It has been seven years since Egyptians took to the streets to demand the departure of Hosni Mubarak, as well as freedom and social justice, yet some are still fighting over the role of specific figures or groups in thwarting the democratic transition experience. They have overlooked the most important factors in its abortion, beginning with the balance of power rooted in Egypt's political, economic and social life both on a regional and international level.
Seven years have passed and the conflicts in the media regarding the role of certain individuals, such as Mohamed Morsi, Mohamed El-Baradei, members of the Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, and leaders of the opposition, are ongoing. They even argue about the role of groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists, Coalition of the Youth of the Revolution, and the secular or popular parties. All of these individuals and groups are considered part of the opposition and have been marginalised, oppressed, and defamed for decades. No one denies the importance of thought, strategy, and political leadership, nor of being aware of the requirements of change and preparing coherent programmes and political institutions in order to manage the democratic transformation process. This process took decades, if not centuries, in the countries that successfully built independent democracies.
However, in order to put things in the right context, we must first start by understanding the desired democratic transformation and its requirements. Democratic transformation does not mean holding free elections, having an elected government govern the country, or writing a constitution with democratic features. Although these measures are all considered the most important fruit of democracy, they do not express the essence of the democratic transition process itself, which is rebuilding the balances of power inside countries in order to protect the democratic system, this allowing elected institutions to control the government and enable the will of the people.
The process of democratic transition requires the redistribution of wealth to ensure equality among citizens and the reconstruction of the political authority in order to limit the influence of forces and institutions that were not elected, such as the army, security institutions, political elites, and foreign bodies. It also requires rebuilding political culture itself by spreading the values of respecting the law, freedoms, human rights, and trusting others.
Democratic transformation must confront its external opponents. Change is born from the womb of tyranny and in areas overshadowed by despots backed by foreign forces. Therefore, the democratic transition process requires a regional and international context to protect and support it, like America did with the countries of Western Europe after WWII and how Western Europe did with the countries of Eastern Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. These countries were not content with merely providing aid or calling for reform but rather prepared comprehensive programmes to merge these countries into a larger economic, political and cultural project based on democracy.
Many of those concerned with change in Egypt do not consider or look into these meanings and definitions, as perhaps they believe it is a form of intellectual luxury. They insist on preoccupying themselves with disagreeing over the various figures and groups, which is both elitist thinking on one hand, and isolating and escapist on the other. Those who believe that individuals or groups are able to create history ignore the fact that democracy is a system based on the organised involvement of millions of citizens in politics and its various procedures, such as elections, the formation of parties, and building a strong civilian society with its various institutions.
Those who are preoccupied with the disagreement over opposition figures and groups are fleeing – although they are unaware – from facing the difficult burdens that come with change, especially within the security institutions, the corrupt economic elites and the international supporters of tyranny. These are the most organised and ruthless forces when it comes to defending their interests and they are the most monopolistic of the various media and political platforms. They are highly capable of punishing those who dare to criticise it, and therefore, it is easy for any intellectual dissident to criticise his peers in the opposition, but criticising the forces of the old government, who are mostly made up of wealthy individuals, security organisations, conventional groups, and foreign forces will bring about disaster for them.
This means that the January 2011 Egyptian uprising had an internal and international context that helped its success and bore the seeds of its failure, due to structural factors that are currently difficult to reform. Without being aware of these contexts and dealing with them, it is impossible to bring about change. There were many more influential institutional forces that controlled the course of the January uprising than opposition forces, and these influential forces are still far from the winds of change. This contributed to the defeat of the January uprising and the restoration of the status quo. I will discuss them in four main contexts.
The first context is the nature of the forces that control the security institutions in Egypt, which include the army, police and intelligence institutions. They form the backbone of the regime and its protector. It is clear that an important group of army leaders felt marginalised at the end of Mubarak's rule and therefore they were prompted to abandon him in February 2011, without giving up power. So they did everything they could to stay on top after the January uprising, even staging a coup against the government in July 2013 in an effort to restore a system similar to the early years of the 1952 regime. During that time the security institution played a larger role in the government and growing influence on political life. What happened with the former chief of staff of the Egyptian army, Sami Anan, and his arrest after his attempt to run for president is a good example of how the current military leaders hold direct authoritarian rule and refuse to abandon it through the ballot boxes, even if to one of their former senior commanders.
The second context is the distorted forces of capitalism that have been created since the economic openness during the rule of Anwar Sadat. These forces increasingly dominated political life and formed a vast network of media, political and economic ties and the power of large families and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, the January uprising failed to alter the balances of power that rule these elites and left them virtually unchanged.
The third context is the cultural context itself, as Egypt suffers from a clear lack in democratic culture, which many opposition forces still consider to be a dubious foreign culture. I am referring to the basic values, such as the rule of the people, respect for freedoms and human rights, political pluralism, and respecting the rule of law. All of these values are not spread amongst the popular and mass circles, who may participate in elections, but do not practice these values in their day-to-day lives. They also lack the educational and economic levels that ensure they uphold these values and defend them.
The fourth context is foreign support, as various international reports on the state of democracy around the world have stated that we have been living in a state of international decline of democracy for a decade due to the greed of Western capitalism, the rise of the racist right in Europe and the United States, and the rise of capitalism in Eastern tyrannical countries, such as Russia and China, who are a strong competitor to the democratic model. The Arab world is considered amongst the worst tyrannies in the world, as various factories, such as occupation and oil, protect the authoritarian states of the region, which have spent billions of dollars on undoing the limited gains of the Arab Spring, despite the major public sacrifices.
Without a real change that affects the four aforementioned contexts, as well as the forces supporting them and balances of power that bind them, it is difficult to imagine the occurrence of a true transition towards democracy in Egypt, without detracting from the importance of the political leadership and the willingness of the opposition. These are major and dominant contexts that have existed for decades and require decades to be changed. Perhaps realising this would reduce the degree of rivalry between the various political opposition forces and push them to change their rhetoric and political programmes to deal more calmly with each other and with their adversaries. Real change will not come soon or easily and it requires cooperation with many of those believing in change, which is the vast majority of the people in a country that has been raised on tyranny.
This article first appeared in Arabic in Al-Araby Al-Jadid on 25 January 2018
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.