A year older, but is Egypt any wiser?

There’s that space between Christmas and New Year’s Eve where “reviews” of the year come into fashion in the media

H.A. Hellyer
H.A. Hellyer
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There’s that space between Christmas and New Year’s Eve where “reviews” of the year come into fashion in the media. Describing the accomplishments, achievements and attainments of the past 12 months – and the failings, the flaws and the faults of the same. As an observer of the Arab world, I find much of the latter – and precious little of the former. I would like to think better is more likely in 2015 – but while I make no predictions, I do suspect it is more probably things may get worse before they get better. Nevertheless – the story – and various struggles – will continue.

In the past 24 hours alone, for example, 23 pro-democracy campaigners in Egypt have had sentences of two years jail time against them confirmed. They’d been found guilty of taking part in an unlicensed protest – and after appeal, their jail time was reduced, but still resulted in a two-year term.

Many are tempted to view the Egyptian story as having come to an end – or as having come full circle

H.A. Hellyer

These were young, unarmed, wholly harmless protesters. Amnesty International noted two of the protesters as “prisoners of conscience”: Yara Sallam and Sana Seif. Sallam is 29 while Seif is 20-years-old. Unless the Court of Cassation decides otherwise (the next level of the judicial system), those young people will be treated like common criminals and jailed for two years. This, in a country that now boasts a constitution that protects the right of assembly – and whose political map of the past three years is unthinkable without mass mobilisation. And yet, these young people are in jail. There are many more who remain alongside them. There are, unfortunately, quite a large number of cases that trouble many when it comes to Egypt. One hopes that 2015 will begin with better news on that front – but there will be many cases that people will be watching with concern.

The old guard

In Tunisia, the country completed its post-uprising roadmap. The country’s population chose not a brand new face that was deeply invested in the country’s revolution but someone who was far closer to the old guard. It’s not quite what many pro-revolutionary Tunisians would have expected and hoped for four years after the departure of Ben Ali – but it is what they chose. One hopes that the most noble achievement of that revolution, a constitution born of consensus, will be an effective tool in 2015 Tunisia, and far beyond – far beyond 2015, and far beyond Tunisia.

Across the region, alas, there aren’t many success stories in 2014. On the contrary – 2014 was the year when ISIS became its most powerful – but it was also the year, fortunately, where it was put on the back-foot. There will undoubtedly be more of a push against it in Syria and Iraq over the coming weeks and months – but that may not be enough. There are ISIS affiliates in operation far beyond that territory – they are not the extension of ISIS that its propagandists would like to claim, but they are worrying at the same time. One hopes that in 2015, the region, and the international community, will take those forces on with greater rigour, precision and accuracy – because, indeed, leaving them be is simply not an option.

Finding alternatives

Beyond the “hard” issues of counter-terrorism, there is the “softer” one in the region – and that is the providing of an alternative to the maniacal dogmatism of ISIS. It’s a dastardly ideological construct – but it is attractive because it gives a sense of pride to those who follow it. In the four years since the Arab revolutionary uprisings began, there have been many genuine stories of bravery, commitment and heroism. But to speak of a new politics – a new political ideology, that is sown in the soil of this region, and which addresses the needs of it in a truly progressive fashion? That is lacking – and it seems very few have tried. In the absence of that, the alternatives of extremism on the one side, or authoritarianism on the other, will always find large audiences. That has to change. But, again, unfortunately – one doesn’t see the signs of that happening in 2015.

The Irish freedom fighter, Michael Collins, who died in 1922 after having essentially fought the British Empire to a standstill, gained, to a large degree, Ireland’s freedom. Only six years earlier in 1916, he had surrendered at the disastrous “Easter Rising,” At the time, one could probably never have imagined that within a few years he would have turned from captured prisoner to statesman.

2014 was certainly not the 1922 for those who support a freer and more open Arab world – and it is unlikely 2015 will be that either. Nevertheless – in between the Easter Rising and the Anglo Irish Treaty that eventually led to a process that resulted in Ireland’s freedom, there was a lot of work that was done in an incredibly short amount of time. It was possible.

In December 2010, I remember driving down the streets of Cairo, feeling that the people of that ancient and noble city had really begun to come apart at the seams. If you’d asked me, I never would have dreamed that a month later, millions would have taken to the streets demanding change.

Many are tempted to view that story as having come to an end – or “come full circle.” It’s an easy temptation to give in to – but one suspects that it’s far too early to declare that, or to become despondent about the future indefinitely. Things are probably going to be rough for a while longer but something has changed since 2010. This is history unfolding and there is much more to come, and much of it is exceedingly unpredictable. The story continues to evolveand we wait to see how.


Dr. H.A. Hellyer, non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institution, the Royal United Services Institute, and the Harvard University Kennedy School, previously held senior posts at Gallup and Warwick University. Follow him on Twitter at @hahellyer.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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