Ismail Serageldin | Credit: Library of Alexandria - Photo: 2013

Grounds For Optimism In Egypt

By Ismail Serageldin* | IDN-InDepth NewsViewpoint

ALEXANDIRA (IDN) – Violence is about in the land. The young, the idealists and the dutiful, along with the fanatics, are dying in the streets and the hamlets of Egypt. Hatred and attacks on the Christian minority have reared their ugly head again. Differences of opinion escalate into confrontation, and the declaration of a state of emergency and the imposition of a curfew have formally underlined the gravity of the situation.

The horror of the dead bodies, the agony of the wounded and the waves of grief that are besieging Egyptian society, alternating with moments of anger and vengefulness all cry out for reason, compassion and a willingness to reach out to the other, whatever their views, that the nation may reconcile, heal its wounds and continue its journey to build its second republic on firm humanistic values and solid democratic institutional foundations. But are we condemned to enter into a cycle of violence that begets more violence and descend into autocracy? Or is it still possible to dream of transcending that violence and getting back on track to build our common future?

I believe that we not only can get back on track to build our second republic, but even that we have some important positive factors that we could build on to create that desirable democratic future. Despite the disastrous violence plaguing Egypt at present, I have long maintained that there are six very good reasons to be optimistic about the future. Six reasons to believe that Egypt may come out of its ordeal towards a basically democratic future . . .

First: The basically non-violent nature of the Egyptian people:

Egypt has generally been a non-violent society. The people have a revulsion against bloodletting and are sure to demand a return to more normal and less confrontational relations in the not too distant future.

Second: Commitment to the idea of law and the rulings of judges:

Egyptians have shown an enormous commitment to the law and the judiciary.

Who can imagine that you could sue Bashar El Assad in court? Or Khomeini for that matter? But that is what has been going on in Egypt. Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the secularists have been fighting many of their skirmishes since the revolution of 2011 through filing briefs in various courts, administrative, criminal or constitutional.

The complaints include whether Mr. Morsi was legitimately capable of replacing the general prosecutor, whether the committee that drafted the constitution he sponsored was legally constituted, etc. etc.

Egyptians want the judges to supervise their elections, and – when they are not seeking friendly settlement – generally want to arbitrate their disputes in court.

Third: Freedom of expression and diversity of opinions expressed:

There has never been more freedom of expression than since the revolution of 2011. The numbers of newspapers and TV channels of every stripe has exploded. The boundaries of decorum have been breached. And the debate is vigorous even if some of it is also slanderous or driven by wild conspiracy theories.

Maintaining that new found freedom is essential, which is why the closures of TV channels and the incarceration of journalists and broadcasters must be condemned. Charges of incitation to violence and hate speech towards minorities have to be challenged and have to be proven in court. All such calls for the unity of the country and national security have to be balanced against the necessity to support freedom of expression.

Fourth: Ballots not bullets:

We have had seven electoral rounds: the first referendum in 2011, which regretfully supported going to elections without first adopting a new constitution, and two electoral rounds each for the lower house, the upper house and the presidency. That does not count the rushed constitutional referendum of December 2012, which came two weeks after releasing the text to be adopted. All of these elections were orderly, fair and transparent. The Egyptian people showed that they can settle their differences with Ballots and not bullets.

Fifth: An unprecedented level of public participation:

The miracle of revolution of 2011, has been the sudden and almost magical awakening of the Egyptian people from their apathy. Everyone is engaged. Distinguished professors and upper-class society ladies that would have never thought of demonstrating in the street are now participating in marches and sit-ins. Poorer families who seemed more intent on just earning their daily bread are now actively involved in the political process. Within every home, every family, there are vigorous debates. The public demonstrations have unprecedented numbers of participants.  That augurs well for a vigorous participation in a future democratic system.

Sixth: The deeply divided country:

Last but not least is a counter intuitive observation: the country is deeply divided. I would have been much more concerned if either Mr. Morsi or Mr. Shafik had won the presidential elections by say 7-80% of the vote. Then the tendency to bulldoze the minority would have been unstoppable. But despite Mr. Shafik’s political baggage of being the personification of a return to the Mubarak regime, the votes were almost 50-50. This division means that neither side will be able to totally eradicate the other. They will come into conflict time and again until, like two exhausted boxers in the fifteenth round, they come to the conclusion that they will not be able to knock the other out of the ring.

The Islamists who want an avowedly Islamic State with distinct characteristics, and those who do not (Muslims and Christians alike) will have to reach the conclusion that they are both part of the body politic of Egypt, that both are interwoven into the very fabric of Egyptian society and that they must co-exist. That means compromise. And compromise is the beginning of pluralistic multi-party politics.

Turbulent Times and a difficult passage ahead:

But if these six factors are promising elements that can be activated to build Egypt’s New Republic, they are not likely to bear fruit except in the medium term, say 3-5 years. In the present period, from now to the three years, we have a very turbulent ride ahead. Turbulence that could easily lead to destabilizing the whole process and having Egypt regress into an autocratic State, be it of a secular of religious orientation. Optimists (like me) would say that we have a very good chance of surviving these turbulent three years, pessimists would tend towards the opposite point of view.

The turbulence of these three years will come from at least three separate factors:

First: the banging together of the two sides of divided Egypt until they conclude that they must co-exist, and must learn to compromise.

Second: the enormous economic crisis which faces the country and the difficult measures required to cope with it. This is not to be underestimated even as the political issues dominate both the news and the attention of people. Inevitably difficult economic reforms tend to cause social and political unrest.

Third: The absence of a genuine culture of democracy, one that recognizes that democracy requires pluralism and pluralism requires disagreement. That such disagreement and divergence in views is healthy and is the basis for democratic debate about public policy. A culture of democracy that recognizes that democracy is not about who is in majority but very much it is the protection of the minority from the tyranny of the majority. That was Madison’s fundamental insight in his conception of the federal constitution at the birth of the American republic. After all, every single issue we take for granted today was once a minority position, even considered seditious in its day: from the limitations on the prerogatives of the monarch to the right of the people to elect their own government; from the equality of all citizens before the law to the rights of peoples to self-determination, and so on.

Egypt today is at a very serious juncture in its history. We will overcome the turbulence of these coming three years and hence fructify the latent potential of the six factors I mentioned, and move on to build a vibrant and effective democracy, or we will lapse into a return to authoritarianism. I tend to be an optimist. I believe that we shall overcome current obstacles, transcend the current highly charged emotions, and move on to a future full of promise. The Egyptian people have shown more than once, through their massive displays of people power in the streets, that they shall not accept autocracy.  We can bend the future to the pattern of our dreams.

*The writer is Director of Egypt’s centre of excellence, Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Library of Alexandria). He is a member of IDN’s Editorial Advisory Committee. He was a former Vice President of the World Bank and Chairman of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. He has published over 60 books and monographs and over 200 papers on a variety of topics. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Cairo University and a Master’s degree and a PhD from Harvard University and has received 33 honorary doctorates. [IDN-InDepthNews – September 9, 2013]

The writer’s previous articles on IDN:

Picture: Ismail Serageldin | Credit: Library of Alexandria

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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