“Do you believe in democracy?” asked Christiane Amanpour, leaning forward in her seat while looking straight into Omar Suleiman’s eyes. Suleiman paused for half a second, erred on a peculiar indulgent side and professed in a patriarchal tone, “For sure! Everybody believes in democracy,” and, before passing the conversation back to Amanpour, added a conditional clause: “But when? Only when the people here [in Egypt] have the culture of democracy.”
The conversation occurred on February 3, 2011, when Christiane Amanpour, then an ABC News anchor, landed an exclusive interview with Omar Suleiman, Egypt’s newly appointed Vice President at the time. Outside the presidential palace where the interview took place, the streets of Cairo were bursting with steadfast determination demanding the ouster of then President Hosni Mubarak.
Omar Suleiman was a cunning man. He spent 25 years in the catacombs of the intelligence and secret service, calculating a labyrinth of “what if” scenarios throughout his underground career. Nonetheless, I must concede, his rhetorical answer “But when?” is valid; “When will the people of Egypt be ready for the culture of democracy?”
In June 2012, with a narrow margin, the ballots brought the Freedom and Justice Party (the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood) candidate Mohamed Morsi as Egypt’s first elected president. But the FJP, akin to its parent affiliation, operated more like a cult than a political party. Morsi’s one-year in office turned out to be disastrous for Egypt, as the Muslim Brotherhood were more intrigued with spreading their doctrine and instituting deeper roots in the country’s ailing bureaucracy rather than injecting the long-awaited change in governance.
Two years later, after a series of turbulent events, and by June 2014, the military’s candidate, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, will most likely preside as Egypt’s president through an electoral process that is gradually becoming analogous to a referendum rather than a competitive bid for presidency, given the outpouring of confidence the people have towards the military and the fervor of ‘Sisi mania’. But who can blame the people of Egypt? After all, the military’s intervention to oust Morsi seemed like a salvation from the perdition of the Muslim Brotherhood’s failed government of men and women masquerading as moderate and progressive statesmen, while, in reality, were veiled with the shroud of theocracy.
Today, the general public mood is to undo the events of January 25, 2011, and if a magic wand ever existed, a good percentage of the people of Egypt would use it to erase the events of that day from the history books. Sad as it is, but this is where Egypt stands today, and no one in his or her right mind would have predicted today’s sentiment on the jubilant evening of February 11, 2011, when Mubarak officially resigned. It is poignantly ironic that we are about to elect an ex-military officer and he is expected to win by a landslide. It seems as if Egypt is destined to be ruled by men of the armed forces, thus repeating the same mistakes of the past. Perhaps, Omar Suleiman was right, the people of Egypt are not ready for democracy, since “we don’t have the culture of democracy,” and we keep failing its test time and again.
Democracy is such an illusive method of governance, and, in Egypt, there seems to be a predisposition to abrogate all its pillars, one after the other, and restrict its enactment to just one of its many pillars: the ballot box. Many political scientists argue that democracy has four pillars; few think it is seven, and fewer think it is eleven. The number is not important, but what is pertinent is that our interpretation of democracy is, to say the least, flawed, deformed, disfigured, marred, and distorted. But that is all good and well – after all, we have been deprived of practicing democracy since its inception; instituting one of its pillars (free elections) is a giant leap forward, even if what is practiced is a distorted form of its implementation. As a society, we are collectively learning as we go and that progressive learning curve is necessary and unavoidable.
Yet, distress ensues when those sitting at the helm, or those who seek a seat at the helm, neither understand the intricacies of democracy nor acknowledge the worthiness of its proper implementation, which should be founded on sound pillars (four, seven, eleven, whatever), in order to allow for the progress and advancement of Egypt. Even worse, intentionally or subconsciously, they demolish its pillars on their path to governance when they attain the ultimate seat. Morsi began that tradition when, in a bold move, he granted himself broad powers above the Supreme Court and unilaterally declared his presidential decisions immune from legal challenge – hardly a democratic move. Morsi is gone. But those at the helm today insist on thrashing basic rules of governance.
One core democratic pillar is egalitarianism, and effective governance that punishes nepotism. And yet, a few days ago, Sisi promotes Colonel Mahmoud Hegazy to General and appoints him Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces. Which isn’t a problem if Hegazy merits that key position; however, what casts a shadow of doubt on the matter is that Hegazy is the father-in-law of Sisi’s son Hassan (married to Hegazy’s daughter, Dalia.) If nepotism were introduced amongst the high ranks (military or government), it would be groundless to eradicate it amongst the lower ranks of governmental positions since precedence has been enacted, sending a direct message that loyalty and bloodline undermine competence and meritocracy. A decision such as this should have no place in a nation struggling to eradicate and undo the family clan system that characterized the Mubarak era in a new democratic structure. Such is the expectation from Sisi in this day and age.
Similarly, transparency and accountability are also core pillars of democracy. And yet, few weeks ago, in a brazen stunt and show of incompetence, the Chief Engineer of the Armed Forces General Taher Abdallah announced a cure for Hepatitis C and HIV. At the front row at the military convention center hall, Sisi, President Adly Mansour, and key senior military officers were sitting while listening attentively to General Abdallah unearthing this discovery on two large LCD screens running PowerPoint slides of the great scientific achievement. The gist of the presentation is the unveiling of a device that cures said viruses. Now, it is naïve to even entertain the remote possibility that such a device is useful for anything meaningful, let alone a cure for any of man’s viral ailments. There are two reasons for this: Firstly, for over two decades, the quality of Egypt’s academia has been lingering at the tail of the world’s educational systems and our track record for scientific discovery is insignificant, and, secondly, the Egyptian government’s expenditure on medical and biomedical research to fund scientists and research institutions to foster scientific creativity is negligible. Therefore, the intellectual and material expenditures do not befit a discovery of such colossal magnitude in the world of biomedical science. The announcement caused uproar of disbelief. And yet, the military spokesman Colonel Ahmed Ali wrote on his official Facebook page that a patent has been filed under the name of the Engineering Branch of the Egyptian Armed Forces with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) – an unforgivable lie, because the truth is that the WIPO rejected the Egyptian Military’s patent application in December 2010 in the strongest sense of the word. In a world of structured democracy, accountability and transparency would prevail to mean that those in public office who lie are scolded, and transparent inquiry to reveal the truth is demanded.
The point is, when the political process is subject to the transparent scrutiny of the law and a regulatory framework, it enables the citizens to judge the lawfulness of those at the helm who make such erratic decisions. The mechanism of this process are the pillars of democracy, which create a strong foundation for correct governance. These pillars create a deterrent against corruption, nepotism, power abuse, etc. Today, Egypt desperately needs to enact these pillars in some shape or form because, without these pillars, the country lingers in an arbitrary form of governance lacking any structure or coherence. One might even argue that the calamity Egypt is facing today is because the pillars of democracy have long been absent from the method of governance that consumed Egypt for decades. Rule of law, transparency, equality, freedom of speech, and justice aren’t options; they are a must.
The excerpt below is from Anand Panyarachun (Thailand’s former prime minister) lecture on Sustainable Development in Brussels in 2008; it is very pertinent to Egypt’s historical juncture today. He said:
“The pillars of democracy are necessary but insufficient without leaders to build and maintain them. The qualities of leadership for sustainable democracy are to be found in those who act in an honest, transparent and accountable manner. They are consensus builders, open-minded and fair. They are committed to justice and to advancing the public interest. And they are tolerant of opposing positions. Of course, it is often said that democracy is a messy way of governing and that the human condition is flawed. There is truth in both statements. But in admitting our limitations, let us strive to avoid the mistakes of the past and look forward to a new generation of leaders who can build on the lessons of the struggles of ordinary citizens for democracy.”
On a departing note, when General Omar Suleiman replied with that condescending rhetorical statement on the ordinary people of Egypt’s unreadiness for the culture of democracy, I think Christiane Amanpour should have responded: “But don’t you think it has always been the rulers of Egypt who time and again have proven that it is them who do not have the culture of democracy? General Suleiman, the unreadiness for democracy is in those who govern, not the ordinary people who are governed. Don’t you think?”