Egypt

Is There a Charter 77-Type Movement Underneath the People Power Uprising in the Middle East?

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Cool building

Alexander Smoltczyk of Spiegel International, writing a few days back, semi-nominates one:

The Library of Alexandria, the most famous of the ancient world, was burnt down when Julius Caesar captured the city in 48 BC. Standing in its place since 2002 is the "Bibliotheca Alexandrina," which faces the sea like a large tilted disk.

Over the years, the institution has hosted workshops and lectures on democracy, reforms and religion. In one room, there is a copy of Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses." In March 2004, Arab intellectuals and civil society institutions composed the "Alexandria Declaration" here, a sort of "Charter 77" for reform in the Arab world. While police stations were being burnt down and the court buildings and the governor's residence were stormed, students formed a protective chain in front of their library. They don't want to see another fire destroy their written treasures.

"It's a wonderful moment," says Ismail Serageldin, the library's director and one of Egypt's leading intellectuals, breaking the complete silence in his office. Serageldin holds 30 honorary degrees and a professorship at the "Collège de France," the Pantheon of intellectual life in France. Despite everything that's happening, Serageldin is still convinced this revolution will reach its goal.

"Victor Hugo once wrote: 'No one can resist an idea whose time has come,'" Serageldin says.

What is this Alexandria Declaration? A pan-Arab document produced by various intellectuals and religious leaders calling for broad democratization, free elections, term limits, nondiscrimination against women, and other liberalization across the Middle East. And like Czechoslovakia's revolutionary source code of Charter 77, the Alexandria Declaration asks its target countries to abide by the letter of the various international covenants and treaties they've signed. Some higlights from the document [PDF]:

As representatives of Arab civil society, when we talk of democratic systems, we mean, without ambiguity, genuine democracy. This may differ in form and shape from one country to another due to cultural and historical variations; but the essence of democracy remains the same. Democracy refers to a system where freedom is paramount value that ensures actual sovereignty of the people and government by the people through political pluralism, leading to transfer of power. Democracy is based on respect of all rights for all the people, including freedom of thought and expression, and the right to organize under the umbrella of effective political institutions, with an elected legislature, an independent judiciary, a government that is subject to both constitutional and public accountability, and political parties of different intellectual and ideological orientations.

This genuine democracy requires guaranteed freedom of expression in all its forms, topmost among which is freedom of the press, and audio-visual and electronic media. It calls for adopting free, regular, centralized and decentralized elections to guarantee transfer of power and the rule of the people. It also requires the highest possible level of decentralization that would allow greater self-expression by local communities, unleashing their creative potentials for culturally contributions to human development in all fields. This is closely linked to achieving the highest level of transparency in public life, to stamping out corruption within the framework of establishing good governance and support for human rights provided according to international agreements. The rights of women, children and minorities, the protection of the fundamental rights of those charged with criminal offences and the humane treatment of citizens are on top of the list. All this is in keeping with accepted practices in those societies that have preceded us on the road to democratic development.

Other specific demands include "Abolishing arrest or detention as a result of free expression in all Arab countries and releasing all prisoners who are not put on trial," "Freeing the press and media from all forms of governmental influences or hegemony," "Encouraging privatization programs, including in the banking sector," and a bunch of other interesting stuff.

Does it amount to a hill of beans, and will either the stated aims or the people behind them have a seat at the table when the region's new systems are created? I have no idea. But contra the Glenn Becks of the world, I am struck by how much the language of this marvelous 18-day revolt has been the language of positive and non-sectarian liberation, especially in the realm of expression, and it is sure better than not that there exists some intellectual framework for a kind of liberalization many in the West have assumed is impossible.