Friday, July 22, 2011

Egypt: The Promise Of A Revolution

By Amir Taheri
Will Egypt's self-styled democrats help kill that nation's hopes for democracy?
The question is not fanciful. A chorus of individuals, groups and parties describing themselves as liberal, democratic, secular and socialist are calling for the constituent election, scheduled for September, to be postponed. The call is echoed by groups that hope to maintain the regime in a new form.
However, the decision to hold the election in September was taken by the Egyptian people in March when 77 percent voted yes in a referendum.
Those who call for postponement should think carefully about what this means.
First, it means that the will of the people expressed in a free vote, as was the case in the referendum, could be ignored. This would make a mockery of democracy by allowing the whim of a minority to annul the will of a majority.
Secondly, postponing the election would put the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) above the will of the people. What is in effect a classical military junta would be given the moral authority of a constituent assembly. In practical terms that would give SCAF carte blanche in deciding when, and if, to allow transition to democracy or, at least, at what speed transition should take place.
Once the junta can annul an election result, there is no guarantee that it would not do it again. The provisional could become permanent.
Finally, perhaps more importantly, postponing the election would set a dangerous precedent. After that, any minority could claim moral authority to contest the results of any elections.
This is not the first time that Egypt is facing such a dilemma.
In 1953, the Free Officers (Zubat al-Ahrar), who had seized power in a coup, debated whether or not to hold elections.
At that time, Major-General Muhammad Naguib, the nominal head of state, together with democratic parties and groups supported elections.
In contrast, the Muslim Brotherhood allied itself with the militarists led by Colonel Gamal Abdul-Nasser in calling for the postponement of elections "until the right conditions are present."
Needless to say, the "right conditions" never arrived and Egypt fell under a dictatorship that continues to this day.
The Muslim Brotherhood paid a heavy price for its anti-democratic alliance with Nasser while democratic parties were all but wiped out.
Calling for the cancellation of an election result is worse still when those who make it have participated in the exercise.
Taking part in an election, like in any game, implies a moral contract to abide by the results, even if the loser ends up challenging those results in other ways. This was the case in Russia's first free election in 1917, when the Bolsheviks emerged as the biggest losers. They accepted the result but then moved to destroy the newly-elected parliament at gunpoint.
In Chile, democratic parties, including those that had suffered under military rule, did not ask for time to rebuild before contesting elections. They accepted General Pinochet's offer of elections, knowing that the objective was to send the army back into the barracks.
In any case, democracy is a process not a one-shot experiment. Just as one swallow does not a summer make, a single election does not define the democratic process. Egypt's pro-democracy groups might lose the next election but should fight with the determination to win the one after that.
Some speak of "the Egyptian revolution". However, we have not yet had a revolution in Egypt. What we have so far is the promise of a revolution. That promise would be fulfilled when, and if, we have regime change in Egypt. What we have had so far is change within the regime.
Regime change means the return of the armed forces to their job as defenders of the country's territorial integrity against foreign threats. Regime change also means doing away with the culture of Mukhaberati politics in Egypt.
Initially an army-backed concoction, over the past two decades the Egyptian regime was transformed into a fa├žade behind which the intelligence services wielded real power. The evil genius of the regime was not President Hosni Mubarak, a rather bland man, but Omar Suleiman who ran the security service.
None of the above-mentioned objectives could be achieved under the ruling junta, even though the new government formed this week appears to be more responsive to Tahrir Square's demands.
The military-security apparatus may use the pro-democracy parties and groups as a cover for an attempt at remaining in power or at least securing a big chunk of it in any future configuration.
One argument the apparatus is using for prolonging the so-called transition is "the deteriorating security situation" in the country. What is left out of such arguments is the fact that there could be no security without freedom. (Of course, there is also no freedom without security.)
Under the military-security regime, Egyptians did not feel secure. The prolongation of that regime in any form would not enhance anybody's security in Egypt.
The faster Egypt closes the Nasserist chapter and resumes normal life the better for the Egyptians. To close that chapter, Egypt must shorten the transition. And to shorten the transition Egypt must hold elections.
-This commentary was published in Asharq al-Awsat on 22/07/2011
-Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran (1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In 1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International

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