Egypt's Democratic Transition - English

Party Shopping in Cairo

By Sahar el-Nadi2.05.2011Global Policy

After several decades of censorship, oppression and tyranny, morphing into a true democracy is not going to happen overnight. The transition will be unorganized and at times difficult. Before the end of the year, two elections will test the country’s enthusiasm for democratic politics.



Whether intellectual and well educated or much less privileged, most Egyptians are equal in being almost illiterate politically, myself included. Several decades of dictatorship and police state rule saw to it that no one outside the regime’s orbit could acquire the slightest political experience. Millions have to learn about democracy in time for two major elections before the end of this year: voting to elect a full parliament of over 400 members, and choose the first freely elected Egyptian president.

A test for the young democracy

The Egyptians’ first test in democratic practice came only a month after Mubarak stepped down, in a “referendum on the constitutional amendments”: last March. The voters’ turnout was the largest in Egyptian history with nearly 20 million casting ballots in one day; almost 50% of all voters inside Egypt. However, we’re already used to referendums, it’s just a simple choice between a “yes” and “no”. We have yet to experience a real free election process in all its vim and vigour. Like many Egyptians who have been in the revolution and who are now eager to serve in the new Egypt, I’m scanning the scene to find a promising political party to join, but so far, none have earned my commitment. All the parties that existed before the revolution have lost what little support they had on the ground, largely because they had no role at all in the monumental changes brought on by the average, non-politicised people. Like many others, they were caught off-guard when the revolution gathered momentum and obviously didn’t have a plan for the “day after”. The result could be either another “huge success due to the total flexibility and creativity”:, or something much less glamorous due to the lack of planning. There is now a rift in the newly formed coalition of the revolution youth: between those who want to turn it into a political party, and those who prefer to make it an NGO. In parallel, the political groups that have been forced underground by the prosecution of Mubarak’s regime have now resurfaced. The “Muslim Brotherhood”: just held their first official meeting in decades. They have also approached the Coptic Church for dialogue and started their own non-religious political party open to women and Christians; yet they are not nominating a presidential candidate for the coming elections. A couple of days later on Labour Day, the Egyptian Communist party, after 90 years of ban, announced resuming public activities. Meanwhile, several new parties are racing to register under the new Political Practice Law. While finally seeing fresh faces in politics is definitely exciting after so much stagnation, at a closer look, those potential parties leave a lot to be desired. Their names are as confusing as their programs. Everyone is competing for the same buzzwords: freedom, justice and liberation, while the political orientations are blurry, and none seem to stand out in the crowd with distinctive ideas, powerful programs, or weighty political figures. After attending some launching events, I was left with the impression that those were large NGOs populated with entrepreneurs rather than emerging political entities for incubating aspiring politicians. Hardly a surprise, after all, corporate politics was the only game in town for so long. Strangely though, none of the new parties had presidential candidates for the upcoming elections, and most declined to even support one of the independent candidates.

From corruption to democracy

The obvious lack of political expertise available to the budding democracy in Egypt results from a serious dilemma: practicing politics under Mubarak was allowed only through two alternatives: either the ruling party, or the “decorative” opposition parties, which were largely government regulated. Every other door besides those two lead into a dark, bottomless pit. Parliamentary life had turned into a pathetic charade that no one believed anymore, and those who accepted to take part in it had lost all credibility. Therefore, today, experienced politicians are seen as polluted by the corrupted regime, and are unacceptable to the revolutionaries; while those who are “clean” enough to be trusted by the people are also essentially inexperienced politically. Consequently, the “youth of the revolution”: who wish to start a fresh political life in Egypt have no choice but to start hastily and almost amateurishly, and continue to struggle to learn real politics as they go. This might mean a longer process to achieve tangible political reform, and might also mean that discerning Egyptians will hold their decision to join a specific party until some have passed the acid test and proved worthy through actions, not just glossy words.



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