Do the Egyptians really need democracy?

One might be forced to return to the  question posed, this time with a view to the current situation in Egypt. Do the Egyptians really understand democracy? 

Abdul Ghani Mahfouz
26 April 2013

Do the Egyptians really need democracy? In May 2005 Egyptian Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif made a visit to Washington and met George W. Bush. Almost two months later Mubarak came out with a constitutional amendment which allowed other candidates to compete for the highest office in Egypt. 

On his way to the United States, Nazif made some controversial statements about the Egyptians being unripe for democracy. The statements made people very angry and an allegedly independent weekly newspaper demanded his resignation. It was actually a paraphrasing of Mubarak’s views that a change to democracy has to be gradual and in keeping with the internal circumstances of the society and regime in question. Any talk about democracy was rejected or at least ridiculed as foreign interference in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. 

However, the repercussions of 11 September 2011 forced Mubarak a few years later to subject the supreme position of the president to competition in open elections instead of the usual referendum in force since the revolution of 1952. The Americans shamefacedly accepted Mubarak’s ploy just to save face. They knew, just like the Egyptians, that Mubarak’s elections and referendums were mostly rigged. The last parliamentary elections of Mubarak’s reign, completed just weeks before the revolution of 25 January, was marred by mass violations that forced the Muslim Brotherhood to withdraw in the second round. The election process was entirely orchestrated by the security apparatus, which resulted in a landslide victory for the National Democratic Party (NDP) and was believed to be the landmark move towards the takeover by Gamal Mubarak the younger son of the octogenarian dictator. A few weeks later the regime was shattered and its security apparatus caved in before millions of angry young protesters. The army was forced to interfere. 

The changes so far in Egypt, almost two years and half after the revolution, do not confirm categorically that the country is moving ahead on the path of democracy. Far from it. The state and its institutions look chronically dysfunctional, the economy is in a shambles and the political forces are in total disharmony. So one might be forced to return to the  question posed, this time with a view to the current situation in Egypt. Do the Egyptians really understand democracy?

Are they really ready to shed the yoke of authoritarianism and move ahead to build a healthy democratic state? The Egyptians have always been subject to harsh despotic rule whether the ruler was a local or foreign tyrant. The long foreign rule that extended for 2000 years was followed by three authoritarian rulers (if we exclude Mohammed Naguib). The first: Gamal Abdul Nasser died in power. The second: Anwar Sadat was killed in office. And the third: Mubarak was forced to step down. Mohammed Morsi, the only Egyptian president to come to power in free elections seems invisible or at best unable to act. Layers of corruption left by the ancien regime in all walks of life render his job too difficult, if not impossible. He himself made it more difficult by the drastic and undemocratic measures he took as soon as he came to power. 

It may be argued that the Brotherhood was not the ideal administration that could be propelled to power after the revolution, but they came through the ballot box. Moreover, the other alternative was the reemergence of Mubarak’s regime which even now, has not given up. On the contrary, it’s becoming more and more outspoken and has even been ushered into the foreground by some ostensibly liberal anti-Brotherhood elements. The Brotherhood may seem so far a failure, but their failure is not their making alone. It is augmented by lack of cooperation from institutions of society whose help is vital and essential for the functioning of a state, like the police force and judiciary, both among the most corrupt elements left by Mubarak.

The Egyptian opposition, which comprises the left, Nasserites, liberals, and other fringe groups and parties, has been historically in disarray but they are momentarily united by their hatred of the Brotherhood. Once they succeed in their declared aim of toppling the Brotherhood, they are sure to turn against each other. Those same liberals are urging the army to interfere with a coup d’etat and depose Morsi, an action which belies their alleged liberality. The funniest and most silly argument for rejecting the rule of Morsi is that he belongs to the Brotherhood, previously a persecuted group whose members, including Morsi himself, served different terms in prison. Due to the ambivalent prejudice of those self-declared liberals, what applies to a person like Nelson Mandela does not necessarily apply to Morsi. (Of course I’m aware of the contrasting stature of the two figures. )

The Morsi haters are assisted by a huge mass media which pretends to be independent. The last decade witnessed the formation of a flurry of newspapers and satellite channels that have helped to break the monopoly of the state on information and mass communication. But these newspapers and channels, mostly owned and/or financed by persons who belonged to the old regime, are now used to brainwash Egyptians, instigating them against Morsi, and distracting them from the real issues. They believe disrupting life totally in Egypt will ultimately play in their favour and may, as they hope, lead ultimately to the return of their former patrons. 

Most Egyptians are politically disoriented and there is a high percentage of illiteracy among them. The people who work in talk show programmes on these channels receive huge salaries by the standards of a poor country like Egypt in which 40 per cent live on less than two dollars a day. Workers on Al Jazeera, the Qatar-based satellite Arabic channel which has wide influence on the Arabic-speaking Middle East, receive far lower salaries.

This may explain why the Media City in the October 6 suburb of Cairo is frequently besieged by some elements loyal to the Brotherhood. Not only are the Brotherhood and its president subject to harsh daily attacks, but also those who are perceived to be helping them to move forward, even if they were trying to help the Egyptians, not the regime. 

The attack on Qatar is an example. Qatar may be a tiny state, but it has huge hydrocarbon and financial resources. It is using Al Jazeera and other resources to extend its turf and influence in the MENA region and beyond. In fact, it’s the only Arab country which has helped Egypt so far in its difficult economic situation. But instead of being thanked, it is attacked and ridiculed in talk show programmes. 

We can safely say that the current situation is the first real encounter of the Egyptians with democracy. So far it has been a poor encounter. The Brotherhood, on the one hand, are acting as if they were a continuation of Mubarak’s regime without due consideration to the revolution that brought them to power. On the other hand, young men who have never known any kind of democracy believe that they have the right to do away with any regime not to their liking. Moreover, the whole political scene is characterized by a generational gap that is not likely to be bridged in the near future. The Egyptians may be homogeneous socially but when it comes to politics they are many societies apart. Once the lid of authoritarianism was removed, all the pains and torments that had been simmering for decades erupted into the open. Now the society which has always maintained a semblance of normalcy, even in the most drastic circumstances, looks like a group of criminals. Kidnapping children and hijacking cars for ransom, armed burglary and banditry are common crimes.

The idea that Egyptians are ready to embrace democracy has now begun to be questioned. Simple Egyptians hardly understand the relationship between good governance and quality of life. They were content to live from hand to mouth in Mubarak’s days, unconcerned with freedom of expression or human rights which they consider unnecessary luxuries. 

Now they find it harder to live off what they earn. The elites, including a good chunk of the old regime’s corrupt capitalists who constitute the financial backbone of the opposition, mostly have enough resources to live on. These people fight their battle for power, not for real democracy or principles, or even change in the real sense of the word. All they want is power. The Egyptian economy is meanwhile in the doldrums and the suffering of the poorer classes of society has been on the increase since the revolution. Unless the Brotherhood manages to alleviate their suffering, it may lose its once-in-a lifetime chance to wield power.

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