A manifesto for Egypt’s future

 
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By Khaled Diab

As Egypt risks another disastrous transition, it is time to create a unique model for Egyptian democracy. No president, no parties, direct democracy.

Wednesday 10 July 2013

The past few days in Egypt have been filled with tension, uncertainty, ever-greater polarisation, growing violence and recrimination. The army’s handling of pro-Morsi protests, its arrest of leading  Muslim Brotherhood members and the killing of dozens of protesters is reprehensible and must be condemned unequivocally by all Egypt’s political and revolutionary forces.

Some have seen in the army’s disproportionate actions and excessive use of force confirmation of the gross miscalculation and hypocrisy of Egypt’s opposition and revolutionary forces by backing the forcible removal of Egypt’s “legitimate” and “democratically elected” leader.

But I see the army’s actions and the clashes between pro- and anti-Morsi supporters not as the product of political legitimacy undermined but as a symptom of illegitimacy compounded until the entire house of cards came tumbling down.

Morsi, as I argued in my previous article, lost any claims to legitimacy that he may have once had. But the problem runs much, much deeper than that. Egypt’s botched transition towards democracy excluded or sidelined most of the revolutionary youth movements due to restrictive and prohibitive conditions for party formation, which favoured the established and highly organised, such as the Brotherhood.

Over and above this, the transitional constitution was seriously flawed, as was the idea that Egypt’s new constitution should be drafted by parliament. This left Egypt in a ‘cart before the horse’ situation, in which the race was being run before the rules had been set. More importantly and surreally, the players, especially those on the winning side, were given the chance to write their own rules.

This, as critics pointed out, would favour whoever managed to come out on top in parliament and would enable them to load the rules of the game in their own favour. And so it came to bear, and the Brotherhood and Salafis created a document which declared that all Egyptians were “equal” but some Egyptians – middle-aged, conservative Muslim men, to be precise – were far, far more equal than others. More chillingly, it empowered the state to “safeguard and protect morality and public decency” and to “maintain a refined level of upbringing”.

Furthermore, next to nothing was done during the transition to reform the office of the president, which retained most of its powers, and to strengthen other institutions against it, in order to create the kinds of checks and balances that would avoid the emergence of another Mubarak.

This was amply demonstrated in November 2012 when Morsi, confusing himself for Superman, transferred to himself, with the simple flourish of a pen, unlimited powers to “protect” Egypt and legislate without any oversight, which he was later forced to repeal due to a massive wave of protests.

And then there is the murky, antidemocratic role of the military. Some mistakenly see the removal of Morsi by the army as a dangerous sign that the military had come out of its barracks to interfere in politics once again. But the point is that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) had never withdrawn from the political arena; it just retreated tactically behind the facade of a subservient political system largely of its own making.

Revolutionaries had warned the Brotherhood against this and asked them to join in the struggle to push the SCAF out of politics, but the Freedom and Justice Party and Morsi chose ‘pragmatism’ and self-interest over principle, even as demonstrators and protesters were being killed and arrested by the military. They made a pact with the devil and the devil won.

Egypt’s political woes are not just structural and institutional. There is also the country’s leadership challenge. Six decades of dictatorship left Egypt without a clear pool of competent leadership material. That is not to say that there are no competent leaders but just that they are inexperienced, untested and often even unknown to the public.

Someone with Morsi’s obvious absence of calibre, who could have authored the Islamist version of How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, is a sad manifestation of this. The disarray, division and disastrous infighting in revolutionary and opposition ranks is partly a symptom of this, and partly a manifestation of the dilemma of any mass revolutionary movement which unites disparate groups with ultimately divergent goals.

In addition, the disparity in organisational competence and reach between the Brotherhood and the so-called ‘official opposition’ is often attributed to the superior skills of this Islamist movement, undoubtedly good as they are, or is seen as a product of some kind of traditional affinity Egyptians have with religious conservatism.

However, it is often forgotten that the Brotherhood’s conservative religious agenda was once anathema to large swathes of the Egyptian population, even in the countryside. For example, in a rare film featuring former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser talking about the Brotherhood, a witty farmer suggests that the movement’s Supreme Guide should be the one to don a hijab, rather than Egyptian women!

Some argue that had it not been for Nasser’s repression, the Brothers would’ve ruled Egypt a long time ago. Personally, I’m not so sure. Nasser was an equal opportunities tyrant who, if anything, crushed his secular opposition, which represented a more direct threat to his rule, more ruthlessly and brutally than the Islamists, who at the very least had the mosque to retreat to.

And had it not been for the blowback of Nasser’s torture chambers, Sadat’s dangerous game of empowering the Islamists to crush his secular opponents, and Mubarak’s penchant for giving the Islamists some leeway to scare the outside world, the Brotherhood might have remained an effective charitable and social movement, rather than a dangerous and divisive political one.

But with their boundless reserves of creativity, Egypt’s young revolutionaries – who sometimes seem to be rebelling also against the very concept of leadership – turned a weakness into a powerful political weapon which decapitated the Egyptian regime three times in two and a half years. The leaderless protests created a hydra with millions of heads which the regime could not contain and keep down.

However, though leaderless mass uprisings can topple regimes rapidly, they are far less capable of building a viable and robust alternative. And we are witnessing this again, as the army steps into the void and shows signs of attempting to engineer the same kind of short-sighted “transition” that got us to this impasse in the first place.

So, how can we overcome this weakness and the other challenges outlined above?

The current situation provides a golden opportunity to reinvent Egypt’s political system and to create a unique model of Egyptian democracy that is tailored to this reality in which there is no clear leadership, institutions are weak and there is an overriding public desire for direct democratic participation.

And this new system should be shaped through an inclusive national conversation that involves not only all of Egypt’s political currents, but all interested citizens who wish to contribute their views.

As one of those citizens, here is my vision for creating a uniquely Egyptian democracy. First, given the abuse to which it has been put over the decades and the temptation for all its occupants to turn to dictatorship, I suggest that the Egyptian presidency be stripped of all its powers and transformed into a ceremonial position.

The shambled remains of Egypt’s first democratically elected parliament increase my conviction that Egypt should do away with parties altogether. Given that political parties are the cornerstone upon which most governments around the world, whether democratic or not, are built, this may sound radical, bizarre or even bonkers.

But not only does Egypt not have a strong party political tradition, abolishing parties will allow the country to create a democratic parliament in the truest sense of the word, and overcome the current destructive factionalism that sees people forced to choose sides in a polarised and explosive standoff.

Moreover, parties have certain antidemocratic tendencies, such as forcing members to vote along party lines, regardless of their individual convictions. Then, there is the ‘tyranny’ of the party system, which can concentrate power and hinder change, due to the antidemocratic inertia exerted by the mainstream parties. This is a particularly severe problem in the first-past-the-post system, such as in the United States and Britain, where voters may be hungry for change but will almost never vote for small parties because they believe they cannot win.

Little wonder, then, that some of America’s founding fathers warned against the dangers of party politics. “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

For that reason, Egypt would be better served with a flexible non-party representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the presidency, on their own merit and personal manifesto.

This will provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. For example, on certain key matters – such as youth unemployment, gender rights, social policy, trade, foreign policy questions, etc. – groups of politicians of similar conviction can form temporary, unofficial alliances, rather like the Egyptian opposition has already been doing for numerous years, such as with the Kefaya movement.

Over and above this, in order to avoid the emergence unrepresentative ‘representative democracy,’ politicians’ power can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which, like in Switzerland, the people are consulted directly on vital issues.

In addition, to move mass protest out of the streets and into the formal political arena, and to respond to Egyptians’ newfound hunger for direct political participation, concerned citizens who are unhappy with certain decisions taken by their representatives or wish to launch their own initiatives should have recourse to a formal mechanism that enables immediate action, if they gather enough signatures.

This also moves us away from the condescending idea in representative democracy that voters should be seen every four years at the ballot box but not heard the rest of the time, and towards the idea that every citizen is a partner and player in the political process.

Egyptians have a golden opportunity to put in place a true democracy of the people and for the people. And, above all, it will be created by the people.

___

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is an updated version of an article which first appeared in The Daily News Egypt on 7 July 2013.

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True people power in Libya

 
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By Khaled Diab

Gaddafi and his corrupt ‘jamahiriya’ may be gone, but Libyans should not give up on the dream of a direct democracy for the masses.

Monday 24 October 2011

Now that Gaddafi is dead, many Libyans are upbeat about the future, despite decades of autocratic rule and months of war.

“There is now an excellent opportunity to build a government from scratch and, after 42 years of one-man rule, Libyans want democracy,” Yusra Tekbali, a Libyan-American journalist who was in Libya during the early days of the uprising told me. “I think Libya can be the first real democracy in the region.”

Although Libyans dream of freedom and dignity, what the future actually has in store remains a very open question, with the National Transitional Council already facing allegations of torture and human rights abuses, and uncertainty regarding whether the Western powers who helped topple Gaddafi – and have already been lining up in an unseemly and opportunistic queue to demand that Libya grease their palsm with lucrative oil contracts – will ultimately choose self-interest or principle.

These worries aside, there’s the question of which model of democracy will work best in Libya. “Libyans have no experience in ruling themselves, so trial and error is to be expected,” Tekbali observes.

Of course, Gaddafi would say that Libyans already had decades of experience of bottom-up self-rule. The one-time “Brotherly Leader and Guide of the Revolution” would probably quote at length from his slim and surreal work, the Green Book, about the deficiencies of representative liberal democracies – stopping off on the way to discuss women’s menstrual cycles and the evils of sports clubs – and how the true answer lies in direct democracy.

In Gaddafi’s imagination, if not in practice, contemporary Libya was the living manifestation of the Green Book’s utopian “Third Universal Theory”, which he formulated as an alternative both to capitalism and Marxism. Transformed in the mid-1970s into a “jamahiriya” (a term Gaddafi coined to mean government by the masses), Libya was supposedly run directly by popular committees representing all parts of the country and all walks of life.

“The striking innovation in the Libyan political system since Gaddafi came to power resulted from his desire to replace subnational traditional leaders with administrators with the skills needed to modernise the country,” a US government study of Libya from the 1980s noted.

Although Gaddafi was supposed to hold no political positions of authority beyond the honorific “Leader of the Revolution”, his position as head of the General People’s Congress meant that he remained effectively in charge and the people’s committees were little more than a fig leaf designed to cover the naked brutality of his autocracy. Meanwhile, the revolutionary committees’ role to “supervise people power” was actually code for monitoring and suppression.

“It is ironic, then,” the American study concluded, “that the changes intended to enfranchise the citizenry have instead served primarily to bolster Gaddafi’s personal power by diminishing governmental checks and balances on his executive power and eliminating all other power bases.”

Given their bitter experience of living under Gaddafi’s “direct democracy”, Libyans may be excused if they desire never to embrace it again. Nevertheless, there is a powerful case to be made for governing Libya through direct democracy.

Although I do not share Gaddafi’s contempt for liberal and representative democracy – which, though imperfect, is among the best political systems we’ve ever had – importing the western model wholesale, as Libya’s interim government seems intent on doing, is perhaps not the best way forward.

Personally, I am convinced that direct democracy is the best option for Libya – and other Arab countries. This is partly because Libya does not possess the party political infrastructure for effective representative democracy, and the rush to create parties could be counterproductive.

Even in countries with political parties, like Egypt, the official opposition is unable to deliver on the people’s demands. In addition, the new parties that have been formed do not represent large swathes of the population, particularly the young people who risked everything in a bid to change their societies, and are likely to be too weak or too dominated by vested interests to bring about meaningful change.

In principle, too, direct democracy – the model that was practised in ancient Athens – is superior to its representative cousin which, through the “authoritarianism” of party politics, can sometimes exclude the majority and can lead to de facto oligarchies.

 “[Parties] serve to organise faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation, the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community,” George Washington cautioned in his farewell address.

Though implementing direct democracy in the modern mass context might would have been seen as a pipe dream in Washington’s day, with the aid of modern technology, it is a feasible possibility.

Of course, direct democracy also suffers from its own drawbacks, such as the risk of majority “tyranny”, which could leave minorities and other vulnerable groups exposed. In addition, the sheer weight of constant participation could lead to political fatigue or apathy among the population and, hence, the hijacking of the political process by those on the political fringes who are more likely to be active.

A hybrid system could overcome these shortcomings. A parliament made up of elected representatives, but without political parties, could take care of the day-to-day business of government. This would provide individual politicians with the flexibility to vote according to their conscience and the will of their constituents, while organising informally around certain issues of the day. Important legislative issues would be decided through direct consultation with the population. In addition, every citizen would have the right to propose legislation and start motions.

With the right constitutional safeguards in place to protect all groups, there is no reason why every Libyan should not have both the right and duty to shape the future of their country directly and ensure that no new dictator emerges to fill Gaddafi’s shoes.

This column first appeared in The Guardian‘s Comment is Free section. The related discussion is available here.

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Opposing the Egyptian opposition

 
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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.

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