Some legal and political activists warned that delay in effecting democratic changes in the Arab countries, primarily Egypt, will lead to force these changes to come from outside in various forms, which will not serve the interests of the Arab societies. Others confirmed that change will not happen in these societies except with the assistance and meeting with the outside.
This discussion was held in a seminar organized by the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) within Ibn Roshd salon under the title “Is peaceful change in the Arab world feasible from the inside?”. Bahey El Din Hassan, CIHRS Director, emphasized the importance of posing this question, especially after the American invasion of Iraq, indicating that different regions in the world were affected by the democratic changes except for the Arab region.
Dr. Saad Al-Din Ibrahim, Director of Ibn Khaldoun Center for Developmental Studies mentioned that about this time twenty years ago, a group of Arab intellectuals attempted to organize a conference about the democracy crisis in the Arab world. However, they could not find one Arab capital to ready to host this conference, so they had to hold in Cyprus. This is considered the beginning of a movement for change in the Arab nation, because on its margin, the constitutive conference to establish the Arab Organization for Human Rights was held.
Ibrahim mentioned that this initiative occurred after a sad summer, just like the current period, when Lebanon was invaded by Israel, and this was strongly condemned by all the Arab countries, but none moved to defend Lebanon or the Palestinian Liberation Organization.
He further added that following the Israeli aggression, a demonstration was organized out of Al-Azhar Mosque, and just a few meters away, they were embarked by the central security soldiers with beating and violence. Three days after this incident, another demonstration went out in Tel Aviv comprising half a million citizens to protest against the exercises of the Israeli government in the invasion of Lebanon. A week later, a major demonstration went out in Algeria, but this time, it was opposing an old Belgian football referee who was unfair to their team at the 1982 World Cup.
Ibrahim asserted that the desire to change has been there for long in the Arab world, but they get frustrated. There is not one single Arab government that initiated change despite the strong need for it and its necessity to confront the outside. He indicated there are two powers that can make change; either a national civil popular power, or a foreign power.
He emphasized that if change does not come from the inside; it will be imposed from the outside, but will be according to its own agenda not ours. He demanded that we should not go too far in discussions to blame America and Israel in order to avoid the question. He added if we have to insult America and Israel, there would be one million curses on them, but we should find an answer to the question: Should we change or not? And how? He suggested a number of ideas in this connection, primarily that the civil society organizations call for civil rebellion which was used in the 1919 revolution as well as in India, which succeeded in uniting Egypt and the launch of a revolution that later on led to independence.
He mentioned that change and moving the stagnant waters will not be achieved if left to the governments or to the outside. Egypt and the Arab world remained under the Ottoman rule for four centuries; people were afraid of change and diligence until the French Expedition, which stemmed out a national motive. However, that was the event that moved the stagnant waters, and change started in the Arab East. He added if the matter is left to our governments, we will wait for four more centuries, proving that the National ruling party talks about change but does not change anything. He said, let us do something and stop cursing darkness and let us light just a small number of candles.
He ended his speech by saying he does not exclude probability of change from the inside, and hopes for it, however, we should not concern ourselves with the question where does change come from, and make a start from the inside. If assistance comes from the outside, we should not reject it, because this rejection will mean we have double standards if the society accepts outside assistance in different aspects of life. If it could offer assistance in political or social change, we should not reject it just because it comes from the outside. The important thing is to put it in its right context in society.
He indicated he is not for demanding the totalitarian attitude to change; he is satisfied with the start of any change. To insist that change should be comprehensive, integrated and achieving all hopes, will not lead to change of anything, but it will be asking for the impossible. He stated it is important for the different powers to agree on certain matters including: importance to limit the authorities of the President; that the Presidency would be limited to two terms maximum; and for elections to be between more than one candidate, and not by referendum.
A Different Agenda
The writer and Leftist intellectual Abdul Ghaffar Shukr took over and said that change and democratic transformation does not happen unless based on some conditions in society. He warned that change from the outside will come with a different agenda. As an example, he mentioned Powel’s initiative that focused on free economy in a manner that contradicts with the interests of the Arab communities; and does not take into consideration the interests of the toiling class. Then it focused on reforming the education curriculum because the existing curriculum calls for hatred of the West. Then it talked about the political relaxedness on the basis that democracies will not fight each other; the establishment of Arab democratic governments will make them stop fighting Israel, meaning that America seeks to achieve objectives that serve its own interests in the region and Israel’s interests as well.
Shukr added that the issue of change requires us to understand several matters, most importantly:
First: Democracy is not just measures taken by the government as viewed by some parties, but it means conflict management in society by peaceful means, it is also a way of life, a coordination of values that reflect on people’s behaviors, such as recognition of each other; dialogue, caring for the interests of others; equality, peaceful competition through certain vehicles to achieve this democracy such as elections, journalism, parliament, and civil society. He reminded that democracy is a historical process that takes a long time, and not achieving it quickly should not be a reason for being frustrated.
Second: Democracy is a societal problem and not just a political issue or a relationship between the government and the opposition, but it starts from the civil society organizations and sovereignty of democratic values in society.
Third: The growth of the personal influence of the democratic powers in society is very important, it is the main link that should exist, which requires establishing a frontier for democratic powers to fight for democracy according to a defined program. He asserted that the civil rebellion for example, will not be achieved unless there are democratic forces behind it. The Parties are required to play a major role in this respect. Part of the existing problems is that the party pluralism in Egypt was established, but the parties could not build themselves as an effective power, and their leadership’s behavior deviated from their actual objectives.
Shukr stated that the parties’ leaderships are required to build their parties as real democratic institutions to become models for citizens, and to build themselves as public institutions that are continuously growing. However, that will not be achieved unless the members of the party actively seek to extract it from the grip of the State and to strengthen its independence. Success therein will lead to establishing an infrastructure for democracy in Egypt.
Shukr called for viewing a set of factors which he considers negatively impact effecting democratic development in the Egyptian society, he mentioned:
1. The conservative rule’s attitude towards democratic change due to the authoritative inheritance of rule, which achieves direct interests to the selective ruling body and not to the wide layers of society. He referred to the constant talk about starting economic reform as a justification for delaying political reform. He said we should adopt economic policies that are concerned with the interests of the toiling majority, and to offer real job opportunities to citizens.
2. The environment surrounding the democratic change such as the arsenal laws restricting freedom, the sovereignty of non-democratic culture, emergencies, and the weakness of the civil society.
3. Behavior of some leadership of opposition parties which tended to conclude deals with the government and deals behind the scene, to guarantee some seats or some presence in the Parliament, where these leaderships abandoned their main mission, certainly most parties fell in this sin.
Shukr confirmed the necessity to regard the new powers in society that lack legitimacy, such as the Al-Wasat and Al-Karama, the Socialists, Revolutionists parties, as well as public committees for solidarity with the Palestinian and Iraqi peoples. He also referred to some research centers that emerged with some political projects that need to be crystallized, such as centers for Justice and Socialist studies, and the Egyptian Social and Democratic Center. The past five years witnessed the return of civil society activists who resumed their interest in political issues, which is a positive phenomenon that should be welcomed.
The Muslim Brotherhood Group has a certain responsibility regarding democratic change, since they are the largest opposition party. They have to clearly state a comprehensive attitude towards development and transfer of rule and authority, to clearly determine its nature, whether it will change to a political party with a program that includes their attitudes towards society’s problems, as well as their internal and external relations, or will they be satisfied to be a group for education and propaganda only and to support an Islamic party with Islamic background, thus reassuring other powers that the Group uses democracy to swoop it down later.
Shukr further stated that when everyone is convinced that peaceful competition will guarantee their interests, there will be joint responsibility on all the powers and civil society organizations and parties, which nevertheless will not relieve the ruling party of its responsibility to achieve prompt reforms to deliver the country from the existing dilemma.
Assistance from the Outside
Negad El Boraie, attorney and former Director of Group for Democratic Development (GDD), stated that the speeches given by those preceding him have carried telegraphic responses to the question raised in the seminar, and he called to liberate meanings, indicating that democracy is a means to officially transfer authority. The “outside” does not mean America or interference with military forces, as referred to in the terrible media pressures; change is an open path that leads to some modifications creating positive changes in the existing political systems, just as what happened in parts of the far east, without forcing an entire system to be removed, like what happened in Iraq.
El Boraie said that as mentioned earlier, no change happens from the inside along, and those who say that are mistaken, which means that societies are closed and are not exposed to external influences. However, the behavior of man is a result of internal and external influences. There is no society that is immune to external influences, except those that existed in Iraq during Saddam Hussein’s time. However, in other societies like Egypt and Tunis, systems alone are no longer capable to make change happen from the inside alone. Those who talk about a country like Egypt believing change will be imposed from the outside, created a concept signifying that the inside does not want to change and is satisfied with status quo.
He believes the question that should be asked is whether we can be assisted to make change or not? Those who talk about the feasibility of internal influences only do not read the events, noting that the first change that happened in Egypt came with the French Expedition, and had it not come, we could have waited another century to get out of the darkness that prevailed. Adding to that are influences resulting from the missions sent by Mohamed Ali abroad, whose members were called “the French Legion”, as well as the changes that came with the open door policy adopted by Sadat resulting from internal and external circumstances.
El Boraie regards the problem lies in the agenda. The Egyptian society is supposed to have its own agenda which it will always choose. For many years, the human rights organizations have been accused of being agents to the outside, although they adopted the strongest positions opposing the United States.
El Boraie asserted that the current position of the select and the political regime does not allow the opportunity to change; change will not happen, in his view, except in the meeting of external with internal influences, further, no change will ever happen by force.
El Boraie also thinks that what is happening with the National Ruling Party is positive and is a result of the meeting of external and internal influences. The government itself acknowledges that the external influence has a certain role. He demanded that each should do his job in order to make that change happen by all possible means without interference from the outside; let the outside do whatever it does, as long as we have our own agenda. He emphasized that no change can ever happen as a result of strong interaction of internal powers alone, because the subdued cannot alone break their chains and ties.
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