A couple of weeks ago, residents of Warraq Island (in the Nile north of Cairo) clashed with police a few weeks ago following a decision to remove encroachments on the island, according to the official story. After one person was killed, dozens injured, and the security forces withdrew, the ensuing debate focused on the legal aspects of the issue. Does the state have the right to remove these encroachments, or do residents have rights on the island that must be respected?
But another aspect of the issue is no less important. That the dispute over Warraq blew up so quickly and so dangerously demonstrates the absence of official mechanisms for negotiating and resolving disputes in society, and not just in this particular case.
An ideal society where absolute justice and harmony prevail does not exist, not in Egypt or anywhere else. There are necessarily conflicting interests and competing rights, with arguments to buttress the claims of every party, group, and class. This is natural and shouldn’t be taken as evidence of social disintegration or division. The interests of workers and employers diverge, as do those of farmers and landowners, importers and exporters, property owners and tenants, depositors and investors, and those involved in formal and informal businesses. However, social stability and cohesion is maintained when there are established, formal mechanisms for negotiation, conflict resolution, and consensus building. This prevents every dispute from ballooning into a violent face-off.
Such formal mechanisms include more than prosecutors and the courts. These should be the final recourse and ought to be preceded by debates involving neighborhood leaders, local councils, governors, ministers, and parliamentarians. There should also be a public, organized negotiation between stakeholders and a debate in the press based on facts rather than myth and rumor. Political parties, NGOs and trade unions should be involved. And if all that fails to resolve the dispute, the courts stand as the final recourse, making decisions binding on everyone, to be respected without bloodshed or obstruction.
But what happens when there are no elected local councils? Or political parties to represent people and defend their rights? What if there’s no independent press to report the facts and express different points of view? Or a parliament concerned with public affairs? No NGOs that can engage with people’s everyday problems, or unions to represent their members? No local officials with the authority to make decisions without first consulting the highest executive levels? No courts capable of resolving disputes in a timely fashion? What happens is exactly what we saw with Warraq: officials call out the security forces to execute their decisions, and citizens find themselves compelled to take to the streets to protect their rights and properties.
Absent institutional dispute-resolution mechanisms, it’s no wonder people whose rights are infringed turn to alternative means, legitimate and illegitimate, to resolve their problems, directly petitioning officials, searching for a patron, hiring thugs, bringing grievances to a television program, or appealing to the president in newspaper ads. All of these actions are a symptom of the same problem: the lack of formal channels for negotiation and conflict-resolution in society.
Given difficult economic conditions, high prices, and the scarcity of jobs, disputes like these are likely to escalate. And it won't be a security vacuum or failure that will cause them to spin out of control—security intervention alone cannot settle all disputes in society—but the absence of political and civil institutions that can help resolve problems, de-escalate conflicts, and preserve social peace.
This is the essence of democracy and participation in decision-making and state administration. So can afford to further postpone its application? Or will this further fueled tension and violence and impede economic development?