After the end of the Nasserite era in Egypt, a reference to Egypt’s late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser and all the sorrows and pains and joys and triumphs of his rule, the country took its first baby steps towards democratic rule.
Under late president Anwar Al-Sadat, Egypt headed into a multi-party system and began embracing long-established democratic values, such as the rule of law, accountability, and a considerable degree of freedom of expression.
Had Al-Sadat not given the greenlight for the Islamists to thrive, a fatal error for which he paid a heavy price since the Islamists assassinated him during the October 1973 War anniversary parade in 1981, Egypt may have edged closer to a healthy democratic system under his rule.
Al-Sadat’s successor, former president Hosni Mubarak, was more tolerant of dissent when compared to the other two former presidents, but the flawed Mubarak system led to millions taking to the streets in 2011 demanding an end to his 30-year rule. The fact that this system had dissolved from within was why the Mubarak regime fell surprisingly quickly after 18 days of robust protests.
Since President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi took over in 2014, the aim has been clear: to restore the state institutions such that they can act effectively in the way they used to prior to the earthquake that hit Egypt’s politics in 2011. Today, the country under Al-Sisi is marching towards its much-anticipated national dialogue.
In a nation like Egypt that experienced a workable, though flawed, form of democracy prior to the Free Officers Movement that toppled the monarchy in 1952, political dissent in a real sense is still a castle in Spain. However, this is not the fault of the government or ruling regime.
It is therefore necessary to recall past events. Before the end of the Mubarak regime in 2011, the civil opposition was employing the same slogans as its counterpart today. The political space was limited, freedom of expression was being violated, and political dissidents were being placed behind bars if they dared to speak their minds. These were the outcries of the opposition, whether in Egypt or in many other parts of Africa.
In the wake of Mubarak’s removal, the political space was wide open, freedoms were being exercised, and dissidents, no matter how harsh their critiques, were able to act in the way they wanted. What happened next? The then civil opposition failed to gain the confidence of the voters, and eventually the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood scored a convincing win in the then House of Representatives, whose name has now been amended.
There is no question that the values of the rule of the law and accountability remain necessities for a viable democracy. But they are not enough by themselves. Democracy is better served when the people are fully aware of the consequences of their own choices. It is a two-sided partnership in which people recognise their duties and apprehend their rights. Though the Egyptian people in 2011 set an example by getting rid of a dictatorial regime, that of former president Mubarak, they unfortunately failed to read the bigger picture.
True, they rushed in their millions to queue in front of polling stations to elect their representatives. But they also allowed themselves to be naively deceived by catchy slogans put forward by the Muslim Brotherhood. When they had the chance to choose between Islamist candidates versus those presented by the civil parties, the voters favoured the “pious” candidates, as the Muslim Brotherhood used to proclaim itself.
This was a killer blow that led to a chain of catastrophic events, something in the same way that a mistake at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine in 1986 led to a nuclear meltdown. Taking sole control of the legislative house, the Brotherhood found the means to put into effect its own narrow agenda, excluding all other parties from participation.
This was not the fault of the Brotherhood alone, however, as there was also the unspoken truth that the non-religious civil opposition was in the doldrums. Its agenda was not up to the level of the average voter’s convictions. The civil opposition also could not pick a viable candidate to run for president. The unfortunate conclusion was that another Brotherhood member took over as Egypt’s president, leading the most populous Arab nation into a chain of disasters.
Had the 30 June Revolution not taken place in 2013, Egypt would inevitably have sunk into a Taliban-like state.
A country like Egypt that had survived with difficulty such a scenario at the end of the rule of Brotherhood president Mohamed Morsi in 2013 needed some time to heal. Now may be that time. Today’s national dialogue may be an opportune moment for the country’s opposition to pull themselves together and get rid of the shackles of archaic terms and an obsolete methodology to work better with the regime to find solutions for people who mainly care about finding means to meet particular ends, especially in the wake of the economic crisis that has engulfed the world as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
This is not meant in any way to justify the setting aside of long-established democratic values, but it is a humble call to put first things first. The economic crisis today is hitting hard important economies like that of the UK and of the world’s only superpower the US. In this state of affairs, Egypt cannot be an exception.
For the national dialogue to be a success, both the government and its would-be participants need to adopt a new spirit with the aim of letting bygones be bygones. The government needs to put into practice what president Al-Sisi said in his address during the Iftar of the Egyptian Family at the end of Ramadan: that Egypt is the home of each and every one and that opposing points of view should not be allowed to spoil the cause of the nation.
The opposition needs to seriously address present concerns and demands and to join hands with the regime in order safely to surf today’s dangerous waters.
The writer is a former press attaché in Ethiopia and an expert on African and international affairs.
A version of this article appears in print in the 16 June, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.