'Let’s stop arguing and get to work'

Ziad Bahaa-Eldin
Sunday 5 Feb 2017

The title above is not my own. It comes from billboards posted along major thoroughfares as part of a campaign to stir people’s enthusiasm and urge them to rally behind their leaders to confront the challenges facing the country.

This particular slogan, however, caught my eye because it so profoundly and perfectly encapsulates the current impasse in our democratic path.

The message is clear: steering the country out of its economic straits requires toil and sacrifice, because work is the key to deliverance. On this point there’s no disagreement.

But what is puzzling is that it’s linked to the need to put off argument, debate, and opposition, lest these hinder the process of building, production, and development.

This view assumes that diversity of opinion and debate squander energies and sow strife, and are just a quest for personal gain by elite politicians and intellectuals willfully obstructing the state and honest citizens’ efforts for development, security, and stability.

So advancement requires not only sweat and effort, but also setting differences aside, uniting behind the state, and postponing everything that could fuel strife in society.

It’s perhaps the permanence of this notion in the official discourse of the state and its allied media that leads to the conclusion that political debate and party, labor, and civic activities are unnecessary distractions that should be ignored or silenced to enable the state to achieve the hoped-for progress. It’s based on the central idea that progress and stability require action, not argument.

But this is wrong. The assumption actually leads to silencing, belittling, and even smearing as traitors people opposed to or skeptical of state policies and decisions as agents of obstruction or even agents of foreign plots to destroy the country.

It denies society its right to monitor policies and decisions, criticize them, expose the corruption or waste of resources, propose alternatives, and contribute to creating the policies and assuming responsibility for them—in short, the essence of genuine democracy.

Democracy is not solely about standing in line to vote from time to time. At its core, it entails ongoing parliamentary, civic, and media oversight, access to information that makes this possible, and continual participation in society and its institutions to make decisions and monitor their execution.

And this isn’t only true of politics, but also major economic and social issues confronting society. All of these require public access to information, input from national experts, party and labor participation, and discussion and debate.

It means approval by some and opposition by others—not to undermine efforts, but to ensure that the best choice is made, that it’s publicly acceptable, and that it can be monitored and assessed.

The January revolution erupted in the aftermath of parliamentary elections that seemed to people to be a step toward the further monopolisation of power. The Brotherhood came to power through parliamentary and then presidential elections, but they lost legitimacy when they monopolised power and ignored society and its institutions once elections were over.

If Egyptian society today isn’t looking for a third revolution—but for stability and peace—that’s no justification for the state and its agencies to monopolise decision making and disregard the diversity of opinion and society.

Pluralism, and the debate it entails, is a source of strength, efficacy, and renewal, not debility, destruction, and obstruction.

*The writer holds a PhD in financial law from the London School of Economics. He is former deputy prime minister, former chairman of the Egyptian Financial Supervisory Authority and former chairman of the General Authority for Investment.

A version of this article was published in Arabic in El-Shorouq newspaper on Monday, 31 January.



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