On ABC news Egypt’s vice President Omar Suleiman (who has a notoriously bad human rights record) stated that Egypt likes the necessary “culture of democracy” to make the changes demanded by protesters. As anyone reading my blog knows, I have often noted that democracy rests on certain cultural attributes which, if not present, could cause not only failure of democracy, but instability and chaos. So on its face, Suleiman’s argument seems valid. While many see it as a rationalization of holding on to power, there is a logic to it. Yet when examined more closely, his argument is fatally flawed.
Suleiman would no doubt point to the current difficulties establishing democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the fact that even western democracies had trouble becoming established. Early democracies in Germany and Japan in the 1920s gave way to militaristic dictatorships which started wars. France is on its fifth Republic. Even the US only recently fit the modern definition of democracy; early on it had slavery, women couldn’t vote, and other attributes that now would be unacceptable. Playing on fear of radical Islam, Suleiman would warn that the Muslim Brotherhood could “take over.” He could also hint that changes in Egypt might end the Israeli-Egyptian peace agreement. Sufficiently fearful, the West might decide to back the autocrat over the freedom fighters.
Yet, the problem with Suleiman’s argument is that it is being used as an excuse to hold on to power. On September 11, 1971 Egypt’s current constitution was passed, with Anwar Sadat proclaiming that Egypt would become a democracy. However, since Egypt like the rest of the region had no experience with democracy, Sadat feared opening it up too fast. Instead he limited competition, created the NDP (Nationalist party – Sadat and Mubarak’s party) and Amal, then the Labor party originally headed by Sadat’s brother in law. The competition would carefully controlled between a left of center and a right of center party.
This wasn’t a bad idea in 1971. Egyptians would get used to voting, get used to competition between parties, and over time develop a so-called ‘culture of democracy.’ Yet for that to happen, the guided democracy would have to allow peaceful transfers of power between the “allowed” parties, and increase the range of tolerated debate. Even Iran has done that. Egypt, however, has gone the other direction.
Sadat died in 1981, and Mubarak has ruled ever since. In the last election he had 88% of the vote. Egypt’s “guided democracy” has become a sham democracy, simply a way to rationalize continued power by an NDP which acts more like a mafia gang than a peoples’ government. The main opposition party is the New Wafd party, which in the last parliamentary election got six seats compared to 420 for the NDP. (There were 69 independents elected, mostly from the banned Muslim Brotherhood). Simply, the NDP and Mubarak’s inner elite have been comfortable simply ruling autocratically, with no effort or concern about building a culture of democracy. That’s why the protesters don’t want to back down.
What this means is that even if Suleiman is right, keeping the current regime in place to guide a transition makes no sense. They have proven that they don’t want democracy. They have had forty years to create guided democracy and they’ve instead used Sadat’s constitution as a rationale to simply hold on to power and expand corruption. The protesters are right to demand Mubarak quit and that a new caretaker regime of opposition leaders plan the transition. The old guard wants to hang on to power because they don’t want to be arrested for corruption or get off the gravy train.
So is Suleiman right in his argument, even if he and the NDP gang are the wrong ones to trust for a transition to something different? In part, yes. Democracies are very difficult to create and maintain. There are groups in Egypt who would prefer to grab power and not relinquish it. It is a rocky path to a true functioning democratic polity. However, the fact that half of Egypt’s population is under 24, and willing to take to the streets is a sign that they are a transformative generation. They aren’t going to have the patience of their elders, and they are more connected to the modern world than ever before. Informed by al jazeera, connected through Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of new media, they are ready to lead the country in a new direction. The old “guided democracy” isn’t enough.
If a trusted group of opposition leaders could work with technocrats to keep the system functioning while rules for new elections are planned, you could get a guided transition. It need not be a sudden jolt to pure democracy, but it will be a series of reforms that will move Egypt discernibly away from tyranny and towards freedom. If the leaders are trusted by the people, they’ll have patience. They have no reason to show patience to the old guard.
And if Egypt can move towards a true culture of democracy, then they can lead the Arab world in that direction. Arabs can develop their own path to modernity rather than being pushed there at gun point as was done in Iraq. So while Suleiman may have a point, it’s no reason for the old gang to cling to power, and no reason not to start a transition to actually build and develop a culture of democracy. The NDP is a relic from a different era. Egypt is ready for generational change.