Why the success of the 25 January revolution resonates beyond Egypt

I recently returned from a trip to Morocco, where a new constitution proposed by King Mohammed VI has just been approved by popular referendum. The new constitution is a mixed bag: it offers some advances, notably recognition of Tamazight, the Berber tongue, as an official language and a pledge for full gender equality – even if it isn't yet clear exactly what practical difference this will make. It rearranges the setup between the parliament, cabinet and judiciary to give them more power, but still puts the king above the fray. Ultimately, he trumps all; he is the "supreme arbiter".

The new constitution has created a fierce debate among Moroccans: for some, it is a beginning, a gradual reform than might ultimately yield more significant fruit; for others, it is a meaningless text that does not really change the political reality of the palace's domination of politics. But one thing almost everyone agrees on is that it would have never existed without the Egyptian revolution.

Moroccans watched the Tunisian uprising with wonder; for a long time, they had envied Tunisia's relative prosperity but could still be glad not to have a police state as brutal and petty. In fact, Morocco could easily claim to be the least repressive of the Maghreb states: it is not led by an insane dictator like Libya; not nearly as dysfunctional and traumatized by civil war as Algeria; and not as creepily repressive as Tunisia was under Ben Ali. Quite a few Moroccans credited their monarchy for only being moderately autocratic compared to their eastern neighbors. But an increasing number decided to look north rather than east, aspiring to be full-fledged democracies like Spain. In recent years, as promises of democratization not materialized, these people became disappointed.

Still stunned by the scenes of Tunisians rebelling, Moroccans began to watch Egyptians defeat a police state and seize Tahrir Square. Again and again, after telling them I had just come from Cairo, people related their joy and elation at the sight of ordinary people mingling with politicians and movie stars on the square, chanting for the fall of Hosni Mubarak.

Within a few days of Mubarak's downfall on 11 February, a group of young Moroccan activists launched a video calling for a march to take place on 20 February. It spread like wildfire, and this first protest march drew so many people from different parts of the country that the organizers were astonished. The 20 February Movement was born. Even when, a few weeks later, King Mohammed re-seized the initiative by announcing a new constitution, the protests continued. A nationwide protest on 20 March was even bigger than the original. The slogans became more daring, copying the "the people want the fall of the regime" chants heard in Tunis, Cairo and, by then, Benghazi.

By late March and early April, however, the tide began to change. The expectations of a swift defeat of Muammar Qadhafi in Libya turned into deadly stalemate, claiming thousands of lives in skirmishes over small towns such as Misrata. In Syria, the uprising that began in small towns like Deraa spread nationwide, but the death toll began to rise. Many Moroccans who had followed the Egyptian revolution with giddiness now grew worried about pushing for too much, too fast. The slowdown and confusion that they saw in Egypt by then, including worrying sectarian clashes, also dampened their enthusiasm.

This probably in part explains why, when the new Moroccan constitution was revealed in mid-June, it already appeared to concede less than the king had promised in March. The regime knew that the enthusiasm for the Arab Spring was now being replaced by fear of chaos. The 20 February Movement now continues, but it is weaker than it was a few months ago. In many respects, from an Egyptian perspective it is reminiscent of the Kefaya movement by the end of 2005: it is disorganized, lacks ideological cohesion (since it is an unlikely alliance of secularists and Islamists), and has had the wind somewhat taken out of its sails by promises of regime-initiated reforms. But then again, no one would have thought in 2005 that Kefaya might inspire, six years later, a nationwide revolution based on the very simple principle it started with: "no" to inheritance of power and "no" to re-election (of Hosni Mubarak). The 20 February Movement may not be targeted at the king, but it is targeted at a very specific type of system of governance that is too unaccountable and undemocratic to continue unopposed.

The Arab Spring is not, as some media narratives put it, a sudden awakening of the region. But that's not quite right: it inspired people across the Middle East who were demoralized by years of fruitless struggles for freedom and dignity. The problem is that its influence can cut both ways: just as its successes give others courage, its failures and setbacks make people cautious. As much as Tunisia's and Egypt's triumphs are models to emulate, Libya’s and Syria's civil wars are cautionary tales. This is but one reason why what happens in Egypt in the medium and long term – whether its revolution is ultimately successful – is important not just to Egyptians, but to others as well.

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