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Pure Onsense

Egypt and its road to true democracy

Scott Zuke

(6/2014) There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about the claims by Egypt’s presumed next president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, that he intends to return the country to a path to democracy. There are, literally, ominous signs of a more authoritarian track lying ahead. Omnipresent campaign posters bearing grand portraits of Sisi in dress military uniform or with a gentle grin and trademark sunglasses, evoke thoughts of other dictatorial regimes and monarchies structured upon a cult of personality.

Sisi’s broad popularity stems from his role in deposing Mohamed Morsi last July. Dubbed a "democratic coup," the event has been argued both as an assault on democracy as well as a defense of it. Both sides are right: the coup was a non-democratic intervention against a government that was leading Egypt in an anti-democratic direction.

However, if the July coup was, in a sense, democratically neutral, the actions of Egypt’s transitional government in the aftermath has been decidedly negative. The government dubiously declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization and has clamped down hard on the movement and even its most casual supporters. In addition to the scores killed in the violent dispersal of pro-Morsi protests following the coup, the Brotherhood’s leaders and thousands of civilians have been imprisoned, showing a zero-tolerance policy toward the Islamist group and the millions of non-violent citizens who either support it, or at least oppose a military-backed and sometimes violent regime. If democracy requires equal rights under the law and free and fair opportunities for participation, it is clear that Egypt is straying far from the democratic path. For better or worse, it’s notable that the two political parties that have actually ruled Egypt—those of the Morsi and Mubarak eras—are now barred from even running.

Sisi and his supporters have maintained that the government’s aggressive tactics against the Brotherhood, youth activists, and other dissenters, including members of the press, are a short term necessity for restoring security and stability to the country. Amr Moussa, an Egyptian diplomat and advisor to Sisi, said at a recent appearance in Washington, "Bear in mind that Egypt is going through abnormal times. That makes it necessary sometimes to take this or that action, but I believe that all this will come to an end once the country stabilizes."

Some skepticism is reasonable—after all, we don’t take campaign advisors at their word during our own presidential elections either—but what if he’s right? What is the likelihood that Sisi really doesn’t harbor authoritarian intentions, and is merely doing what he feels he must do to get elected and restore normalcy before getting back to work on fulfilling the goals of the 2011 revolution?

The biggest reason to hold out hope is that Sisi will be coming into office on the heels of two strongmen who were forcibly removed from office, and he will not want to one day find himself in their shoes. Mohamed Morsi is facing charges of espionage and inciting violence, and would be very lucky to escape with a life sentence. Late last month Sisi also witnessed Hosni Mubarak, the dictator of 30 years, behind bars and sentenced to jail time on corruption charges. It’s hard to think of any reason the same could not happen to a President Sisi. A relative newcomer to Egyptian government, his power is bound closely to his public popularity, which could vanish as suddenly as it did for his predecessors if he doesn’t produce results. The alarmingly low turnout at the polls, which forced the government to extend the voting deadline to save face, is already being interpreted as a result of disillusionment with Sisi.

While Sisi-mania has softened, his status as the only viable candidate in a country yearning for stable leadership may give him a sufficient electoral mandate to pursue a reform agenda of his own design. This means it is at least conceivable that he could enact liberalizing reforms after being elected.

There is a small, but notable group of historical figures, such as Turkey’s revered reformer and modernizer, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who found themselves in a similar position and earned posterity’s praise as being "benevolent dictators." In present times there is Burma’s President Thein Sein, who rose to power out of the repressive military junta and surprised the world by embarking on major democratic and human rights reforms. In some circumstances, it may take an absolute, but democratically-inclined ruler to lay the groundwork for a more democratic political system that will coelesce only after his departure.

This could be Abdel Fattah El-Sisi someday, but no one, probably not even Sisi himself, knows if this is the direction he will go once in power. In one of his rare campaign interviews, Sisi admitted that the task of securing and stabilizing Egypt is not something that can be accomplished in his first 100 days, asking instead for two years of the peoples’ patience to bring about improvements.

There is a delicate balance that must be maintained in those two years for the democratic track to have a chance: on one hand, Sisi must feel accountable to the Egyptian people and constantly aware that he could be removed from office if he fails to earn their confidence, and on the other, he must feel secure in his position of authority so that he is capable of enacting reforms that will be a tough pill for some to swallow.

This balance between accountability and legitimate authority is, after all, the very essence of democratic elections. Their success depends upon rule of law, division of powers, the cooperation of state institutions, and a public that holds this democratic and constitutional framework above any individual. These elements take time to develop and become ingrained to the point where the system can survive occasional authoritarian backslides.

President Sisi could still become the authoritarian that his critics are warning of, but under the circumstances, reserving judgment for the next two years, or until he undercuts the constitution like Morsi did, is not too much to ask.

Read other article by Scott Zuke