Salahuddin Ayyubi, more familiar as Saladin, would have understood what was happening in Cairo 2011 perfectly. When, eight centuries ago, he set out from Damascus to recapture Jerusalem, he headed not towards any Crusader state dotted across the map of Arab Asia, but marched instead to Cairo to destroy the rotting regime that had infected Egypt with smug impotence. Saladin knew, and said, that an Arab victory was impossible without the mobilisation of the heart of the Arab world. The epicentre had shifted from Baghdad with the decay of the Abbasids, and there it lies still. When Europe began its colonisation project, Napoleon headed for Alexandria, for he knew that the strategic route to both Ottoman Constantinople and British India lay through Egypt. When the British decided it was time to intervene, they sent Lord Cromer to Cairo.
When a dictator falls in Cairo, every other Humpty Dumpty gets a nervous breakdown. All the various kings’ horses, and all the many despots’ men, cannot put them together again. It is now a matter of time, and time has shifted its loyalty from dictators to democrats. It is a trifle awkward to quote from one’s own book, but one of the themes of The Shade of Swords [published in 2002] was that most of the Arab world was between 10 to 15 years away from its French revolution. There are, fortunately, no guillotines, because the 21st century has rediscovered the power of Gandhian non-violence as the ultimate mass weapon against the might of the state. There is no blood on the Nile, there is no stain on the Sphinx, and the people are in power in Cairo.
True, transition is still a work in progress. It would be illusory to declare a premature victory. The dust is still rising in Tunisia, where the ancien régime is fighting a rearguard battle to protect what it has seized from the people over so many decades. Such temptations will doubtless be visible in Egypt as well. But if the elites deny Egypt its liberation, then the anger of today will turn into the rage of tomorrow.
For six decades the consistent strain in the Western discourse has been praise for Israel’s democracy, and castigation of the moribund, when not monstrous, dictatorships of the Arabs. This was a valid, if not fully adequate, explanation for the limited economic and social progress among Arabs. Why then is Tel Aviv on the edge, and the West apprehensive at the prospect of this democratic revolution?
Because democracy does not travel alone. It is always accompanied by nationalism. You can have nationalism without democracy, but you cannot have democracy without nationalism. The West does not really fear the rise of a Muslim Brotherhood as an alternative to dictators, since that is a socio-political movement that can be contained in a crunch. It is worried about an explosion of governments that place the people’s interest above that of sectional regimes at home and their mentors abroad. It was this worry that prevented the West from intervening even when dictators looted their own nations. We do not yet know how much Hosni Mubarak salted away in Swiss and other banks, but rumour puts the figure at a staggering high. Details of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s family are public knowledge. The mass of companies owned by his family is evidence of the power of patronage. Most interestingly, his family controlled the banking system. His brother-in-law Belhassan Trabelsi owned the Bank of Tunisia; his daughter Nesrine had Zitouna Bank and Al Tijari Bank; his second daughter Cyrine owned the Arab International Bank of Tunisia, and his third daughter Ghazoua the Mediobanca. Why go to Switzerland when you have your own bank?
The difference between a dictatorship and a democracy is not very complicated. Governments are vulnerable in the former, but the country is free and stable. Despots seem permanent but under them the nation seethes in below-the-surface turmoil. How long can you keep the lava boiling inside the volcano?
The point may be stretched but is still worth making: is there anything in common between contemporary Cairo and Calcutta? In both cities, one on the knee of the Nile and the other at the foot of the Ganges, the citizen wants the government out after three decades in power. After this the differences begin. The Communists of Bengal have ruled in a democracy, while the Army-backed regime in Cairo has thrived through a cocktail of fear, fraud and ferocity. Cairo’s young cannot trust those who have cheated them for so long, and want change now. Calcutta’s young have no problem whatsoever in waiting for the hour appointed by the Election Commission. There is no need for a jasmine uprising. A democracy is a continuous peaceful political revolution.
Egypt has found its destiny and its destiny will change the world around it.