Thursday, 11 July 2013

The Democratic Dictator

by Sherif Alaa*

At a first glance, the title looks sarcastic or an oxymoron; but it is not.
Do Egyptians want democracy? My very simple, short and shocking answer is 'No'. People did not revolt for democracy, and people do not believe in democracy. Here I'm not talking about the entire population certainly, but I feel confident enough to talk about the vast majority of it.
It is true that the first massive protest of the revolution (on January 25th 2011) was sparked by young middle class citizens who believe in democracy, human rights, rule of law, political participation, accountability and social justice. However, these few thousand people could not have ousted Mubarak single-handedly. The popular support was essentially, in my judgment, for social justice, improving quality of life and protesting against blatant brutal police practices. People never found the relationship between politics and economics, or between ballot boxes and bread. They never thought that there is a direct link between political and social reform, and dealt with the two issues separately.

Implanting Intolerance
For decades the Egyptian regime has been investing in ignorance, preparing generations of illiterate people, or poorly unqualified 'educated' people. Since the 1970s, at least, sectarian strife has always been a successful card to play by the regime. For decades the state has been spoon-feeding intolerance to Egyptians at home, school, mosques, churches, workplaces and in the media.

One day as I was walking my dog in an upper-class neighbourhood in Cairo 8 years ago, a 7 year-old kid stopped me to ask a question that I can never forget: 'Excuse me sir, is your dog Muslim or Christian?'. The kid was wearing the uniform of one of Cairo's most expensive high-quality international language schools. I was shocked by his question, maybe he was not taught about that at school, but it is impossible to disregard the effect of other institutions, including the family, on shaping the kid’s mentality.

People have been obsessed with religion because it was their only way out. A lot of the unprivileged people gave up wishing for a better present or future and therefore have decided to live their life as a transition phase before going to the ultimate final destination. They cannot afford being tortured in life and then again in hell; this is exactly why they inject religion in all aspects of their lives in order to peacefully rest in heaven. The only support these people found was from clergymen and religious charity organisations and therefore it is not odd to blindly follow the only people who gave them hope, and food.

The majority of Egyptians do not believe in human rights, or at least as stipulated in the Universal Declaration for Human Rights and in international human rights law in general. They do not sympathise with torture victims as long as ‘they deserve it’. They even refuse to call them victims if these torture victims were found guilty with theft or any other crime or offense. People do not recognise genuine freedom of belief and thought. Parents use violence against kids, and ask teachers to use violence against their own kids at school. Husbands inflict violence on their wives, who in turn encourage their sons to use violence against their sisters. The majority of Egyptians do not believe in equality between men and women, Muslims and Christians, the educated and the uneducated, the rich and the poor.

Egyptians prefer stability and order over democracy. Unfortunately democracy and elections are synonyms in Egypt. A lot of arguments are being used to justify the undemocratic practices by the regime. The current president has the right to be a dictator because he was ‘democratically’ elected. He has the right to use violence against protesters because people voted for him. The constitution was written by one group, led by one political party because the elected parliament chose them. Such arguments constitute a conceptual disaster in fact.

With ignorance comes brainwashing and conspiracies. If you oppose Mubarak you’re paid by the Americans to overthrow him because Americans hate Egypt. If you oppose Morsi you’re also paid by the Americans to overthrow him because Americans hate Islam. Can any of the people who argue this silly hypothesis think for 20 seconds before uttering these words? I highly doubt it. Don’t they know that Mubarak was one of America’s best friends in the region? They do not know that what the American President, Franklin Roosevelt, said about Samoza, the dictator of Nicaragua, applies on Mubarak as well. Roosevelt in 1939 said about him ‘Samoza may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.’

Missing the Old Dictator?
A country like Egypt lacks institutions, rule of law, and civic culture. The majority of the people are poor, and the gap between the upper class and the lower class is widening one day after the other, and the middle class is almost demolished. Since the independence six decades ago, Egyptians have known only the rule of the man with the gun; i.e. the army. Before that, it was the rule of the foreign man with the gun; i.e. foreign occupation.
It is no secret that a big bulk of Morsi’s opponents today, whether the elite or the people, are pro-Mubarak and pro-military rule. They openly admit that they were against the revolution and that Mubarak was a great leader. Others call upon the army to intervene by a military coup to ‘save the country’. This clearly indicates that they are not revolting for democracy; they simply do not like the new dictator and they miss their old dictator. It could be Stockholm syndrome, or it could be that they do not know any better. Mubarak ruled the country for 30 years. An entire generation, including myself, did not know any other president.

Now what? Three Possible Scenarios
Some could argue that Egypt is now witnessing ‘unprecedented freedom’, but this is not true. What is true is that now people protest, write against the regime, make satire TV shows and form political parties. But on the other hand, protesters get shot and stripped off, writers are prosecuted, newspapers and TV channels are shut down and political leaders are targeted.
Freedom is to express your opinion or join a party without fear of prosecution or getting killed. Furthermore, the state as an institution is getting weaker than ever. Egypt’s ranking in the Failed States Index is the worst in history. Riots, looting, protesting, killing and all forms of violence take place every day. Of course this cannot continue forever; it has to eventually come to an end; but how and when…this is the question.

The current events show that extreme violence by the security apparatus will not be able to oppress the masses. I argue that this is the main advantage of the revolution; breaking the silence and fear. Therefore the only available options are containment of the crisis by the regime, holding early elections or overthrowing the regime.

In the case of containing the crisis, the scene would be relatively calmer; fewer protests with smaller number of protesters, some liberals would be appointed as members and consultants, some gradual social reform would take place and less blatant violence by the security apparatus. If the Muslim Brotherhood’s regime shows enough resilience to be able to wisely cope with the popular pressure, it would become stronger and would be able to gradually and officially transform Egypt into a pro-West Sunni version of Iran. But in case this containment is temporary and inefficient, then masses would be triggered to protest by the smallest mistake.

In the unlikely event that Morsi voluntarily accepts holding early presidential elections, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate could actually win again. At least it will be an electoral contestation between the Muslim Brotherhood and more radical Salafis who are also disappointed with Morsi for being less radical than they expected from an Islamist president. It is very unlikely also that a secular candidate would win or even make it to the runoff due to the fact that religion is the biggest source of legitimacy for rulers in Egypt. Furthermore, secular opposition is not united and it is very difficult that all of them would support one candidate. In addition, defaming campaigns that target spreading rumours and lies about secular politicians are quite effective. This scenario will anyway lead to the current scene, whether the winner is from the Muslim Brotherhood, the more radical right wing or even the secular bloc that does not have a chance. The newly elected president would argue that only he (of course it is a ‘he’ in a society like Egypt) represents the people’s will, even if he wins with a 1 per cent difference.

The third and last option is overthrowing the regime; I think this is the scenario that is most likely going to happen. This could happen either through Morsi’s voluntarily stepping down if millions remain in the street, or forcibly through a coup d’état. If Morsi voluntarily stepped down that would only happen after taking all measures to please, appease and/or oppress the angry masses. Probably this ‘voluntary’ resignation would happen after an ugly bloody scene by the security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood supporters. The army would then have to intervene again; otherwise the country will go to what looks like a civil war. This looks like the same outcome of a military coup.
In this case, the 2011 scenario will not happen again, and the Muslim Brotherhood will not rise to power; neither will the secular liberal opposition. In this scenario the military will openly have all authorities and will take full control over the country to restore order. But for US-aid purposes, this could happen through a military-controlled ‘puppet’. A great deal of today’s opposition will be satisfied, as mentioned before they were calling for this intervention and they were not revolting for democracy. But some of the protesters would still oppose military authoritarianism, but in this case the army has legitimacy by saving the country from a civil war. Martial law would be enforced; thousands of Islamists- and maybe some seculars- would be arrested amidst popular support. The new ruler would then have to take certain measures regarding social and economic reform. The military is the country’s only intact (or quasi-intact) institution and is indeed capable of implementing such reform. A modern replica of Nasser’s reforms in the 1950s would take place and that would appease the majority of Egypt’s working and lower class. A relatively fair minimum wage law would be drafted, more jobs for the unemployed would be provided, and improvements in healthcare and pension for the elderly would take place. This of course would take several months after Morsi is toppled. The new military, or military-controlled, ruler will definitely secure his position and will gain legitimacy by these measures.

Then how could democracy be achieved?
It is clear that none of the above scenarios lead to real democracy. These scenarios either maintain the status quo or lead to a worse situation. Given all the factors and variable I mentioned above, I believe that prospects for democracy have to come from the ruler himself. Democracy will only take place in Egypt if the ruler wants Egypt to be democratic. Entrenching democratic values in the people has to come from above; only the ruler of Egypt has the capacity to make use of all state failed institutions to direct the people towards democracy. The ruler can control media, education, religious institutions and even the family to direct the masses in any direction. It is ironic though that this ruler will first have to oppress anti-democracy opposition.

History indeed proves my hypothesis. Look at Nasser’s Egypt vis-à-vis Sadat’s Egypt. Nasser managed to take the country to an extreme left, economically and socially. The man managed to make people fall in love with his version of what he called ‘socialism’, to look at the Americans as exploitive capitalists and to want war with Israel. Nasser was also very secular as well as socially progressive, calling for women participation in the society and encouraging them to have careers other than raising their kids. Movies of his era always portrayed successful women who fought the society to achieve their goals.
On the contrary, in a matter of a few years Sadat managed to shift the country to the other extreme; from war to peace with Israel, from the Eastern bloc to the Western bloc (though officially remained non-aligned) and from socialism to open-market economy. Although Nasser left a legacy, but Egypt’s relative success in the 1973 war and Sadat’s use of religion managed to give him credit at least to the mainstream; i.e. the majority. During Sadat’s rule people and clergymen started to argue how ill-gotten (Haram) working of women is. The society did drastically change in less than one decade.

On a final note, I believe that only through the political will of the leadership Egypt can move forward toward modern democracy, given that this leadership maintains legitimacy and stability through real social reform that people can see and relate to in their everyday life.

*Sherif Alaa: Egyptian political researcher. 
**This piece was written in Feb. 2013


  1. 17th of Aug, 2013

    So far, it's Precisely taking place.
    Great analysis & well done.

    Ashraf Hussein