Egypt: Facing the Challenge of Democracy

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Egypt: Facing Challenges to DemocracyThe elections in Egypt  are a great deal since the aim of the Tahrir Revolution was and still is ‘democracy’. Considering  the on-going experiences of my country, Turkey, I am very well aware that the consolidation of democracy is not something that might come over in one election. It will take years before Egypt is a fully-functioning democratic state, but I would like to continue being optimistic. I believe that once the Egyptians taste the ‘power’ they hold in their hands, which will be their unique version of democracy, they will not give up on it. The aim of this article is to summarize the main issues and challenges in the wake of the election season in Egypt, and present some moderate suggestions in order to contribute to the on-going brainstorming for ‘where it all began’.

Discovering ‘Power’: The Case of Egypt

I attended a seminar yesterday on ‘the fundamental principles of politics’. It was given by a professor who is also a member of the Turkish parliament. The first words of the lecturer were a question: ‘What is power?’. This question is very familiar to international relations and political science students. There are various possible answers according to different schools of thought. Personally, I welcome power only if it’s used for the good of others; if it’s used as a means to do more for a better company, city, country, world, universe (in the case of God) or whatever else you are into. Unless you use ‘power’ to leave something behind that others can benefit from, then I say you wasted your power together with your life. Anyway, while I was considering my own thoughts on power, there appeared a follow-up question ‘May power cause a soul to decay because of the abilities it provides to its holder?’ My answer was an immediate ‘yes’, considering the history of abusive dictators of the past, present and possibly, but not hopefully, of the future. The lecturer continued by telling historical examples of controlling the power and its side-effects. ‘The most recent one’ he said ‘is democracy,’ then he lowered his voice and said: ‘and by democracy I mean the elections.’ I would argue that in contemporary democracies the best functioning tool is free elections. You make your choice and vote for the representatives whom you think might be the best for you and your country. If you don’t like the way they work, you punish them by not voting for them again. This way you save their souls from possible decay and control their power. Isn’t this a better way of limiting power compared to the bloody end of Gaddafi?

Why did I say all this? Well, I’ve been reading a lot about Egypt lately and the first elections are to be held at the end of this month. These elections are a great deal since the aim of the Tahrir Revolution was ‘democracy’. Considering my country’s on-going experience for consolidating it, I am very well aware that democracy is not something that might come about after a single election. It will take years before Egypt is a fully-functioning democratic state, however, I would like to continue being optimistic. I believe that once the Egyptians taste the power they hold in their hands, which will be their unique version of democracy, they will not give up on it. The aim of this article is to summarize the main issues and challenges in the wake of the election season in Egypt, and present some moderate suggestions in order to contribute to the on-going brainstorming for ‘where it all began’.

What is ahead?

If the current plan for elections is implemented then the elections for both parliamentary chambers will start with on the 28th of November, ten months after the overthrow of Mubarak, and will be carried out in three phases until March 2012. After the completion of the parliamentary elections, the process of drafting theconstitution writing will start. This commission was originally to be formed by the parliament but according to a document published recently, 80% of the commission is to be selected by the army and 20% by the parliament. The constitutional commission will have six months for drafting. If the commission is unable to draft a constitution in six months the communique anticipates that the task of writing will be handled by the army. This constitution will be voted upon in a national referandum and only after it is approved, SCAF and the parliament will work on organizing the presidential elections. This process might continue till 2013 and until then the military will continue to act as the president.1

Major Challenges

As an outsider I can point out three major challenges ahead. These are the army and the role it will play in the Egypt’s future, the role of Islam, and the economic situation that needs a comprehensive planfor the short and long term duration.

The Army

The fear in the heart of many pro-democracy Egyptians is rooted in the long-history of the military-supported and -dominated state governance of Egypt. Obviously, the army would not like to yield the sweet power it holds over to a civilian government. This is easily seen in the latest el-Selmy Communique made public by the Deputy Prime Minister Ali el-Selmy, from which it becomes clear that the army is using its power to get a privilieged position in the country’s future. There was immediate and unanimous uproar against the communique from almost all political actors.2 They threatened the SCAF with a million-men march in Tahrir and then two sides negotiated for amendments.[1]3 Political actors, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will join demostrations unless the document is issued without these amendments. 4 I think this is a very positive step, not for the country’s stability of course, but to understand that what Egyptians want is democracy and they won’t give up their fight until they achieve this goal. So, although I am worried about the stability issue, I think the political and social actors should continue the pressure against the army with the goal of controlling the power until their democracy matures enough to do this automatically.

The Role of Islam

To be honest, I don’t think there will be an Iran-like Egypt. However, analysing the potential political actors of the upcoming parliament, it would be naive to hope for pure secularism. The majority of the political actors, except for the extremes of course, want a ‘civil state’ with Islam being recognized as the state religion. This includes the Egypt Bloc as well as the Democratic Alliance for Egypt. 5They also want Islam to be the main source of legislation. Well, as a citizen of a secular country, I could easily claim that ‘without secularism there won’t be democracy’, however I am not going to do that. As long as the political decisions are taken by representatives of the people and state and judicial institutions are treating every citizen equally regardless of their religion, ethnicity, race, sex  (and whatever else is included in those international agreements) without interfering in personal choices and lives, I won’t argue in favor of the need for secularism. Although there are divisions among them as well, it looks like Islamist parties will win some important portion of the votes in the Egyptian elections. Tunisia and Egypt will be experimens in this sense. We’ll see if they will be able to control the power of religion through democracy and show the world if Islam and democracy can work together.

The Economic Situation

The economy seems to be in a mess right now. Egypt is one of the biggest recipients of international aid and funds, but the efficiency of their usage is questionnable. The public sector is excessively crowded and not functioning efficiently.  Tourism profits and investments have been decreasing significantly since the revolution. The private sector lacks the dynamism and small and medium enterprises don’t have easy access to funds. The health sector is not in a good shape either. Corruption is everywhere. 6 Looking at this negative picture, the socio-economic demands of the masses who rose up against Mubarak can be understood easily.  These demands are still waiting in line and this issue will be a major determinant of stability in the near future. I am not an economist, but I can easily comprehend that there should be a comprehensive economic plan that aims to provide for the basic needs of the people in the short term. This could be done by channeling a proportion of funds to a programme that might include social projects, incentives for the SMEs, micro-crediting for individual entrepreneurs and trainings for skilled and unskilled labor force in order to dynamise the urgently needed business sector. Once the people are shown that they have a prospect of being employed and earning some money, stability will be easier to achieve and this will open a way for investments and trade. In the medium term, there is a clear need to re-organize the public sector which constitutes a big proportion of the large budget deficit. 7 The people working in the public sector are not earning much and they are not considered to be very qualified. This is why large numbers of people could be transferred to the private sector, with the social benefits of the state sector being preserved of course, after some training programmes that are created according to the needs of the private sector. In the long-term, the private sector and trade needs to be boosted alongside the re-structuring of banks and the funding, health and education systems. In this regard, the support from international donors like the US and the EU should not be limited to providing the funds but asist the Egyptian government in coming up with a comprehensive plan for measures that meet the needs of the Egyptian people. For all this to happen, first there needs to be an established political elite to lead the process – which will emerge only after some time.

Conclusion

Well, I am very well aware that I had to skip many other issues and actors that are crucial to understand the current situation in Egypt. I hope I can fill in the blanks in another article but my intention for now was to summarize the most debated issues and to contribute to the brainstorming as a young observer who lives in a once-military-dominated democracy with a developing economy that had similar problems and a Muslim-majority population, which has been polarized over the issue of Islam and secularism for years.

As the Turkish parliamentarian said yesterday, the question is ‘how to control the power ’. In democracies, politicians hold the power to shape the lives of their people and the people hold the power of ballot. In Egypt, the question remains the same. Nevertheless the answer may be different, which would still be good since even universal concepts like democracy need some diversity.

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