Sunday, December 12, 2010

Democracy: Egypt’s Mission Impossible!

Supposedly, the current political season which started by parliamentary elections in November 28th, 2010 and ending with open presidential elections in fall 2011 is the most critical in Egypt’s modern history. The political practices of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), opposition political parties (e.g. liberals and socialists), civil rights organizations, grassroots movements, and Islamists (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood) in this particular year shall determine the political and socio-economic future of Egypt.

Those are not the first parliamentary or presidential elections in Egypt, but probably the last in the life of the aging Mubarak, president of the state since the assassination of Sadat by Islamists in 1981. The growing civil society and pro-democracy grassroots movements coinciding with Mubarak’s deteriorated health and the many internal conflicts in his NDP are expected to put an end to long 30 years of dictatorship; but hardly expected to facilitate the birth of a democratic state.

According to Sheri Berman, “… getting rid of an authoritarian regime is one thing; creating a stable democratic one is something else all together.”[1] The average Egyptian citizen is usually confused by state performance, which exhibits democratic practices (e.g. elections, pluralism, multiparty system) along with authoritarian rehearsals (e.g. emergency law and suppression on basic rights and liberties). Egypt today can be seen as neither a democracy nor an autocracy; it can be confidently labeled as an illiberal democracy.

In his amazing book “The Future of Freedom,” Fareed Zakaria mentioned that the Athenian definition of democracy as “the rule of people” through the process of selecting their government is “meaningless” if it is not supported by constitutional liberalism that would guarantee the fairness and openness of practicing democracy[2]. “If a country holds competitive multiparty elections we call it ‘democratic.’ When public participation in a country’s politics is increased – for example through the enfranchisement of women – this country is seen as having become more democratic.”[3] Ironically, President Mubarak has taken a smart initiative in 2009 by allocating 64 seats in the lower house of parliament for women in hope to increase the participation of women in the current 2010 parliamentary elections[4]. Thus, he skillfully hit two birds with one stone: on one hand, he polished the image of his regime in the eyes of the international community by showing that he is getting “more democratic” and supportive to women’s rights; and on the other hand, this would weaken the Muslim Brotherhood bloc, which currently holds one-third of the seats in parliament by filling more seats with women loyal to the NDP and the current regime[5].

Simultaneously, the regime did not shy away from adopting “illiberal” practices by denying international observers access to parliamentary or presidential elections, claiming that allowing international observation on domestic elections would “infringe the national sovereignty.”[6] In addition, grassroots movements and nongovernmental organizations are indirectly banned from observing elections because of the Emergency Law, in effect since 1980. “This law grants the president extraordinary powers to detain citizens, prevent public gatherings, and issue decrees with little accountability to Parliament or the people.”[7]

As a result, major opposition leaders and political parties, including the newly established bloc of opposition intellectuals from different political affiliations, namely “The National Association for Change” decided to boycott the parliamentary elections. Only, El-Wafd Liberal Party and the Muslim Brotherhood group allowed their candidates to run for elections against the NDP.

Likewise, the upcoming presidential election, scheduled in the fall of 2011, is expected to be as illiberal and illusionary as the parliamentary elections. Ayman Nour, former member of parliament and the leader of El-Ghad Liberal Party, who suffered detention and suppression on the background of running for the first ever open presidential elections in 2005, believes that the current parliamentary elections and the upcoming presidential elections are “a scene from a black comedy.” Nour’s El-Ghad Party is one of the opposition parties that decided to boycott elections “to unveil the ugly face of the corrupt regime and expose its anti-democratic practices, including but not limited to election fraud, freedom manipulation, and suppressing dissidents.” Nour argued that Egypt has gone far beyond the illiberal democracy barrier and has turned into an “authoritarian police state decorated by the malpractice of the so-called democracy.” In accordance with Nour’s argument, Egypt is ranked as an “Authoritarian State” with 3.89 general score on the Economist Intelligence Unit Index of Democracy in 2008,[8]in spite of the fact that Egypt has been running parliamentary elections regularly since 1974 and open presidential elections since 2005.

This, again, supports Zakaria’s argument that democracy, if not preceded and then enhanced by stable liberalism, is meaningless. In the meantime, the Egyptian case evidently refutes Carothers’ argument “only if there is a serious political opening, including free and fair competition for the presidency, will there be any real hope for deep reaching reforms to build the rule of law.”[9] Egypt has failed dramatically to achieve liberalism in spite of its relatively democratic openness. Yet, although Zakaria’s argument that liberalization should come first proved right, at least in Egypt case, Crothers’ statement “democracy has no preconditions” makes sense. Liberalism is not necessarily a precondition for democracy, but it is a facilitator that paves the way and regulates the sequence of steps that should be gradually taken towards achieving democracy.

Apparently, the best workable solution for Egypt case is to go back to ground zero of autocracy and restart, slowly but surely, its gradual path to democracy through political and socio-economic liberalization. Pressuring democracy immediately without going through this path could be counterproductive: as explained above, it would give legitimacy to the current autocracy; or even worse, it may bring in radical groups (e.g. the Muslim Brotherhood, who have already won one-third of parliamentary seats in 2005) and thus the country moves from the secular form of dictatorship (autocracy) to the sacredly-complicated religious form of dictatorship (theocracy) via the dark tunnel of illiberal democracy. In view of that, the ideal gradual path to democracy should turn illiberal autocracy (authoritarian state) into liberal autocracy (semi-authoritarian), and then turn liberal autocracy into liberal democracy.

Liberalism, as used by Zakaria, is the nineteenth century “classical liberalism” which is concerned with individual economic, political, and religious liberties[10]. To achieve this form of individualistic political and socio-economic liberalism, certain steps should be taken, respectively: constitutionalism, economic liberalization, and civil society empowerment.

Constitutionalism is about establishing constitutional liberalism and its supportive liberal institutions. Zakaria described the constitutional liberalism as “not about the procedures for selecting government but, rather, government’s goals… the term marries two closely connected ideas. It is liberal because it draws on the philosophical strain… that emphasizes individual liberty. It is constitutional because it places the rule of law at the center of politics.”[11]

Although originally a western concept, constitutional liberalism is not a new concept for Egyptians. In 1866, long time before European countries do, Egypt got its first parliament and written constitution[12]. Then in 1923, Egypt adopted a liberal constitution after a successful nation-wide nonviolent campaign led by liberal opposition. However, that liberal era got to a tragic end by the 1952 military coup, which brought the socialist officer Gamal Abdel Nasser and his Arab-nationalist theories to power. Since then, various amendments on the Egyptian constitution were applied, but they did not really harm or affect its liberal nature. Although the constitution is the supreme law of Egypt, it is not properly enforced.

Egypt has a lot of public sector and legislative institutions dedicated to preserving the constitution and applying the laws, but they are mostly corrupt and entirely illiberal. Egypt is ranked 98 out of 178 countries with general score 3.1 on Transparency International Corruption Index CPI 2010[13]. Paradoxically, the Egyptian government, in the past decade, had established various institutions to fight corruption, including the Administrative Authority Council and the Central Auditing Agency. In addition, a committee of integrity and transparency was established in 2007 with a mandate “to formulate a strategy for combating corruption. However, lack of independence, access to information, protection of whistle blowers and lack of clear mandate of the agencies has crippled their impact in fighting corruption.”[14]

In fact, Egypt is not that far from establishing constitutional liberalism. It already has a solid liberal constitution and various supporting governmental institutions. Applying a greater amount of pressure on the Egyptian government to fight corruption and liberalize its institutions while adopting viable mechanisms to enforce the stipulations of the constitution would solve the dilemma. Local civil society and international community, represented by international nongovernmental organizations and democratic governments, which have economic or political ties with Egypt, can easily apply such pressure.

Similar to constitutional liberalism, economic liberalization is not a foreign concept for Egyptians. The Egyptian government has been adopting economic liberalization policies since 1970s. The market-oriented regime of the assassinated president Sadat adopted the Open Door policy stressing economic liberalization as “a necessary condition to attract foreign capital”[15] investments. But the immense resistance from the then strong Nasserist/socialist opposition hindered Sadat from realizing his free market ambitions. As soon as Mubarak came to power in 1981 after Sadat’s assassination, Egypt went through an economic crisis and its foreign debt increased dramatically. By 1990s, “half of the foreign debt was either forgiven or rescheduled, but in exchange Egypt was forced to implement fully structural adjustment and economic liberalization programs sponsored by IMF and World Bank.”[16]

However, the government purposefully manipulated the economic reconstruction process through applying protective privatization policy. Only the wealthy took advantage of the process and the majority of people suffered its consequences. “The privatization process created an industrial and rural elite dependent on the [autocratic] state for access to public economic resources.”[17] The uncompetitive economic context perfectly tailored by the government enhanced private monopoly by selling state assets and public sector enterprises for prices much lower than their actual value to individual investors with proven loyalty to the autocratic regime. “The Egyptian government's practice of selling assets to anchor investors (single individuals) or to a small group of investors is increasing the monopolization of the economy… with such a privatization process, few, if any, of the members of the new elite would be interested in democratization.”[18] Those investors are not only businessmen monopolizing the private sector, but were also appointed as ministers, members of parliament, and members of the ruling National Democratic Party.

Therefore, the IMF and World Bank are highly encouraged to monitor the systematic abuse of the economic liberalization policy in Egypt and force the Egyptian government to end market monopoly, encourage fair and transparent competition, and ultimately provide equal economic opportunities to all citizens.

Undoubtedly, liberalization and then democratization are dependent on the efficiency of the civil society. “Democracy after all is a set of rules and institutions of governance through a peaceful management of competing groups and/or conflicting interests. Thus the normative component of ‘civil society’ is essentially the same as that of ‘democracy.’”[19] The Egyptian civil society is as old as the nineteenth century. During the nineteenth and early twentieth century, its activities were limited to cultural and charity activities by the upper class and European communities who had been living in Egypt. During the liberal era of 1923 - 1952, civil society played an important role in supporting cultural and moderate religious life as well as economic and political liberties of the Egyptian people. By the birth of the repressive, authoritarian, and highly centralized state after the 1952 military coup, the civil society was intentionally silenced by the regime. By late 1980s, the Egyptian civil society started to revive again thanks to western pressures on the Mubarak’s government to encourage the promotion of human rights.[20]

Today, the Egyptian civil society composed of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), grassroots movements (e.g. Kefaya, Youth for Change, National Association for Change, etc.), and Islamists (i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood), is growing stronger. The NGOs are established and run by liberal advocates and are concerned with supporting and educating the public about human rights, civil liberties, women’s rights, and democracy. Grassroots movements are mostly led by Nasserist/socialist activists and are basically concerned with pressuring for labor rights, political change, and peaceful exchange of power. Unlike NGOs, grassroots movements’ relationship with opposition political parties is very strong. Islamists, or the Muslim Brotherhood, are, supposedly, the most organized opposition group in Egypt. They are working mainly with youth and they are highly active in providing social and health services to people in the lower class. On another level, they are active in mobilizing the Egyptian public to support Arab and Islamic causes; e.g. Palestinian rights.[21]

Egyptian civil society is growing stronger but perhaps in the wrong direction. The international community should pay a special attention to guiding the Egyptian civil society to the right path towards enhancing the state transfer to liberalism and consequently liberal democracy. This can happen through sending experts to work with civil society actors or offering special funding opportunities for projects related to supporting liberalism. The liberal NGOs could be a fertile soil for this struggle. In addition to their valuable role in advocating rights and supporting the public about civil rights and liberal ideals, they should be encouraged to play a more effective role in fighting corruption in governmental institutions and exposing the abuses of economic liberalization and constitutionalism by the current authoritarian regime. Simultaneously, the international community should provide them with the proper moral and legal protection against the severe violations they continuously suffer under the police state and unjust laws.

To conclude, Egypt is not a hybrid state that inhibits both democratic and authoritarian practices. It is a centralized dictatorship that has been abusing democracy for decades to protect the authoritarian regime and the corrupt government on the expense of people’s rights and liberties. Egypt is considered a living example on Zakaria’s concept of illiberal democracy. Therefore, Zakaria’s theory of sequentialism provided a workable solution to turn the country into a liberal democratic state through gradual progress.

In other words, Egypt needs first to change from repressive autocracy into a liberal autocracy through adopting transparent and fair practices of economic liberalization, constitutionalism, and empowering civil society. Then, later on, Egypt would smoothly transfer from liberal autocracy to liberal democracy; as the people empowered by liberalism would have the power not only to select their government but also government’s goals and practices.

[1] Sheri Berman, How Democracy Emerge: Lessons from Europe, Journal of Democracy January 2007, Volume18, Number1
[2] Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, (NY: Norton 2003), pp18&19
[3] Ibid.
[4] The American Islamic Congress, Modern Narrative for Muslim Women in the Middle East, Washington DC 2010, pp14
[5] Ibid.
[6] Michele Dunne & Amr Hamzawy, Does Egypt Need International Election Observer?, Carnegie Commentary, October 14th, 2010 ( accessed: November 8, 2010
[7] Bruce K. Rutherford, Egypt after Mubarak: Liberalism, Islam, and Democracy in the Arab World, Princeton University Press, pp.1
[8] The Economist Intelligence Unit’s Index of Democracy 2008
[9] Thomas Carothers, How Democracies Emerge: Sequencing Fallacy, Journal of Democracy January 2007, Volume 18, Number 1
[10] Fareed Zakaria, The Future of Freedom, (NY: Norton 2003), pp.19
[11] Ibid.
[12] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Toward Muslim Democracies, Journal of Democracy, Volume 18, April 2007, Number2, pp. 7
[13] Simon Rogers, Corruption Index 2010 from Transparency International: find out how each country compares, The Guardian Data Blog, October 26, 2010 – accessed: November 11, 2010 (
[14] Focus on Egypt, Transparency International Country Report – accessed: November 11, 2010 (
[15] Nadia Ramsis Farah, Egypt’s Political Economy: power relations in development, The American University in Cairo Press, 2009, pp. 78
[16] Ibid. pp. 80
[17] Ibid. pp. 81
[18] Ibid.
[19] Saad Eddin Ibrahim, Egypt, Islam, and Democracy, The American University in Cairo Press, 2004, pp. 246
[20] Dalia Ziada; Egypt Whereto?; Tharwa Foundation; 2008, pp. 11-45 (Arabic)
[21] Ibid.