Is Egypt the only true democracy on earth? Well, if democracy is indeed solely defined as ‘vox populi – the voice of the people’ then one cannot disagree. Since the revolution in Egypt in 2011, I have not met a single silent soul. Egyptians of all ages, social-economic backgrounds, colors, religions, education, you name it, have something – usually a bit more – to say about what’s going on in their country. Egyptians have shown – and are not resting at it – that their voice is their right, their power, their rule. And they will ensure it is heard. And when slightly doubtful they go unheard, they speak louder and become visible. They ‘go down’ – to the streets – and embody their voice so that no institution, no authority, can claim it did not hear what the Egyptian people had to say. Google-Earth is their proof. They were there, they were visible, they were more. And therefore have the right to rule.
If democracy truly works that way, then I’m doing a lousy job serving my cabinet, preparing my Ministers to interact with parliament according to the rules we agreed upon in our constitution and consecutive laws. Then I’m just a passive and silent citizen as I patiently wait for elections and swallow the austerity measures being taken by my coalition government consisting only for half of my political preference.
So yes, based on voice, noise and numbers, Egypt is a democratic nation. But that does not make it a functioning state. If the Egyptian people prefer to be stateless, live in anarchy and rely merely on people power and social media to determine their legitimacy, then taking pictures of one crowd outnumbering the other crowd in order for the first to gather more people for a revenge outnumbering, is indeed the right way forward. But if the Egyptian people also want a democratic government, a functioning state, with institutions in place which channel and enable representation of their voice in order for them to spend their time, energy and capital in a more productive location than the streets while trusting their sovereign to take care of the general interest of the country, then the current state of affairs is negatively contributing to the future of the Egyptian people. So should the Egyptian people stop demonstrating? Perhaps. But a more important question to ask is: what is their alternative?
After spending hours, days, weeks of conversations and interviews with demonstrators from all walks of life and political affiliation listening and asking what it is that they want, my positive hope for Egypt’s future slightly fades. Not because the voices differ – which should only be cherished in a large heterogeneous country like Egypt – but because the arguments for (usually against) a particular solution (usually a problem) are based on biased sources, prompted by exclusion, overshadowed by denial, filled with grievance and a clear result of decades of democratic deprivation. But what else than revolutionary rebellion can be expected from a nation which has never received a righteous opportunity to speak through different channels? Truth is: streets and social media enjoy more legitimacy than governmental institutions.
What Egypt needs is a new strong social contract: agreed upon rules of the game of all formal and informal institutions. A social contract binds the sovereign and the governed serenely together with rights and duties towards each other for mutual benefit. This fosters legitimacy, stability and inclusive development.
An ideal social contract consists of three dimensions, a political, social and economic one. The political dimension currently determines the instability in Egypt and deserves priority. This dimension refers to agreed upon rules, roles, rights and responsibilities of political institutions. In theory, due to these accepted ‘rules of the game’, dissatisfaction can be expressed through non-violent channels and decisions made within this framework are generally acknowledged to be fair. What we see in Egypt is that this political dimension is completely disrupted. There is no agreement, no trust, not even understanding, of these political institutions. Two major ones – the army and the ballot – are currently violently contested over. Who still understands the hierarchy of courts, trusts the independence of the judiciary, expects parliament to exert its legislative role or counts on ministers to invest in the nation rather than their own networks and pockets? If laws are considered unjust, decisions imposed, players unfair and outcomes corrupt, then what else can we expect from people than gather territorially in squares, demonstrate and demand their political opponent to be ousted from power? Military coup or not – that’s not the essential question to be answered. What’s important is to agree on the role, rules, rights and responsibility of the army as an institution – as well as all other political institutions – instead of holding up a poster with the portrait of an individual politically preferred power.
Egypt needs more than a roadmap. The Egyptian people need to agree on the type of vehicle they wish to ride, agree on and respect their fellow passengers, define traffic rules and construct proper roads. This should be done irrespective of their desired driver. Only then can their chauffeur, once legitimately chosen – whether by the count of Google Earth of held-up posters or through the ballot box – be installed, trusted, held accountable and patiently waited for to park at an agreed upon check-point and an agreed upon arrival time to hand over the wheel to the next. But as long as Egypt is stuck with a broken wheelbarrow, people believing it to be a space shuttle, disagreeing about rebuilding it into a flying carpet or a trailer and breaking pavements into rocks to throw at each other rather than constructing roads – then even if the Wizard of Oz with a team of Power Rangers are granted to steer they will get stuck in Egypt’s notorious traffic jams, road blocks, claxon-scolding, slipper-throwing and delays – leaving everyone frustrated, grieved, deprived and motivated to hit the streets once more and chant ‘irhal!’