Al-Ahram Weekly Online   30 October - 5 November 2003
Issue No. 662
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Democracy and the national debate

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed believes democracy to be the centrepiece of a genuine national revival in Egypt

Mohamed Sid-Ahmed There are two possible ways of implementing the decision taken at last month's NDP Congress to introduce reforms in Egypt's party system. With the issue of general freedoms, democracy, greater openness and transparency at the forefront of public concerns, the manner in which the long- awaited process of reform will be set in motion is as important as the reforms themselves.

One approach is to initiate the reform process from above, by launching a systematised, controlled debate between the interlocutors and within the parametres deemed acceptable by the ruling party. It was in this spirit that the reform process was launched a few days ago. In the first of a planned series of direct encounters with leaders of officially recognised opposition parties, top NDP officials met with leaders of the Tagammu, the party of the Egyptian left, last week. A similar meeting was held a couple of days ago with leaders of the Wafd, representative of the Liberal trend, and a meeting is planned with leaders of the Nasserite Party.

The NDP's willingness to engage in a debate with opposition parties is certainly commendable, if long overdue. However, the problem with imposing a formula for the reform of political party life from above is that it will raise several embarrassing questions. For example, should all parties be invited to take part or only some? And if so, which parties? Why some and not others? And who will have the final say when it comes to determining who is to be included and who excluded from the national debate? What are the real forces in society that qualify as viable interlocutors in any national dialogue aimed at national revival? The current status of some of the legally recognised parties is ambiguous. The once dynamic and active Labour Party is currently suspended, while the Liberal Party has broken up into many factions following the death of its founder. As to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, no one can deny that it is an influential actor on the political scene, despite the government's efforts to marginalise it, and that no meaningful national debate can proceed without is participation.

The other alternative is to unleash a process of reform from below, through opening up a democratic debate between all the component elements of political life -- not only political parties, but also civil society, NGOs, various associations and prominent public personalities. But this too comes up against a difficult question, namely, whether the NDP is ready to relinquish its central role, its dominant position in conducting the national debate, and to engage in the debate on an equal footing with the other parties. How reasonable is it to expect such an option from a party that once accepted the denomination of "party of the government" and now calls itself the "government of the party"?

The first task of any government, actually, of the state in general, is to ensure security. The first task of a party -- any party -- is to represent the interests of a certain class or segment of society through the espousement of a given ideology that reflects how the members of that class or segment visualise the problems threatening their fundamental interests. A majority party in power is called upon to perform both functions, that is, to ensure security and uphold a given ideology.

However, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, many leading members of the NDP believe that ideology is dead, and that pragmatism is the only name of the game. No doubt too they are influenced by Francis Fukuyama's 'end of History' theory. According to the theory, History exists as long as there are conflicts of interest between people which take the form of conflicts of ideology, because ideology does not concern itself with the unfolding of events, but only with the rules that determine the process of how events unfold. Rules differ if the approach is Liberal, Socialist, Communist, Anarchist, etc. What Fukuyama ignores is that, as long as there is something new and different in the unfolding of events, there will also be something new in ideology. So there cannot be an end to ideology, nor for that matter to History.

The issue of ideology is closely related to that of a national debate. Can it be said that conflicts of interest no longer take ideological forms since the collapse of the bipolar world order? And, if so, what is the point of having a multi-party system? How to reconcile a belief in the demise of ideology with the need for political pluralism?

Then there is the fact that 'the party of the government' must give priority to security concerns over ideological, while parties of the opposition -- which assume no security responsibilities -- give priority to the ideological concerns of the segment of society they represent. This is a factor which is bound to complicate the debate between opposition parties, which openly declare that their objective is to conquer state power, and the ruling party, which proceeds from the premise that rotation of power is not on the cards.

A national debate initiated by the ruling party with each legal opposition party taken separately is an approach based on selection, which contradicts the principle that democracy, like freedom, is indivisible. No one can consider it proper to deal democratically with, say, the Tagammu Party, while not dealing according to the same rules with the Wafd, or, for that matter, with any other party, including the Muslim Brotherhood.

Moreover, because it is indivisible, democracy must be applied according to a single standard. That is, it cannot be applied one way inside the country and another way when it comes to commitments and obligations related to the issue of democracy with parties outside the country. This consideration should be taken even further. The internal front must have priority over external factors, because serving the people inside the country should take precedence over trying to appear concerned with their lot for external consumption.

Passing from no national debate to a full- fledged national debate cannot be achieved only through meetings between top figures in the ruling party and leading personalities in the opposition parties. No dramatic changes will occur if things are kept within such boundaries. What is actually needed at this juncture is to rise above a restricted reading of what democracy is all about to its direct antipode -- the full implementation of democratic governance. Is this conceivable?

The only reason the long-awaited national debate has finally been launched is that all the parties concerned have come to realise that they are caught in a historical impasse. They know that, unless the rules of the political game are changed to allow them to interact constructively, the situation can only get worse. But beginning a debate is one thing, sustaining it another. There is no guarantee that it will be crowned with success or nor, indeed, that it will not run into setbacks. It is not enough to issue a decree announcing the launch of a national debate; the debate must involve all political trends and address all the critical issues. In other words, it must be conducted according to the rules of democracy, in a political climate marked by a spirit of national reconciliation not confrontation, and where the fame of reference is the sacrifices people are ready to make, not the advantages they are out to grab. The wheel has already begun to turn. It will not stop.

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