MENASource|News, Analysis, Perspectives

December 5, 2014
All over the world, executive authorities constantly seek to exert control over their citizens by undermining their rights and freedoms.  They similarly seek to encroach on civil society by subjecting non-governmental organizations to governmental controls and oversight.  Executive authorities further seek to subjugate the legislative and judicial authorities in their countries, either by controlling them procedurally or financially or by circumventing them by employing the powers of the president or the prime minister to issue extraordinary decrees and policies.

However, there are fundamental differences between how the executive authorities are able to operate in nations which enjoy stable democracy, or in which democracy is gradually being developed, and how the executive functions in countries like Egypt, which are steeped in authoritarianism, whether in traditional or modern forms.  These differences are:

1. Democratic countries function according to constitutional principles and laws that are applied effectively in order to curb the propensity of governments to repress citizens’ rights and freedoms.  Such principles and laws prevent the executive from continuously threatening citizens with repression if they fail to conform and protect the existence of independent civil society organizations and political parties. These constitutional principles and laws also serve to restrict the use of the powers of the president or prime minister to subordinate the legislative and judicial authorities or to impede them from conducting full oversight of the executive authorities and their actions.

However, in countries like Egypt, these constitutional principles and laws often remain mere texts that are not implemented in reality, have no impact for citizens and society, and fail to place limits on the behavior or governments and state institutions.  At times, constitutional principles and laws are overridden in practice by the continuous issuance of exceptional decrees, policies, and even legislation.  In other cases, constitutional principles and laws are viewed as essentially optional, to be drawn upon only when it suits the president or prime minister.

2. Democratic countries have additional constitutional principles and laws that force the government to allow for unimpeded access to information, to operate with transparency, and to ensure accountability for those who hold public office.  These constitutional principles and laws also serve to protect all civil society entities, as long as their actions and practices respect the constitution and the law and are carried out transparently and legally.  Such constitutional principles and laws produce a safe societal environment for citizens and thus enable them to openly demand their rights and freedoms and to call for public accountability for those involved in undermining them.

In contrast, in countries like Egypt, these constitutional principles and laws are absent, and we do not have access to facts and information.  Rather, autocratic attacks against civil society organizations recur, and our society totally lacks equality and genuine guarantees for the rights and freedoms of those who are not connected to the elite networks of power, wealth, and influence.  Average citizens are thus left to fend for themselves in the face of the many fears and concerns that plague our society today.  As a result, the bulk of the energy and potential of the population goes to dealing with daily struggles and worries, rendering these citizens unable to make dynamic, positive contributions to the administration of the public affairs of their country.

3. In democratic countries – no matter how diverse the ideologies, philosophies, and political convictions of the people, and no matter how divergent their economic and social interests – the public is well-aware of the serious dangers of allowing the executive branch to manipulate citizens, encroach on society, or dominate the legislative and judicial authorities.  The diversity and plurality of such countries aid the public in disbelieving a single narrative, rejecting exceptional measures and decrees, and overcoming the hysteria that is produced by exclusive dependence on a president or prime minister.

Meanwhile, in countries like Egypt, public opinion suffers from constant references – often made in contradiction with the facts of our history and that of other nations – that evoke positive impressions of autocrats who have enjoyed unlimited powers.  Such references portray the ruler as a father-figure for the country and imply that the state should take precedence over individual citizens and society more broadly.  Indeed, the state alone is identified with the nation, and in its name the public is led to accept the codification of extraordinary measures.  Also in the name of the state, a small minority exercises a monopoly over the right to claim allegiance to the nation, then degrades the very concept of patriotism by defining it as absolute support for the executive authorities.  In contrast, those who oppose the executive authorities are despised and labeled as traitors who have turned against their nation.

All over the world, the executive authorities are constantly propagating new plans, programs, decisions, and policies that they claim will confront crises, meet challenges, improve the economic and social conditions in their countries and the living conditions of their citizens, defend national security, and protect their country’s sovereignty and rights in diverse regional and international contexts.  All over the world, the executive authorities try to speak only in general terms, to evade the exigencies of public access to information, to promote their actions through propaganda in the newspapers, other media outlets, and public and private communications, and to avoid objective assessments of the results of their plans, projects, decisions, and policies.

Once again, however, there are fundamental differences between nations which enjoy stable democracy, or in which democracy is being gradually developed, and countries that, like Egypt, are steeped in authoritarianism, whether in traditional or modern forms.  These differences include the following:

1. Democratic countries have the benefit of diverse press and media outlets that represent a variety of ideological and political leanings.  These media outlets are also diverse in terms of their ownership and management.  This diversity ensures a minimum standard of professionalism and objectivity in presenting news and opinions, requiring the media to research its information and ensure that it represents at least some element of reality, in addition to expressing the leanings of a particular outlet.  It is thus rare that the role of the media is limited to uncritically passing on the views and preferred narratives of the executive authorities.  It is similarly uncommon for the media to refrain from documenting and exposing the failures, breaches, and irregularities of leaders and governments.  Indeed, the media rarely remains silent when citizens’ rights and freedoms are violated, when civil society entities are threatened with repression or extraordinary measures, when the executive encroaches on the powers of the legislature and the judiciary, or when information is concealed or the facts are distorted regarding the outcomes of the authorities’ political programs.

In contrast, in countries like Egypt – particularly today – we lack a press that consistently investigates its information and that upholds the principles of objectivity and pluralism, at least occasionally.  We are in need of alternative means of communication that challenge the monopoly of the executive authorities over “truth” and that resist being turned into another arena for propagating the hysteria of the authorities’ exclusive narrative and for spreading the fascist ideas that distort and label those with different opinions as “traitors.”  Indeed, such appalling reporting techniques are employed by the public institutions and state apparatuses that run certain newspapers and media outlets, by the private economic and financial interests that own the rest of the media, and by the remnants of the old regime that dominate other means of communication.

2. Democratic countries boast civil society organizations and political parties that cumulatively possess vast amounts of knowledge, institutional capacity, and human resources.  These organizations also have extensive experience interacting with state bodies and institutions, as well as broad bases of social support and daily contact with citizens.  As such, civil society organizations in these countries are well-qualified to monitor the actions of the executive authorities, to document and expose failures, breaches, and irregularities, and to inform the public of their findings in this regard.  They are similarly qualified to formulate constructive recommendations for changing, reforming, and reevaluating existing policy and practice in order to realize the goals of citizens, society, and the state.

However, in countries like Egypt, civil society organizations lack this depth of knowledge, capacity, and experience, as well as broad social support and daily interaction with average citizens.  This is the result of decades of recurrent authoritarian attacks against civil society.  To this day, civil society has not been able to overcome the propaganda that is spread among the population calling for exclusive dependence on the executive authorities, who are portrayed as the sole representatives of the state and even of the nation, to the exclusion of citizens and society.

3. Democratic countries have legislative and judicial authorities that subject the executive authorities to regular monitoring through various mechanisms and procedures.  The executive is held in check, for instance, by the allocation of annual budgets and oversight of government spending.  Various legal and legislative tools are also used to restrain the power of the executive.  Moreover, the legislative and judicial authorities in such countries do not hesitate to impose oversight on all executive institutions – military and civilian alike.  They have sufficient contact with the press and other media outlets as allows them to refute propaganda issued by the president or prime minister claiming that the parliament or the courts are preventing the executive from carrying out its official duties.  Legislative and judicial authorities are also able to turn failures, breaches, and irregularities committed by the executive into lawsuits of abuse of public office or of government corruption.

Meanwhile, in countries that are steeped in authoritarianism, whether in traditional or modern forms, we do not have parliaments and courts with such capabilities.  Rather, the “exception” of extraordinary laws and measures has become the norm.  This includes the constitutional and legislative formulations that disable the legislative and judicial authorities from subjecting rulers and governments to oversight and accountability and that place certain executive institutions (particularly the military and security establishments) beyond the reach of the frameworks for oversight that are taken for granted in democratic countries.

Amr Hamzawy joined the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo in 2011, where he continues to serve today. He is a former member of parliament, former member of the National Salvation Front, and founder of the Freedom Egypt Party. 

This article originally appeared in Shorouk