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Home / Resources / News / Young Egyptians are reminding us what democracy means

Young Egyptians are reminding us what democracy means

by Niccolo Milanese

International leaders and the international press are fixated on the question of whether what has happened in Egypt in the last week is a coup-d’etat, and whether it endangers democracy. This seems to be peculiarly the wrong question to be asking.

Egypt under the Presidency of Mohammed Morsi was a place of suppression of freedom of speech, expulsion of foreign NGOs, the detention of activists and attacks on artists, of organised sexual aggression, increased violence on the streets and of food shortages on a scale threatening a humanitarian disaster. It was a place in which the parliament had been suspended, in which the President placed himself above the law and beyond appeal, and in which one party – the Muslim Brotherhood – which had been elected to the presidency only on the basis of reluctant support from Egyptians who did not want to elect someone from the previous Mubarak regime, totally disregarded everyone outside its own party, installed its own apparatchiks in as many positions of power as it could, and did as much as it could to destroy all potential challengers. Egypt under Morsi was not a democracy. We do not need to regret that he has been overthrown.

There are many good reasons to be concerned about the future of people in Egypt. When the army last controlled the state, human rights abuses were frequent. There is an obvious risk – already starting to manifest itself – of increased clashes between supporters of the Muslim brotherhood and the rebellion movement that has forced out Morsi and his government. The outcomes of the new roadmaps defined by the army for constitutional change and new elections are unpredictable and subject to many risks.

One thing we can be less concerned about is the risk to democracy and its future in the country. Egyptians mobilised in unprecedented numbers precisely to defend the rule of the people by the people. The 30th June was probably the largest protest in human history, and was organised starting from a youth movement collecting signatures door to door. Since before 2011, a dedicated and heroic group of young people have mobilised continuously – despite being detained, tortured and shot at every stage – firstly against Mubarak, then against the SCAF, then in massive numbers against Morsi, precisely to defend the idea of a plural, free and democratic Egypt. They have done so peacefully, making highly explicit that they reject any form of violence and will not be associated with the abuses of the government or the army. It is of course not sure that what follows Morsi will be better than what was before: but we can be quite sure that the newly emancipated people of Egypt will not rest until they have achieved a democratic and more just society, in which everyone has a voice and everyone has the minimum required for a decent life, starting with bread to eat.

Since 2011 the number of protestors has grown continuously as Egyptians lose their fear. That fear was firstly one of posing questions: what is a good society? Does our country work in a fair and just way? And secondly a fear of mobilising to affect change. Those fears were not and are not limited to Egyptians – they are common in most parts of the world, including in ‘established democracies.’ These recent years of global awakening are hopeful for so many young people precisely because they show more and more people shedding these fears. The Egyptian example, like the Tunisian precursor, is a leading example in this global awakening, and has the hopes of a generation from across the world attached to it.

The extremely hesitant reaction of the international press and international community to the second wave of the revolution in Egypt shows both a fear of change, a fear of the masses, and a hypocritical view of democracy. ‘Western’ powers supported dictators in North Africa for years on the basis of preserving stability – a stability enabling them to pursue their own strategic interests in the region – with total disregard for the wellbeing of the peoples of those countries. Following the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak, they meekly apologised. Now in their reactions to the overthrow of Morsi they are showing the same tendency to value stability above wellbeing. The calls for quick elections to restore a democratically elected government are short-sighted: it was precisely a process that was too rushed that resulted in the horrible choice between the Muslim Brotherhood or the Old Regime at the last Presidential elections. There must be time for the newer political forces to organise themselves and have a fair chance to campaign.

The reaction of Erdogan is telling and predictable given the recent uprisings in Gezi Park: he repeated his mantra that Morsi had been democratically elected and that the majority should be entitled to govern. But democracy does not mean that the majority should rule over the minority – that, as John Stuart Mill termed it, would be a ‘dictatorship of the majority’.

Nor should elections at the ballot box be allowed to decide everything. No matter how many times we are reminded, there is a persistent tendency to forget that some of the most destructive dictators in human history – Hitler and Mussolini – were both elected at the ballot box before suspending democracy in their countries and manufacturing continued support through biased educational programs, militarisation of the population and the outlawing of dissent. Only a minority of individuals dared to resist. References to European fascism need to be deployed carefully and sparingly given their powerful charge, but events of recent months and the change in global discussions around democracy seem to me to make the provocation necessary.

The greatest threat to the future of democracy in Egypt is not the people of the country, but the collapsing economy and the food crisis: prerequisites for the very survival of the people. There is a need for massive international aid to Egypt to secure this. Soon after the overthrown of Mubarak in 2011, Obama talked of a ‘Marshall plan’ for the country. The European Union also promised funds. The Marshall plan never materialised (the funds were extremely low), and the achievements of the EU funds are limited. Now the international community is becoming ever more hesitant to give support, which is precisely the wrong reaction. In the absence of a functional government in Egypt there is of course a significant issue of developing a strategy for the funds to be used most effectively – but that is a problem for which solutions could be found, starting with genuine engagement with the civil society actors in the country. The youth have shown how to reach out to people and organise.

Those of us who claim to believe in democracy must trust in the people: trust in them to make good choices in elections, but also trust in them to take the necessary action when democracy is being suspended from above. The young people of Egypt in the past week have once again provided an inspiring example of the people resisting massively, peacefully and with a clear set of demands to call for a democratic, fair and just society. We should stand along with them and see if we might learn from their aspirations.