The future of democracy in Egypt

Ibrahim Awad
Sunday 8 Nov 2015

If democratic practice in Egypt is to gain a footing, its advocates must focus on issues of income and wealth. How else to make pluralism popular in a country where one quarter lives in abject poverty?

“Democracy” was never a slogan of the January 2011 Revolution.

The priority, for the masses, was rather, improving living conditions and demanding a fair share of the country’s income and wealth.

The slogans of public demands were “freedom, dignity, social justice” and at other times “bread, dignity, social justice.”

In the second slogan, which was the more prevalent during the first few months of the revolution, both “democracy” and “freedom” were absent. Food specifically was added to social justice which — if achieved — would make living conditions more tolerable.

Another view believed that the demand of “dignity” can be defined as a demand that the people manage their own affairs and rule themselves, which is at the heart of democracy.

In fact, public protests in Egypt since 2004 evolved around resisting authoritarian arbitrary rule, the push for succession and monopolising wealth and power. Resisting authoritarian arbitrary rule itself is a victory for democracy.

Democracy became a demand not only to resist despotism on principle, but also because this form of rule completely failed decade after decade to lift people from poverty and illiteracy and to achieve desired progress and development.

Democracy in this article refers to a plural and competitive political system that respects freedom of expression, assembly and organising, and where there is an uncertainty about the outcome of competition. A system where legislation is practiced by elected representatives of the people who rise above rivalries and monitor the performance of the powers implementing the will of the people. Democracy also protects the rights of minorities, believes in justice and protects the privacy of individuals.

Since former president Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011, Egyptians lived through three key phases. The main feature of the first phase was the 19 March 2011 referendum; the second is the year when the Muslim Brotherhood were in power; the third began with the 3 July 2013 political roadmap.

Reviewing the opportunities for democracy during these three phases reveals the positions of influential players in society and state on the issue, and helps predict the future of democracy, or rather, the chance of Egyptians to practice it and accomplish their ultimate long-awaited interests.

The 19 March referendum and democracy

Public protest movements came from across spectrum, including liberals, Nasserists, leftists, as well as the Muslim Brotherhood.

A new concept was born on the evening of 11 February 2011; namely that there is a public demand for political pluralism and a desire to establish a competitive democracy in Egypt after decades of undermining the notion. The demand for democracy existed for those who urged for revolution through their protests in the first decade of this century as well as those who took to the streets in January and February 2011.

Nonetheless, democracy was never given a chance to promote itself to the general public. Democracy advocates were not given an opportunity to define and explain what they are enthusiastic about, and show the people how democracy can address real problems in their lives.

Democracy advocates were also unprepared for 11 February because they had not developed a campaign for democracy in the political battle in which they found themselves embroiled.

Less than one month after the former president was overthrown, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) called on people to vote in a referendum on constitutional amendments.

It was clear to everyone that this act served Muslim Brotherhood interests. One can view this referendum as a preemptive move to prevent interpreting, detailing and presenting democracy ideas to the public, which could have won a significant amount of public support. More importantly, it would have revealed the disparities and differences among the various camps supporting the January revolution, and this would have altered the nature of issues of public debate, how they are presented and discussed, and the balance of power among political activists in this debate.

This could have resulted in an overhaul of the political scene. The atmosphere of freedom in the weeks following 11 February would have helped to achieve this. The referendum, and especially the referendum on constitutional amendments recommended by the SCAF-appointed committee, was a lightning bolt for democracy advocates who found themselves once again on the defensive.

The only ones who could have benefited from the 19 March referendum were those who had a more popular position since the Sadat and Mubarak eras, namely the Muslim Brotherhood along with the Salafists who made their first appearance at this moment. It was also an early call for a referendum on the rules that would lead to a supposedly new political system, which was recommended by the abovementioned committee.

This early move proves no lessons were learnt here from any experiences of democratic transformation anywhere in the world in recent decades. It means that those calling for the referendum felt what happened everywhere else does not apply to us, because we have our own cultural traits. This shows that what they meant was not actually a revolution in principles that would lead to a truly new democratic political system.

The argument of “specific traits” serves political Islam in all its hues because that platform is based on it and is opposed to democracy, which does not change with location or previous actors, but is applicable to all people equally because it achieves their interests irrespective of location, experience and culture. The implicit discourse about particularity led to particularity in the political transition process itself, which is unheard of in any previous peaceful democratic transition in the world.

Haste, particularities of transition and proposed rules to manage it could only lead to the defeat of advocates of plural competitive democracy, and victory for political Islam advocates.

This victory was doubled. First, because of this victory’s moral value coming in the early phase after the overthrow of the head of the regime. Political Islam advocates took advantage of their victory to continuously taunt democracy advocates and ignored the unfair rules for 19 March that were entirely in their favour.

Second, the results of the referendum laid down the rules by which that group benefited and won parliament and the presidency in the following 15 months.

Democracy under the Muslim Brotherhood

The year when Mohamed Morsi was president showed the desire of the Muslim Brotherhood to use democracy tools — which brought them to power — to erase a core feature of democracy: uncertainty about the outcome of the democratic process. This would also eliminate another main feature which is the contest to serve the people by competing over exercising power in the country and rotation of this practice.

This was very clear in the process of drafting the constitution during which the Muslim Brotherhood were determined that they and their Salafist allies have the final say in deciding its structure, ideological framework, and regulations.

This year also exposed a style of rule that has nothing to do with democracy. Actual power was not exercised by those who were chosen by the people, whether the president or parliament members who are accountable to the people.

Rather, it was exercised by the Muslim Brotherhood organisation, similar to the formula in the former Soviet Union and people’s democracies. The Muslim Brotherhood Guidance Office was similar to the politburo of the Communist Party, which is the actual ruler, despite the fact that power appears to be in the hands of the executive and legislative branches. Centralised democracy in communist parties was the same in the Muslim Brotherhood.

Obedience is quintessential whether on decisions by the politburo or Guidance Office, and there is zero tolerance for disobedience. Despite similarities between the two cases, the Muslim Brotherhood was in a weaker position than the Communist Party because the Soviet constitution clearly stated the leadership of the Communist Party, which is a privilege that was not copied in Egypt.

The leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood did not consider this and they were focused on monpolising power, ignoring all democratic governance standards. The last straw by the Muslim Brotherhood was the constitution declaration on 22 November 2012, by which the Brotherhood wanted to gather all the strings of power and not leave an inkling of doubt — itself a key feature of the democratic process.

In conclusion, the revolution’s slogan “dignity,” which meant the practice of governance by the people, was manipulated by the Muslim Brotherhood in order to reach power and monopolise it. Thus, the Brotherhood achieved “dignity” for themselves but denied it to others. But this was not permanent dignity.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders ignored analyses of Egypt’s political culture that was formed over two centuries of building a modern state — albeit a flawed one, but one that wanted to be modern and was guided by this goal.

Like any ideological political current anywhere, the Muslim Brotherhood believed their political beliefs were the absolute truth which reality must bend to.

Neither did Brotherhood leaders analyse the division of power in society and state; the democratic political system does not clash with power but deals with it and works hard to adapt and harness it to serve society.

What the Muslim Brotherhood did not count on was that the constitutional declaration on 22 November made the liberals, Nasserists, Left and most of their offshoots gather together in the National Salvation Front (NSF), which was created to resist the declaration and fight the monopoly of power. It included civil currents that participated in the governance of the modern state in Egypt, formed its political culture and was influenced by it. Thus, the NSF shot to stardom quickly and it was not difficult for it to interact with Egyptians interested in politics.

The Muslim Brotherhood resisted this with more determination to monopolise power and ignore the foundations of a modern state, and held onto their political beliefs. While the Armed Forces said it would maintain a neutral and conciliatory position between the Muslim Brotherhood and the NSF, the Brotherhood continued its intransigence and did not realise that with this move the Armed Forces had in fact abandoned them, and that distancing itself could make it a rival to the group.

Another explanation could be that the Brotherhood had overestimated its power and thought it could confront the Armed Forces, meeting force with force.

The Muslim Brotherhood were mistaken in many analyses and evaluations and neglected too much, and thus their downfall was seismic. It is important to note here that in the year of Morsi’s presidency, the Muslim Brotherhood showed themselves to be at the opposite end of democracy, even if they went through the motions.

The NSF, on the other hand, was occupied with its political mission, and once again democracy advocates missed the chance to promote their beliefs intellectually and through organised activism.

Democracy post-3 July

Political activism since 3 July 2013 until today is very revealing about the prospects of democracy in Egypt’s future.

The NSF quickly fell apart after 3 July and after the dispersal of the Rabaa Al-Adawiya sit-in its components dispersed into the new Constituent Assembly.

Some of them vigorously defended the basic values of democracy while some, along with others, accepted enabling power to exercise itself in order to ensure the political process would entirely obliterate the Muslim Brotherhood from the scene.

I do not intend to discuss in detail the constitution that was produced by the Constituent Assembly in 2013, which also worked with unnecessary haste. What is important to say here is that texts from three constitutional eras, or Egyptian schools of thought, co-exist in this constitution.

First, texts belonging to the tradition of the 1923 Constitution and heritage of Egyptian liberalism, which is evident in the section on rights and freedoms; and the heritage of the July (Revolution) state evident in the articles that were added in the 1956 Constitution and remained in consecutive constitutions that embed state control over society; and the heritage of the 2012 Constitution, which for the first time mentioned Al-Azhar and its role in legislation, mentioned the canons of religious minorities, and in which — ironically — the Brotherhood gave the Armed Forces free reign over military affairs.

The co-existence of contradictory texts and actual division of power in society and state may explain why the constitution has not been enacted until now. In fact, the absence of a parliament 20 months after the constitution was ratified — which is a serious violation of its text — is undisputable evidence that the constitution is being disregarded.

The laws that continue to be issued by presidential decree on non-urgent matters reveals a deep-rooted belief of knowing the interests of the people better than anyone the people choose to represent them. It also shows irritation with the complexity of the legislative process. This is exactly what Egypt has suffered for decades under parliaments loyal to the executive power.

Other laws were issued by presidential decree that strangle some public freedoms. The protest law prevents people from exercising their right to peaceful assembly to express their demands, which is what they did — and were welcome to — first in January and February 2011 and then on 30 June 2013.

This law has resulted in dozens of youth thrown in jail whose only crime is raising protest banners.

The terrorism law, with its loose definitions of terrorist crimes, increased death penalties and life sentences, identifies only a single source of truth that can be aired to the public, absolves security forces from accountability, and destroys any guarantees for peaceful citizens. It also prevents any discussion or oversight of the performance of the executive power in fighting terrorism, or anything that is related to combating terrorism.

Any law that allows custody without time limitations is a transgression on justice; a law that allows a judge not to listen to witnesses for the defence destroys justice and stabs its chances in the heart.

Frequent deaths of inmates undermine justice and mock justice. Ignoring invasions of privacy and slandering intimidates anyone who has an opposing view who could contribute to correcting distortions and achieving the common good.

The abovementioned laws and practices reveal an inherent belief that there is only one way to fix the political system, which is the way decided by those in power and there is no room for diversity or discussion or doubt of its effectiveness. This view contradicts democracy.

Is there a future for democracy?

The ongoing terrorist attacks on the country threaten the security of the nation, terrorise citizens, harm the economy and greatly hurt the chances for democracy.

Terrorists are certain and proud enemies of pluralism, diversity and democracy. There is agreement to fight and stamp out terrorism, but combating terrorism should not be an excuse to destroy the very thing the terrorists are trying to eliminate.

Terrorism is fighting the nation and democracy, and the regime is stifling pluralism and diversity — the two basic requisites for democracy.

In this atmosphere, there is continuous contempt for political parties and their ability to interact with the people, which in reality is a covert assault on the notion of genuine pluralism.

Under such an assault on the right to disagree and demands for more successful, effective and just alternatives than the status quo, a genuine democratic system cannot be established.

One cannot blame democracy advocates alone. There is a huge gap between the means of action, material and non-material tools of power available to them, in comparison to those available to the enemies of democracy. This makes it impossible for any real battle between the two camps.

Was January and the following weeks of blossoming ideas the swan song for democracy in Egypt, rather than a song of promise of what can be achieved? And was January the final battle for plural competitive democracy in Egypt?

These are two questions worthy of contemplation and answers.

One response is that ideas never die despite hostility and restrictions on them. Evidence of this are the demands for freedom and democracy before and after January, despite continuous assaults on them for decades, and despite attempts to deceive the people and self that these ideas are a foreign conspiracy against Egypt. How can a conspiracy seek the creation of a political system that benefits Egyptians first and foremost? 

Notions of democracy are principles in Egypt despite historic errors in their application. The main reason for these mistakes is a fundamental imbalance in the distribution of economic and political power in the country before and after July 1952.

Democracy was not doing well before 1952. Democrats must now focus on redistribution of income and wealth and discuss it as a priority issue, along with the issues of pluralism, legitimacy of diversity, and diligence of parliament in legislation and oversight.

This is a key requirement for the success of democracy advocacy in a country where one quarter of the population lives in abject poverty. Some people take advantage of this poverty by promising the people milk and honey if they waive their right to rule themselves.

Another answer borrows from theories of democratic transformation that were ignored in Egypt. In order for democracy to replace an authoritarian regime, this does not necessitate that democracy advocates must be more powerful than their rivals.

At times of complex political, economic and social crises, actors in the political process find that democracy is the only system under which they can survive, and work together to find solutions for problems. Every society, whether advanced or developing, faces crises that require effective mechanisms to address problems as part of the political process. 

If this is the answer to whether democracy has a chance in Egypt, Egyptian democracy advocates must develop democratic ideas by using democratic tools to utilise all material and intellectual resources to effectively address the problems in a developing country like Egypt.

Competitive plural democracy has set pillars that are unanimous, but they also evolve and are not the same as those in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, or in Europe, or the US, or Asia, or Africa, or Latin America. Democracy has reached all corners of the developing world, and although it did not resolve all problems it at least put countries on the right track to finding solutions.

The creation of a true democracy will require the political system to accommodate all currents, including political Islam. Democracy has rules, and like any such rules, they aim for permanency. Therefore, political Islam must admit there are no absolutes in politics, in order for the political system to accommodate them.

In other words, political Islam must stop making politics synonymous with religious absolutes and claim they are inseparable, and that combined they are a symbol of moral superiority.

Democracy requires ending current extraordinary circumstances, including courts that mete out death penalties and life sentences to hundreds of defendants.

Meanwhile, democracy advocates must relentlessly continue their call, its principles and values.

Spreading the ideas, values and principles of democracy is the best way to clear a path for the infrastructure of democracy.

There is no certainty that the above will lead to democracy. But then again, is not uncertainty about the outcome of a political process a key precondition for democracy?

The writer is professor of public policy at The American University in Cairo. 

This article was originally published in Democracy Review Quarterly, a publication of Al-Ahram Foundation.

Short link: