A critical patriotism
It is wrong, given the experience of decades, to assume that moves towards democracy will proceed seamlessly, writes Osama El-Ghazali Harb*
Egypt is engaged in an attempt to introduce radical change through gradual means and the process is the responsibility of all national forces, though much of the process must perforce remain in President Hosni Mubarak's capable hands. Mubarak, who helped lead the country to military victory in 1973 and who rescued it from instability in the early 1980s is now ridding it of the remnants of totalitarianism, steering it towards the shores of freedom and democracy. The course will not be easy.
Over the past five decades we have witnessed the growth of undemocratic institutions and practices and it is naïve to assume these can be reversed overnight, that we will, one fine morning, awake to find ourselves free of the shackles of the past. It is hard to envisage the enacting of meaningful reforms without an immediate and organised effort being made not only to promote democratic standards but renounce their opposite. Values that conflict with basic human rights -- ideas that, sadly, have gone unchallenged for years -- must be vigorously opposed.
We could begin by ending the current confusion of the regime for the state, the government for the country, the leader for the nation. Such confusion has resulted in any criticism of the regime being considered a criticism of the country. Disapproval of the government, or president, is seen as an assault on the state. Since the 1950s we have become far too familiar with phrases such as harming Egypt's image, tarnishing the country's reputation and vilifying Egypt, all of which carry with them the suggestion of treason. These, and similar phrases, form the vocabulary of dictatorship. Under communism, fascism, and Nazism propagandists used them to intimidate the public. Under McCarthyism they were commonly heard.
Under Presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El- Sadat the consequences of political opposition were such that many Egyptians fled the country in order to voice their views. During the 1950s and 1960s merely mentioning the names of opposition figures could land you in trouble. In light of Nasser's overbearing albeit charismatic personality it was a great risk with dire consequences. Such opposition figures were labelled traitors and agents of imperialism, Zionism and the forces of reaction.
Basing his legitimacy on such slogans as democracy and the rule of law, Sadat tried, in the early 1970s, to reverse the trend. He was soon fed up with criticism and imprisoned some of the country's best minds. He viewed any disapproval as a personal affront to himself as the "head of the family" and an insult to the entire nation. This eventually led to his misguided decision to imprison some of Egypt's most promising writers and intellectuals. A few months later he was assassinated in the midst of his army in October 1981.
Mubarak began his presidency with a new attitude. He released imprisoned intellectuals and met them in person, effectively drawing a line between criticism of the regime and loyalty to the state. Now, as we await the country's first genuine moves towards democracy since the early 1950s, it is imperative we free ourselves of outdated concepts. We have to make it clear that criticising the regime, the government or the president is not an assault on Egypt and its people. The only insult to Egypt, to its regime and president, is for such ideas to continue to carry weight.
In the UK it is unheard of for someone to be accused of sullying Britain's image because he has criticised the queen or the prime minister. Opponents of India's president or prime minister are not charged with tarnishing the image of India. Critics of the Swedish government are not denounced as foreign agents and traitors.
We sell Egypt short when we cling to such practices. We deserve democracy, no less than other nations, and democracy in its fullest sense. It is embarrassing to see opponents of the government, whether at home or abroad, being denounced simply because they have criticised the government or the president. It is perfectly legitimate for the competent authorities to investigate cases in which an individual or group is suspected of working to advance foreign interests. But the outcome of such investigations should not be pre-judged. Until there is conclusive evidence a presumption of innocence must prevail.
All members of the Egyptian opposition, at home or abroad, should be considered loyal to the country in the absence of absolutely incontrovertible evidence that this is not the case. And they most likely are.
Freedom, democracy and human rights involve the inalienable right of all citizens to speak their mind freely, without pressure or threat and irrespective of whether they support the government or oppose it, whether they praise the president or criticise him, whether they like the governing party or loath it. What is permissible and what is not in the conduct of the opposition, as individuals or as groups, at home or abroad, must be framed legally, must be defined by the law.
The right of the citizen to say and do anything that does not harm others is a simple definition of freedom, but no less pertinent for that. Yet it is a right too often abused by those who think they are protecting the regime or defending Egypt while what they are really doing is harming both. Such people place red lines at whim, and once these lines are crossed some poor unfortunate is accused of being an agent of foreign forces, as being motivated by an insatiable greed for power. Or else they are denounced as deranged, ignorant, or deviant. If one keeps in mind the sheer size of the state apparatus compared to the numbers of individuals or groups that oppose the government the perils involved in such a practice become obvious. and its adverse impact on the spirit of democracy.
In every established democracy it is the law that is the ultimate judge of what is right or wrong in the conduct of the opposition. The constitution, the penal code, international and human rights conventions are the only guide to what is acceptable and what is not. And as long as the opposition operates within the law, as defined by such codes, no one has the right to denounce it or tarnish its image; no one has the right to object to its conduct on the pretext that they are defending public order or national security.
Egypt ditched the one-party system in the mid-1970s in favour of greater plurality and one result of this is the degree of freedom we now see in the independent press. The public now has access to a growing number of views that differ from the official mainstream. But we must also bear in mind that out of a population of 70 million people only 10 per cent read newspapers and over 40 per cent are illiterate. The overwhelming majority relies on state-run radio and television for information and that, with the best will in the world, can hardly be said to provide access to dissident views except in a controlled restricted manner.
This situation is compounded by the fact that divergent opinions are severely restricted with many areas -- political, religious and sexual -- considered beyond the pale -- issues which gradually began to impose themselves on the private media in particular.
All this will have to change if a meaningful democracy is to emerge. "I may disagree with you, but I would give my life to defend your right to speak." So said Voltaire over 250 years ago. He was right. Democracy is impossible without multiple views.
Abdel-Rahman El-Kawakibi warned that "despotism is the germ of all corruption" over a century ago. It is time we heeded that warning.
* The writer is editor-in-chief of the quarterly Al-Siyassa Al-Dawlia (International Politics), issued by Al- Ahram, and member of the Shura Council.