Six decades after King Farooq of Egypt invited the heads of states of Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Syria to form the Arab League, it is Egypt, now a republic, that was invited to join the Gulf Cooperation Council, an Arab body made up mostly of recently formed monarchical countries. Does this move signify a decline in Egypt’s fortunes?
In reality, it is in the interest of the Arab Gulf countries as well as the wider Middle East region for Egypt to blossom into a full, functioning democracy.
A democratic Egypt will carry the necessary weight to lobby for Arab causes internationally much more than a dictatorship ever could. Perhaps one day, like Brazil, South Africa and India, Egypt will be a serious contender for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council.
Arabs must also understand that, although a rising global star, Turkey — which until a century ago controlled large swathes of the Arab world — will always be a bridging state rather than an integral part of the Arab world, for historical and linguistic reasons. It simply cannot replace Egypt.
Ultimately, the best way for Egyptians to ascertain their strength as a nation is to hold free and fair elections. A case in point is the Iron Curtain states; those democratized are regarded with high esteem whereas those who continue to be ruled with an iron fist are regarded as pariahs. The Egyptian leadership, along with other Arab leaders, must understand that with every step they take toward democratization, the more respect and weight they will carry both internationally and within their own states.
Egyptians need not look elsewhere for inspiration: their own intellectual elite are best placed to oversee the transformation into a democracy, perhaps with some counsel from developing states that went through similar metamorphoses.
The Arab world will never be truly secure unless Egypt is a strong, independent and democratic state. As Egypt undergoes major internal changes, it’s natural for it to prioritize internal challenges and demands over regional and international concerns. Many Arabs hope that Egypt can overcome this transitional phase quickly so it can rightfully reclaim its regional leadership role.
This article was originally published in The New York Times on October 20, 2011.