The danger of an elected dictatorship in Egypt

 
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 By Osama Diab

The army is giving Egyptians a stark choice: choose freedom and endure anarchy, or choose stability and put up with us.

Thursday 29 September 2011

Last week, after the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) reactivated Mubarak’s 2010 extension of the emergency law,  it suggested holding a referendum on the reactivation to give its decision a sheen of legitimacy. If the emergency law passes through legal channels, it will allow SCAF to silence its opponents while claiming it has popular support for its actions.

Where once authoritarianism was imposed on Egyptians, Egypt is now facing the risk of “democratically” choosing to be governed autocratically, where the people themselves call for or support authoritarian practices such as military trials, emergency laws, etc.

Since the revolution, Egypt’s de facto military rulers have cracked down on media outlets,allegedly tried 12,000 people before military courts, reactivated Hosni Mubarak’s highly unpopular emergency law , and outlined no clear time frame for the transition to a civilian government – things even Mubarak wouldn’t have dared to do in post-revolution Egypt. But what is perhaps most appalling is that a growing number of people is supportive of this.

After the defeat and withdrawal of police forces from the streets on 28 January, the lack of security and this anarchy-like state have driven many people to express their willingness to trade in their dream of democracy in return for ‘normalcy’ by supporting authoritarian practices in the hope of stopping the country from descending into the absolute state of lawlessness they fear.

As a result, many Egyptian have voted in favour of reactivating Mubarak’s emergency law. On the Masrawy news website, 59% of those who took part in a poll agreed that the emergency law should be reactivated. The figure of an al-Shorouk online poll was nearly half.

There is no doubt that the past seven months since Mubarak’s ouster have been so overwhelming that many are now ready to give up their dream of democracy. The perceived rise in crime and the struggling economy have shifted many people’s priorities to security and stability over human rights and democracy.

The SCAF has capitalised on this fear to boost its popularity – at least in comparison with the former regime. May be some Egyptians are still grateful for the army’s refusal to open fire at protesters, especially when compared to the savagery of other armies in the region, or perhaps people simply see the military as the last line of defence against anarchy. This is why their use of Mubarakist techniques has worked better than it did for the man himself.

Unlike the ousted president, they seem to have successfully managed to draw some public support for them and stoked up opposition against pro-democracy activists. On top of the relative credibility they enjoy, the public support expressed for arbitrary laws is a result of the SCAF’s relatively effective propaganda which links stability to their policies and their way of administering the country, whilst connecting chaos and instability to those who dare to oppose them.

The message the rulers are trying to send is simple: if you want freedom you have to endure prospects of a wide-scale war with Israel, looting and thuggery, a collapsing tourism industry, a struggling economy, and a security vacuum. If you want stability, all you have to endure is us.

The SCAF has tried relentlessly to link chaos and mayhem to human rights and political activism by accusing many key players in the revolution, such as the 6 April Youth Movement and the Kifaya (Enough) coalition, of trying to destabilise the country and serving foreign agendas.

Despite being accustomed to working under an authoritarian regime,and the smear campaigns and the heavy-handed security that come with the territory, rights activists now also need to grow accustomed to working under popular “dissuport”.

Political and rights activists are now slowly losing their status as “heroes” and are gradually being cast as the “villains” instead of the regime. Opposing Mubarak’s dictatorship was seen as a heroic act. Opposing SCAF is being seen by a growing number of Egyptians as a form of “treachery”. 

Intensive propaganda has associated human rights, in the minds of many, with vandalism, chaos, instability and conspiracy. The main danger to democracy that Egypt is facing is not the practices of the military rulers, but the public support for such practices.

The SCAF should not be deceived or lulled into a false sense of security by this support, which is probably going to be short-lived and is only a result of the horrors of recent months.

Once the memory of the chaos becomes distant enough and the revolutionary dust settles, people will again start realising the government’s failure to deliver better living conditions, to enhance the rule of law, to fight corruption and to push for greater civil liberties.

Rulers with a security-only mentality who fail to address economic, legal and social issues run the risk of sharing Mubarak’s destiny or even worse, because next time people will make sure not to go home with an unfinished revolution or trust anyone but themselves to take charge of the transitional period.

Employing tired, old narratives and displaying a severe lack of political imagination, which is a typical characteristic of military rulers, would only serve to remind Egyptians of the old regime they despised for long undermining the power, energy and creativity of the people.

Civil rights and genuine stability can only come together, and the Egyptian revolution proved that the heavy hand of security can no longer achieve stability on its own.

Soon enough, those Egyptians who believe that military strongmen are more capable of maintaining public order than democratically elected civilian governments will discover that this idea is nothing short of a myth. What we have is not really a choice between freedom and stability, but a choice between having both or neither.

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  • Chris

    Gary,
    You’ve certainly put more thought into than I have. You could be right, and I’d say you are about the tribal affiliations trumping any notion nationhood, so perhaps there lies a starting pitch. But I think the project may just be too big despite this indeed unique opportunity following Arab Spring. Forums-blogs like Chronikler are a good place to start… it seems to get out to a strong group of free thinkers, but where to from here? Groups like ASEAN perhaps then have more to offer as a benchmark for economic cooperation and ultimately mobile labour forces. But I stress I’m dabbling in the subject so shall leave it that…

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  • Chris.
    First of all thank you for your insightful reply. I do not know if you clicked on my name at the top to access my blog describing the “unification” idea in more detail.
    First and foremost the reason I think my idea has a better than average chance at this very moment in time is for one reason. Besides Jordan, virtually no country mentioned actually has in place what could be called a viable government. It is one thing to merge countries that have governments that have been in power for many years. Whether is was the American colonies state assemblies or the EU and its myriad of governments, the unification of what I call “Wadis Arabia” has non of those entrenched governments. It is a clean slate. Various attempts at “Pan Arab Unity” in the past have always been entrenched governments attempting to “share” power. I agree that this idea had a snowballs chance in the Sahara of succeeding even a year ago and perhaps even a year in the future. It is now that it has a chance.
    The US civil war was mainly about slavery and the battle between urban and rural power. The US was built on immigration so vast amounts of people in the US had very dissimilar back rounds and nothing as similar as the Arab world
    The EU is a jumble of countries that just cannot quite bring them selves to commit to unification. Power is diverse and zealously guarded. It is a fiasco waiting to happen
    But again the main purpose for the initial uprising in all the Arab countries was for jobs and social equality. It was only when each regime pushed back too hard did the regimes have to go. Millions still need those jobs.
    Their choices are to continue with no jobs or move to the EU or elsewhere. As it stands now there is not one country that either can create millions of jobs in the next few years no matter what government is created or in Libya’s case there may be jobs but it will take years to form any semblance of a national government.
    The vast majority of EVERY country is out of work. They will remain out of work for a long foreseeable future. As it stands now, virtually every minority still lives in fear in every country involved no matter what form any new government takes.
    I will add here a little known fact about the US economy. The American miracle was built on people moving from its very founding. Borderless opportunity for 450 years. From 1945 until 1980 the US had explosive economic growth. From 1980 on the US economy as slowed to a trickle with little upward mobility from the lower ranks and an ever expanding concentration of wealth among the very top 5%. The difference in the US?
    From 1945 to 1980 one in five or 20% of all US households move every year. EVERY YEAR. Whether across the street or across town or across the country. They moved for new and better jobs. This never wavered or changed. Then in 1980 they stopped moving. Various reasons but they stopped moving. The movement in the US was only in those jobs that were booming such as high tech. The rest of the US stagnated.
    When have the Arabs exploded in wealth over time? When they moved. Syria to Spain. Egypt to Yemen. Baghdad to Libya. They are a culture based upon movement. They no longer have the option to move on such a vast scale.
    No borders means that millions of Arabs could conceivably move to where the jobs are being created. And that is not Sfax to London but perhaps Sfax to Aleppo or the reverse.
    So the choice is a simple one. Stay unemployed and cling to national pride to feed your families, move to the EU and be a proud national there driving a cab with your degree in finance or “Move” to Wadis Arabia, become a Wadi (or whatever) and get one of the newly created millions of jobs born out of unification and region wide peace and feel safe to be a Coptic or a Berber or a Kurd, an Alawite. or even just a woman. And I would also put to you that the vast majority of Arabs of the region relate more to their long standing tribal ties than actual nation identities.
    You decide. And it must be soon. This could not happen last year and it most likely will not happen if started next year. This message needs to go to every faction in every country in the region. All sides will benefit from unification.
    They just need to understand all the beginnings of benefits that could come from unification and they might be thinking differently They just do not know it yet.

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  • Chris

    Gary,
    I applaud the out-of-box thinking here, but if you’re talking unification a la US-style, look how hard that was … and recall the eventual civil war which was faught under a different guise but likely had its roots in ‘unification’, no? If you mean a more European Union style of union, then you’d want to check the news about how that’s going (many would be happy to kick Greece to the curb right now and other member states aren’t overyly enthused about this bloc they realise they are tied to). The EU is struggling to keep momentum and ‘subsidiarity’ rules – and the fact that its made of different countries with different cultures and desires – prevents closer union economically, at least, and that seems to be a key thing in your treatise. Just some food for thought on top of the morsel you put on the table here. Again, it’s great to hear someone who wants to push round some new ideas. Cheers for that

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  • It is amazing that this is the first article I have read in months that re emphasizes the importance of economic and social factor in the regime changes. This is of course also true for every country in the entire region also undergoing regime change. Unfortunately no one is discussing the one alternative to rapid economic and social improvement that would be the unification of Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Jordan. To be left open for possible quick additions would be any/all of Palestine, Syria and Lebanon. Even Yemen is a possibility.
    The compromises needed to forge such a unified state would tend to balance the powers that be in any one country. Such a unified country would provide the one alternative that millions of Syrians need as a replacement for Assad.
    The great collection of various minorities in the combined nation would encourage the inclusion of legal protection for all minorities within the country.
    The creation of one unified common market of 100+ million people, a single currency, a much more diversified economic base than any one single country currently and the ability for millions to find employment options on a much wider geographic scale are but some of the many benefits of merger.
    The ability for a much expanded country to shift police, military and government workers to other regions less prone to civilian backlash cannot be overlooked.
    Finally, the prospect of true peace covering a wide area would allow for not only external but also much increased internally generated economic investment. The resolution to the Syrian crisis as well as the truly hopeful leverage to finally allow for a solution to the Palestinian quagmire are perhaps reason enough for millions to consider the idea even over an above economic and social goals.
    What it takes to make this happen is political courage to present and debate such an option to as wide a public in all the countries mentioned as possible. Instead of a authoritarian regime to establish domestic tranquility and progress it would take instead the rethinking of “asabiyya” as defined by Ibn Khaldun.
    All the countries are currently in play. All the countries are begging for the type of stability, economic growth and social equality that could be the hallmark of a newly united democratically elected constitutional monarchy with leadership by a much reduced in power King Abdullah II of Jordan.
    Put it to the people. Let them decided.

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