As the official results have been announced with President-elect Abdel Fattah al-Sisi winning Egypt’s elections with 97 percent of the vote, major state and societal actors which influence the ruling system in Egypt will face many of the same questions that they have been confronted with in the past. These questions will continue to be asked, whether in order to reproduce the same answers heard in recent months or in the hopes that new answers might be found.
To the state institutions and bodies which hold sway over the ruling system in Egypt: What is your vision for the nature of the Egyptian state – autocratic or democratic? Do you believe that the state will be held together by repression, force, injustice, and exclusion, or through justice, the rule of law, and the participation of the Egyptian people in the political process? Do you want a normal state in which the various institutions and state bodies play their customary roles, or do you seek an exceptional state in which the military establishment and the security apparatus dominate all else? Do you realize that extreme centralization, corruption, the marriage of power and wealth, the absence of popular participation in the political process, and violations of rights and freedoms are the very factors that have torn the state apart and rendered it ineffective, to the detriment of Egypt’s national interests? Are you prepared to rise above the temptations of tyranny and reject the easy road of repression, injustice, and exclusion in order to build a state that abides by the rule of law and for Egypt to truly transition to democracy, and in order for a stable and peaceful society to flourish economically and socially through the unleashing of individual initiative? Are you capable of restraining the security mentality which is stifling the political process – the mentality that gives the opposition the choice to be either completely submissive to the authorities or become a target for constant defamation and repression, and that promises to maintain “stability” and overcome “challenges,” even as it undermines the former and exacerbates the latter?
To the economic and financial elites allied with the ruling system: Is your only goal ensuring a return to the marriage between power and wealth, by renewing your deference and support in return for protection and financial rewards? Or do you understand that this would block all opportunities for economic progress and sustainable development and leave the state and society vulnerable to corruption and profiteering, thus destroying the fundamental elements of free competition and equal opportunities for business owners and holders of capital and paralyzing small and medium-sized economic enterprises? Do you believe that returning to the policies and practices of past years under former President Hosni Mubarak will allow Egypt to bridge the current gap between rich and poor and to address the high rates of poverty and unemployment and the low quality of basic services? Or is it more important for Egypt to adopt balanced policies and practices which combine the role of the state with socially responsible private initiatives as a matter of national necessity? Is it easier for you to ignore workers’ rights and the rights of the poor and marginalized in order for Egypt’s wealth to continue to be concentrated in your hands, or do you view social justice and equitable distribution of wealth as national priorities alongside increased productivity and economic efficiency? Do you seek a democratic state committed to the rule of law and the peaceful transfer of power, or do you prefer the individual ruler, with whom you can establish alliances for the sake of protecting your interests and profits, and the political forces that you can control from behind the scenes? Are you prepared to accept standards for transparency, fairness, and accountability, or do such ideas conflict with your methods of doing business?
To the prominent media figures allied with the ruling system: Should you not take a step back, stop presenting only one hysterical narrative, and cease spreading propaganda for one-man rule while defaming dissenters and labeling opposition voices as traitors? Should you not recognize that social reconciliation and overcoming Egypt’s current state of polarization peacefully depend upon your role in ensuring the free circulation of information and facts and raising the awareness of the Egyptian public? Should you not realize that Egypt is threatened by many issues and practices which are deliberately ignored or kept shrouded in secrecy, and that you have a professional role to play in resisting this by bringing such issues to light? Do you not recognize also the catastrophic ramifications for the cohesion of the state, the stability of society, and the ability of citizens to engage effectively in political life should you fail in this role? Should you not restore a level of balance and objectivity to your work and present different perspectives, ensuring that an equal chance is given to each side to express its views? And should you not begin to discuss issues such as violations of rights and freedoms, the social and economic state of the country, and terrorism and security without framing these issues as an authoritarian tradeoff between “either freedom or bread and security”?
The state institutions and bodies which hold sway over the ruling system in Egypt, as well as the economic elites, financial experts, and media figures allied with them, must define the nature of their responses to these questions, and the choices that they make will determine the direction of the nation in the coming period. They will not be alone in determining the direction of the country, however. Other parties which are removed from the ruling system – or opposed to it – will also play a role and must similarly weigh their choices.
Following the presidential elections, it is not only the ruling system, state institutions, and the economic, financial, and media elites allied to this system that must weigh the choice between an authoritarian or a democratic state and determine whether they want a society sharply divided between rich and poor and boasting only limited economic and social development or a balanced society which achieves sustainable development and, gradually, social justice. Other opposition members and groups who defend democracy and human rights, and who still lack a plan of action with clear bases and milestones, must also weigh their choices.
The disaster of “opposition from abroad” must be resisted, as this has been used to defame individuals and groups who defend democracy and falsely label them as traitors and “foreign agents” with “foreign agendas” to spread “hatred of the nation.” This farce has produced negative impressions about human rights and freedoms, labeling them a “Trojan horse” by which foreign powers would implement their plots against Egypt’s “national interests.” Today, in addition to distancing themselves both individually and collectively from this fabricated accusation of “foreign espionage,” the opposition must work in an organized manner to (once again) convince the various segments of the Egyptian public of its total commitment to Egypt and its cohesion as a nation. The opposition must demonstrate that defending democracy, rule of law, and human rights and freedoms stems directly from the fundamental truth that injustice, oppression, and exclusion and the absence of popular participation in the political process all undermine the cohesion of the state and should be resisted, just as the accompanying promises of a false “stability” should be rejected.
Another fundamental truth is that opposition for the sake of democracy, rights, and freedoms is an act which should be carried out within the nation’s borders, not from abroad. Based on this truth, the opposition must now seek, through all peaceful means possible, to continue to exist and to work in Egypt and to decisively reject the trap of “opposition from abroad,” urging opposition voices and groups not to fall into this trap. The collective mentality of Egyptians accepts that the authorities may be opposed, that authoritarianism and injustice may be rejected and democracy demanded, that change and revolution may be advocated peacefully, and that the hysteria of the sole narrative presented in public discourse may be resisted. The Egyptian mentality respects (in the long term) those who hold onto their principles and maintain their stances and grants them (albeit not immediately) the chance to vindicate themselves (individually or collectively) from the false label of “traitor” and other forms of defamation they face, empathizing with them as soon as the injustices that they have endured – harassment, arrest, imprisonment, and death – are understood. However, the Egyptian mentality always rejects opposition based abroad (with the exception of some periods of opposition against the British occupation between 1882 – 1952, when nationalist leaders were exiled), for it does not suffice to advocate democracy, rule of law, and human rights and freedoms beyond the borders of the nation, no matter how great the challenges and risks of voicing opposition from within the state become.
In addition to resisting the disaster of “opposition from abroad,” the individuals and groups who defend democracy and human rights and freedoms in Egypt are in need of a plan of action with clear bases and milestones. Pro-democracy voices and groups have become divided since February 2011 between advocating participation in referendums and elections and calling for boycotts; between working within the legislative and executive institutions of the state to bring about democratic change and calling for revolution through protest movements; between demanding transitional justice and advancing other priorities first; and between rejecting the political exclusion of members of the ruling elite from the previous regime which held power before the January 2011 revolution – as long as they were not involved in autocratic practices, violations, and corruption – and the mistake of using political exclusion as a form of collective punishment, in contradiction with democratic principles and values. (Unfortunately, as I have pointed out before, I fell to this level by participating in the passage of the political isolation law in the 2012 People’s Assembly, a position which I revised and apologized for shortly thereafter.)
Today, those who defend democracy are again divided over the same central issues. Electoral participation or boycott? Working from within the legislature (if some success is achieved in the parliamentary elections) and local councils (when they are established), or protesting their work from outside? Demanding a holistic strategy for transitional justice and accountability for all those implicated in corruption and violations against rights and freedoms, or overlooking such violations for the sake of advancing other priorities? Defending the right of all political groups to participate – with the exception of those which are proven to have been involved in terrorism, violence, or countering democratic principles – or accepting political exclusion as a form of collective punishment for some conservative religious movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood?
What is needed now from the individuals and groups which defend democracy, in addition to resisting the trap of “opposition from abroad,” is to overcome their divisions and draft a plan of action which combines political participation and working within the legislative and local bodies with peaceful protest which does not place its participants in a damaging confrontation with public opinion or subject them to the risks of losing their lives, freedom, or ability to work. What is needed now is a plan of action which includes demands both for personal, civil, and political rights and freedoms and for social and economic rights. Such a plan of action must seek to defend the rule of law, transfer of power, and transitional justice to hold those implicated in violations to account, prevent the recurrence of violations, and provide for reparations. At the same time, it must reach out on a day-to-day basis to the Egyptian citizen through development work, social and economic stimulation, and initiatives to develop basic services and to renovate public and private institutions by committing them to the rules of impartiality, fair competition, equal opportunity, and empowering and protecting the weak and marginalized. What is needed now is a plan of action that does not sink into an arrogance which fails to listen to the will of the people or into a posture of appeasing the ruling system if the authorities continue to make undemocratic choices. Rather, this plan of action should set out in earnest, based on the understanding that building democracy (including in the wake of revolutions and in conjunction with protest movements) requires not only a great deal of coordinated, collective effort but also a continual search for all possible ways to convince the population of the possibility of achieving democracy hand-in-hand with stability, security, and development. All possible spaces in which rights and freedoms, sustainable development, social justice, and progress can triumph must constantly be sought out, both within and outside of state institutions.
What is needed now is a plan of action which espouses peacefulness and democratic principles and values as the basis for participation and incorporation into public life. This plan must reject political exclusion and collective punishment, just as it must reject the participation of those involved in violence or who exploit religion or sectarianism to achieve electoral and political gains. What is needed now is a plan of action which does not diminish the role of individuals and groups who defend democracy to merely recording their “principled positions” or to traditional questions of “precedence” (for while bearing the brunt of the current assault, it is no longer important to definitively identify who came first in terms of defending rights and freedoms). Such a plan must never give up on appealing to the collective conscience and awareness of Egyptians and calling out to their humanity to reject injustice, oppression, and violations and to ensure that reparations are made to victims.
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