Democracy 101 for Egypt

Democracy 101 for Egypt

Can Egyptians turn the fervor of Tahrir into lasting political engagement?


Tonight’s class at the School for Politics, in the Egyptian Democratic Academy (EDA), focuses on socialism versus liberalism and the meaning of a civil state. The students are men and woman in their 20s or beyond, who’ve arrived at the end of their work or university day to spend the next four hours on a balcony turned classroom. The heat is only occasionally broken by a single rotating fan, and the noise from the traffic below is relentless. But no one seems to mind, and all eyes are on Esraa Nouh, the 25-year-old teacher. She wants to know: what have her students heard about liberalism?

Huriyah,” one man answers. Freedom.

“No connection to religion,” a woman responds.

It’s the first lesson in a crash course in civics: four days covering a semester’s worth of material: basic political ideologies, the definition of a constitution, direct versus representative democracy, presidential versus parliamentary-led government, Egyptian political trends and more. In breakout groups, students draft their own constitutions and advocate for different political visions.

Esraa walks the class through the early highlights of liberalism—from the Greek origins of the word to John Locke. She teaches the historical context of the oppression by the Catholic Church, the Protestant Reformation and Martin Luther. She explains, “Liberalism challenged a power that happened to wear religious clothing,” clarifying that liberalism did not challenge religion itself. She wants to debunk the popular idea in Egypt that to be a liberal is to be against religion.

The students are engaged—it’s impossible not to be. Dressed in a hijab and black Converse high-tops, Esraa exudes hope and boundless charisma that belie her tiny size. Though she is still in training to be a doctor, traveling to a hospital well outside Cairo several times a week, she ends nearly every day at EDA. Her father was a not-so-junior member of the Muslim Brotherhood who spent many years in Mubarak’s prisons. In the year before the revolution, Esraa came up through the classes of EDA’s Rocna Liberali, or Liberal Corner, a sort of book group for Egyptians teaching themselves about alternatives to dictatorship, theocratic states or military rule. She believes strongly in Egypt’s future, liberalism and John Stuart Mill.

EDA is the less glamorous front in the struggle for the new Egypt. Its classes are not live-tweeted in English by MTV-friendly youth, and one must leave Tahrir Square and cross the Nile to get to its Cairo headquarters in Doqqi. Leading such efforts are those who believe that Egyptians cannot rely on Tahrir Square to express their political goals, but must have access to a viable and self-sustaining democratic process in which they can meaningfully participate. More practically, they recognize that the unity displayed in Tahrir when it came to unseating Mubarak has given way to major disunity around the question of how to move the country forward—and that Egyptians will have to advocate for their competing visions, not in the square but on the electoral field. This reveals optimism that through electoral participation, groups like the Muslim Brotherhood, which have a lot of popular support despite being unproven politically, can be cut down to size. But this can happen, they believe, only through the participation of an educated and mobilized voting public.

EDA was founded in 2009 by liberal activists when the country was effectively under a one-party dictatorship. Its goal was to raise political awareness among Egyptians, who receive little, if any, civic education in school. Members started a radio station and began offering the Liberal Corner and other programs, advertising online, on the radio and on the street. Recognizing that only a quarter of Egyptians live in the capital, they opened several centers outside Cairo. In 2009, 500 Egyptians attended some sort of program at EDA; in 2010, 2,000 came through.

The founders of EDA hoped to foster a population that would demand their rights and an opposition that could eventually challenge the Mubarak regime from within the system. They did not imagine that the future of Egypt would be recast in eighteen days. Now they have gone from crafting a vision of change to rapidly adapting to a new reality: impending parliamentary elections in which members across the Egyptian spectrum, from Salafis to Socialists, will be able to participate. The stakes are higher than just seats; the winners will draft the new Egyptian Constitution, designing the contours of the new nation. Education will be crucial. “After the revolution, everyone was asking how to be active, involved,” says Ahmed Badawy, program director of the School for Politics. “They knew about freedom and rights but didn’t know what democracy is.”

In February the interim governing authority, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), dismantled the Egyptian Parliament and suspended the Constitution, which had guaranteed power to Mubarak and his party. Judicial experts were tasked with recommending amendments to ensure free elections, and in March a national referendum was held so that Egyptians could approve or reject their recommendations, through a “yes” or “no” vote. But the amendments were written in less than two weeks, and the referendum was held just three weeks later. For many, particularly those voting “no,” the referendum showed that Egyptians are being expected to speak a language they had previously been discouraged from even studying. They believed the vocabulary of the referendum was incomprehensible to many Egyptians and that many would have voted differently if they had fully understood their options. The “yes” vote called for a faster end to military rule—an appealing idea, but one that also meant that elections would be held earlier. To “no” voters, this was putting the cart way before the horse, as one of the basic cells in the electoral process—parties—were only just forming. “No” voters also feared that early elections would hugely advantage the organized and on-message Muslim Brotherhood. While it had not established an official party until recently, it had the architecture of one, eighty years in the making, and a constituency won over through offering social services the government utterly failed to provide. None of the other parties can compete with that.

Under Mubarak, most political parties were banned. Today there are at least twenty active parties. Since the revolution, seven new parties been officially recognized, having gathered the requisite 5,000 signatures from at least ten of Egypt’s twenty-nine governorates, and another five or so are poised to emerge before the election. Formed by many of the veterans of Tahrir Square—from individual activists who achieved a profile writing or blogging to organized groups participating in formal politics for the first time—the new parties can generally be categorized either as Islamist, ranging from models like Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party to others favoring a full-fledged Islamic state, or liberal or social democratic, their main differences being the degree to which Egypt’s Muslim identity should be inscribed in the Constitution.

But in the absence of any election law that lays out the basics—who is eligible to be a candidate; whether parties will run lists, run from districts or run nationally—these parties remain in a holding pattern. Efforts toward voter outreach focus mostly on promoting their brand. The draft law version, floated by the SCAF in July, has been widely criticized by most parties.

“The elections will be a game-changer; they will shift politics to institutions and away from the square,” says Dina Shehata, a senior researcher at Cairo’s Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “But will the square be ready for that shift?”

Many have attempted to harness the symbolic and strategic power of Tahrir Square since the toppling of Mubarak. There were the activists in matching T-shirts calling for the release of a friend jailed after a protest at the Israeli Embassy. Others have rallied for the prosecution of Mubarak, his family and ministers. And then there are the grieving family members with the most personal of demands: accountability for the security forces who murdered their loved ones on January 28. Calls to retake Tahrir on various Fridays have attracted a mix of people, from those seeking revolution to carnival to a place to take the kids on the day off.

In July, Tahrir seemed to be at its most relevant again, when activists reoccupied the square for three weeks before being forcibly dispersed. The traffic roundabout was transformed into a tent city with lively political discussions, miked and unmiked soapboxing, and all the necessary services: self-organized security; siphoned electricity; food vendors; barbers; and hawkers of flags, postcards, buttons and sunglasses. Aimed mostly at the interim government, their protests focused on a lack of transparency; civilians being held in military detention and tried by military courts; impunity for those who killed civilians during the revolution; the yet-to-be dismantled Ministry of Interior, which spied on Egyptians for decades and against whom much of the ire of the revolution was directed. But the unity that characterized Tahrir in February was long gone. Instead, the square became a space where competing interests showed off the size of their constituencies.

For burgeoning movements and parties, their presence and stamina shows the Muslim Brotherhood that it is not the sole voice of Egypt—nor is it the only force capable of turning out people in large numbers. Many believe that the Brotherhood has cut a deal with the SCAF to keep the square empty as a way to ingratiate itself with the interim rulers. But while the Brotherhood has not maintained a presence in Tahrir, it did make up a large part of the massive showing of Islamist forces on July 29 that drowned out and overwhelmed the Tahrir activists on their own turf. The rally was a sobering wake-up call to many secular and liberal forces who, as with the referendum, seemed caught off-guard by the preparedness of the Brotherhood. This underscored their own lack of preparation for the elections.

“Every second [other parties] spend in Tahrir, the MB is organizing districts, they’re pressing flesh and doing door-to-door,” says David Faris, a specialist in Egyptian politics at Roosevelt University. “They’re running a serious operation and not participating in Tahrir.”

While the momentum of the square ebbs and flows, not everyone agrees that Tahrir should be at the center of organizing for a new Egypt. Critics point to an economy and tourism trade that have yet to rebound, the latter still suffering from the instability projected by the presence of thousands in a central square. Others question the logic of constantly pressuring a transitional authority that will be dismantled as soon as a civilian government is elected. For them, the elections should be the focus.

Regardless, any short-term momentum gained in Tahrir, which has been undeniably instrumental in engaging Egyptians in their political future, can be sustained and translated into real power only through longer-term strategizing and the educational efforts of civil society groups like EDA.

“We have to pursue both channels,” says Mohamed Ghoneim, founder of Taharok Igaby, a nonpolitical group that has been organizing debates around Egypt, inviting party leaders and potential voters to attend and meet. “Neglecting one for the other would be the biggest mistake as a people.”

At 9 pm, after a four-hour class, Esraa Nouh sets off for Tahrir Square. On her way out, she points to stacks of newly arrived training materials EDA will provide to graduates from the School for Politics who want to consider joining a party (a much more complicated process than in the United States) or even running for office.

In Tahrir, weaving her way through the labyrinth of tents—their canvas surfaces splashed with slogans, party names and demands—Esraa seems almost swallowed up by the square. She sees a lack of unity in the demands of those occupying Tahrir and worries about what she describes as revolution fatigue among Egyptians. Still, she is optimistic. “I always have hope,” she says.
”I see the Egyptian people waking up; there’s a real awareness among the people and they’re trying to participate in the decision-making that affects their lives.”

Like others, EDA planned to ramp up its outreach in Tahrir during the slowed-down days of Ramadan. Teachers from the School for Politics were to work in shifts at a tent to provide information on elections, how to vote and how to recognize misconduct. But the SCAF cleared the square in August, and EDA was denied access to the open-air classroom.

Will Egyptians be ready in time? Esraa thinks so. “The majority of the Egyptian people rejected dictatorship and made revolution happen,” she says. “They need democracy, and Egyptians will make it happen.”

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