Those monitoring the situation in Egypt during this difficult time are, no doubt, highly confused. It cannot be easy for staunch liberals who glorify democracy without limitation or qualification to find themselves on the same side as religious forces whose political commitment is based on submission and obedience. On the other hand, many of those who consider the military to be the worst ruling model across the Third World would hesitate to support the Egyptian army’s ouster of a president who came to power through free and fair elections.
However, the catastrophic situation that Egypt now finds itself in one year following the election of President Mohammed Mursi and two years following the toppling of President Hosni Mubarak and his “bequeathal of power” project requires us to be both realistic and honest.
No magic formula
We must admit that democracy, as a political system, takes different forms in different fields, and it is not a magic formula that can be used in every place and every time in precisely the same way.
There are several types of democracy in the societies that implement, or claim to implement, this political system. For example, Swiss democracy differs from Japanese democracy, and democracy in the U.S. differs from democracy in Germany. The fierce competition between Mohammed Mursi and General Ahmed Shafiq in last year’s presidential elections in Egypt was completely different to the French democratic experience.
The basic principle stipulates that “democracy cannot be established without democrats.” History is rife with examples of authoritarian regimes that blocked the transfer of power after they came to government through the ballot box. In the U.S., four presidents have been able to enter the White House despite securing less overall votes than their electoral opponents.
Therefore, it is completely delusional to attempt to copy another country’s democratic system, treating this as if it were something absolute and immutable, without taking into account local environmental or social factors such as low literacy rates, weak political parties and institutions, and the presence of authoritarian and radical forces on the ground.
In contrast, it is striking how democratically mature societies, particularly in Europe, defend their existence by isolating ethnic and religious extremism. Even when some of these groups manage to secure an electoral presence in some places by means of adopting religious discourse or claiming unfair treatment, as in India, they do not remain in power for long.
With both Mursi and Shafiq squaring off in the presidential election run-off in Egypt, a significant number of the Egyptian electorate were forced to vote for “the lesser of two evils,” without being convinced that either of the two candidates truly represented them. As a result, Mursi, the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidate, secured a narrow victory over Shafiq, a so-called “remnant” of the former regime. It must also be noted that in the first round of the elections, neither candidates obtained more than a quarter of the total votes.
The “civil state” slogan that was used during the 2012 elections was vague and failed to live up to the ambitions of a large segment of those who supported change on January 25. For the Islamists, particularly the Muslim Brotherhood, the slogan was used as an alternative to the concept of “military rule,” which has been in place in Egypt since 1952. As for the majority of liberals, leftists and nationalists, they used this slogan to express their rejection of not only the “military state,” but also the “religious state.”
Although a large segment of the Egyptian people were disappointed with their new president, Mohammed Mursi—who belongs to a politico-religious organization whose authority he views as being above the Egyptian people and democracy—acted as if he enjoyed overwhelming public support. Mursi started his term with a series of resolutions signaling his lack of belief in the principle of the separation of powers. His political program was confrontational, rather than seeking broad consensus.
In this light, it was no surprise that the Egyptian people grew restless, prompting those most affected by his policies to unite. This became clear when all of the liberal, leftist, national and youth factions sought to support Mohamed ElBaradei for prime minister earlier this week, despite the fact that they voted for a broad range of candidates during the presidential elections. However, the Salafist Al-Nour Party, which returned to the Islamist camp following the Republican Guard clashes, blocked ElBaradei’s nomination.
Democracy not compatible with extremism
Now Egypt is facing an obvious state of polarization that cannot be ignored or concealed. In fact, one can say that the entire Arab world, particularly the Levant, is inclined to intolerance, extremism, exclusion, and trading accusations of apostasy.
Unfortunately, this reality cannot be ignored or played down any longer.
This is something that is continuing to grow among most conflicting religious and sectarian camps from Egypt, Syria and Lebanon to Iraq, the Gaza Strip, and Yemen.
A few days ago I saw on television a Syrian rebel commander speaking to a prominent anchorwoman. The commander attacked all Shiites—not only Hezbollah—seemingly without knowing (or perhaps he simply did not care) that the anchorwoman who expressed sympathy for his views was herself a Shiite.
While following the bombing that targeted the area of Beir Al-Abed neighborhood in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a Shiite local responded to a reporter on the explosions by claiming that “the blessings of Hussein Bin Ali, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon them both, saved the area.” The local added: “May Allah be on the side of Shiites against the Takfirists and Americans. We are all here with Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah.”
In fact, the region has become a fertile ground for sectarianism, which is being stirred up under different pretexts and slogans, in the name of “resistance” in Lebanon and “democracy” in Egypt, or on the pretext of “revolution” in Syria.
True democracy is incompatible with extremism, and certainly does not incite sectarian tensions. In this regard, I recall Winston Churchill’s famous witticism: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.”
This article was first published in Asharq al-Awsat on July 12, 2013.
Eyad Abu Shakra (also written as Ayad Abou-Chakra) began his media career in 1973 with An-Nahar newspaper in Lebanon. Joined Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper in the UK in 1979, occupying several positions including: Senior Editor, Managing Editor, and Head of Research Unit, as well as being a regular columnist. He has several published works, including books, chapters in edited books, and specialized articles, in addition to frequent regular TV and radio appearances.