Democracy building in Egypt. Roundtable discussion at the Swedish Institute Alexandria. March 10, 2011

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1 Democracy building in Egypt Roundtable discussion at the Swedish Institute Alexandria March 10, 2011 The current call for democratic reform by the people of the Middle East and North Africa demands new approaches and opportunities for the people and those who support this development. Events in Egypt are rapidly affecting the political landscape in the country and elsewhere in the region. The international community supporting democratic developments and increased respect for human rights need to work closely with the countries in the region to identify strategies and focus areas to best foster democratic reforms complying with the current situation. To have the Egyptian perspective on some of the developments, the Swedish Institute Alexandria (SwedAlex) organized a roundtable discussion on March 10, 2011 with participation of Egyptian thinkers and political activists together with representatives from Turkey, Czech Republic and Sweden who shared experiences and knowledge of transition processes, in addition to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). The purpose of the event was to identify ways and means of how SwedAlex, being a platform for dialogue, can contribute in this time of transformation. The discussion tackled the main problems that Egypt presently is facing with respect to the elections, constitution and political parties. An abstract of views presented at the discussion followed by some conclusions are communicated below. Introduction Egypt is the second largest neighboring country of the EU after Russia if you look to the size of its population. What happens here affects not only the political situation in the Middle East and North Africa but also the relationship to Europe. The unprecedented democratic upheavals have already changed the political landscape and more changes are to come. After many years of repression, citizens are looking towards having more influence over their lives 1

2 and be part of the political processes without having to fear for their lives if they express views different to those who hold the power. Winston Churchill once said: Many forms of Government have been tried and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Democracy is the talk of the town in Egypt at the moment. But how many people really know the meaning of democracy? And what is the importance of the constitution? Free and independent media, open and transparent government, functioning institutions and a pluralistic civil society are absolutely vital to achieve true democracy. But if any democracy is not carefully legislated through the use of checks and balances to avoid an uneven distribution of political power, such as the separation of powers, then a branch of the system of rule could accumulate power, thus become undemocratic. How to meet the expectations of the people, build trust between the state and its citizens and restore the economy and order in the streets? Elections Egypt has never had genuine elections. Participants believed that it is still too early to go for any elections when the electoral system yet has to be built and political parties need to be formed. Few changes have been made and the presence of the previous regime is still remaining, only now without the head. New laws for political parties and an electoral system are needed. The Supreme Military Council decided, upon the request of the people, that voting for the referendum of the constitution and the presidential and parliamentary elections will be accomplished with the ID cards. However, voting by ID cards is difficult because no one knows where he/she is supposed to vote; another risk is that one could vote many times. A lot of work is still needed to raise the awareness of people and educate them on what democracy and democratic values are. Outreach campaigns to communicate and listen to the people s demands are needed during the coming years. Elections at this moment in time will lead to fragmentation and the result will not be different from what was before. Although the revolution revealed the actual weight of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Egyptian society, they were not the leaders but rather a group among others. Some believe that if elections were to be held now, the Muslim Brothers would most probably dominate the parliament together with representatives from the old regime. They are the most organized and prepared players on the ground, even if they would go as independents, which could lead to uncertain developments. A large Egyptian population of intellectuals is living abroad. They could with a new constitution allowing them to vote influence the outcome of the elections. Only 30% of Egyptians currently have election cards. Buying votes from the poor and illiterate was commonplace during the previous regime. Voting by the ID card would somehow create a 2

3 balance, but the new generation who lead the revolution acted independently and did not relate to any of the established political parties. They need time to organize and establish their own parties or form coalitions. The timeframe given to parties to prepare themselves will be absolutely crucial for the outcome of the elections. The period of six months, set by the Supreme Military Council, is not enough to establish a new democratic regime and rid the practices and structures of the old regime. Political Parties Parties need to be established and be rebuilt. Many people do not know what political parties are or what a democratic election is. Democracy is about generation change. 20 years of democracy in Central and East Europe still show that some institutions are undemocratic. If we take the example of the Czech Republic, the democratic reform led to business corporations buying political parties. Therefore a strong political party law is needed to prevent strong capitalists from buying power. Subsequently, the state should be responsible for financing the political parties and give small parties a chance to grow. A political culture based on democracy is not built after one single election. There will be second and third elections where the role of opposition parties will be crucial. It is significant that both political parties and individuals can be elected in the polls. The issue of women s rights is stigmatized. It is more productive to talk about women from a needs approach rather than a rights approach. The political establishment needs to be convinced that women have a role to play in politics. This is not being done by a quota system. Women have earned their role in politics. Women are society and should not be referred to as a minority group. However, it is important that women in political parties promote other women. Youth party associations should be promoted as well. Tribalism is a factor meaning that people would vote for a certain family/clan leader rather than democratic leaders. There is a vacuum that needs to be built where people have the belief and hope that the political parties and the system can deliver change that affects them. People need to see how they are affected by democratic values. It is not wise to use the vocabulary of the west when campaigning in Egypt. The term secularism for example has a negative tone in the society. The constitution The present-day situation in Egypt is characterized by uncertainty. The revolution could be considered an incomplete revolution with neither a leader nor an ideology. The power, currently in the hands of the army, was forced upon it and it is eager to transfer the responsibility. The importance of having an entirely new constitution was emphasized. Egypt needs a new framework of a democratic society where the concept of citizenship is strengthened and a transitional period prolonged, to enable the establishment of the new parties. The different actors need to come together and build consensus around a framework 3

4 based on inclusiveness and mutual trust. It is important to apply an inclusive approach towards citizenship to succeed. There has been no trust between those in power and the citizens since the people have been afraid of the state and the army. The referendum on the constitution has been much debated. Most participants believe the upcoming referendum 19 March is futile unless three articles of the constitution are revised. The first is the powers given to the president which will eventually turn him to yet another dictator. Secondly, article 2 in the current constitution referring to Sharia law as the major source of legislation. Several of the participants agreed that article 2 should be left until later since it will not be resolved through a referendum. The inclusion of the Coptic minority and the secular population can be accounted for by adding articles on citizenship and is moreover a matter of interpretation of Sharia. The third and most influential article is the article institutionalizing socialism where 50% peasants and workers should constitute the Parliament. The Egyptian army is by legacy close to the people. Its role in the revolution supporting the insurgents was nevertheless surprising. Yet some view the role of the army as a black box or the colleagues of the president. The status of the army has been very strong with a longstanding system of benefits to its members. The consequences for the army, with a change or amendments of the constitution could involve loss of power, status and benefits. However, the army needs to clearly outline the steps of the transitional process and allow appropriate time for this transformation. To ensure the success and fairness of the first elections, the current constitution will have to be abolished and elections postponed. The army should step aside and a presidential council ought to rule the country for the transitional period. It is important to capitalize on the momentum that has been achieved. More support should be given to youth groups of the 25 th of January revolution to form a coalition. Turkey, often seen as a democratic model for Middle Eastern countries, never had a fully democratic constitution but stressed the importance of having election laws and party laws. What led Turkey towards success was the inclusive approach towards Islamic groups in politics. Stability in the country and a vital economy is absolutely essential for the coming period. The military has to withdraw from the political scene and the state system has to be decentralized. The role of civil society in building democracy cannot be underestimated. At a local level civil society and their activities promote people s ownership of the democratic progress. Should campaigning take place in places of worship? A question raised by one of the participants, however there was no answer. Campaigning and outreach to the rural areas was stressed. Referring to the Czech experience it was decisive who was on TV and who media talked about. Private media cartels can easily take control of the stage and propagate political ideologies for their own gains. Campaigning should be entirely limited to national media. It is important to give attention to laws and restrictions prohibiting campaigning in private media channels. Media is playing a very important role in democracy-building and in spreading 4

5 democratic values and promoting political participation, but likewise media can play a contra-productive role without a proper legislative framework. How can the European Union support Democracy building in Egypt? The participants raised many examples of desired assistance to Egypt at this time. Technical assistance and election observers monitoring the upcoming elections are very important support for Egypt. A long term focus on education is imperative for the future of the nation. An educated population will eventually lead to a liberal and secular approach. At the moment political participation is minor or nonexistent, but education will lead to political awareness among people and a quest for participation. Stimulating the growth of political parties and growing a culture of democracy is a long term process. The European Union could be of assistance to the state funding of political parties and capacity-building means of support, but also help different actors and parties to come together through debates and workshops. In forming the constitution, the Council of Europe and its constitutional framework based on an inclusive approach can serve as an interesting example for Egypt to study. Finally, to be a trusted partner, the European Union should refrain from bringing up issues of Islamism and migration into the dialogue. Conclusions In order to lay the ground for a democratic society in Egypt the following should be accomplished: - A new constitution based on an inclusive framework of a democratic society where the notion of citizenship is highlighted - Advocacy and raising the awareness of people about democracy and democratic values. - Listen to the people s demands - Legislation governing political parties and elections - Creation of a platform for actors and parties to come together and create a democratic dialogue, mutual trust and understanding - Strengthen the role of women and youth in the political parties - Educate media of the meaning of democracy and political participation 5

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