Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2005
Issue No. 739
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Hala Mustafa

Confronting present and past

Democratisation is not only about amending constitutions or securing free elections; it is also about opening political and cultural values, indeed history, to scrutiny, writes Hala Mustafa*

There is always a time when a given political system confronts change. That critical juncture may usher in a point of no return just as it pulls others back. There is also a third awkward possibility where the appeal of preserving the status quo, irrespective of its ability to change or renovate itself, comes to the fore. The Middle East might have experienced this third possibility but change has its own rhythm, content and trajectory. The change we are discussing, of course, is democratisation. No one would claim that moving towards democracy is easy, or that the outcome of trying will always be ideal, especially in a region that has its own peculiarities.

The Middle East has special features that may compound the complexity of the democratisation process. Most societies could be identified as "transitional"; in between what is old and new, modern and traditional. The merits of difference are to be seen within each society rather than between them. Political, cultural, societal and production trends vary within each and every unit of these societies. The state structure also varies according to the degree of its institutional development and ability to perform its basic functions, be it national integration through a model of citizenship that aligns to primary tribal, familial and ethnic loyalties or securing public order against factional breakdown and the rise of militias.

The region experienced both in radical political Islam, well-organised in movements and groups, some of which were armed and forced their way onto the political scene for more than three consecutive decades. Means of integrating or confronting such groups remains one of the major challenges to political development and the democratic process in the Arab world.

The spread of such movements echoed a special dilemma faced in the Arab world; the intensifying interaction between what is political and what is religious, breaking into violence in some instances. In addition, the political venture that authored the main features, trends and controlling cultural and social values in the past five decades of the region's history is itself breaking up into multiple facets, hampering the imperative of moving towards change.

Several ideological movements have characterised the modern history of the Arab world. The first phase, one of liberalism, characterised the 1920s and 1930s. That era was the direct outcome of a renaissance that stretched from the end of the 18th century to the dawn of the 20th. The second phase was that of Arab nationalism, marking, in particular, the 1950s, inclusive of the rise of Baathist socialism.

This movement was in harmony with at least one half of the international order, the rising trend of socialism associated with liberation movements throughout the world. During the 1950s, internal politics -- democracy and freedom -- was not on the agenda. The priorities of the current phase of transformation are different. There is an urgent need, therefore, to re-prioritise our agenda along lines that touch the entire governmental structure, the legal and legislative institutions and political culture forged in those eras.

Past political experience will always remain as a reference point in our attempts to understand and navigate the complexities of democratic change and present attitudes towards plurality. This past experience was founded on doing away with such concepts as civil rights and freedom, replacing them with a singular political system that can barely be related to present definitions of party political governance. This political entity relied heavily on the security establishment -- the army, the police -- to maintain the status quo. The ability of the system to adapt to internal and external changes was compromised. Embedded political traditions emerged, traditions hard to dislodge through regular political action. These traditions grew deep roots within all the major organs of political, legislative and legal rule, as well as within the bureaucracies borne up around political and media establishments. They led to a state of mind inept to cope with the requirements of a free and plural system.

It was not a historical coincidence that this experiment lacked real political institutions capable of taking initiative or a free press that valued diversity and plurality. It was not also a coincidence that most of the legislation associated with that experiment was promulgated unilaterally, which in turn led to a diminution of participation, the spread within society of a culture of impotence and a general undermining of the call to public life. Yet this experiment achieved wonders in terms of general mobilisation with sizable sections of the new generation forced to find forums of expression outside a decaying establishment. Unintended by the system, perhaps, they found refuge in Islam. In the absence of natural political channels for political and intellectual trends, the personal became political as aspirations of expression were met by religion.

Forestalling the total dissolution of the political in favour of the religious explains why Egypt's more contemporary experiment -- that of moving towards political pluralism, a multi- party system -- inaugurated in the 1970s, was defined as a "controlled" experiment. Running counter to the considerable political openness that Cairo witnessed in the mid-1970s, regulations to limit, if not to abolish, plurality and freedom were multiplied at the very same time. Many constitutional amendments headed in opposite directions; implicitly establishing unlimited terms for presidents while stating that Islam is the major source of national legislation. The still-censored media only enhanced the impact of these contradictory policies; contradictions that gathered, culminating in what was then known as the crisis of democratic transformation.

Political and democratic developments cannot, therefore, be summed up in terms of free elections because if elections take place under the aegis of an unsuitable legal, political and media infrastructure they echo nothing but the same status quo which practically means that the imperative of democratic change and plurality -- in other words, constitutional liberalism -- has gone unheeded. In this context, reforming the political experiment to enhance democratic transformation necessitates a restructuring of the political, institutional and media corps, in addition to reviewing the legal and legislative references associated with previous experiments.

Overall reform requires reforming the legal and legislative systems, annulling emergency laws and re-mapping the partisan structure to allow for the presence of real, competitive, active parties that can be developed through the democratisation process. There is also a need to restructure cultural and media outlets to enhance trends towards plurality and overcome the rhetoric of mobilisation that has been the product of a censored and not free press. In addition, there is an urgent need to remake the political establishment, bringing new blood into the mainstream and breaking the inertia it has laboured under for too long.

Renovating the political elite is one of the major challenges. This section of society is meant to play a leading role in the developmental process; it should be more open-minded and able to give voice to the need for change. Its base should also be expanded to go beyond security and administrative-bureaucratic considerations. Such considerations can be blamed for leaving highly qualified politicians and intellectuals in the cold, depriving them, to the detriment of society as a whole, of playing an active role in the construction process. Change is not a coup but rather a move from the absolute to the relative. New political speech that has different logic should be born. Current political rhetoric has been outpaced by events. Political language to be convincing must be living; if it is unable to adapt to present needs it loses its content and appeal.

Opportunity should be given to promote the existence and development of new political powers that reflect new generational needs. Such opportunity would do away with the negative consequences of past decades when the political system gave room by default only to Islamists who dutifully introduced themselves as the sole alternative to the regime. The political crisis over the past three decades, which has amply highlighted the fragility of present political and intellectual powers, should not be reduced to the question of whether to integrate the Islamists or not. The question is how to open up new horizons for other political trends to be represented. Despite the fact that they greatly contributed to the resurgence of the region, enriching Arab society, liberals were sidelined during past experiments. Their traditions should be heeded: Arab nationalism or political Islam should not be the only choice before the Arab nation.

Perhaps the final and urgent question is how to strike a balance between "security" and "politics", on one hand, and between religion and politics on the other. Open and free debate of such vital issues, reviewing the basis of past experiments, is the means to bridging the gap between a closed system ill-equipped to face the present and an open system capable of change and ready for it.

* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly journal Al-Demoqrateya (Democracy) published by Al-Ahram.

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