Defining Egyptian democracy: “Not like America and not like Iran”

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.5/10 (8 votes cast)

By Josephine McCarthy

Provincial Egyptians believe that moderate Islamists can construct an Egyptian model of democracy that respects their traditions and identity.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

While on a research trip to Luxor, I decided to find out for myself what the ordinary people of Egypt really wanted from the revolution and to see if that matched in any way what was being reported in the UK’s popular press. So I donned my hijab, and my partner and I wandered the city for a few days before setting off and visiting the villages on the west bank of the Nile. We talked to a wide range of people over the space of a week, including a former English professor, hotel workers, farmers, felucca owners, beggars, shop keepers and women street vendors.

It became clear very quickly that, although language was not a barrier, vocabulary and its understanding was. People spoke freely, often with passion, with desperation at times and with a joy at being able to voice their opinions. They all, without exception, voiced fear of a religious government, a wish to have order, a fair share of wealth and proper jobs. The fear of a strict Islamic government was very clear, but there was also distaste for a Western-style amoral society. And that was the first hurdle of vocabulary for me to overcome. When someone says to me they do not want a religious government, I assume they want secularism. When in fact what most of the people seem to want is something in the middle, which would explain the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

“I don’t want to have to grow a beard and shut my wife up, but I don’t want that either,” said one felucca captain as he nodded at a passing tourist, female, in very little clothing. There is a strong belief on the streets of Luxor that secularism means decadence, greed, corruption and a lack of morals. His tale, like many of the personal stories I had in that week, was very sad. A man in his 60’s, very well educated, very well travelled, he could not get work anywhere except shunting tourists up and down the Nile for 20 Egyptian pounds (£2 sterling). He studied English literature, taught in Cairo in his younger days and travelled throughout Europe with his wife (she is my all, he said wistfully). He is also a practicing Muslim and feels that a life without God is no life. These days he wanders the east bank of the Nile, quoting Shakespeare to tourists in the hope of catching the attention of someone, someone who will hire his boat, someone who will pay him a pittance, so he can get through another day.

Photo: Josephine McCarthy

I asked him about the situation between Copts and Muslims, as it does seem to be an issue according to the UK news. “Pah” he says, “Luxor is 40% Copt, they are our brothers and sisters, our family. We have no problems between us. Our only problems are from the beards. By the way, don’t believe everything you hear on al-Jazeera.” I asked him if he had worked today. “No,” he said, “I have not had work for a week, thanks to newspapers scaring away tourists. You were not afraid to come, tell people to come, please.”  I told him that I had spent a lot of my childhood visiting Belfast, during the early 70’s, and that it takes a lot to scare me off. We could not leave him in such a way, so my partner hired him for the afternoon, at English rates, so they could chat further as they drifted down the Nile. I set off to wander the streets, to find other voices, other opinions.

“Come see my shit” was the opening line of a shopkeeper desperately trying to drag me in from the streets to ‘buy his shit’. I declined to make a purchase but we ended up chatting over hibiscus tea and tobacco. It did seem to be a good ‘drawing tool’, the fact that I dressed as an Egyptian woman and rolled my own tobacco. People were fascinated. They first assumed I was smoking hashish, but when I explained that it was just tobacco, they wanted to join in, drink tea and talk to this rather bizarre woman. Two other shopkeepers came, their business almost dead, to join in the tea and company. I asked them what life has been like since the revolution began and what their hopes for the future were.

The first thing that everyone mentioned was the absence of policing, the lack of regulation in the city that was causing mayhem for the shopkeepers. They bemoaned the fact that tourists had been scared away by reports of riots, and that the upcoming elections (2 days later) were confusing. There were many candidates, too many probably, and no one seemed to know what they stood for, who they were and what they would bring to society. Small images, often unrelated, identified the candidates and when I asked what the candidates offered, the shopkeepers shrugged. Do you want a secular society I asked. “Like America?” Yes, I replied. “No, we do not want that sort of mess.”

“Do you want a religious government, like Iran?” The men fell about laughing. “NO,” they all shouted in unison. “We want a government which is fair, not religious, that works for everybody and doesn’t tell us what to think.”

This highlighted for me the problem with vocabulary and understanding yet again. It would seem that people equated secularism with a decadent society of greed, disrespect and degeneration. I was beginning to see how the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) was being so successful in the elections. They promise compromise, pragmatism and social justice.

“And if we do not like who gets in to government, then we will just kick them out again” was the parting words of one shopkeeper. It would seem that the people of Egypt had finally found a sense of their own power. As I walked back to my hotel, I came across a woman sitting by the side of the road, a pile of colourful scarves in her arms. She did not have the energy to chase the occasional tourist, instead she sat, holding out her arms as people walked by. I went and sat by her, bought some of her wares to ensure she had money for that day, and got into conversation with her. She was a divorcee, supporting her three children alone, and despite having a good education, the only work she could get was selling trinkets to tourists. What were her hopes and fears for the future of Egypt?

“I am afraid of Egypt becoming like Iran, that is my biggest fear of all for the future.  I am a Muslim, I love my family and I work hard, but I want our government to work for all of the people. I don’t think government should be religious, that is not it’s job.”  So I asked if she wanted a secular government?  No she replied, “People who do not believe in God cannot be good people.” It was becoming very obvious that ‘secular’ was being equated with ‘atheist’.

“What about a government made up of Muslims, Copts, etc., which just worked on government issues and not religious law? “That is the FJP, they will do that,” she replied. I hope she was right, I told her.

The following day, I set off the to the west bank villages, the place where the farmers and urban  manual workers lived. I struck up a conversation with a middle-aged sugar cane farmer who was curious as to why a woman in hijab was rolling tobacco (it always peaks curiosity and curiosity is the biggest opener of doors). I rolled him a cigarette and he produced the tea. It was a long and interesting conversation that would probably not have happened only 12 months ago. He was scathing in his attack on the government ,both now and under Mubarak. So I asked him what it was about the current government that was making him angry. “Corruption,” he replied, “corruption at every level”. Nothing had changed for him except that there was more crime on the streets now. He told me that, as a farmer, he sold raw sugar to the government for 90 Piastres a kilo. He then had to buy it back as processed sugar for his family at 7 Egyptian pounds a kilo. He could not understand why he got so little for his product and yet so much profit was obviously being made. We began talking about society in general and where he felt Egypt was heading. He spoke a lot about the region needing a sense of ‘right and wrong’, of a moral society that cared for all people. I asked him if he meant a Muslim Government. “Yes” he replied.

“Like, say, Iran for example?”

“Oh no, not like that, that is not Islamic anyhow, that is just ignorant bullying.”

So I asked him about the Muslim Brotherhood. Did he think they could do a good job? He nodded vigorously. “Yes, they care for our brother Copts as well as us. They care about all of us and they respect the poor. They will look after us, all of us.” So I ventured into more searching questions, and asked his opinion on the more traditional al-Nour party. The man shook his head while kicking the dirt at his feet. “We want our way, the Egyptian way, the respectable way, but we do not want to have to grow beards, we do not want to go backwards. We want to go forwards, but be respectable. You dress like a good Egyptian woman, you know what I mean.”

I nodded, I was beginning to understand. I asked him if a lot of people will vote tomorrow (Luxor elections) for al-Nour? He nodded sadly. “There are too many candidates, it’s too confusing and people are frightened. They are fearful of corruption, of decadence, of poverty. If someone says they will give money to the poor, they will get votes. We are also worried about becoming like the West. We are not the West, we are good people, we work hard and respect our families. We want tourists to keep coming, to bring their money, we do not want to be like Iran.”

It struck me that the Iranian model was none too popular and was frequently used as an example of what people did not want.

As we spoke, a group of young boys were touting trinkets to tourists. They were fashionably dressed and could have walked straight off a New York street. They chased the scantily clad tourists mercilessly, physically grabbing the women, and making a general nuisance of themselves. One of them spotted me rolling a cigarette and wandered over in curiosity. “You give me hashish?” said a boy who can’t have been more than 10-years-old. I waved him away as the farmer I was talking to shook his head. He nodded at the boys, whose passing comments to women would have turned a corpse red, and pointed out that he felt his whole country would become like them if they had a “godless” government.

My last interview victim was a Copt working in the city of Luxor. I was staying in a Coptic-owned hotel and had chatted with the staff throughout the week. He pointed out to me the need for elections sooner rather than later: the lack of stable government at both the local and national level was creating chaos on the streets. Too many taxi drivers, no policing: the country needed regulation and soon. What about the Muslim Brotherhood? “They will be ok, I think, but the Islamic parties are a worry if they get in. If they do, I am moving out.”

I pointed out that the Brotherhood is an Islamic party, and is seen in the West as a potential threat to democracy. The man smiled and shook his head. “We have nothing to fear from them, they are about government, not religion, if they know what is good for them and for Egypt, we will have a democracy with them. And if they do turn out to be too religious, then we will kick them out.” Yet again, this expressed the new sense of popular confidence and people power on the streets.

What about secular parties, I asked? “Liberals? La (no). What do they know of family responsibilities, they are not respectable people, they are not Egyptians,” was the Copt’s dismissive reaction.

Later, I sat by the Nile and pondered over the voices I had heard over the week as I watched the military trucks filled with soldiers park quietly up the back streets in preparation for voting. One thing had become patently obvious: the secularist parties were not listening to the people, to the ordinary rural folk trying to get through life with some dignity. The people needed straight talking, down-to-earth practical understandable solutions, agendas and a manifesto that fitted Egypt, not the West. Instead they bandied about concepts and issues that the local people could not relate to, and most important of all, they have done nothing to truly connect with the ordinary, everyday person outside of Cairo.

Maybe the FJP would be a good bridge to the future, if they kept in mind that the people will no longer tolerate oppressive rule. That would give the liberal parties chance to get their act together and find a way to speak for all of the people, not just the educated middle classes. This is a major turning point for Egypt and it has to work from the inside out, it has to come from the people, all of the people. Personally I think at this point in the game, a western style secular free market economy would be a cultural disaster for Egypt, it certainly is not the answer to all ills, as we are finding out in the west, for a number of reasons. There has to be a way to have a socially conscious government without religion being involved. Maybe Egypt will birth something new, a socially conscious society that is intellectually free and a government that keeps its nose out of people’s hearts and minds. We can all live in hope of such a dream.


VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 8.5/10 (8 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +3 (from 3 votes)

Related posts

Secular Egypt: dream or delusion?

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)

By Khaled Diab

Is Egypt on the road to theocracy or will it manage to build a secular, pluralist democracy?

Thursday 15 December 2011

The roller-coaster sensation of elation followed by deflation which I and millions of others felt in the early weeks of the revolution has been back recently. Dozens of protesters killed and hundreds injured – anger and depression. Activists defiantly risk life and limb to launch part two of the revolution and demand the army returns to the barracks – admiration mixed with pride.

Generals ignore their demands and go ahead with faulty parliamentary elections – bitter disappointment. Millions turn out and queue for hours (miraculously for Egypt, in orderly lines) to make their vote count – delight. Islamists make the biggest gains in the first round – concern mixed with a little fright.

For those of a progressive and secular disposition, the preliminary results of the first phase of Egypt’s first post-revolution parliamentary elections make for sobering reading. The Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Freedom and Justice party (FJP) list is unsurprisingly in pole position, with some 36% of the vote.

Al-Nour (The Light), the coalition of Salafist parties, emerged, almost out of the blue, to eclipse partially the dawn of Egyptian democracy by garnering an impressive quarter of the first phase vote, almost double what the secular leftist Egyptian Bloc – a major force in the revolution which was expected to come second – managed to salvage from their electoral train wreck.

Despite its bright name, if al-Nour ever has its way completely, Egypt would be run according to its ultra-conservative interpretation of shari’a, albeit in a “gradual way that suits the nature of society”, because, in their fundamentalist view, Islam cannot be separated from the state and secularism is tantamount to atheism (a common misconception among Egyptians).

The unexpectedly strong performance of the Salafists and poor showing of the secularists has been the subject of frenzied and worried debate in liberal and progressive Egyptian circles, including among my friends and acquaintances. Overseas, the early fears that Egypt would become the next Iran have been reawakened, and some Western friends who have been terrified by the prospect of an Islamist takeover of Egypt have been wagging an “I told you so” finger at my alleged naivety.

But is there cause for panic?

Of course, the Salafist vision for Egypt is not only terrifying to “godless” secularists, socialists and liberals but many aspects of it trouble pious Egyptians, even many of those who voted for the parties.

And sadly Salafism has regressed a long way from its original proponents. In the 19th century, “Salafis” were at the forefront of Egypt’s modernising drive and revival, which has come to be known as the “Egyptian Renaissance”. Muhammad Abdu, a reformist Azharite cleric, for example, once famously summed up his thought by saying: “I went to the West and saw Islam, but no Muslims. I returned to the East and saw Muslims, but no Islam.”

In his and other early reformers’ worldview, the West had successfully captured the ingredients of early Islamic greatness, and the only way for Islam to catch up and match this was to return to the spirit of the “Salaf”, the early generations of Muslims who innovatively and creatively interpreted their faith to suit the spirit of the times.

Inspired by the reactionary Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who believed that the graves of even pious “innovators” within religion was a “barren pit”, and spearheaded by such figures as Sayyid Qutb, the spiritual father of modern, radical Islamism, the contemporary brand of Salafism became not only hostile to the West but also to its values. In order to counteract Western hegemony, Salafists believe, Muslims must reject the West and live as the early Muslims did. This idealised view of the past has led many Islamists to interpret their religion rigidly and literally, at least the parts of it that suit them, and to get caught up in the minutiae of how the prophet walked, talked and even urinated.

An example of this is their fossilised attitude towards tourism. Although al-Nour’s economic platform has focused on reforming the banking sector along Islamic lines by outlawing interest (something that is bound to be popular among borrowers), it has steered cleverly away from delving too deeply into its position on tourism as being “un-Islamic”.

Salafists are well-known for their opposition to tourism for its “immorality” and “decadence” and many leading Salafi preachers call for it to be banned, while the violent extremists of the 1990s specifically targeted tourists, not only to undermine the government but also as a reflection of their rejection of the industry. One wacky manifestation of this opposition is the bizarre call by al-Da’awa al-Salafiyya (which founded al-Nour) to cover all Egypt’s ancient statues in wax veils.

But this kind of idol gesture is unlikely to go down well, since millions of Egyptians depend on tourism for their economic well-being and millions more are proud that their country – “the mother of the world”, as they call it – is the subject of such international fascination and reverence, and they love to say “Welcome” to foreigners.

But do the gains made by Salafists and the more moderate Muslim Brotherhood indicate that Egypt is on the slippery slope to theocracy or can it still build a democracy, albeit one with a pronounced Islamic flavour?

Although this result would suggest Egypt is far from the secular, progressive society I and like-minded Egyptians dream of seeing emerge, it is far from being the unmitigated disaster that doomsayers have been warning about.

For a start, the fear that the Islamists will form some kind of unified bloc in parliament is possible but appears unlikely at this juncture. After all, the Brotherhood and the Salafists, though their worldviews may overlap on numerous issues, are bitter rivals and the al-Nour party was formed by a breakaway faction from the FJP alliance that was unhappy with the moderate, pluralist line the FJP was towing.

Moreover, the FJP did not actually collect 36% of the vote – it was the entire Democratic Alliance of 11 parties, mostly secular ones. As the dominant member, the FJP is estimated to account for some 60-70%, which means that it captured between 22% and 25% of the vote.

On the bright side, this means that, combined, the Islamist vote accounts for half the total and the secularist for the other half. On the downside, it means that the relatively moderate Muslim Brotherhood and the extremist Salafists are neck and neck.

In addition, there is a good chance that the FJP will do more than pay lip service to its expressed commitment to secularism and pluralism in order to avoid spooking SCAF and the West and to avoid a replay of what occurred in Algeria. And after 90 years of oppression and inhabiting the political wilderness, the Muslim Brotherhood finally wants a shot at some form of direct power.

And perhaps after all these decades, it’s time they actually got an official stake in running the country, partly because this is only fair, and partly because allowing the movement to join the mainstream in earnest would finally rob them of the luxury of criticising loudly from the sidelines without actually having any of their ideas and contradictions put to the test. In parliament, the electorate can judge them on their actual performance and not just their sloganeering and grandstanding. Then voters can truly learn whether Islam, at least the version of it they preach, is the solution or part of the problem.

Perhaps one reason behind al-Nour’s unexpected success actually has little to do with religion, but is related to the far more mundane and worldly reality of economic inequality. With the revolutionaries focusing all their efforts on what might seem to the average Egyptian like abstract issues of political reform and the liberal parties, particularly the neo-liberal FJP, refusing to countenance the idea of radical income redistribution, al-Nour’s calls for a “fair and equal distribution” of not only income but wealth is bound to appeal to Egypt’s oppressed and downtrodden masses, many of whom are forced to live on less than $2 a day.  And so the unexpected success of the Salafists may actually be more of a protest vote against the other parties than a vote of confidence in al-Nour.

Some months ago, I cautioned that the revolution and the interim regime ignored or downplayed the economic aspect of the uprising, what I called the revolution’s bottom line, at their peril. “You can have all the democracy and personal freedoms in the world, but without addressing the bread and butter issues of poverty and economic injustice, reform will be incomplete and hollow,” I wrote.

Given Egypt’s pressing practical socio-economic issues, we may actually find that the first parliament is not preoccupied with identity politics but rather with more urgent bread-and-butter issues (at least, any sensible parliament should be). This may, paradoxically, lead to some weird alliances of convenience forming not around cultural or identity issues but around economic outlook. So, just as the Muslim Brotherhood has allied itself to al-Ghad partly based of the similarity in their economic outlook, so too might al-Nour, if it is sincere about its economic programme, find itself in an uncomfortable partnership with secular leftists, at least on issues of economic justice.

But there is another bottom line that we have not yet explored. Will the new parliament have real legislative teeth, will it manage to challenge the “pharonic” powers of the eventual president, or will it be yet another rubberstamp assembly? There is a widespread fear among activists and revolutionaries that SCAF has no intention of ceding (at least ultimate) power to the people. Even if the army does ostensibly return to the barracks, there is the real and present danger that they will form a shadow government there that will exercise an ultimate veto over the civilian government.

And SCAF’s behaviour has done little to allay these concerns. Not only has it said that it will have final say over the country’s new constitution, it has also indicated that the new parliament will have no oversight over the military’s budget.

It also seems that the generals are unimaginatively following the well-trodden path of Egyptian leaders over the past three decades and playing with Islamists fire. It is true that the Islamists undoubtedly hold appeal to certain segments of the population and the nascent revolutionary groups’ failure to score significant electoral success so far is partly due to their disorganisation and disarray.

Nevertheless, all indications reveal that the dice were loaded in favour of the Islamists, as part of what appears to be a counterrevolution. Not only did the country’s provisional constitution make it difficult to form parties, which handicapped the secular activist who launched the revolution, the rule that bans the formation of religious parties does not seem to have been applied to the salafists for some mysterious reason.

In addition, the SCAF’s policy of obfuscation and delay since the revolution erupted harmed the electoral chances of the revolutionaries because it enabled the regime and the Muslim Brotherhood to convince quite a number of Egyptians that the resulting instability was the fault of the activists and not the old guard. Had the army handed over power immediately to an interim “Council of the Wise” and had genuine elections been held during the early period of euphoria following Mubarak’s downfall, then the courageous and visionary revolutionary youth could well have led the political pack in Egypt’s parliament, rather than being left with almost nothing.

But why would the SCAF form an unholy alliance with the Islamists? For a number of reasons. Pragmatically, the generals realised that the Brotherhood, particularly its old and conservative leadership, was the lesser of two evils. The revolutionaries want complete regime change. In contrast, the Brotherhood – whose current leadership has been saying for years that good Muslims are obliged to obey their leaders even if they are tyrants – is willing to compromise and live with a power-sharing arrangement.

Additionally, there is an element of intergenerational conflict: the young revolutionaries, including the younger members of the Brotherhood itself, appeared to be a common enemy both to the ageing generals and the ageing Islamists at the top of the movement. And with the Brotherhood’s commitment to free market economics and its reassurances that it would not rock the boat with Egypt’s allies, the FJP must seem like the best guarantor of the elusive “stability” Washington so covets.

And like Mubarak before them, Field Marshall Tantawi and his inner circle may be trying to put the fear of God, so to speak, into the hearts of Egyptian secularists and the Western powers alike – perhaps as a prelude to freezing, rolling back or delaying further reforms.

When all is said done, this is still only the first phase of the elections, and the staggered nature of the vote may actually work in favour of the secularists, whose poor showing so far may prod them to redouble their efforts to win over voters in the rest of the country. It may also focus the minds of voters and prompt them to deny the Islamists, particularly the salafists, further significant gains. At the very least, it might encourage more Egyptians to vote for the FJP as the only realistic bulwark against al-Nour.

That said, what effect would an Islamist-dominated parliament have on vulnerable groups, including women, Christians and other minorities, such as Baha’is, atheists and simply those with alternative interpretations of their faith?

Well, at a certain level, the Islamisation of Egypt culturally and socially has been taking place for decades. When the 1952 revolution failed to deliver on its promise of granting Egyptians their full political and social freedom, and Gamal Abdel-Nasser mercilessly stamped out both secular and Islamist opposition to his rule, the discrediting of secularism began in earnest. The crushing defeat of 1967, and the accompanying destruction of the pan-Arabist dream, dealt a decisive blow to secularism and empowered the Islamists.

Then, in the 1970s, Anwar al-Sadat openly and cynically (though, of course, he had once been a member of the Muslim Brotherhood in his youth) began embracing the conservative Islamic current to counterbalance the fierce secular opposition he was facing, which he crushed ruthlessly, and when the inevitable blowback came, it was too late for him to turn back the tide.

His successor, Hosni Mubarak, tried to play both sides off against each other in a classic example of divide and rule. Under Mubarak’s leadership, the regime tried both to portray itself as the guarantor of secular freedoms and the defender of Islamic decency. Meanwhile, the sectarian tensions this awoke were ignored and swept under the carpet because it went against the prevalent discourse of national unity, until the ugly monster of sectarianism had grown to unmanageable proportions.

So, even without Islamist domination of the next parliament, it will take years of effort, dialogue, education and trust building to slay the dragon of sectarianism and rebuild the confidence of Christians that they are full and equal citizens of the country. Of course, an Islamist victory could well delay or set back such a process.

Likewise, the Islamists have succeeded in setting in motion a counter-feminist revolution which has reversed or frozen many of the gains made by women in their struggle for equality. And, paradoxically, as more and more women go out into the workplace and public sphere, they must do so heavily cloaked in piety and “decency” and, hence, not as equals to men. So, as misogyny is not limited to Islamists in Egypt and the sex divide has reached an unsustainable level, it is unclear whether matters will actually get worse for women.

Liberal, pluralist secularism also became contaminated through its association with the exercise of Western hegemony in the region, which was often conducted cynically under the banner of spreading “freedom” and “democracy”.

The upshot of all this is that, without being in power, Islamists have exercised a powerful and stifling influence on Egyptian society for years, as reflected in the growing pre-eminence of the conservative religious dress and the hounding and persecution of those who criticise religion. Whereas in the 1950s-1970s, many intellectuals in Egypt and other secular republics, despite the (more tolerant) piety of the general population, held proudly sceptical and even hostile views of religion and were openly atheistic. Today, even mild criticism of religion can land you in hot water.

This has resulted in the growing marginalisation and ostracisation of Egyptians who do not fit the mainstream Islamic mould, whether they be secularists, Christians, Baha’is or non-believers, a minority that might outnumber Christians if Egypt did not turn an official blind eye to atheists and agnosts and if people were allowed to be fully open about their beliefs, some suggest.

However, that is not the entire story. The Egyptian revolution has revealed a trend that has been going on under the radar for years. Millions of Egyptians who hold a wide spectrum of socially and politically liberal and progressive views have come out into the open, while Egypt’s tattered and bedraggled secular forces are regrouping, discovering a new sense of confidence and assertiveness which they will not cede easily to the righteous bullying of the Islamists and other religious conservatives. In addition, mainstream Islamists have been undergoing a process which I call “secularism in a veil“.

This means that, rather than a theocratic Egypt, what we might well see emerge is a battle between two increasingly polarised trends: the reactionary religious and pluralistically secular. Moreover, as Islamism is truly put to the test, we may look back in the future on this period as the “high point” of the Islamist political movement, as the electorate quickly grows disillusioned when its vision too fails to deliver improvements and results.

Egypt’s first democratic parliamentary elections since the 1952 revolution – faulty as they were – began on 28 November, our son’s second birthday. This led me to wonder whether the process this will unleash will be one that will create a new Egypt that will make him proud or ashamed of his Egyptian half. A truly democratic, free, tolerant and pluralistic Egypt – even if it is achieved politically – will probably take generations to implement socially, and will depend on decent education and economic prospects for all.

Here’s to hoping that our children and grandchildren will inherit an Egypt that they can live in and have a stake in.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 0 (from 0 votes)

Related posts

Opposing the Egyptian opposition

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)

By Osama Diab

The ornamental ‘official opposition’ in Egypt is as dangerous as the authoritarian regime itself.

Thursday 13 October

Even though I was quite clearly no big fan of the ousted president Hosni Mubarak, I wasn’t very keen on any of the official opposition during his era either and I never saw any of these parties as a viable alternative to his rule. The reason I describe it as the “official opposition” is to distinguish it from the movements and people who contributed greatly to shaping a new, more dynamic Egyptian political scene and have emerged from outside the traditional political parties and organised political groups.

The perceived lack of alternatives was not indicative of an actual absence. The ineffectiveness of the opposition wasn’t an accident or a pure coincidence, it was a deliberate strategy of the Mubarak regime which always endeavoured to purge any meaningful opposition from the political scene.

For Mubarak, what was more important than choosing his ministers and consultants was selecting those who, on paper, stood against him and his ruling party. In order for the opposition to serve its purpose as deemed by the regime, their leaders needed to be dull, highly uncharismatic, distant, lacking in vision and, most importantly, unwilling in any way to challenge his authority.

Mubarak’s tamed and carefully selected opposition – regardless of its position on the political spectrum – used to praise his wisdom in running the country day and night. Some presidential candidates in the 2005 election, such as the leader of the miniature Ummah party Ahmed al-Sabahi – a 90-year-old spring chicken at the time who insisted that everyone call him Mr President and vowed to reintroduce the fez – even went as far as to say that he would vote for Mubarak because he found him to be the best candidate.

This opposition, knowing no other role, are still prisoners of this subservient ‘court jester’ mentality. Even though Egypt has seen radical changes and a revolution, they seem to be programmed to serve the same purpose with any ruler. They are now serving the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) in the same way they served and were loyal to Mubarak.

After SCAF’s meeting last week with political parties led by al-Wafd and the the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice party, the political parties signed a document in which they “declared their full support for the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and their appreciation of its role in protecting the revolution”.

This also explains why the real opposition and revolutionary forces were not invited to the meeting. The youth movements, such as the 6 April Youth Movement, which was the real driving force behind the revolution, were not invited because their radical mentality makes it obvious they won’t settle for a few cosmetic concessions in return for a few seats in parliament. They are also more likely not to recognise the SCAF as Egypt’s legitimate rulers.

Al-Wafd, the Brotherhood and other forms of official opposition have a long history of abandoning the struggle in return for a few parliamentary seats or even just the permission to exist, and some are infamous for striking deals with successive regimes. New youth revolutionary groups are yet to be corrupted, but until this happens, they will stay unrecognised and uninvited by the SCAF and any authoritarian ruler. I still remember when the former heir apparent Gamal Mubarak mocked a man who dared to ask him, when he still had a senior position in the National Democratic Party, if he was willing to engage in a dialogue with opposition youth groups.

Most of the parties which met with the SCAF to discuss the future of the country did not play an active role in the sweeping revolution, some even actually worked against it, while others were cautious participants who steered clear of the front line. The Brotherhood and other official opposition parties did not risk officially joining the revolution until they were sure Mubarak’s days in power were numbered, and only then did they decide to jump opportunistically on to the revolutionary bandwagon.

Just like the previous regime, SCAF want a malleable opposition they can control . It seeks an opposition that will help them stay in power rather than compete with them for power, and that is willing to abandon its ideals for representation in parliament. In short, what the SCAF wants is an opposition they can trust.

The SCAF has made clear its intentions that it is here to stay, and by signing this document the official opposition helped the generals to anchor their position as the long-term rulers of the country, rather than its interim leadership for the six-month transitional period like they promised after the revolution.

I am sceptical that the official opposition under the Mubarak regime which has now switched to admiring the emperor’s new clothes can deliver any meaningful change. Though it calls itself the opposition, it is actually an integral component in the survival of a corrupt political system many are working hard to reform or remove.

VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: 9.5/10 (2 votes cast)
VN:F [1.9.22_1171]
Rating: +5 (from 5 votes)

Related posts