Real citizenship is the great challenge for Egypt's next president: Interview with Ayman Al-Sayyad

Dina Ezzat , Friday 18 Apr 2014

For decades, Egyptian regimes played social groups off against one another, to shield state injustice and corruption. This game must end, argues commentator Ayman Al-Sayyad

Ayman Al-Sayyad
Former advisor to ousted president Mohamed Morsi, Ayman Al-Sayyad (Photo: Al-Ahram)

Practically on the eve of Egypt's presidential elections, former advisor to ousted president Mohamed Morsi, Ayman Al-Sayyad, also a commentator, argues that Morsi’s fall — as that of his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak — was due to the little attention paid to the promotion of equal citizenship for all.

As much as Mubarak gave out privileges to an inner circle, Morsi declined to listen to advisors who warned him against favouring Islamists, argues Al-Sayyad, who resigned from his post following a political falling out with Morsi.

Today, Al-Sayyad is observing many signs of a decreasing sense of citizenship, way beyond stereotyped discrimination, for example against Christians.

“In the minds of many, discrimination has been strictly associated with issues facing Christians, and citizenship has also been associated with the Christian search of equality. The problem is much wider, however," says Al-Sayyad.

For Al-Sayyad, discrimination is essentially a deficity in citizenship. “It is about this sentiment of a citizen that he or she is not equal to others before the law. This is the case for some Christians, as it is the case for some Nubians, as for some women, and many others,” he said.

Today, for Al-Sayyad, who has been closely following the feud in Upper Egypt during the last couple of weeks, it is this “unmasked lack of citizenship that allows for a group of people to find refuge in their tribal or geographic affiliation, as it is the reason why the law is fully overlooked when two fighting tribes — as we have seen in Upper Egypt — chose to act away from the state to face up to what they perceive as a deliberate attack and deliberate targetting.”

Discrimination against Christians, as against all other minorities, whether religious, ethnic or merely socio-economic, is a deliberate act on the part of the state that has for the last four decades decided to base its power on prompting unease amongst citizens. The objective, Al-Sayyad argues, was for the state to play groups of citizens against one another, to prevent the collective facing up to the injustice it imposes.

“In an incremental way, the accumulated grievances stripped many of their sense of citizenship; people stopped feeling that they belong to this country, or that this country belongs to them,” Al-Sayyad argues.

Then, with the January 25 Revolution, this sense of citizenship suddenly reappeared. “I would argue that the image of Tahrir Square on the day of 11 February 2011, when Mubarak was forced to finally step down, is really the ultimate embodiment of regained citizenship. It was the day when everybody felt they were Egyptians and there was no sense of any discrimination — not on any basis,” he adds.

A true failure of Morsi’s presidency, argues the former presidential advisor, was Morsi's inability to maintain and expand this sentiment.

This failure, Al-Sayyad argues, was partially about the ousted president’s pro-Muslim Brotherhood (and other Islamists) favourtism. But more, he added, it was about his failure to eliminate the reasons of accumulated discrimination and wide injustice.

“People were not feeling that justice prevailed and they were not feeling that they were equal before the law. This is how they felt before the January 25 Revolution, on the eve of the 30 June demonstrations, and this is how they feel today,” Al-Sayyad said.

Today, “Islamists are feeling a great deal of injustice and at the same time Nubians, for example, as we have seen through the recent feud in Upper Egypt, are also lacking a feeling of citizenship. As with Christians, for that matter.”

The recently adopted constitution, despite reservations, is supposed to pave the way to and end of discrimination through equal citizenship. “But so far, this has been a text that we still need to see applied. A good legal text does not in and of itself allow for justice. It has to be applied, and indiscriminately,” he said.

This is precisely what Al-Sayyad thinks is the key challenge for Egypt's next president. “The fact of the matter is that the next president would have to realise that his main task is to help society transfer from one where discrimination and injustice prevail to one where justice applies,” he argues.

“Otherwise, he would fail miserably, simply because we would still be stuck exactly where we were on the eve of 25 January 2011: a society living with no true sense of citizenship, and a state that is thriving on playing groups of citizens off against one another,” Al-Sayyad adds.

The path towards ending discrimination cannot be cut short, or shy from mending the wounds of the past. “Transitional justice has to apply,” Al-Sayyad said.

Without transitional justice, those who were violated before and after 25 January 2011 would not get over their bitterness: the Nubians would still feel rejected, the Copts would still feel threatened, and the Islamists would still feel persecuted.

“And with such sentiments, you cannot be talking about a unified society that could live up to the daunting challenges of the economy, for example, that we so much talk about,” Al-Sayyad said.

He hastened to add, transitional justice cannot be an empty act. “It has to be real; it is a long process that does not take place overnight. But it has to be started for real. It cannot be faked,” he argued.

At the end of the process of transitional justice, Al-Sayyad argued, society can reach the shores of reconciliation, which is necessary for its cohesion.

“As much as discrimination has been reduced to the unfairness facing Christians, reconciliation has been limited to the state and Islamists. In reality both concepts are much wider: the boundaries of discrimination do not stop at Christians, and the need for reconciliation is not only about Islamists,” Al-Sayyad said.

He added: “From revealing and ending discrimination to reaching reconciliation, the next president will have a long and difficult path to tread, as he will have to change the ruling concept that has prevailed for decades, and he will have to challenge and reform sectors that for long benefited from this ruling concept. Not an easy challenge, but a task that cannot be left unstarted.”

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