Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 April 2011
Issue No. 1044
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The bumpy path of revolution

The opposite of a police state is freedom and democracy for all. It is the only way forward, but getting it right may take practice, writes Ahmed Naguib Roushdy*

As everyone knows, Tahrir Square became a tourist site commemorating the Egyptian revolution. Millions of intellectuals and professionals of all ages, men and women, Muslims and Christians, shared one goal: the end of former president Hosni Mubarak's autocratic regime, demanding democracy and a better economic future.

" Innharda ehna kullena Misryeen " (We are all Egyptians) writes Nicholas Kristof, a columnist at The New York Times, quoting one of the revolutionaries in Tahrir Square with paeans to the national unity that brought together Muslims and Christians to fight for democracy. A domino effect spread to Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, and went across the oceans too. It was reported by US media that when members of labour unions in Wisconsin went on strike to protest the governor's decision to abolish their right of collective bargaining, they were shouting, "We are doing as the Egyptians are doing!"

Sorely, it seems that the euphoria that prevailed after the taking over of the government by the military and the ouster of Mubarak has almost vanished, or its gust is fading away. Most observers have noticed that the revolutionaries have begun to grumble about the military-backed government's slow pace in putting on trial the former president, his family and members of his regime and affiliated businessmen who were responsible for atrocities, corruption and plundering of national wealth; in freezing their assets; in banning them from leaving the country; and for the lack of security in many cities where there is no police force doing the job. The reassembly of thousands of revolutionaries in Tahrir Square on Friday 1 and 7 April is evidence of that. Adding to the dissatisfaction of the revolutionaries it was reported that the government was considering enacting a law banning protest, and that some of the revolutionaries were arrested.

True, the military promised to establish democracy in the country. But the recent amendments of the constitution were mostly disappointing. Although the result of the referendum was over 77 per cent of people who cast their votes saying Yes to the amendments, many were illiterates who were easy to influence. A large majority of people eligible to vote stayed home, and Egyptians living abroad were not allowed to vote.

But things have changed recently. It was reported in the Egyptian and world media that the Egyptian prosecutor-general started to question former president Mubarak and his sons and also a number of Mubarak's aides and members of the National Democratic Party for abuse of power, corruption, accumulating illicit fortunes and plundering the country's land. The prosecutor decided to detain them for 15 days until the investigation is complete, and if not the detention could be extended according to the law of criminal procedures.

It is true that this is the first time an Egyptian ruler was put on trial. But contrary to views by some Western observers, this is not the first time in Egypt's history that the revolutionaries succeeded to overthrow their ruler. I was advised by a friend of mine, Wahiba Saleh, a brilliant archaeology inspector with the Egyptian Supreme Council for Antiquities, that the ancient Egyptians preceded their descendants when they revolted against and killed the Pharaoh Bibi II who was a cruel tyrant. Also, Hend Mustafa, in the daily Al-Ahram of 5 April, enthusiastically revisited an unforgettable and historic march of two million Egyptians on 14 November 1951, demanding their freedom from the British occupation army that suppressed the country since 1882. Contemporaries of that era would remember how students of Cairo University (formerly Fouad I University) were among the demonstrators demanding the end of the British occupation, the ouster of King Farouk I, and the end of the royal system. A revolution was in the making after the burning of Cairo on 26 January 1952 by followers of some political parties. But on 23 July, the Egyptian army, in a coup d'état, took over and forced King Farouk I to abdicate few days later on 26 January. It was reported at the time that at the request of the United States, the British occupation army did not interfere to protect the king.

The new smiles on the faces of the revolutionaries will continue if the military fulfils its promise to give the people real democracy and a good economic system. Then the army will be remembered not only for its heroic military performance in the 6 October War, but also for its efforts to build a new democratic and free Egypt.

It is absurd see former vice president Omar Suleiman and some Egyptian politicians and businessmen claim that Egyptians are not ready for democracy. The performance of the revolutionaries proved otherwise. This exactly what the British government used to claim in answering Egyptian demands for independence from London.

All nations that were governed by dictators or were under military occupation for a long time were told that they were not qualified to be governed under democratic principles. They did not rest until they raised the banner of democracy and became examples for other nations. The struggle for democracy in Britain, the United States, Germany, India, and also Eastern Europe, South Korea, South Africa and Indonesia can attest to that.

Before 1952 Egypt had a good constitution, enacted in 1923 after the country gained its independence from Britain by virtue of the 28 February 1922 declaration of the British government. That constitution was written by a founding committee that included in its membership representatives of the Egyptian people regardless of political views and religious beliefs. However, independence was not complete because the British army continued its occupation of Egypt until it evacuated in 1956, and because foreigners were infringing on Egypt's sovereignty. It was a system under which some foreigners lived in Egypt were given special rights, including exemption from being subject to Egyptian laws -- they could not be sued in Egyptian civil courts or tried under Egyptian criminal law or in criminal courts (they had so-called mixed courts and mixed laws). The mixed courts system ended 14 October 1949.

I truly believe that in order to save the revolutionary spirit and to give the new generations in Egypt a better chance, real democracy should be the rule of the land.

In three previous articles in Al-Ahram daily and Al-Ahram Weekly, in 2000, 2005 and 2006, I emphasised that democracy would not be complete without freedom of expression and of the press. I demonstrated how many writers and philosophers tackled freedom as a human right and a quality of the thinking mind, the lack of which would turn the individual into an inanimate slave.

While John Locke and John Stuart Mill strongly discussed freedom as a political principle, it was Mill who fully enmeshed it as a philosophical theory. In his universally admired book Al-Muqadema, the great Islamic jurist and historian Ibn Khaldoun warned that restricting peoples' freedom would preclude the advance of economic development and commercial exchange. By this, Ibn Khaldoun preceded Adam Smith by 400 hundred years in calling for open markets. Ronald Reagan, the late US president twice referred to Ibn Khaldoun as a champion of free trade. In a modern look at freedom, Professor Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize winner in economics in 1998, advocated in his book Development As Freedom, that poor and small countries should be free to choose the economic system suitable for them. Now with the spread of the social media, the people should also be free to catch up with new technologies in a global world.

This is why constitutions in democratic countries guarantee the individual's right to free expression and assembly, freedom of the press and equal rights and opportunities for all, without discrimination for reasons of colour, sex, religion or national origin. Peoples of democratic countries were trained to exercise their freedom, meaning how to give and take, and to preserve it. Courts made this freedom a reality.

But freedom of expression for individuals is a two-sided principle; it should be exercised in good faith. It requires that each of us must respect the others' rights of freedom of expression, especially when they disagree with us. One should not use bad names or throw stones at people who disagree with us. It was very disturbing and frightening to read in Egyptian and foreign newspapers that some from the Muslim Brotherhood and mosque preachers described people who voted No to the constitution amendments as being heretical ( kaferoon ). In spite of the reported assurance by one leader of the Brotherhood that it was in favour of democracy and freedom for all, the example contradicts his declaration. I do believe that no one, even the state or the judiciary, has the right to force a citizen to adopt a certain faith or expel him or her from one, or interpret every expression or move in a religious way. Faith is a matter between the All Mighty God and the faithful. This is a direct application of the Holy Quran's verse that says: "There is no compulsion in faith" ( La ikraha fil-deen, Chapter Two, Verse 256).

In a brilliant article in The New York Times, 2 April, "In Egypt's Democracy, Room for Islam," Ali Gomaa, the grand Mufti of Egypt and an inspired Islamic jurist, demonstrated a true interpretation of Sharia law under a democratic system. "All Egyptians must participate in the creation of a new Egypt, provided that they respect the basic tenets of religious freedom and the equality of all citizens. To protect our democracy, we must be vigilant against any party whose platform or political rhetoric threatens to incite sectarianism, a prohibition that is enshrined in law and in the constitution." Gomaa underlined that in a country with such diverse movements, "the Muslim Brotherhood, the Wasat and the Salafi", "no one group speaks for Islam". Gomaa proved that he is a real revolutionary and an Islamic reformer. I am sure that the majority of constitutional law jurists would agree with Gomaa. I hope the daily Al-Ahram gains permission from the New York Times to publish the article in Arabic.

The alternative to freedom of expression and of the press is to turn the country into a police state as it was in the last 60 years, dominated by fear and corruption, the disappearance of virtues and values, and the fall of the legal system. This is the difference between a system based on independent institutions and a tyranny based on the will of a dictator.

A wise ruler consults before he takes action. Consultation is a complex art, and who benefits from advice is superior to who gave that advice, says the Egyptian scholar and writer Abbas Mahmoud El-Aqqad in his book The Genius of Omar, which was a textbook in my secondary school years in the 1940s, where he considered Omar Ibn Elkhattab, the second Islamic Khalif, a genius and a master of consultation. This is the duty of a prudent ruler. Being the decision maker, the ruler should be just, wise and humble, and that was Omar Ibn El-Khattab.

Democratic systems are not alike. Each society has its traditions and aspirations that should be balanced according to the times, in order to guarantee the rights of all people. The separation of powers is essential in democracy. That means the executive, the legislative, and the judicial powers are distinct from each other. The people should be trained in how to exercise their rights, and to know how to give and take.

The free ruler who rules free people will always live in their hearts. A dictator will be despised and hated forever. And then there will be a new revolution. I hope that the 25 January does not pass in vain.

* The writer is an international attorney.

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