Egypt, ¿democracy or mirage?

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The presidential elections in Egypt are a cause for joy and celebration. To watch on our screens the enthusiasm and devotion with which millions of Egyptians have embraced the first free presidential elections in their history remind us Spaniards of the June 15 elections in 1977, when our parents and grandparents witnessed, with intensity and emotion, the return of democracy following Franco’s death. But make no mistake: an open and transparent electoral process does not necessarily mean the end of authoritarianism. Elections can become a mere formality if elected officials have no authority or power, or if the existing legal framework is not equipped to cope with citizens’ demands. In order to understand whether democratic change is possible in Egypt, we need to freeze the close up of the polling stations for a moment and take a look at the broader picture.

Today’s Egypt is ultimately governed by a Military Junta. Since Gamal Abdel Nasser led a coup in 1952, Egypt has been ruled by the military elite, the most privileged of all social groups, who together with the security apparatus, enjoy impunity and practice corruption and arbitrary justice. Hosni Mubarak‘s attempt to gradually renew the old bureaucratic and military guard with a new vein of liberal despotic economists (under the command of his son Gamal) sowed discord within the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) after the legislative elections of 2000. When the revolution of 2011 arrived, the old guard had already spent a decade feeling that their privileges were threatened, and the uprising provided the perfect cover to get rid of the Mubarak clan and regain their lost power. The perfect coup d’etat. Fifteen months have passed since the Egyptian people embraced the tanks of the nation in an act of collective catharsis. The new revolutionaries thought that with the dictator gone, gone too was the dictatorship. But bullets have been flying ever since. It is clear that the Military Junta is not planning to move, of its own volition, towards political liberalisation.

The economic and social conditions that prompted the revolutionaries to shout “bread, freedom and social justice” are worsening. When travelling to the Middle East it is not uncommon to come across some of the millions of Egyptian migrants that have been forced to flee their homes in search of a better life. While the Lebanese, Palestinians and Jordanians migrate mostly as skilled labour to the Gulf countries, the Egyptians occupy the lowest posts in the labour market, second only to immigrants from Southeast Asia. What over the last decade has led the Egyptian people to become the porters of the Arab world is, to a large extent, the economic liberalisation that began in the mid 1970s. This liberalisation has been accelerated, especially during the last decade, by the new privileged economic class that has been focusing its efforts on garnering personal economic benefits without a second thought for the social effects of their policies. Health, education, communication and construction have been widely monopolised by Gamal Mubarak’s magnate friends. Moreover, the military continues to control between 20 and 40 percent of Egypt’s production sector. The middle class, once a majority, has been reduced to almost nothing. The revolt has also led to a reduction in tourism revenues and direct investment. At the same time, the trade flow through the Suez Canal has been severely reduced due to the global crisis. Poverty is overwhelming. 

The social gap continues to widen. If anything can define the process of social change during the twentieth century in the Arab world in general, and in Egypt in particular, it is the gap between the defenders of “tradition” and the advocates of “modernity”. It is difficult to find an Arab citizen who opposes “development” and “freedom”, but these concepts are interpreted differently by those who defend a social model in line with traditional and religious values, and those who prefer to build a fully secular and modern society. Islamic groups have benefited for decades from the social rejection of the despotic regimes in power. It is not for nothing that have dictators perceived Islamists as a threat to their interests, a perception that is shared in the West. Experiences like that of Algeria in 1990, or the Occupied Territories of Palestine in 2006, illustrate how the priority of Western countries has often been to slow the rise of political Islam and to secure their interests in the area, rather than push to ensure the democratisation of the Arab world. But above and beyond the tension and external struggles (which exist and should be put into perspective), the question is whether Egyptian leaders (and, incidentally, the Arab media) will be able to promote social reconciliation between “traditionalists” and “modernists”, in order to avoid civil strife. 

Dismantling and burying decades of authoritarianism with haste and determination is a very difficult task that requires courageous leaders and a friendly (and supportive) regional and international environment. In Spain we know this well. But Egypt is a very different scenario. To begin with, those who deposed Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 were not the masses of people fed up with so much impunity and poverty, but rather the military who felt that their privileges were being threatened. The army leadership considers itself the legitimate heir of the “Egyptian Spring” and the facts on the ground prove it: much of Mubarak’s regime is still standing and fifteen months later, the new Constitution of Egypt is still waiting to be written. Citizens are eager to gain access to a better life that fails to arrive and tensions between “Islamists” and “modernists” and the various religious communities are reaching unimaginable heights. Further violence cannot be ruled out.

However, the holding of free presidential elections indicates that the military apparatus is also subject to internal and external tensions and persuasions. Indeed, this is the hallmark of democracy: it cannot be imposed by force. It must grow from the conviction of those in power that no other way is possible, even if they do not like it in the least. It will take a while before we see whether democracy in Egypt becomes a reality or remains a mirage. But one thing is certain: it will take some pretty big waves to sink authoritarianism in Egypt.


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