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Who wants democracy in Egypt? Many!

Barbara Zollner asks: Who wants democracy in Egypt?, as there are increasingly obvious signs that democracy is in retreat in the country. However, the answer is still simple: many. The question is more what type of democracy the Egyptians want – and here many things remain to be discussed.

Mohamed el-Baradei, who left Egypt four days after his resignation as vice president on 14 August 2013 in protest against the disproportionate use of violence by Egyptian security forces while raiding the camps of Morsi supporters, was probably one of the last who had a clear view of what is currently going on in the country. That Egypt has, since 2011, transformed itself by 360 degrees – with structures that now comprehensively remind us of the situation under Mubarak. Some of the first voices from Egypt such as that of Rabab el-Mahdi even warn of future political scenarios that might be worse than anything that has come before. A combination of Islamism and military rule is deemed possible. So who wants democracy in Egypt?

The Muslim Brotherhood, holding power for exactly one year, clearly proved that the realization of democracy does not belong high on their agenda. After 85 years of suppression, as they like to present their history themselves, they acted more to cement their own power than serving as Egypt’s dispenser of reconciliation and convalescence. Of course, they obeyed the very narrow understanding of democracy as consisting of elections. But a functioning rule of law, inclusive societal policies and proper parliamentary processes were not on their radar. That those who demonstrated for the reinstatement of Mohamed Morsi after his dismissal on 3 July claimed to do so for saving democracy was rhetorically smart, but otherwise cynical. To really save democracy, they had wasted many good chances before this.

Similarly, the military and the new leaders that now hold sway in Egypt. The strict dualism between “everything” or “nothing”, that the leadership around commander-in-chief al-Sisi propagated, especially through the omnipresent argumentation of interim presidential adviser Mostafa Hegazy on multiple TV channels, has made differentiated statements almost impossible. In the rulers’ rhetoric, the Muslim Brothers collectively are terrorists, and the attacks against policemen and public institutions as well as against churches all over the country, as well as the looting of irretrievable pharaonic treasures of priceless value, are presented as proofs of this allegation.

In a way, the Muslim Brothers and military play cat and mouse with each other: but it is not always clear who the mouse and who the cat is. The military contributed to this zero-sum game through its uncompromised handling of the Morsi ouster. Though Morsi, while still in office, had refused early elections as a possible option to avoid deeper crisis, the Tamarod campaign with its 22 million signatures against his remaining in power would have been far better followed up with comprehensive strike actions, showing the increasing displeasure of the people with their political leadership; then, early elections would have become inevitable, and Morsi would have had a fair chance to go into these elections as the incumbent. Had he lost his majority, he and his fellows could have shown that they are proper democrats and accept their political fate.

But as it went, the debacle has simply contributed to a radicalization also of those Muslim Brothers (and sisters) who believed in the democratic compatibility of politics and Islam. Now it is easy for the Muslim Brothers to oppose any new attempt at establishing democracy with the proof that it is a not trustworthy concept at all. The consequence is obvious, and it perfectly plays into the hands of the military: as the Muslim Brothers are neither willing, nor any longer want, to integrate into the political process, the military can continue its crackdown against them under the cloak of legitimacy. This indispensably cements the ongoing rule of the military, alongside mere puppets as political top representatives rather than truly sovereign rulers on Egypt’s stage.

Mohamed el-Baradei resigned as vice president because he could not bear responsibility for decisions that he did not agree with any longer. But if the vice president does not agree with the decisions taken – who is taking the decisions then? The quick repeal of Egypt’s objectionable, but democratically enacted constitution, the proclamation of the state of emergency, the appointment of 19 generals as new provincial governors, and the rehabilitation of lots of Mubarak’s former security apparatus give a clear answer: the military.

Parts of the liberal constituency, finally, are also beginning to manifest their rather questionable understanding of democracy. It is not only that senior thinkers such as world-famous novelist Alaa al-Aswani have seriously called for the deprivation of the illiterate from their voting right, hence denying one of the basic principles of liberal democracy, the equality of rights. It is stunning that the rulers’ black-and-white caricature of the realities finds its undivided echo in many sections of Egypt’s intellectual elite. Only a very few undaunted publicly denounce this undemocratic narrow-mindedness, among them prominent academic and oppositionist Amr Hamzawy, who even named this atmosphere of fear and suppression repeatedly as fascist.

The National Salvation Front (NSF), the unifying pool of those who oppose the old regime as well as the Islamist government alike, struggles to keep its unity under all these internal and external pressures. The retreat of their most prominent representative el-Baradei certainly will not make NSF internal debates about future strategies and concepts any easier.

So who, to quote Barbara Zollner’s question again, finally wants democracy in Egypt? The answer is simple, as there are many – millions, to be precise. Those who dare to go out to Tahrir and other places to demonstrate for an ongoing of the 2011 reform process. Those who engage in media debates and academic discourses about the future path of the country. Those who disliked Morsi’s style but supported him as elected president for the sake of democratic principles. Those who went on strike at Cairo’s Opera House on 28 May 2013 in protest against the complacent behaviour of then-minister of culture Alaa Abdel-Aziz. Those who stood for weeks at junctions all over the country to ask drivers for signatures against Mohamed Morsi. Those who participated in discussions about why Egypt should keep English as a school subject and why ballet should not be forbidden. Those who protect churches and those who reach out to other cultures, religions, habits.

It is not only a “grey mass” that wants democracy. Those people can be identified throughout the society and across all political actors. The group of young Muslim Brothers that demonstrated against their party leaders’ behaviour in the days around Morsi’s ouster belongs to this multitude. Also senior Muslim Brothers like Mohamed Habeeb who publicly criticize the mistakes made by the organization’s top representatives. Inside NSF, many oppose the silent acceptance of the gradual restoration of military power, with prominent representatives such as 6th April movement leader Ahmed Maher now calling for a “third voice” between the dogmatic Muslim Brothers and the ruthless military.

Of course, since 8 July 2013 , Facebook has also provided with its “The Third Square” the necessary online platform for this movement.

So, if many Egyptians still want democracy, the question might rather be, what kind of democracy do the Egyptians want. This, indeed, offers plenty of potential for discussion. How can the Islamists be included? How can vote buying be avoided? How can the rule of law be strengthened?  How can the old regime either be ex-, or included? How should the parliament control the government? How can parties be financed and what privileges should the military continue to enjoy? Already it is necessary to criticize the way that the renewed quick-and-dirty approach for setting up Egypt’s new constitution once again seemingly does not allow for a thorough discussion of whether or not a parliamentary system might indeed be better than the classic semi-presidential one.

The people in Egypt who are still calling for democracy are certainly not united about all these points. But why should they be? Proper democratic decision-making should be resistant enough to find the best answers. What they are united in is the basic core characteristic of every democracy: the simple possibility of peacefully getting rid of governments through the ballot boxes if a majority of people are unhappy with the executives performance. In this regard at least, many Egyptians do indeed still want democracy. 

About the author

Jan Claudius Völkel is Visiting Professor and DAAD longterm lecturer at Cairo University, Euro-Mediterranean Studies Programme and Regional Coordinator for North Africa and the Middle East at the Bertelsmann Transformation Index.


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