An Arab model for democracy

By Khaled Diab

The time is ripe to crystallise a creative vision for Egyptian , one that can perhaps be used as a model by other countries.

Wednesday 23 February 2011

On Friday 18 February, as many as 2 million Egyptians gathered on the now-aptly named Tahrir (Liberation) Square for what was dubbed the Friday of Victory and Continuity. And the assembled throngs – resembling, at once, a World Cup victory celebration, Hyde Park Speakers' Corner and a performing arts festival – had plenty of reason to celebrate, given that the had succeeded, just one week earlier, in toppling, one could even say dethroning, Hosni Mubarak, the country's pseudo-king for the past three decades.

But crying victory was somewhat premature, for the revolution will not be truly victorious until the old regime is replaced completely by a free and fair system that responds to the will of the people – not to mention triggers a profound process of social evolution.

The protesters and organisers are well aware of the dangers ahead and the Friday of Victory was a subtle warning  to put the army on notice that reneging on the revolution's demands was not an option the people were willing to contemplate.

Ever since Mubarak's ouster on Friday 11 February, the army's supreme council has been in charge of the country. In the 18 days it took to topple Mubarak, the army won many fans among the Egyptian population for its intelligent and relatively enlightened handling of the demonstrations and its support for what it called the “legitimate demands” of the people, which prompted demonstrators to coin the slogan that the “army and the people are a single hand”.

Although expressing this level of trust was partly tactical in order to keep the army on the people's side against Mubarak's state security apparatus, police and other assorted thugs, it still caused me a certain amount of concern. The army may have extended a hand of peace to the population but what about its other hand: is it holding an olive branch or getting ready to slap the people in the face or, worst, crush them with a fist of steel when the opportunity arises?

After all, it is the army or its men who have run the country for the past 60-odd years, during which time the country has not had a single civilian president. That said, Mubarak, though he was a military man, had sidelined the army with his ‘businessmen's cabinet' and his strengthening of state security.

Naturally, there is the chance that the army is dealing with the people in good faith, and reluctantly executed what amounted to a sort of coup d'etat when Mubarak refused to go and to hand over his powers to an interim ‘council of the wise'. Then again, the military might see this as the perfect opportunity to re-launch its waning star, especially as it has suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament, ostensibly to meet the demands of the revolution, but effectively creating a situation of martial law which can potentially be abused.

So vigilance must be the order of the day. And the Coalition of the Revolution Youth, one of the main forces behind the demonstrations, has vowed to continue mass protest action until the revolution's demands are met, including the ending of the decades-old ‘state of emergency‘, the creation of a temporary transitional presidential council and technocratic government drawn from across the political spectrum, and a clear timetable for the holding of free and fair parliamentary and presidential .

But in addition to this constant grassroots pressure perhaps it is also high time for the revolutionaries to force the army's hand by creating certain facts on the ground. For example, the military has created its own diverse constitutional review committee, headed by the prominent judge Tarek el-Bishry to oversee the crafting of a new constitution. Although el-Bishry is highly respected among most of the , the demonstrators need to ensure that the new document meets the people's demands and expectations.

One way to do this is for the revolutionaries to set up their own parallel committee drawn from across the political and social spectrum whose members will not only deliberate among themselves but will launch a broad public debate on the content of the new constitution. In order to gather input from every strata of society, the power of traditional, online and social media can be harnessed, as well as good old-fashioned surveys.

Moreover, to guarantee maximum legitimacy and to avert any chance that the army or any other vested political interest can manipulate the process, the popular committee should pledge that any document it produces will be put to a .

In addition to efforts to optimise the nascent Egyptian democracies founding document, the time is ripe, given that any action or inaction now will have ramifications far into the future, to crystallise a clear vision for Egyptian democracy, one that can perhaps be used as a model by other .

At present, little or no effort is being made to visualise a democracy that meets local circumstances and needs. This is understandable, given that the revolution has a multitude of immediate concerns with which to deal. Nevertheless, if Egyptians are to create a system that suits them, then they must dare to unleash the creativity so abundantly demonstrated in this revolution further.

One concern that has regularly been voiced is that, after sixty years of either one-party rule or a toothless multiparty system, has been left with few viable political parties on which to rest its democracy. Moreover, the youth who unleashed and steered this secular revolution do not fit easily or comfortably into any of the existing political parties.

In Egypt, there has been talk of relaxing the country's draconian party formation rules to allow all political currents to create their own parties in time for the elections. There is also the option of allowing protest movements, such as the and Kefaya (Enough), to register as parties.

However, even if a new slew of parties can be set up in time for elections, they will be, with the exception of the Muslim Brotherhood and the reinvented secular ‘official' opposition parties, they will be largely unknown to the public.

In my view, this contemporary reality provides us with an unprecedented opportunity to rethink the mechanics of democracy, and especially the party political system. Given that they provide certain advantages, such as unity of purpose and discipline, political parties are the cornerstones upon which most governments around the world, whether democratic or not, are built.

That said, they suffer from certain severe drawbacks, such as the pressure they exert on members to tow a party line, even if they do not believe in it. In democracies, perhaps the most acute example of the ‘tyranny' of parties is the first-past-the-post system. In the United States, for instance, the system has evolved to the point where voters have only two realistic options to choose from and many feel that the two main parties are so alike in their politics that they resemble more branded merchandise than true alternatives.

In fact, the dangers of partisan politics were foreseen by some of America's ‘founding fathers'. “[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.

I believe that Egypt would be better served with a flexible non-partisan representative democracy in which individual candidates run, whether for parliament or the , 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 issues – 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 several years.

Over and above this, in order to avoid the emergence of factionalism and unrepresentative ‘representative democracy', politicians' power can be kept in check through a hybrid direct democracy in which the people are consulted directly on vital issues and in which concerned citizens who are unhappy with certain decisions taken by their representatives or wish to launch their own initiatives can take immediate action, if they gather enough signatures, rather than have to wait for the next elections to voice their views.

Egyptians have a golden opportunity not only to reinvent their country's politics but to reinvent democracy itself.


This article was first published by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting on 22 February 2011.

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