Monday,24 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)
Monday,24 September, 2018
Issue 1180, (16-22 January 2014)

Ahram Weekly

In quest of a new democratic order

For much of the 20th century, Egypt skirted around founding a democratic order. Now, there is no choice if disaster is to be averted, writes Hussein Haridy

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 14 and 15 January, Egyptians went to the polls to cast their votes in the referendum on the draft constitution of 2013. Egyptian expatriates had previously voted abroad from 8 to 12 January. A yes vote will confer constitutional legitimacy unto the 30 June Revolution of 2013 against the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. By approving the draft, Egyptians will turn the page of a critical period in the contemporary history of the country, which was on the verge of complete collapse under the rule of the former regime. In fact, the approval of the draft constitution will mean a resounding defeat for the project of expropriating Egypt for the benefit of the unfounded myth of the Caliphate. But defeat will not mean that this myth would wither away. Only an ambitious programme for the modernisation of Egypt will lay this myth to rest for many decades to come, and hopefully for good.
The quest for democracy in Egypt dates back to 1866 when Khedive Ismail adopted what is known as the Basic Law. It was not the intention of the khedive to establish an Egyptian democracy, but rather to make sure that the wealthy and the mighty would approve of his financial management of the country, which had been a disaster to say the least.
The real test for a democratic order in Egypt came with the 1923 Constitution, which ushered in what has become to be known as the “Liberal Era” in Egyptian politics. Egypt had just gained nominal independence from Great Britain in February 1922, upon which Egypt had its first monarch, the former king Fouad. He wanted Egypt to have a constitution along the lines of European constitutions. In fact, the Belgian constitution was taken as a model that inspired the 30-member committee that drafted the text. The catch was that the monarch bestowed the constitution on the people. From 1923 until its abrogation in late 1952 after the July Revolution, the 1923 constitution failed to lay the foundation of a truly democratic regime in the country. As a matter of fact, the king himself encouraged Ismail Sedki Pasha to replace it with the 1930 Constitution that lasted for five years. The country went into open rebellion that prompted the Egyptian monarch to give in to popular demands. Many Egyptians lost their lives, particularly among the young and university students in this forgotten uprising of our forefathers.
The 1923 constitution was drafted by the landed aristocracy and it catered for their vested interests at the expense of the middle class and the poor in the country. In its context, democracy became a game of musical chairs orchestrated by the two monarchs who ruled Egypt from 1923 to 1952, namely King Fouad and his son, King Farouk, who was dethroned on 26 July 1952 by the “Free Officers” led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser. With the July Revolution, Egypt made a complete break with the “Liberal Era”, and saw the emergence and dominance of the middle class in Egyptian politics. The draft constitution that was put to the constitutional referendum from 8 to 15 January this year is a product of the aspirations of the middle class and the lower middle class in the country. Hopefully, it will put Egypt on the threshold of a new experience in democratic governance. Needless to say, constitutional texts as such do not guarantee such governance; it rather depends on the commitment of the government and society to exercise power according to widely accepted democratic norms and principles. In other words, the adoption of the 2014 Constitution would be a first step on a long and difficult road. The success of the exercise will depend on how future governments fulfil their responsibilities. In this respect, the future head of state will be essential in ensuring scrupulous respect for the new constitution. And that requires that he, himself, is a democrat at heart. I do not think, given the upheavals of the last three years, that Egypt has the luxury to fail in this new democratic order. The consequences, I am afraid, would be disastrous for the stability and prosperity of the Egyptian people.
Egypt has tried during the last century and a half to emulate Western democracies. The result has been less than satisfactory. There have been reasons behind this failure, the most important of which has been the fact that democracy in Egypt functioned for the benefit of the wealthy and the mighty. The majority of the people were always left behind. The growing gaps in wealth between the haves and the have-nots that existed prior to 1952, and re-emerged again in the last two decades, made the people lose faith in democratic regimes, because they felt disenfranchised.
Another reason — which I find key to understanding why democratic values have not taken root yet in Egypt — is the fact that the ideal of democracy has been reduced to the results of the ballot box and nothing more. The majority parties without a single exception (save in the Nasser era from 1956 to 1970) ruled and acted according to the undemocratic notion of winner takes all. They gained power democratically but exercised power undemocratically, which was tantamount of monopolising it. Furthermore, there was no separation between governing and respect for the legitimacy of the state. Majority parties in Egypt acted, while in power, as if state institutions were their private reserve.
The “Liberal Era” from 1923 to 1952 came to an end because the monarchy, the landed aristocracy and the capitalist class limited their own strange model of democracy to politics and especially to political liberty. Under this model, the wealthy grew richer and the poor remained powerless under the subsistence level. After the July Revolution, president Nasser, whose birthday falls coincidentally on the date of publication of today’s Al-Ahram Weekly, adopted an Egyptian approach to democracy. He said in 1962 that democracy has two dimensions. The first is related to political liberty. And the second centres around what he rightly termed social liberty, meaning that man should be free from want and deprivation in order to exercise his free will. Put differently, man should not fall prey to vote buying.
Many years ago, president Nasser said that Egypt had a rendezvous with destiny. Today, I dare say that Egypt has a rendezvous with a new democratic order that is built on democratic norms and principles respected in all democracies around the world. Egypt has no other choice in order to enter modernity and be part of human progress.

The writer is former assistant to the foreign minister.

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