The Monitor's View

Arab Spring's crisis of moral leadership

An Oct. 9 massacre in Egypt shows why the Arab revolutions need moral leaders, not just mass protests, to keep them on track.

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The Arab Spring, like the “Occupy Wall Street” or tea party movements, has snowballed with no single moral leader articulating its aims. A revolution driven by the masses can sometimes work to its advantage.

But an eruption of violence in Egypt last Sunday shows that an unfinished revolution with many political activists often needs a strong moral figure at the front lines.

The violence in Egypt that left 25 dead was the worst incident since the Feb. 11 overthrow of Hosni Mubarak. It began with a protest in Cairo by a group of minority Coptic Christians. By many accounts, the military and a Muslim mob, egged on by state media, gunned down the demonstrators or ran over them. Three soldiers were killed, too.

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The military council temporarily in charge of Egypt has so far reacted only defensively to the massacre, further costing it popular support and casting doubts about its willingness to eventually shift to civilian rule. A delicate transition to democracy, starting with parliamentary elections Nov. 28, is now even more fragile because of a moral vacuum in Cairo.

Since February, Egypt’s revolution has been a model for other Arab peoples. But its example needs help. As one expert on Egypt, Steven Cook at the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a blog after the Oct. 9 incident:

“Who is the Egyptian who has the prestige across communities, political groups, social movements, and activists who can be the badly needed moral conscience necessary to midwifing a new, more decent political order?”

One leading figure who came close to showing moral courage was the finance minister, Hazem el-Beblawi, who also serves as deputy prime minister in the interim civilian government. A French-trained economist, he handed in his resignation Monday because of the “severe breach of the security and safety of society.”

“The government failed in its main responsibility, which is to provide security,” he said, “and it should at least acknowledge its failure to give this issue the effort it needed and apologize.”

Mr. Beblawi’s moral reasoning is reflected in a 2009 paper he wrote about the “unsettled nature of Arab political identity.” He stated that “democracy is unquestionably based on the concept of the rule of law, but its brightest promise lies in the areas of political liberties, participation, changeover of authority and respect for human rights.

“Everyone – governed and governor – is subject to the rule of law, free from arbitrariness and whims.”

Beblawi, however, withdrew his resignation on Wednesday, citing his key role in obtaining foreign loans to rescue Egypt’s worsening economy. The caretaker military council also twisted his arm to stay – perhaps to keep a moral sheen on itself.

From Libya to Bahrain, Arabs in revolt have so far relied on a loose network of idealistic youth to challenge immoral regimes. But they lack a Nelson Mandela, Cory Aquino, Václav Havel, or Aung San Suu Kyi who can be a principled leader to keep their movements nonviolent and on track.

Egypt’s military continues to rely on emergency rule and military trials of civilians. But as Egypt’s largest independent newspaper, Al Masry al-Youm, declared Tuesday after the violence: “The state has lost its prestige, the regime is about to fall apart.”

Egypt and other Arab countries are now in need of top figures with moral leadership.

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