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Vision: What's Next in Egypt and the Middle East?

What will be the fate of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in a staggering show of aggressive nonviolence?

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Three mummies were recently found in an underground temple in Luxor, Egypt. Translated hieroglyphs identified them as the Clash of Civilizations, the End of History, and Islamophobia. They ruled in Western domains into the second decade of the twenty-first century before dying and being embalmed.

That much is settled. Without them, the Middle East is already a new world that must be understood in a new way.  For one thing, Egypt, that previously moribund land of “stability” and bosom buddy of whoever was in power in Washington, has been hurled into the Middle East’s New Great Game.  The question is: What will be its fate -- and that of the millions of Egyptians who took to the streets in a staggering show of aggressive nonviolence in January and February?

It is, of course, impossible to say, especially since shadow play is the norm and the realities of rule are hard to discern. In a country where “politics” has for decades meant the army, it’s notable that the key actor supposedly coordinating the “transition to democracy” remains an appointee of Pharaoh Hosni Mubarak, Field Marshall Mohamed Hussein Tantawi from the Supreme Army Council.  At least, popular pressure has forced Tantawi’s military junta to appoint a new transitional Prime Minister, the Tahrir-Square-friendly former transport minister Essam Sharaf.

Keep in mind that the hated emergency laws from the Mubarak era, part of what provoked the Egyptian uprising to begin with, are still in place and that the country’s intellectuals, its political parties, labor unions, and the media all fear a silent counterrevolution. At the same time, they almost uniformly insist that the Tahrir Square revolution will neither be hijacked nor rebranded by opportunists. As the ideological divide between liberalism, secularism, and Islamism disintegrated when the country’s psychological Wall of Fear came down, lawyers, doctors, textile workers -- a range of the country’s civil society -- remain clear on one thing: they will never settle for a theocracy or a military dictatorship. They want full democracy.

No wonder what that implies makes Western diplomatic circles tremble. An Egyptian army even remotely accountable to an elected civilian government will not, for instance, collaborate in the Israeli siege of Gaza’s Palestinians, or in CIA renditions of terror suspects to the country’s prisons, or blindly in that monstrous farce, the Israeli-Palestinian “peace process.”

Meanwhile, there are more pedestrian matters to deal with: How, for example, will the army-directed transition towards September elections make the economic numbers add up? In 2009, Egypt’s import bill was $56 billion, while the country’s exports only added up to $29 billion. Tourism, foreign aid, and borrowing helped fill the gap. The uprising sent tourism into a tailspin and who knows what kinds of aid and loans anyone will fork over in the months to come.

Meanwhile, the country will have to import no less than 10 million tons of wheat in 2011 at about $3.3 billion (if grain prices don’t continue to rise) to keep people at least half-fed. This is but a small part of Mubarak’s tawdry legacy, which includes 40 million Egyptians, almost half the population, living on less than $2 a day, and it’s not going to disappear overnight, if at all.

Hit by a rolling, largely peaceful revolution all across MENA (the newly popular acronym for the Middle East and Northern Africa), Washington and an aging Fortress Europe, filled with fear, wallow in a mire of perplexity. Even after the dust from those rebellious Northern African winds settles, it’s hardly a given that they will grasp just how all the cultural stereotypes used to explain the Middle East for decades also managed to vanish.

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