The Illusions Surrounding the Concept of Democracy in Egypt

A number of illusions have surrounded the concept of democracy in Egypt since the 1950s, placing democratic ideas under a kind of cognitive, moral, intellectual, and political “siege” that prevented them from taking root in Egyptian society.  These illusions are among the factors that have allowed authoritarianism to remain entrenched in Egypt for such a long time. Indeed, it is thanks to these illusions that Egypt’s rulers have been able to contain popular demands for democracy – a democracy defined by justice, rule of law, alternation of power, civic peace, and guarantees for personal, civil, economic, social, and political rights and freedoms.  Such democratic demands and movements were historically carried out by certain influential sectors of the population, rather than expressing the will of the vast majority of Egyptians.  In today’s Egypt, these illusions have been quickly employed to “besiege” the concept of democracy in Egypt once again, and to pave the way for the continuous renewal of authoritarianism and the ongoing subjugation of Egyptian citizens, Egyptian society, and the Egyptian state to the unilateral will of those in power.

The first of these illusions is that of “sequentialism,” or the claim that transitions to democracy must first go through a phase of increasing economic and social development rates in order to overcome the crises of underdevelopment, poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment, to address massive gaps in income, and to improve the living conditions of the people and the level of educational, health, and welfare services provided to them. According to this claim, development will eventually be followed by the establishment of rule of law, alternation of power, guarantees for rights and freedoms, and other democratic principles. Of course, such developmental plans and efforts are viewed as impossible without the state, its massive projects, and its actors who are capable of undertaking and following up on such projects.  As such, this illusion of “sequentialism” propagates and perpetuates the systems of rule that have controlled Egypt since 1952, and with them some of the traditional leftist elites, including both Marxists and Nasserists (and their opponents from the democratic left, which has crystallized ideologically and organizationally in recent decades). However, rule of law, alternation of power, and guarantees for rights and freedoms are considered (according to this illusion) to be the “luxuries of the rich and affluent,” thus excluding the masses of the poor, illiterate, and unemployed.  This “sequencing” should occur, of course, according to the will of the systems of rule and the dictates of the traditional leftist elites referred to above.

Many political science and economic studies have debunked this theory of “democratic sequentialism” – i.e. that beginning with development ultimately leads to democracy – due to the limited number of societies and states which have followed its prescribed trajectory since the 1950s and to the significant specific conditions necessary for this theory to hold true (as were present in South Korea, for example).  Thus, sequentialism is an illusion – albeit an illusion that is highly attractive to established authoritarian regimes.  Indeed, the notion ignores the following three realities:

1. Societies and nations rarely develop along straight, uninterrupted lines. Nor do such developments generally go through definitive stages over time for which it is possible to apply set rules or calculations (as if transitions took place in engineering or scientific laboratories). It is thus impossible to define organized start and end points for democratic transitions and to determine the steps that could be expected to lead states from development to democracy.

2. The systems of rule and the elites allied with them are accustomed to subjugating citizens, society, and the state. Their refusal to establish rule of law, alternation of power, and guarantees for rights and freedoms stems from the fact that their continued existence, as well as their ability to exert their unilateral will and protect their interests, fundamentally depends on the continued absence of democracy. As a result, they desperately defend the existing authoritarian system and fiercely combat popular demands for democracy. They continue to resist democracy even when development plans succeed in overcoming the crises of underdevelopment, poverty, illiteracy, and unemployment and in improving the living conditions of the people – although this has not occurred in a sustainable manner in Egypt since the 1950s.

3. The continued absence of democracy strips state institutions and bodies, as well as other public and private institutions and even some civil society organizations, of the ability to manage their own affairs and, thus, the ability to administer the affairs of Egyptian citizens independently from the authorities.  As a result, the authoritarian regime becomes the sole frame of reference for the society and the state, and experience dealing with this regime is the only thing that can be relied upon by individuals and groups seeking to attain certain goals.

The illusion of “democratic sequentialism” is not fundamentally different from a second illusion: the illusion that democracy must be postponed because “nothing is more important than such and such issue at this time.”  This illusion justifies putting off the establishment of democracy, rule of law, alternation of power, and guarantees for rights and freedoms for the sake of objectives that are formulated as sweeping slogans. Indeed, the established systems of rule link these objectives to “national interests” and “the public good” in an exclusive manner that does not allow for these objectives to be expanded upon or amended. Rather, these objectives solely reflect the trajectory set forth by the rulers and their allied elites. For this reason, the illusion of a “necessary postponement of democracy” has been propagated in Egypt since the 1950s by the systems of rule and by the economic, financial, and administrative elites allied with them (the latter of which are accustomed to the bureaucracy of the state institutions and bodies and of the influential public employment sectors).

From the mid-1900s until now, many different issues have been used to complete the argument that democracy must be postponed because “nothing is more important than such and such issue.” The issues that have completed this argument have included: national independence, development and preparing the people to practice democracy, socialism, the liberation of Palestine, confronting Zionism and imperialism, the battle to liberate the territory of the nation, economic well-being, stability, the preservation of the national state, and the war against terrorism.  These issues were thus claimed to be equivalent to “supreme national interests” and “the objectives of the current period” which could not be expanded upon or amended, in order to eliminate any competing goals, values, or principles.  During this period from the mid-1900s until now, such claims that “nothing is more important than such and such issue” have been used not only to justify postponing democracy, but also to artificially circulate a negative view of the principles of rule of law, alternation of power, and guarantees for rights and freedoms. According to this view, implementing such principles at the current time would, in the worst case, prevent Egypt from protecting its “national interests” and from achieving the “objectives of the current period”; and thus such principles must be overlooked. At best, this view claims that such principles are a “luxury that cannot be afforded due to the dangers, threats, and challenges facing the nation.” Again, such “luxuries” must be postponed, and voices and groups calling for them must be silenced. In all cases, this vision completely denies any positive correlation between rule of law, alternation of power, and guarantees for rights and freedoms and societies’ abilities to achieve national independence, development, progress, economic well-being, and civic peace – despite the existence of convincing, credible evidence for such correlations in the histories of many peoples around the world, including some similar to ourselves.

The systems of rule and the elites allied with them depend on these first two illusions “democratic sequentialism” and the “need to postpone democracy” because “nothing – including democracy – is more important than such and such issue.”) In turn, these tactics are used to propagate a third illusion that contributes to the current siege on the concept of democracy in Egypt: the illusion of “national necessity.” Through this illusion, authoritarianism can effectively ensure its continued grip on power.  Prior to and following the summer of 2013, my writings consistently warned of the authoritarian trend behind the claims that the military intervention in politics on July 3 was an “act of necessity” and that the former Minister of Defense, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, was participating in the presidential elections as the “candidate of necessity,” later to become the “president of necessity” following the announcement of the election results. These claims of “necessity” are truly authoritarian, as they – in the best of cases – justify departing from democracy, based on the pretext that there was no alternative to an intervention by the military establishment in politics, even when the alternative of holding early presidential elections certainly was possible. In the worst of cases, such claims of “necessity” effectively strip citizens of the right to freely choose their leaders through elections by legitimizing the presidential candidate backed by the system of rule (or its lists and candidates in the upcoming parliamentary elections) as a matter of “national necessity.” Moreover, such claims effectively prevent the people from freely expressing their opinions about the orientations and actions of the head of the executive branch, which is propagated as the most integral embodiment of this “national necessity.” As such, the right to peacefully oppose the executive is virtually eliminated.  Indeed, opposition is immediately portrayed as a betrayal of the exigencies of the “national necessity,” just as the right to seek alternative orientations or modes of action is falsely labeled either an act of “conspiracy against the nation,” “ignorance of the nation’s greater interests,” or “futile idealism.”  Individuals who express such opposition or seek such policy alternatives are discredited, defamed, or labeled as traitors.

The fourth illusion that contributes to the “siege” that has been imposed on the idea of democracy in Egypt and that prevents it from taking root in Egyptian society is the ‘religionization of politics and the politicization of religion.” This illusion that it is acceptable to use religion for political gains stems from the corrupt implication of religion in matters of rule and in the affairs of the state and society.  It occurs when those in power take advantage of religion, as well as religious spaces and symbols, to lend a false “holiness” or untouchability either to the systems of rule, along with their orientations and actions, or to groups and currents belonging to the religious right, along with their narratives, claims, and practices. This corrupt use of religion in Egypt dates back even further than the mid-1900s. To this day, official religious institutions are implicated in such schemes that abuse religion for political purposes.  Groups and currents of the religious right also attempt to use religion for their political benefit. Such groups’ alleged monopoly on absolute truth eliminates space for democratic engagement on matters related to power and rule, the state, and society, for it disallows diversity, plurality, difference of opinion, peaceful opposition, and the right of citizens to freely choose their leaders and to freely express their opinions within the framework of rule of law, rotation of power, and guarantees for rights and freedoms.

This illusion – that it is acceptable to use religion for political gains – grants legitimacy to the systems of rule with a social effectiveness that is difficult to deny. It does so, even as these systems of rule subjugate Egyptian citizens, society, and the state to their unilateral will and fiercely fight popular demands for democracy.  Indeed, the official religious institutions and religious elites (both Muslim and Christian) are accustomed to bestowing such religious legitimacy on the rulers and to renewing the formulations of this legitimacy to keep pace with changing events and to fit diverse individuals who come to power, along with their orientations and actions. As for groups and currents of the religious right, this illusion allows them in moments of social ascendency to express condescension toward those who differ from them and to disregard the exigencies of citizenship and guarantees for citizens’ rights and freedoms, even as they strive to align themselves with the idea of democracy.  In moments of decline, such groups adopt a disastrous narrative that mixes between peaceful opposition to the injustices and violations to which they are subjected and oppressive, totalitarian, extremist narratives that are hostile to the “other” – no matter who the “other” is – in order to justify extremism, violence, and bloodshed.  In all cases, the concept of democracy is eclipsed, and those who seek democracy are marginalized.

There is no way for the idea of democracy to be salvaged in Egypt without breaking down these four illusions: the illusion of “democratic sequentialism,” the illusion of a “need to postpone democracy,” the illusion of “national necessity,” and the illusion that religion can be used for political gains. 

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