Egypt – The old, the new and the not so old

A perspective on the critical process Egypt is going through in search for a democratic development path Almost everyone residing in contemporary Egypt have been born and have lived under authoritarian regimes: since the time of king Faruk, followed by colonel Nasser, the also military and assassinated Anwar Sadat, the interim Abu Taleb and Hosni Mubarak, overthrown under the influence of the ‘Arabic spring’. Finally, on June 30th 2012 Mohamed Morsi came to power only to rule until this past July, when he was ousted by the national army.

Today Egypt is undergoing a deep economic crisis with high rates of poverty, unemployment and inequality. Two out of every five Egyptians get by with less than two dollars a day, the malnutrition rate in children under five is 31%, unemployment surpasses 13% of the population and the foreign exchange reserve, in days where international tourism chooses other destinations for obvious reasons, dropped by 60% since early 2011.

In 1960 Egypt and South Korea presented a similar life expectancy and GDP per capita; half a century later, they both live in different worlds: the Egyptian GDP per capita barely reaches a fifth of the South Korean.

Each government offered promises including magic formulas to overcome problems and turn things around, but these were mostly ineffective. Former President Morsi, with Qatar’s backing as main economic and socio-cultural ally, promised to reduce unemployment to 7% but he never achieved it. At the same time, the International Monetary Fund offered 4.8 billion dollars as an economic aid in order to implement its controversial and ineffective austerity measures, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates offered twelve billion in cash, oil and deposits in exchange for Mohamed Morsi’s deposition.

There is much ado about nothing and little profound aid.

In this context, it is not easy to face a political shift. Needs are urgencies, hunger perverts incentives and allows the ‘political class’ to manipulate their people. In Middle East’s giant everyone is right. There is little dialogue, and there are only truths, from one side and the other. Egyptians do not debate, they explain.

On one hand, the Muslim Brotherhood bases its actions on Islam, a complete system (nizâm) destined to regulate all aspects of personal and social life. With its support a new Constitution was drafted consented by 33% of electors, with 60% of approval throughout the country and 60% disapproval in Cairo, the country’s capital and a mostly secular pole. This Constitution states the Sharia al Islamiya (Islamic law), which as all religious foundations is proved and sustained by itself, constitutes the main source of legislation. This precept was shared by half the population and rejected by the other half in the last elections carried out in 2012.

A year later, the reactions are not surprising. 17 million people took to the streets in protest regarding the current situation to an Islamite who represents half the population of the country that is not willing to give in to his arguments. At the same time, that enormous mobilization included seculars who stand behind an extreme laicism that does not respect the political rights of those who seek an Islamic agenda within the margins of democracy.

A third fundamental actor is the Egyptian army. It does not only count with special courts but it has also developed a large economic base of its own with companies that produce a wide range of consumer goods (televisions, vacuum cleaners, etc.). The army exercises a determinant influence on the country’s macro-political decisions, wakening opposing views among those who claim its role of pivot between one government and the next to be too active and therefore altering the democratic order, and those others who claim its involvements are circumstantial and are sustained by the interests of the majority.

When in 2011 hundreds of thousands of citizens rebelled against the dictator Hosni Mubarak, some analysts warned about the danger of the democratizing process taking place too quickly, in a society split between irreconcilable perspectives to the naked eye.

However, it is hard to develop democracies without practicing democracy. Several Muslim countries have moved forward in that direction, such is the case of Indonesia and Malaysia and also of Turkey, where times of political turbulence are experienced without breaking the democratic order. Even Arabic monarchies like Morocco, Jordan and Kuwait are taking steps towards constitutional systems that grant greater participation to their citizens.

Democracy is a live and dynamic process, which must be re-learned over and over again. It implies time, and there is no perfect model.

In Egypt the Muslim Brotherhood rejected the drafting of a new Constitution. In the context of the majority of its summit persecuted and their television stations suspended, they claim committing to a Constitution that will not represent them is not in their plans. A Constitution that will be designed and initially drafted by 10 academic lawyers, then revised by 50 acknowledged members of civil society and finally approved at national level in mid-August. A Constitution that should not alienate neither the religious nor the secular sectors; this means, accomplishing a pluralist profile integrating interests, needs and emotions both of majorities and of the several minorities coexisting in such a vast country.

The Arabic spring represents the beginning of a movement towards significant political and economic transformations which also implies adjusting visions, ideas, paradigms, and ways of thinking. When civil society generates perverse leaders, it is the same civil society the one that must provide the necessary replacement to re-direct the course. ‘Spring’ has triggered reconfigurations and vindications that will probably produce a disorganized mixture between the old and the new.
On the other hand, well-known are the pressures developed countries exercise on the uprising processes of emerging countries. The exit from the neoliberal model in the aforementioned countries has generated very important breakthroughs imprinted in a more balanced integration between aggregate value, investments and employment. Thus, a more equitable world in terms of development requires conviction when it comes to defending the interests of the countries seeking change and requires voices that will represent them reliably.

The task in Egypt is not simple at all; it is a diverse and complex country that should not ignore the aspirations of its people nor its extremely rich history. Thus here lies the challenge of opening up to new ideas in order to find a balance between the old, the new and the not so old.

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