Will Democracy Finally Arrive in Egypt?

AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo
By Tamer Aziz Hassan

For all its rich history, Egypt has never had an elected leader, let alone a fair election. Many argue that King Farouk I was the last King of Egypt, but the reality is that there has always been a monarchy. 

Its title may have changed but the role remains the same, with each succession being a hand-me-down to the throne. A country whose currency (Egyptian Pound, E£) not that long ago rivalled the Pound Sterling and the US Dollar, has been turned into an economic disaster. One just has to wander through Shoubra El Kheima to see the severity of the poverty, or engage with any of Egypt’s bureaucracy to see the routine corruption that takes place. The average wages of the working class are around E£500 per month, the equivalent of around GBP£48. This is only worsened by the high cost of living in relation to wages; a kilo of meat, for example, is roughly E£55, which is more or less equal to three or four days’ wages. Hence, it has become a state where the rich are sitting on billions of dollars and the poor struggle to eat and send their children to school. It is no surprise that people find themselves frustrated and turning to violence. In stark contrast to the masses, former President Hosni Mubarak and his immediate family (wife Suzanne and sons Alaa and Gamal) are worth upwards of US$60 billion. That is almost the amount of Egypt’s entire foreign debt.

Within thirty years Mubarak successfully made the country into a playground for his little circle of billionaires to profit. One thing is clear: Mubarak and his advisors had never wanted Egypt to progress. The decline in the middle class after Gamal Abdel Nasser produced an environment that could be controlled: the poorer the people found themselves, generally the less they worried about politics. The biggest problem that faces Egyptians now is to find the ability to realize what they want politically and what hopes and aspirations they might have for their country. More than fifty years of political oppression has created a vacuum that will take some time to fill.

Barely weeks after Mubarak stepped down, the old crony regime of government has been dissolved and a new constitution has already entered the drafting stages. It is unlikely, however, that the Egyptian people will get everything right from the beginning, and it will be a slow process, unlike the sudden revolution that occurred.  Solutions will need to be found, such as combating the corruption that is so rampant and inherent in most parts of society. Egypt now sits in a vulnerable position, where the foundations of a new political narrative are being formed.  If reforms are done properly, they could well prove a catalyst for Egypt to become one of the most successful democracies in the Middle East and, indeed, globally.

Regardless of what some may say, the West does have a role to play. Western countries must act as consultants, providing impartial advice as needed and only when requested, and using carefully judged diplomacy. Anything short of this kind of diplomacy could have very serious effects on relations between the Middle East and the West.

In the midst of revolt and revolution the focus has been on the immediate events, with little coverage about who may become the next president. Many spectators have argued that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only group in a position to lead, possibly creating a new Iranian style theocracy. While Mubarak was in power they were definitely the favourite popular party. Yet this was largely contextual; much of their popularity was due to widespread dissatisfaction with Mubarak. The Muslim Brotherhood represented another way that was not the Mubarak way and thus much fanfare circled around them. Now in a bigger arena, they represent less than twenty percent of the population. Secondly, this revolution was not a religious revolution; it was a political, grassroots one. In Tahrir Square, Christians protected Muslims while they prayed, and Muslims protected Christians in their Mass. For the first time, lines were not drawn by religion but by being Egyptian.

With Mohammed Elbaradei - the self proclaimed agent of change and leader of a cluster of relatively small opposition groups - arriving in Cairo in late January, there has been much speculation that things will change in the near future. Although he has the backing of several political parties, there are huge hurdles that confront him. Elbaradei would have to strategize and implement change in a political system built around corruption and impossible red tape. He would have to command the compassion of his people and the respect of his government and military in order to last even a single term. This task is almost impossible. Many people see him as an outsider, as he has spent the last thirty years away from his homeland.

The more likely candidates are Kamal Ganzouri, Amr Moussa and Ahmed Zewail. These people represent change where it is most needed: on the economy, education and interstate relations. Ganzouri, while relatively old, is an expert in economics. He coined the idea that twenty per cent of the Suez income should be in Egyptian Pounds and the rest in US Dollars. This would systematically strengthen the local currency overnight while providing the much-needed international capital that is vital for international trade.

Moussa is very well versed in the political language of the Middle East; he has been Secretary General of the Arab League for one decade. He possesses the most political experience. However, he would probably be more suited to the role of foreign minister than of a president tasked with rebuilding a new Egypt.

Lastly, Ahmed Zewail, a Nobel prize winner, who has talked for years about reforms to education in Egypt. It is through education that Egypt has the best chance of long-term success. Each of these people can contribute to the new government and provide a new driving force for the future Egypt.

Egypt can once again be great; it can once again have pride among its peers. The power for that to happen now rests in the hands of the Egyptian people for the very first time.


22 March 2011


Tamer Aziz Hassan was born in London to an Egyptian father and English mother. He divides his time between Cairo and London, and is currently completing an MA in International Relations at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London. 


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo


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