk that Arabs do not want democracy has been exposed as the big lie it is.

Egypt, in the great Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore’s memorable words, is the land “where the head is [now] held high and the mind is [now] without fear.?.?.” The consequences will be vast. Ancient Arab lands are bestirred. Decades-old, apparently immovable autocracies are finding their hold on power unhinged; change is invading their static environs. Yesterday’s treaties, particularly those with the United States and Israel, will no longer inspire the same type of confidence they have long had as instruments of state policy.

Memory of these 18 days is so crowded that it is difficult to separate one event from another, one phase from the next: the dramatic, the moving, the bizarre, and the unreal from the bathetic. But the thread that united all, the theme that remained unerringly constant, was the yearning for “change” - immediate, real and tangible, not a promise or a tantalizing, unreachable mirage.

Will this yearning travel beyond the Nile, as it did from Tunis to Cairo? This question haunts other Arab portals of power. And not just Arab; globally, foreign policies are being hurriedly - and somewhat confusedly - revised and rewritten. This is why U.S. policy oscillated so disconcertingly from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s “Do not rush the pace or else the pro-democracy movement could well be hijacked” to President Barack Obama’s emphatic call for “change now.”

Of course, a grave question arises about the now-ruling Supreme Council of the Military High Command in Egypt: How can the enforcers of the status quo become the agents of change? But, then, military rule is only a temporary measure, or so we reason.

The great Tunisian poet Abul-Qasim al-Shabi has captured poignantly the spirit of Egypt’s saga: “If one day the people want life, then fate will arise .?.?. night fade away, chains broken.?.?.” That, in essence, is what the young in Egypt have done. Their idiom is current; their instruments of change are today’s electronic media. They - and we - are very far from the world that Mubarak, or the great Gamal Abdel Nasser, knew and understood.

The Egyptian revolution now faces the exacting task that confronts all successful revolutions: how to define the future. Like the Ottoman Empire’s fragmentation in 1922 or Nasser’s overthrow of King Farouk’s regime in 1952, the current transformation, too, must be shaped. And how that future is shaped will determine whether or not Mubarak’s end marks the beginning of political transformation throughout the Middle East.

That is the possibility that is shaking governments from Washington to Beijing. It is not just the reliability of the Suez Canal and oil exports that are now in doubt; decades of fixed strategic certainties must now be re-examined.

Consider Israel, which has watched the events in Cairo with a degree of worry unfelt since January 1979, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini unseated the Shah of Iran. That strategic nightmare cost Israel and the U.S. their closest ally in the region, one that was soon transformed into an implacable enemy.

Israel’s two most recent wars - against Hezbollah in Lebanon in 2006, and against Hamas in Gaza in 2009 - were fought against groups sponsored, supplied, and trained by Iran. Clearly, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations will also now lie unattended as Israel concentrates on developments in Egypt. Above all, Israel must wonder if the peace treaty with Egypt will hold, and, if not, how to carry out the massive restructuring of its defense posture that will be required.

But it is not only the fate of Israel that has now shocked U.S. policy, in particular, to its core. Egypt, after all, has been the cornerstone of the United States’ balancing act in the Middle East - and the Islamic world - for three decades. The Egypt-Israel peace treaty has kept Egypt comfortably neutralized, freeing the U.S. to commit its strategic resources elsewhere. In turn, Egypt, propped up by massive U.S. aid, has secured the region from a larger conflagration, even though the Israel-Palestine conflict has continued to smolder.

Herein lies the core of the dilemma for the United States: it wants Egypt’s basic state apparatus to survive, so that the levers of power do not fall into the wrong hands. This requires the U.S. to be seen as siding with the public’s demand for change, yet to avoid being identified with political immobility.

There is reason to feel reassured by Obama’s reactions. He termed Mubarak’s departure a display of “the power of human dignity,” adding that “the people of Egypt have spoken, their voices have been heard, and Egypt will never be the same.”

But nothing that Obama, or anyone else, says can answer the question now occupying the attention of senior U.S. officials: Will the coming of popular sovereignty to Egypt inevitably lead to anti-Americanism?

*Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
The writer a former Indian finance minister, foreign minister and defense minister.

By Jaswant Singh
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