Al-Ahram Weekly Online   2 - 8 August 2012
Issue No. 1109
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

'The problem is with the politicians'

A few weeks after Egypt elected its first democratically-elected president, Gihan Shahine asks whether Egyptians are ready for democratic change

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Working in a classy hair salon in Heliopolis in Cairo, Fadia, a hairdresser, does not seem to care much about issues of democracy, freedom or social equality. All she wants is to get her salary back to normal after a long period of economic recession that has been taking a serious toll on the beauty centre where she works.

"I need to go to work safely without fear of being attacked by thugs," Fadia said. "Security and the economy are the major issues."

The 25 January Revolution that ousted former president Hosni Mubarak last year has only made her life harder and from her point of view has brought chaos and worsened the economy. Fadia does not curse the former regime, and she even voted for Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafik, in the two rounds of the recent presidential elections.

"We want this hassle to end. We want to eat and feed our kids, that's all," agreed Hanan, a maid, who did not care to travel all the way from Cairo where she works to Upper Egypt to cast her ballot in the constituency where she is registered for the elections.

After all, she reasoned, "nobody has ever cared about the poor, and there is no hope that anybody ever will."

For both Fadia and Hanan, it might be too much to think that attaining democracy, social equality and justice and putting an end to corruption would mean a better life for them and their kids. Hanan might scoff at these values for being "too good to be true".

Neither might they be able to understand that the kind of stability they enjoyed under the former regime meant their living in slums and the danger of cancer caused by polluted food as well as drinking water polluted with sewage.

Fadia concedes that her mother was perhaps a victim of that kind of corruption, since her mother suffers from both cancer and hepatitis C. That said, Fadia still cannot but yearn for the "good old days" when at least she had food and security.

ARE EGYPTIANS READY FOR DEMOCRACY: The question of whether the Egyptian population, suffering under the double onslaught of poverty and illiteracy, is ready for democracy has been an issue of heated debate. The issue of whether Egypt is moving in the right direction towards a genuinely democratic system remains equally controversial.

"There is no nation in the world that is not ready for democracy," political science professor at the American University in Cairo Manar El-Shorbagy states matter-of-factly. "Only dictators would claim that poverty and illiteracy stand in the way of attaining democracy. India also suffers from poverty, and yet it enjoys democracy."

Prominent sociologist Samir Naim does not blame the poorer segments of society for their present apathy since those living on daily wages have been perhaps the most negatively affected by the revolution. "They cannot tolerate hunger. They just want to eat and feed their kids," Naim explained.

It is not that such people are necessarily against the revolution, however. After all, Naim insists, the poor spontaneously flocked to Cairo's Tahrir Square during the 25 January Revolution, putting an end to three decades of despotism. The fact that the poorer segments of society have also not gone on a hunger strike, which many analysts had speculated could happen prior to the revolution despite the hardships that followed, but have instead flocked to the ballot box in the hope that democracy will bring prosperity may be added proof that Egyptians are yearning for democratic change.

"The fact that the turnout in Egypt's presidential elections was higher than its counterpart in France is yet another case in point," insisted Ayman El-Sayad, the editor of Weghat Nazar [point of view] magazine. El-Sayad also scoffs at claims that the use of bribery or religion to influence voters to cast their ballots for a certain candidate has undermined the democratic process. After all, he argues, "the use of money and other ways to influence voters are used elsewhere in the world."

"This is the first year of democracy in Egypt, and it is normal that people might make mistakes and wrong choices," he argued.

Neither does the fact that many belonging to the higher social strata in Egypt are showing a similar apathy towards the revolution constitute a sign that Egyptians are not ready for democratic change, according to El-Sayad.

"The upper and lower strata of society usually take identical attitudes, but it is usually the middle classes that spearhead change and shape the future," he argued.

VICTIMS OF COUNTER-REVOLUTION: Since the outbreak of the revolution, the silent majority of the public has been the target of counter-revolutionary forces who have created a string of hardships ranging from the prevailing state of chaos and insecurity to recurrent shortages in fuel that have also scared away tourists and resulted in intense economic hardship for many.

Such forces, according to Naim, include the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the police and old-regime beneficiaries and businessmen.

This counter-revolution has played a major influence on public opinion since it has been designed by those who "own the media and have the power and money needed to hire thugs to scare the public, spread chaos, scare tourists away and deliver deadly blows to the economy, while busying people with minor apolitical issues related to bread and the scarcity of fuel," Naim said.

The perceived state of chaos has been one major reason why many people have adopted a negative attitude towards the revolution, yearning for the "good old days" when they at least had bread and security. No wonder, then, that a little less than half of the voting masses cast their ballots for Shafik, who promised to bring back security while putting an end to the "dark ages" of Islamist rule, making it clear that for him the legitimacy of the revolution was over.

Naim, however, does not blame the electorate for that. "It is a well-known fact in psychology that intense emotions, be they of fear or happiness, can impede people's critical and logical thinking abilities and increase their suggestibility, making them accept and believe whatever is said to them," Naim said.

This could be one reason why counter-revolutionary forces have been keen to spread chaos and create adversity.

QUESTIONING THE ROLE OF THE MEDIA: In this vein, many would equally blame the media for the state of polarisation that has plagued society and the unprecedented spread of rumours and conspiracy theories.

"The media has corrupted people's minds," El-Sayad claimed. "It has both stigmatised the revolutionary forces as agents receiving foreign funds, and in the meantime it has created a state of 'Islamophobia' by circulating rumours, conspiracy theories and extensively using the wrong terminology."

El-Sayad explained that some people are not sophisticated enough to understand the hidden agendas of the state and independent media. The state media has always toed the government line, and has been known in the past as the admiring chronicler of the president, the SCAF in the transitional period, while the private-sector media is mostly run by businessmen whose interests may be linked to those of the former regime, El-Sayad said.

In its monitoring report on the media, the Independent Coalition for Monitoring Elections was critical of the Egyptian media for having "contributed to the situation of partisanship and division that the Egyptian street has suffered from during the run-offs and which is still casting its shadow over the current political situation."

"Press coverage has highlighted clashes between the supporters of the candidates, as well as polarising statements, reflecting to the public the idea that people should choose to join the ranks of a specific team and that doing so requires crude attacks on the opposing group," the report said.

"This focus has created a situation of animosity between voters and produced a climate of intolerance, the detrimental effects of which could be witnessed after the announcement of the election results."

Concerning the audiovisual media, the report was also equally critical of the state-owned channels for having been "keen to criticise the Muslim Brotherhood, without providing information in support of the rival candidate."

"The media should also be held responsible for consolidating the idea of confrontation between the religious and civil state and the necessity of choosing between them," the report added.

THE CART BEFORE THE HORSE: Nevertheless, it seems that the revolution has failed to improve people's lives, and for many talk about democracy perhaps seems irrelevant until their mostly economic needs are satisfied.

Yet, "the problem is with the politicians, not the people," El-Sayad insists. For more than 17 months since the ouster of Mubarak, the political elite has been bogged down in debates about the Islamic-versus-civil identity of the state that do not address the problems the vast majority of Egyptians have in securing food, shelter and better standards of education and health.

Many experts insist that the thorny and philosophical debates on the character of the state and the relation of religion to the state that have been going on may seem to be irrelevant for many at a time when their urgent economic needs have not been satisfied.

After all, there is almost a consensus among experts that no system of law, whether Islamic or liberal, can function if it is effectively undermined by a poor economy and a bureaucracy demoralised by low pay.

This miscalculation on the part of the political elite has resulted in a situation that is eclectic, at best. A state of deep polarisation has come about among the different protesters as a result and between the old and new parties, the secularists and the Islamists, and the old and new regimes. There is a conflict between those who want to revenge the past and those who are seeking to build the future.

Even more disturbing has been the tendency among these conflicting forces to accuse their opponents of either supporting a counter-revolution spearheaded by remnants of the old regime or of serving personal or Western interests and getting funds from Western countries.

Such considerations when linked with the laxity of the SCAF and the beneficiaries of the old regime hanging onto their interests have made the revolution go off track.

DEMOCRATIC SUPPORT IN FIGURES: Yet, if the figures are anything to go by, public support for democracy has not ebbed despite the hardships and chaos. A recent survey by the Pew Research Center's Global Attitudes Project conducted on the eve of the recent presidential elections found that while the economy is clearly a top priority for Egyptians, so is democracy.

"Two-in-three Egyptians (67 per cent) believe democracy is the best form of government, basically unchanged from 71 per cent in 2011," according to the Pew research. "In fact, when asked which is more important, a strong economy or a good democracy, the public is divided: 49 per cent say the former and 48 per cent the latter."

Moreover, the survey found that Egyptians do not just voice their support for democracy in a general sense; they also want specific democratic rights and institutions. In particular, they want a fair judiciary, with 81 per cent considering it very important to live in a country with a judicial system that treats everyone the same way.

About six-in-ten say it is very important to live in a country with a free press (62 per cent); free speech (60 per cent); and honest, competitive elections with at least two political parties (58 per cent). In addition to these fundamental components of democracy, Egyptians also want order, with 60 per cent rating law and order as very important.

However, whether the country is taking the right steps towards attaining these essential democratic goals remains an open question.

"If we go by the book, then Egypt would be on the right track towards attaining democracy," said Moataz-Bellah Abdel-Fattah, a political science professor at Central Michigan University in the US and a member of the constituent assembly tasked to write the new constitution

For the first time in decades, Egyptians have been allowed freely to elect their president. Many of the voters who flocked to the ballot boxes were hopeful that electing a civilian president would usher in a new era in which Egyptians would start to feel the benefits of democracy.

However, the enthusiasm soon ebbed amid fears that the new president's authority would be curtailed since there was not even a constitution laying out what powers the new president would have.

It is of course early days in the new democratic world of Egypt's first elected Islamist president, Mohamed Mursi. Not only does he have many tough issues on his agenda, but the transition from military dictatorship to a more democratic system is anything but plain sailing.

In particular, a series of events took place prior to the presidential elections that plunged Egypt's already-troubled transition to democracy into a deeper state of confusion, and it is still unknown how much power the military will retain in the future.

The SCAF dissolved Egypt's first democratically-elected parliament by virtue of a hurried court ruling on the eve of the presidential elections, allowing it to regain legislative power, and it stripped the presidency of many of its powers by issuing an addendum to its earlier Constitutional Declaration (made in March 2011) that would limit presidential prerogatives to the advantage of the military.

The addendum also gave the SCAF the opportunity to play a key role in the elaboration of the future constitution, provoking the ire of revolutionary forces and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This "swift series of steps by the military and its allies in the judiciary," commented the New York Times, "left many observers in Egypt and the West wondering if they were witnessing a subtle military coup, or even a counter-revolution."

A recent article in the same newspaper suggested that a campaign by the state-run media, "the traditionally admiring chronicler of Egypt's head of state, to undercut the newly elected president" was already in process and could perhaps be a clear indication of "who still holds the real power over the Egyptian bureaucracy."

According to the Times, when Mursi summoned the parliament after his election, the decision caused a stand-off with the military and provoked the ire of secularists and judges. Egypt's state-run media, the Times said, then "quickly allied with the generals" through coverage that was biased in favour of the military against the president.

"The state media campaign against Mr Morsi is part of a bewildering power struggle in the streets, the courts and back rooms that has all but paralysed Egypt's government," the paper concluded.

STRUGGLE FOR POWER: Political analyst Issandr El-Amrani further explained the mechanism behind this struggle for power that has made Mursi's honeymoon in office extremely short-lived.

"Within days of his inauguration, his office was besieged with protesters," El-Amrani wrote in the International Herald Tribune. "Reeling at the sight of a Muslim Brother sitting in Hosni Mubarak's old chair, the many Egyptians who did not vote for him are rejoicing at the military's bid to curtail his powers."

No wonder, then, that Mursi's decision to summon the dissolved parliament back into session was met with "apoplectic outrage from secularists, judges and others who were eager to seize the occasion to bash the incoming president."

In the meantime, according to El-Amrani, Egypt's judiciary has been allying itself with the military against the Brotherhood president. "Some judges are opposing the president because they hate the Muslim Brotherhood; others because they were a core part of the Mubarak-era establishment and are resisting change," El-Amrani wrote. "Many [judges] see themselves as the guardians of the civilian state."

Talking in a similar vein, Naim provides a pessimistic outlook on the situation in Egypt. "We are not in the first year of democracy," he said. "We are still living under the same autocracy we have been suffering under for years, which puts authority in the hands of a minority."

By this Naim means old-regime beneficiaries, who he said include "the military council and business tycoons, including Brotherhood leaders."

Despite the historic nature of seeing a freely elected president for the first time in Egypt's history, many liberal and secular forces feel similarly short-changed, and they are particularly fearful of the possibility that Egypt may end up in the grip of Islamist rule.

On a more optimistic note, both El-Sayad and political analyst Gamil Mattar insist that democracy is a process that takes years to bring about and no one should expect changes to happen in the immediate future.

"It will take years, perhaps a decade, until real change occurs," Mattar said, adding that thus far all should be able to feel the historic magnitude of Egypt's being transformed from a military to a civil regime and holding free elections for the first time in decades.

"The very fact that people are now more politicised, that young people are engaged in the political process, and that we now have unprecedented knowledge about Egyptian society, from the motives and agendas of the elite to the wishes and demands of those living in the slum areas, are all major steps on the way towards attaining democracy," he commented.

No matter how difficult Egypt's transition to democracy may be, there is almost a consensus that true democracy remains the only remedy for the country's problems. For that democratic process to make headway, however, many would agree with El-Sayad that it is high time for all the political forces, especially the Brotherhood and the leftists, to abandon their historic animosity and to work together.

"The very notion of an Islamic-versus-civil state that is being extensively used in the media is not even a viable argument; it would make more sense if we said an Islamic-versus-non-Islamic or Christian state or a civil-versus-military government," El-Sayad continued.

Equally worrisome for El-Sayad has been the use of such terminology as "the hegemony of a certain political party or group."

"It is normal in all democratic countries for the political party of the president to constitute a majority in the formation of the government," El-Sayad said. "Even in the United States, the president's administration is usually formed of members of the political party he belongs to."

Mursi, for his part, seems to recognise that many of the votes he garnered in the presidential elections were cast through fear of the victory of the former regime's last prime minister rather than out of enthusiasm for his candidacy.

The newly elected president has thus been quick to try to build bridges with all the forces on the political scene in an attempt to appear as a consensual and democratic leader. He has repeated pledges to preserve the status of women in society, and he has made several announcements that his vice-presidents would be a woman and a Coptic Christian.

In so doing, Mursi has reached out to two groups that have been particularly fearful of a Brotherhood victory. In his first remarks as president-elect, he promised to be a "president for all."

That said, many are still wary of how far Islamist hardliners, who are pushing for a more fundamentalist approach, will tolerate or allow Mursi's open-minded style of democracy to continue.

In a country where public debate is rich with rumour and conspiracy theories, the future remains foggy.

Abdel-Fattah laments this state of chaos, where "opinions are turned into facts, where people are increasingly phobic of the unknown and are bogged down in a wave of conspiracy theories about whatever is unclear or not understandable."

Abdel-Fattah speculates that the writing of the new constitution will probably clear much of the fog, but that the kind of democracy Egypt is likely to have will still be "culturally-embedded."

This means that "Egypt's democracy will be largely undermined by an unhealthy environment characterised by a deep state of polarisation, conspiracy theories, mutual accusations of betrayal and a lot of surprises," he said.

photo: Reuters

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