Is democracy about the ballots?

Mohammed Saad , Sunday 29 Apr 2012

Philosophers are supposed to have answers to the real-time questions of democracy in Egypt, but they could only talk about the origins of the term 2,500 years ago

Hassan Nafaa

Philosophy students in Egypt have always wondered why philosophers, even professors of political philosophy, are hardly ever involved in politics, seldom commenting on events in real time. That seems to have been the case prior to the revolution.

An event at the Supreme Council of Culture featuring the prominent political analyst and Cairo University professor of political science Hassan Nafaa, brought together four of the best known philosophy professors: Hassan Hanafi, professor Islamic philosophy; Amira Mattar, professor of aesthetics; Mostafa Al-Nasharr, professor of Greek philosophy; and Ahmed Abdul-Halim, professor of contemporary philosophy.


The discussion set out to answer a seemingly simple question: “Is democracy an end in itself or just a means?” The idea was to discuss this question in the context of Egypt’s democratic transformation, to find out whether or not and to what extent the ideal of democracy is possible. The event is the third in a series of seminars organised by the SCC philosophy committee in response to debates not only about democracy but also about secularism and civil society.

The answers philosophers have provided to such complex questions partly explain why they have been reticent in the past: they spoke of ancient Greek experience of democracy, failing to relate it to the current situation in Egypt or give insights into the fundamental elements of a democratic system. They spoke of Athens’s idealised democracy, giving an overview of the development democratic process in Athens and reading some excerpts of Pericles’ funeral speech. Nafaa, however, used these ideas to make salient points about the most pressing questions.

Is it about Ballots?

Is democracy about going to the ballots every four or five years to vote for an MP or a president? According to Nafaa, the answer to this question is no; as he sees it, reducing democracy to the electoral process is simply false: “Real democracy is deeper and more general than that; it means enabling citizens to constantly participate in political life. This happens through a democratic system that permits the circulation of power and rests on democratic institutions such as political parties and, more importantly, a strong civil society.”

The question for democracy in Egypt is not, “Will we stage a successful democratic transition?” but, “How long will it take to reach a stable democratic system?” and, “How can we build a democratic system that does not permit a regression to dictatorship?”

Nafaa added, “The Egyptian revolution managed to topple the head of the regime, Mubarak, but it has not yet managed to topple the heads that lie below the surface. We must clean out the the old regime before we can start building a stable democratic alternative.”

Poverty, literacy and other obstacles

Few agreed with Nafaa’s optimistic view, however, with the majority pointing out that democracy will be facing many obstacles, not least poverty and literacy; democracy requires a culture of political participation and political awareness.

Ahmed Abdulhalim, for example, said that the implementation of democracy in Egypt is will remain incomplete so long as we continue to see a high percentage of illiteracy and absence of awareness. “Democracy isn’t a stand-alone concept, it’s part of a conceptual matrix that should be understood in its entirety.”

To which Nafaa replied that commentators had relied on these factors to prove the impossibility of radical change in Egypt or revolt against the dictatorial regime, yet that happened –  to everyone’s surprise. “Bad education and poverty are not necessarily obstacles for democracy,” Nafaa said. “We should see things in dialectical perspective, and democracy could be a reason for solving these problems. Handling these problems could help enshrine democracy and persuade people that the solution to their grievances is a democratic system guarantees rights and freedoms.”

Short link: