Simge Andi

Egypt: Facing the Challenge of Democracy

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.


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.

Wake up EU, it’s 2011!

An image showing Turkey's and EU's flags on the foreground and a minaret on the backgroundSo, here it is. The third term with the AKP, the political party that has been making the reforms for the accession negotiations with the EU, the party which the hard-core secular Turks are scared of, the party that made Turkey much more confident in its foreign policy by expanding its range. This more independent approach, according to some, is leading Turkey out of her EU membership goal, even though the leaders of AK Party claim that it doesn’t. They state that EU membership still forms the major goal of their foreign policy, that they will continue making the necessary reforms despite the Cyprus problem and the negative signals coming from leaders like Sarkozy and Merkel. They say, they are not going to be the ones who will leave the table, however, EU should not forget that Turkey is not the country of economic and political instabilities of the past and that the EU needs Turkey as much as Turkey needs the EU.

The signals coming from the EU haven’t changed since the beginning of this journey. ‘We don’t want to lose you, but we are scared to let you in. This is why we are going to continue to give you some incentives to make you feel like you are moving towards the membership while at the same time ‘some’ of the leaders of our member states will oppose your membership harshly based on your identity to give you the feeling that you are not wanted here.’ We all know this story, right? What the EU doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that the negative signals coming from the EU side with greater emphasis on ‘Turkey not being European’ will be of no use to the EU in terms of its higher goal of becoming a global player in world politics. This is even more relevant in the case of recent uprisings in the Arab world. The identity based opposition against Turkey, a secular state ruled by AK Party, which is a party inspirational to many in the Muslim world, will decrease the potential influence of the already-ineffective-EU as an international actor especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

The European Identity Turkey doesn’t have.

Being a Turk with a degree in European Studies is tough. Whenever I go out of Turkey, either for education or for leisure, people keep asking me the same question. ‘So what do you think of Turkey’s membership bid for the EU?’. I always argue based on what the EU is. More clearly, I think it’s hard to achieve if you take the EU as a cultural union, but not that difficult if you see it as a political and economic one. I say this because of two reasons. First is that the EU crumbles up when you dig into issues like identity and culture. There is no clear answer to what European identity or culture is. If you follow the European myths and the argument on religion to find a solid ground, you find yourself at the ‘Christian Club’, ending up with the exclusion of the ‘we believe in multicultural diversity’ option. If you claim that EU has a diversified culture, including different religions, cultures with all their uniqueness then you find yourself at ‘let’s not worry about the cultural identity and move on with what has been unifiying us: politics and economics’. My second reason is related to the first one, very simply, EU is not a cultural union, it is founded on political and economic goals and still operates based on them.

The case with Turkey is very much related to the cultural arguments. The groups opposing Turkey’s EU membership are mostly using the identity card, even the geography and population arguments are based on identity, which is very understandable since our cultures lead us to build our personal identities as well as the national ones. For example, President Sarkozy keeps opposing Turkish membership with the ‘Turkey is not European’ argument. Well, he would have a good point if only we knew which or what European identity he’s talking about. Turkey has a different culture than France, that’s true. Turkey has a different culture than many of the EU member states, true again, but aren’t each and every member states’ cultures different from each other? It is a union of 27 states which of many used to fight against each other frequently before there was the idea of creating a union! If the EU leaders want to make convincing arguments based on identity and culture against Turkey’s membership, I think they should first of all clarify some terms. What is that European identity that opposition team keeps talking about? Is it based on religion? Is it some myth that only seems to convince some of the scholars who know them? Is it democratic values, liberal economy, promotion of rule of law? (Oh wait, these were kind of universal!) Or is it ‘ We believe in multiculturalism’ as it is stated in the official EU documents? Is it a combination of all these? Unless they come up with a proper explanation, the non-EU part of the world will continue to believe that the so-called non-Europeanness of Turkey comes from the religious difference because Turkey has been moving on with a growing economy and reform-making. I am certainly not claiming that Turkey has accomplished the necessary reforms for accession, however, one should acknowledge that Turkey is much different than it was nine years ago when Turkey was a country of economic and political instabilities. In this sense, the identity-based exclusion seems to be a little bit dangerous especially under the light of the changing dynamics in the Middle East and North Africa since an exclusive EU may attract extremism to the region as a reaction.

EU as a Global Actor?

As we all know, massive changes are happening in the Arab world nowadays. The major global players are looking for ways to increase their influence and make the situation favorable to themselves. In this respect, we haven’t seen any constructive steps being taken by the EU as a bloc yet, except for the declarations ‘condemning violence’. The member states don’t seem to agree even on the consequences of the on-going crisis in Libya. EU member states like France and Italy are playing very actively, however EU as a foreign policy actor stays as it was, an impotent regional player. For example, France initiated the operation against Qaddafi to save the civilian lives, right? Then, why couldn’t the leaders of the EU members agree even on the action that are needed to handle the consequences of their operation, namely, the refugees? No positive or constructive response came to Berlusconi’s calls for help to handle the humanitarian crisis of refugees in Italy. (Oh wait, ‘something’ happened with the Schengen visa and France, anyone remembering that story?). The EU members act with their NATO identities, take decisions during their NATO meetings while EU publishes documents condemning violence in Libya, Syria… Is it only me who can’t see any worthy initiative on the EU side or is there really nothing to talk about?

Why Turkey’s AK Party?

Considering what’s said, it doesn’t seem possible that the EU will be able to become a major player unless they choose to cooperate with the AK Party government in Turkey, since they are considered to be a success story with their conservative stance, liberal economic policies and progressive approach in democracy. The claim that Turkey can increase EU’s influence in the Middle East and more generally the Muslim world is nothing new, the new development is the changing dynamics in that part of the world. Despite their ethnic, religious or cultural differences, the people in the countries where riots have been taking place want similar things: jobs, public services and democracy. They want what the AKP has been offering to Turkish people: bridges, dams, hospitals, schools, factories, jobs… They want more equality, not limited to what the political elites have been offering them for years. This is what the AKP has done so far, creating jobs and providing public services to the people, taking the control from the political elite and giving it to the people. With ‘people’ I refer to the masses who have been suppressed by the political elite for years, the ‘people’ who have been excluded from the political and social circles… One can even assert that AK Party has done a similar revolution in Turkey silently, by using the most visible tool of democracy: elections. This is why, maybe not Turkey, but what the AK Party has done in Turkey in nine years can be a model to these countries.

We don’t know if AKP success will continue but now is the time to speed up the accession dialogue with Turkey who is also going through the consequences of the instabilities in her neighbors, namely, Syria. I am not a fan of Turkey’s membership in the EU, however I think the possibility of it makes EU an interesting organization and Turkey a unique case. If the EU decides to update itself, this should take form in speeding up the accession process by removing the political obstacles (you all know what I am talking about: Cyprus) in front of opening up new chapters in the negotiations. Turkey doesn’t have much to lose in case of keeping the relations as inefficient as it is right now, because apparently Turkey seems to be moving on regardless of the slow accession process. Can we say the same for EU though? The EU that struggles to balance the economic crises in its members? The EU that is losing its influence on its neighbors, even on its biggest candidate?

Updating is good.

Considering the failure of the EU policies towards the countries where riots are taking place and the change in Turkey in the last nine years should trigger some action from the EU side to change the exclusive-identity based opposition towards Turkey. ‘Some’ leaders of the EU should realize that those arguments are outdated now, things change very rapidly, so does Turkey, whereas the arguments on the EU side stay the same since the very beginning. The leaders of the EU should accept that EU has not been able to cope with change in Turkey and the changing dynamics in its region. The architect of this process in Turkey, AK Party, has been re-elected with about 50% of the votes. This political party has been a unique case, either people like them or not. They boosted the Turkish economy, they made the Turkish foreign policy much more confident and diverse and they have taken ‘some’ major steps towards consolidating democracy (I’d like to keep my right to wait and see to this but still some revolutionary steps have been taken). The party and its success inspire many Arabs, especially the young ones. This is why Turkey, with the AKP, can actually help the EU to increase its influence in the Middle East and the rest of the Muslim world. Excluding the symbol of Muslim democracy from the EU would just lead to decrease the already minimal influence of the EU as an international actor in its neighboring regions.