A report on the discussion round on the democratic experience of Egypt:Egypt, rediscovered [Archives:2005/883/Reportage]

October 6 2005
Photo from archived article: photos/883/report1_1
Photo from archived article: photos/883/report1_1

The close association between Yemen and Egypt has again manifested itself through the friendly well informing discussion round which took place last Wednesday at Yemen 21st Century Forum at the Yemen Times. The discussion was about the Egyptian elections along with reviewing the democratic experience of Egypt in the past and until today. The main working paper was presented by His Excellency Dr. Mohamed Badr Eldin Zayed Egyptian Ambassador to Yemen, who was introduced to the gathering by Dr. Ahmed al-Asbahi Assistant Secretary-General of the GPC. Dr. Al-Asbahi described briefly the good relations between Yemen and Egypt and how the current staff in the Embassy lead by Dr. Badr Eldin has promoted the level of economic, cultural, educational and political relations between the two countries significantly.

The discussion coincided with the anniversary of the passing away of late leader of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasir who is considered a hero in most of the Arab and African countries. The discussion also came directly after the oath swearing ceremony of President Mohamed Hosni Mubarak as the first elected President of Egypt. President Mubarak declared that this is a mile stone in the recent democratic history of Egypt and it is a point of progress where “there is no turning back” indicating that Egypt will encourage and foster the democratic process of elections, hence forth welcoming all sorts of contributions that aim at enriching the democratic experience in the country.

“We are very delighted to be here with this intellectual crowd and in these celebrative days of the Yemeni revolutions. It is a chance to review the democratic process in Egypt and indeed to commend the achievements that not only affect Egypt as a nation but extends to reach the whole Arab world and African countries as well” Dr. Al-Asbahi commented. He added that during the time of Mubarak's rule there have been many achievements in many fields including industry, forestation, employment and political relations. He also emphasized a fact, which he noticed first hand about Egyptian people; “It is a marvellous trait of the Egyptian people that I wish all people would learn from. No matter how strong the internal differences are, Egypt always comes first, always has and always will!”

Humbly, Dr. Badr Eldin started his talk bringing so much of the Egyptian history to our table at the Yemen Times. The smooth narration of history and vivid clarifications of facts made the participants live through the phases of Egyptian history from ancient times to the modern starting with the time of Mohamed Ali Pasha and until today. It was like rediscovering Egypt again through the words of a knowledgeable insider. After thanking the Yemen Times for hosting this special event, and thanking his colleagues in the session, Dr. Mohamed Badr Eldin started the presentation by clarifying one important point. “Democracy is not a new concept for Egypt and elections were carried out in the past one way or another! The Egyptian political process is often misunderstood and to know the truth, the history of Egypt must be revised,” he said. With that statement all ears and eyes were hanging on every word he spoke, we were thinking to ourselves how could elections not be new to Egypt when the recent elections were the first to take place since the revolution? Could there have been a democratic space during the Egyptian Monarchy? To our astonishment the answer was yes.

Dr. Badr Eldin continued indicating that because of the long and complicated political process in Egypt, many tend to miss out vital phenomena that took place during the past. For instance, the great revolutions of the past during the Middle Kingdom of the Ancient Egyptian State were pioneer political movements in history took place even older than the democratic process in Europe and the Western Hemisphere. Mohamed Ali Pasha himself in early 19th Century had come to power because of the political will of the elite political and social figures of the time. The will of the intellectuals was enforced on the Ottoman Empire which was seen as incompetent in protecting Egypt from the French or the British, who were defeated by the Egyptians themselves at a later stage.

“In the early 19th Khedewi Ismael tried to implement some of the manifestations of modern life and established a parliament in a show of democracy without having it in the true sense. But what did happen was when the democratic movements started to take place in the world such as the Magna Carta movement in Britain things got out of Khedewi's hands and the members of parliament who were representatives of the aristocratic class started to challenge Khedewi Ismael in demand for true reforms and building a real democratic system. The Khedewi's reaction then was to dissolve the Parliament an event that lead to Orabi's revolution in 1881 of which the main demand was to establish a democratic society and a parliamentary system in Egypt. Unfortunately, it was the British intervention then that aborted the democratic process in Egypt and turned Egypt into a British Colony. In 1919 the national anti-colonial movement was formed and a revolution took place establishing a constitution in 1923 at a time when democracy world wide was a myth. The period between 1923 and 1952 was characterized as a lively parliamentary democratic phase hurdled by two powers: the king and the British occupation.”

“Here comes a new era in the Egyptian political process. Achievements in many domains were recognized on the political, social and economic dimensions, domestically and regionally on both the Arab and African fronts. There were mistakes also that lead to the defeat in 1967, Gamal Abdel Nasir, the then President, admitted to these mistakes himself in a famous 30th March speech, when he emphasized the need to establish a democratic system. This was followed by President Sadat's welcoming of a multi-political system and a degree of freedom of expression was initiated. During President Mubarak's rule the freedom-margin expanded greatly as President Mubarak's first political move internally was to meet with the opposing political forces. The fall back was when Egypt was drawn into endless struggle against terrorism that made the speed of the democratic process relax.”

The above were quotes from Dr. Badr Eldin's narration of the democratic process in Egypt over the years. One point became clear after this information was given; the democratic experience in Egypt is not new. However, we all had questions regarding the recent elections experience. The participants ranging from journalists and media people, to intellectuals and political party representatives had a few questions for Dr. Badr Eldin and Dr. Al-Asbahi in mind.

The discussion:

The Muslim brothers

Q: A question was raised about the influence of the Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in the political arena and why the ruling party could not embrace such a movement although it is more of charity work than an organized political movement.

A: Ambassador Dr. Zayed was clear in his reply; there is not enough appreciation in the Arab World and elsewhere for the Egyptian Christian population which constitutes a sizeable number of the whole population. He added that Egypt provides a model of coexistence that is studied by many throughout the world. The Egyptian government is determined to jeopardize this for the sake of having religious parties especially that everyone can participate through legitimate parties.

Low participation

Q: Many questions were raised regarding the low participation in the elections, 23% is really low, and what do you say to that?

A: The percentage of participation in any country is governed by many factors. There is no cut off limit for a credible percentage. However, if you consider recent referenda and elections you would notice that there has been an increase. It takes time for people to adapt to the new experience and realize the importance of political participation.

Many candidates and huge difference in votes

Q: There were 10 candidates and some of which seemed rather feeble to stand against the President, yet the strongest opposition came with a huge difference in votes, what do you think that is so?

A: There is no limitation to the number of candidates and I hope that the profile of the opposition candidates would improve in future elections as they have learned from this one. The difference in votes could be attributed to the trust people have in Mubarak along with the fact that the second place came to a person who participated only recently in the political stage.

Government and opposition

Q: To what extent does the government support the existence of opposition? And shouldn't it?

A: The opposition should gain its grounds on its own using the existing legal framework especially that the government has promised that political reform is continuing. Opposition parties obtain their legitimacy from addressing the basic needs of the Egyptian people. You should not expect the government to support the opposition. It never has and never will.

Vice President

Q: Each Egyptian President until Mubarak had a Vice President who eventually took over. How come there is no current Vice President for Mubarak?

A: Probably this was his political will to allow space for a better choice and elections. The current political reforms will address the role of the Vice President.

Egypt and the Arab world

Q: Another question was raised concerning the impact of the recent Egyptian elections.

A: Dr. Ahmed al-Asbahi replied to this question by saying that although every country has its own peculiarities the essential priority is to have space for dialogue and try to observe and learn from each other. “You can not simply compare an experience in one country and say why this is not happening elsewhere because every country has its own peculiarities and its current status depends greatly on its historical progress. However in our hearts we know that Egypt is considered the heartbeat of the Arab world and as long as that heart is fine, we would like to think that the good health would be spreading to the other parts of the nation. We should learn from each other's experiences without prejudice, the culture of dialogue should dominate because this is its time and place,” he said.