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Democratic transition in Egypt: How difficult can it get?

A Cairo seminar on the challenges of democratic transitions saw heated debate, anxiety and relief as experts from Portugal, Spain, India and Turkey spoke on their countries' experiences of democratisation

Lina El-Wardani , Monday 30 May 2011
national referendum
Egyptian Christian women cast their vote during a national referendum, in a polling center at a school in Cairo (Photo: Reuters)
Views: 2661
Views: 2661

A seminar on the challenges of democratic transition ended in Cairo Sunday, after two days of discussions among a group of scholars and intellectuals, from Egypt, Tunisia, Portugal, Spain, India and Turkey. The seminar was organised by the Arab Forum for Alternatives (AFA) and the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS).

The aim of the conference was to share the experience of other countries that witnessed revolutions and managed to complete democratic transition, such as Spain and Portugal, as well as countries that managed to shift to a diverse secular system, such as India and Turkey.

In his introduction, Amr El-Shobaki, political analyst and AFA director, said that "this meeting is not like any other: we used to talk about democratic transition as if it is a farfetched dream. Now we are talking about something tangible. After 30 years of authoritarian regime, Egyptians managed to overthrow Mubarak and are now building a new Egypt."

Álvaro de Vasconcelos, director of the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) commented: "You feel bad because you accepted Mubarak for 30 years. We accepted Salazar and Franco for over 40. You are not alone. Although we always dreamt of change and could visualise it, we were still very surprised when it took place in Portugal."

The conference was organised last year in Paris, but the programme was enriched by the revolution and participants were more eager to attend. Although everyone was happy with Egypt's revolution, anxiety was apparent among Egyptian participants. This was reflected in persistent questions about whether Egypt would be able to move safely to a democratic and secular state, or whether the Islamists or military would take over.

"In April 1974, when the Portuguese revolution broke out, there was a military coup and we were not sure if it was good or bad. Just like in Egypt, you can't be sure; but we were in Tahrir on Friday and we saw how proud you are of your revolution. Democratic transitions are very difficult. Spain learned from Portugal, and hopefully Libya will learn from Egypt and so on. We really hope the Arab Spring succeeds in its democratic transition movement," said Vasconcelos.

Juan Antonio Yañez-Barnuevo, Spanish minister of Exterior Affairs and Cooperation said this was his second visit to Egypt in two months. "We want to be here, and we want to support change. Thirty-five years ago I participated in Spain's revolution. Change in Spain was part of a big wave of change in Southern Europe and that helped us a great deal. We started with small steps, first with elections until it appeared that people wanted more. Then came negotiations and social forces came together. Then came trade unions, and eventually the government changed. The transition was smooth and accepted because the international community and the European community were sympathetic."

He added that although Egypt's situation is different in that Egypt and Tunisia are leading the change in the Arab world, and because of the international financial crisis, "you have Europe's sympathy. And we all saw what happened at the G8. Everyone is looking forward to helping Egypt."

The session entitled the "Egyptian constitutional assembly" on the challenge of drafting a new constitution witnessed a heated debate. The session was headed by Judge Hesham Bastawisi, a possible presidential candidate. He opened the floor by introducing three main issues that he felt make the Egyptian revolution unique: the absence of a clear scenario for the transition period, the lack of agreement between the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) and the revolution forces, and economic and security problems.

Mohamed Nour Farhat, a professor of law, said the constitution is now a top priority. He criticised the course adopted by the military council in first amending the constitution and later issuing a constitutional declaration. The committee charged with drawing up the amendments was appointed not elected. "The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) was the only group represented in the committee. Then there was the simplistic 'Yes' or 'No' question on six articles, while the subsequent constitutional declaration included 70 articles. We don't know of any referendum in history in which Egyptians voted 'No.' Now the struggle in Egypt has changed; it is no longer authoritarianism versus liberal forces; it is lslamic versus civil or secular," said Farhat.

"At first I thought it was only a technical matter that wouldn’t affect the future of the country, but I was mistaken. Now the parliament will assign a committee that will rewrite the constitution, and we know the only organised force capable of running and succeeding in the elections is the MB. So the next constitution is in danger. Our modern state is in danger," added Farhat.

Here Pedro Bacelar de Vasconcelos, National Coordinator, Alliance of Civilisations at the Human Rights Research Centre in Portugal said they had had a similar situation in 1974. The only opposition force was the communists, and there was a wide debate in Portugal after the revolution. "Should we legalise the communist party that worked underground for years? We decided to legalise them, and against all expectations they only won 17 per cent in the elections, and the percentage declined every year," said Vasconcelos. He added that one shouldn't be afraid of democracy; when banned groups work openly and are no longer the sole opposition, their power is reduced.

The conference went on to discuss the role of civil society, which is considered by many to have been marginalised in the revolution, as well as the role of women and Copts who were not represented in the constitutional committee or significantly in governmental or non-governmental discussions.

Egyptian participants were eager to learn from others’ experiences and are hopeful that because those experiences indicated that democratic transitions take years to come about, what they are going through is normal.


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