Egypt: UNDP highlights past lessons of democratic transition

Ekram Ibrahim , Monday 6 Jun 2011

After two days of debate on new democracies and their experiences with democratic transitions in light of recent Arab popular uprisings, the UNDP's Cairo forum drew to a close Monday

“The road to democracy is not taught, rather it is shared experiences,” said Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile and current executive director of the UN Women, during the United Nations Development Programme’s two-day forum  which concluding today at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. The UNDP conference convened under the banner “Pathways of Democratic Transitions: International Experiences, Lessons Learnt and the Road Ahead” and was organised as a platform to facilitate an exchange of experiences, particularly South-South dialogue, in light of the recent popular uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. Moroccan and Jordanian experiences in democratic reforms were also shared.

Prime Minister Essam Sharaf took part in the conference’s opening ceremony along with other ministers and political figures including former Arab League chief and presidential candidate Amr Moussa, Finance Minister Samir Radwan, Interior Minister Ibrahim el-Essawi and former culture minister Mohamed El-Sawy.

Bachelet shared examples from Chile’s democratic transition, emphasising the importance of human rights, the freedom to create political parties and the increase of political participation by the working class and the middle class. Regarding the drafting of a constitution, the former Chilean president stated, “You should agree upon constitutional rules whether you may or may not like those rules,” Bachelet said. She also stressed that the in the long term the military should be obedient to civil society and not the reverse. This, she noted, was not achieved in Chile until eight years after mass resistance movements forced the military regime to begin opening up.

Several speakers emphasised the relationship between democracy and justice. Bachelet stressed that “Democracy is the enemy of revenge” as she highlighted the importance of human rights while calling for mechanisms to be put in place to prevent further violations.

Celso Amorim, Brazil’s former minister of foreign affairs and UN ambassador, spoke on Brazil’s democratic lessons, stating: “Democracy is an ongoing process, all countries are evolving, some fast and some slow.”

He pointed out what he thinks might be common to all countries during their path towards democracy, focusing on the relation between social equality and economic stability, finding regional rivals, the relation between the civilians and the military and amnesty for the crimes committed by the previous regime.

On the other hand, Egyptian speakers at the forum raised some concerns regarding this transitional period. Arguing that an elected Parliament doesn't have enough democratic legitimacy, Marwa Sharaf El-Din, a board member of the International Movement for Muslim Family Law Reform, stated: “The Parliament would represent the balance of power not the will of the people, so this power [not the people] would write the constitution.”  

Mac Maharaj, an activist and former politician, replied: “For 80 million people, it is impossible that one person would be able to represent all their demands.” The one-time senior ANC negotiator and the first minister of transport in the post apartheid South Africa recommended instead building coalitions that could better represent the people.

Sharaf El-Din also pointed out the direct relationship between economic growth and social justice as several forum speakers pointed at the necessary involvement of the people in the economic growth.

Youth activists also had their say as Ibrahim El-Houdaiby pointed out the importance of building institutions in Egypt, mentioning: a security institution to replace the old apparatus, a new media institution to replace the state owned ones and the dissolution of interest groups related to ousted president Mubarak and his son, Gamal, which were centred around the recently dissolved National Democratic Party.

The speakers were however united in their belief that now is time to give power to the people. “People should be empowered and take actions in both their economy and their lives,” said Maharaj. 

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