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Egypt's democratic history

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COMMENTS

12 July 2011 16:46

Dr Giora Eliraz is an Associate Researcher at the Harry S Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

In his article, 'Indonesian democracy: The myth of '98', Stephen Grenville argues that my post, 'Indonesia's role in Egypt's democratisation', misleads by peddling 'the idea that democracy (in Indonesia) was created, ab initio, in 1998'.

I did not delve into the pre-reformasi history of democracy in Indonesia, simply because it is Indonesia's contemporary experience with democracy that seems to be of interest to Egypt. The Indonesian Foreign Minister, Marty Natalegawa, made it clear during his visit to Cairo last April that 'Egypt believed that Indonesia has a successful experience in solving the political crisis in 1998'.

Grenville concludes:

But the crucially important element in assessing what the Indonesian experience might offer for contemporary Egypt is to ask whether Egypt has a counterpart for these long-standing democratic traditions, with vigorous legal political activities by mass-based parties, with all the trappings of elections and the opportunity for a whole political class to learn how to work in the knock-about world of politics.

I am happy to take up that challenge, even though I still believe (as apparently do the Egyptians) that the political and social similarities between contemporary Egypt and post-1998 Indonesia are significant in their own right. In my view, extending the period of historical analysis with regard to Egypt (not just Indonesia) only makes the case stronger.

In 1923, a multi-party constitutional monarchy was established in Egypt. However, from the early 1930s the power of the parliament was noticeably undermined and the power of the King increased. Nevertheless, liberal ideas about both politics and society, including calls for democratic-oriented reforms, continued to be expressed in the public sphere with considerable vigour in the years preceding World War II (see Israel Gershoni and James Jankowski, Confronting fascism in Egypt: Dictatorship versus democracy in the 1930s).

The constitutional monarchy itself survived until the military coup in 1952 when it was overthrown and Egypt became a republic. The new regime, headed by Gamal Abdel Nasser, soon abolished political parties and a single-party system was established. Anwar Sadat, Nasser's successor, reintroduced a multi-party system in 1970s which survived throughout Hosni Mubarak's era.

Yet this entire system, which included elections and parliamentary representation by political parties, had no real democratic substance. The ruling National Democratic Party was essentially a vehicle for mobilising support for the regime and enjoyed uncontested power, holding the great majority of the seats in parliament. Electoral procedures were far from transparent, civil liberties were regularly violated, political participation was severely restricted, parliament functioned as a rubber stamp for an authoritarian regime, and the idea of effecting basic political change through elections was a mere fantasy.

But although the channels for political participation were heavily restricted, they enabled opposition forces to practise politics to a limited degree. Their advocacy occasionally embarrassed and challenged the regime. In addition, opposition newspapers during the Mubarak era openly expressed a yearning for democratic reforms.

During Mubarak's last decade in power, Egyptian journalists and op-ed writers in opposition newspapers even made pointed references to Indonesia's transition to democracy. The building of democracy after 1998 in the home of the largest Muslim community in the world gave them hope for political change and evidence of the compatibility of Islam and democracy.

Hence, during almost six decades of authoritarian rule, the Egyptians too experienced some elements of popular participation in the political process. Also, democratic political concepts sometimes featured in public discourse. During the preceding period of about three decades of a multi-party constitutional monarchy, the Egyptians even occasionally experienced some genuine elements of a working liberal democracy.

As I previously emphasised, current political conditions in Egypt do not precisely reflect the immediate post-1998 situation in Indonesia. Some significant elements that have contributed to the success of democracy in Indonesia (particularly a strong, organised, moderate Muslim civil society committed to democratic values) are missing in the Egyptian context. But the similarities between these two large Muslim majority countries are more than sufficient to justify the current Egyptian interest in Indonesia's experience of building a democracy in the post-Suharto era.

Photo by Flickr user modenadude.

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