Challenges on the democratic path
As Egypt continues on the path towards democracy, five main challenges remain, writes Mohamed Mustafa Orfy
The long road towards a fully-fledged democratic system is not by any means an easy one. On the contrary, it is a rocky and risky one, full of ups and downs and obstacles, whether these turn out to be insurmountable or not. The new Egypt should not be satisfied by having held presidential elections last month. Instead, it should recall the experience of some Eastern European countries such as Poland, Hungary, Romania, and so on, that have undergone radical transformation over the past 20 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the subsequent collapse of the former Soviet Union in 1991.
These countries have been passing through remaining difficulties, to varying degrees, up until the present time. This leads us to think that the transformation process could be an open-ended one that might continue for some time.
The new Egypt is facing and will face five main challenges that might at some given point in time threaten its democratic development, making it a semi-autocratic or theocratic regime or worse. These challenges should be seriously addressed by the collective will of Egyptian society. They are set out below.
First, the current revolutionary mood can make things appear in either black or white, as if people had lost their tolerance for any difference in opinion, particularly when it comes to politics or religion. Egyptian people have for a long time been held captive by the state-run media, which used to repeat the same ideas or concepts, even though some improvement in freedom of expression has been seen over the past ten years or so.
This situation has not been better, unfortunately, in the country's educational or religious institutions. As a result, an unsurprising zero-tolerance attitude has come to prevail, specifically in the middle and lower layers of the society, with regard to differences of opinion. This gloomy picture has to be altered by exposing the collective mindset to different thoughts and conflicting ideas, bearing in mind that the essence of democracy consists of respecting differences in opinion and thinking.
Second, a culture of repression has cursed the whole society, and as a result it has become almost too difficult to expect a "victim of domestic violence", as it were, to participate in the democratisation process. Repressive, even violent, attitudes in the lower societal layers have to be fought against by applying the rule of law and toughening up sanctions for punishable verbal or physically violent crimes. If not, the oppressors and the oppressed will always act together, producing a vicious circle or black hole in the development process from which nothing good will come out.
Third, the most formidable obstacle towards development and modernisation today is illiteracy. Since the current rate of this in Egypt is about 23 per cent or so, it stands as a condemnation of the successive regimes that have ruled the country since the July 1952 Revolution. Of course, previous leaders were also burdened by other chronic problems both internally and externally, but the new Egypt has nevertheless inherited a harsh legacy in the shape of illiteracy.
The most alarming factor for our purposes here is that illiterate people may be easily deceived or manipulated by influential factors such as money, the media, fear and security, and religion. They are unfortunately not always able to determine what suits them best or best serves their interests. As a result, the country's resources should be mobilised to lessen the catastrophic results of this problem in order to avoid a setback or regression.
Fourth, it goes without saying that the backbone of any democratic system is the unconditional rule of law. Full adherence to the rule of law can serve as a vehicle and as a catalyst for democratic development. Impartial, efficient and speedy law-enforcement bodies can act to secure a healthy environment for all social, economic, and political interactions between individuals or bodies or powers. Simply put, the rule of law gives an assurance to everyone that he or she will see their rights respected.
The rule of law can also serve as a catalyst for changing the chaotic environment in which many Egyptians now live. Once respect for the law becomes a habit or a matter of routine in one generation, this habit or routine will also be inherited by the younger generations. It is not a coincidence that the most advanced and democratic countries are those that have an efficient judicial system. In a nutshell, the rule of law can act as a lever for the whole of society in the medium and long terms.
Fifth, according to some western academic literature there needs to be a minimum per capita income in order to secure democratisation and modernisation. Some estimates for the second world countries set this required minimum at $6,000 or so. Every country has its own circumstances and peculiarities, and in the Egyptian case the required per capita income could be much less. But the idea itself remains true: as long as the poverty rate exceeds certain limits this jeopardises not only the democratisation process but could also be a powder keg that could be prone to explode at any moment.
Bluntly speaking, the presence of the poor could act as a barrier to achieving tangible results on whatever road Egypt is heading. Therefore, the utmost importance should be given to reducing this problem by lowering the level of their daily suffering, increasing investment and encouraging labour-intensive industries. It is worth noting that even a slight improvement in the living conditions of the deprived classes would be highly appreciated by them, providing more fuel for the long march towards development.
Last but not least, what has to be recognised is that democracy is not only a governing system, but that it is also a culture that should be implanted in every sphere of daily life. The challenge seems to be a difficult one, but the Egyptians should be able to manage it. Once this happens, the mood of the Arab countries will also radically change.
The writer is a political analyst.