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The Arab revolution grows up

Editorial cartoonists around the country react to the protests in Egypt.

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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Nobody said it better than Hosni Mubarak: "Our eventual goal is to create an equal society, not a society of privileges and class distinctions. Social justice is the first rule for peace and stability in society." But that was in November 1981, a few weeks after he had become president of Egypt.

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Over the next 30 years, Mubarak became a symbol not of equality but of a deep corruption - financial, political and cultural - that enveloped Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. He grew arrogant like a king, fancying that he could pass on his dynasty to his son; he ignored advice for reform, doing just enough to keep critics at bay; he shamelessly played upon Western fears of Islamic radicalism.

The transition from the Mubarak era began yesterday, with the president's announcement that he won't seek reelection in September. He's on his way out, but it's still far from clear where Egypt is heading.

The most hopeful sign for the future is that the Egyptian military now holds the balance of power. It is the one institution that Mubarak has not been able to corrupt. Indeed, across the turbulent Arab world, it's a paradox that strong armies are now platforms for change.

"The army is the middle class in camouflage," says Jamil Mroueh, a Lebanese journalist. Soldiers are embraced on the streets of Cairo because they symbolize the independence and integrity of the nation. It's a throwback to the paradigm Samuel Huntington described in his 1957 study "The Soldier and the State": A strong army can allow a transition to democracy and economic reform.

At the heart of the current Arab crisis is the inability of leaders to deliver on reforms they knew were necessary. They chickened out for various reasons - fear of offending domestic power brokers; fear of Muslim radicals; and yes, sadly, fear that the reform agenda was seen as part of an elitist, "pro-American" conspiracy to weaken the Arabs.

I've watched these reform efforts rise and fall over the past decade, often traveling to interview leaders about their ideas for change. King Abdullah II of Jordan commissioned an ambitious set of reforms called the "National Agenda"; he abandoned it in 2005 under pressure from an "old guard" that was profiting from the status quo. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria made an effort to shake up the corrupt Baath Party, but he balked at larger political reforms. Abdullah, who dismissed his cabinet on Tuesday, and Assad, who made upbeat comments to the Wall Street Journal recently, are now scrambling to buff the old reformist message.

The reformists seemed ascendant in the first half of the last decade: In 2004, the Arab Human Development Report and the Alexandria Declaration both sounded a clear call for change. But it's wishful thinking to suggest, as Elliott Abrams did last Sunday in The Post, that the persistence of these reform ideas validates President George W. Bush's policies.

In truth, wars that Bush either started or couldn't prevent - in Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza - blunted reform hopes. Bush meant well by his "freedom agenda," but he pulled the reformists down with him.

That's why Assad today is less vulnerable than Mubarak was: His regime is at least as corrupt and autocratic, but it has remained steadfastly anti-American and anti-Israel. Hard as it is for us in the West to accept, this rejectionism adds to Assad's power, whereas Mubarak was diminished by his image as the West's puppet.

Washington debate about the new Arab revolt tends to focus on the U.S. role: Has President Obama blundered by not forcing Mubarak out sooner? Should America abandon other oligarchs before it's too late? But this isn't about us. If Washington's well-chosen emissary, former ambassador to Cairo Frank Wisner, has helped broker Mubarak's departure and a stable transition to new elections, so much the better. But Egyptians don't need America to chart their course.

It's encouraging to see that the demonstrators in the streets of Cairo, Amman and Sanaa are not shouting the same tired slogans about "death to America" and "death to Israel" that for several generations have substituted for political debate. And it's reassuring, as well, that the Muslim Brotherhood and other militant groups have so far played it cool. They know that the past "decade of jihad" was ruinous for Muslims and is unpopular.

"This is not about slogans," says Mroueh. "The real issue is life: I want an apartment, I want a job." And it's about the dignity that comes from these essential human needs. In reaching out to the military, the protesters have chosen the right allies for a path of stability and change.

davidignatius@washpost.com


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