From Dictatorship to Democracy

Political analyst Amr Hamzawy says that Egypt’s new challenge is to transform the “protesting citizen” into a “participating citizen”

CAIRO REVIEW: What does the revolution mean for Egypt?

AMR HAMZAWY: Let’s start chronologically, with the significance of January 25. I guess the major, major point of January 25 was that citizens for the first time regained the street as a political arena. [This] entailed the fact that the barrier of fear was [made relative], at least to the extent that citizens could express themselves freely, they were able to express themselves in big numbers freely, and to try to stand their ground in front of brutal security apparatus. The numbers which took out to the street in Cairo, Alexandria, and elsewhere were not the numbers which we expected. No one expected it to turn that way. Everyone was expecting to see the same familiar faces of [the Egyptian opposition group] Kifaya and a couple of activists who we have been following in the last years. January 28 was the real beginning of the citizen’s revolution in Egypt in different ways. We did not only have young members of protest networks and movements, we had cross-cutting representation of different social groups, highly representative. We had a massive increase in the numbers of demonstrators and we had an increase in the nationwide nature of what was going on. The last time Egyptians took to the streets in similar numbers was 1919.

CAIRO REVIEW: The political meaning of that?

AMR HAMZAWY: Regaining control over the streets meant that people were giving up on whatever they invested hope in, in terms of reforming Egypt and democratizing Egypt. Some people had invested hope in the reform orientation of the NDP (ruling National Democratic Party), others invested hope in opposition parties and movements, be it the Wafd or the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood). It was [a testament] to the failure of not only the ruling party but of the opposition parties and movements in pushing reform. It was a constituency of Egyptians coming together in a sustained manner to push democratic demands in a non-ideological manner, in a peaceful manner, and in a clear manner, which really did not need any additional articulation by a leadership. To my mind that was one of the most impressive aspects of the citizens’ revolution in Egypt. It was based on a national consensus that emerged in the ‘free public space.’

CAIRO REVIEW: This was surprising?

AMR HAMZAWY: I was always in favor of doubting how significant ‘free public debates’ are in Egypt, with whatever ‘red lines’ we had been having. But it seemed that they had an impact. They created a national consensus where they took that out to the streets, they built on that in articulating their demands. We started with Cairo, Alexandria, and Suez and then in the last days Upper Egyptian governorates coming, like in Minya and Sohag. It developed gradually in terms of sectoral representation, young people, poor segments, middle class, workers, industrial workers, peasants. Finally, we had the urban/rural divide which was transcended in the last days, in the third week. The sheer number who took out to the street to demand Mubarak’s resignation was by far more than those who voted for Mubarak in all elections between 1981 and 2005. He never got more than four million, and what we had was definitely more than that.

CAIRO REVIEW: What were the demands of this national consensus?

AMR HAMZAWY: The demands of January 25 were at least [Interior Minister Habib] El-Adly’s resignation. The demands of January 28 were the removal of the regime. And then around that we moved in a very rational manner between different versions. Well, let him delegate to the vice president. He delegated too late. We are now to the phase of trying to see if we could put Egypt on a safe path towards democratization.

CAIRO REVIEW: Many were astonished by the events.

AMR HAMZAWY: The assumption that Egyptians are not willing to challenge authority is based on wrong reading of Egyptian history. Egyptian history has never been a history of submission to rulers. And although no one of us expected it to turn the way it turned, many of us saw the ingredients, with the political backsliding, the socioeconomic crises, and sectarian tensions everywhere, that a change was going to come.

“What does it take? The right mix of procedures, mechanisms, institutions, structures, institutional traditions, precedents. This is not being discussed.”

CAIRO REVIEW: Then what accounts for how the regime was able to maintain such a tight control for thirty years?

AMR HAMZAWY: The regime went through different phases. The real failure of the regime or the collapse of its legitimacy started in 2005. Up until 2005, Mubarak was not a hated figure. Some people never liked him, some liked him, but the overall performance of Mubarak one could say was more balanced [compared] to [Anwar] Sadat and [Gamal]Abdel Nasser. We had a degree of freedom of expression, a bit of freedom of association. Human rights violations were of course there but they were not as bad as they were under Abdel Nasser. We had more of a market economy, some cases of corruption but not massive-scale corruption. The father-son succession scenario was rumored but was not a reality. But after 2005, Mubarak started to lose track of what was going on in Egypt. He distanced himself from the population, which always appreciated his frankness, his ability to address them and their concerns. Corruption became wide-scale and embedded in the ruling establishment. Gamal Mubarak’s succession scenario became a project and was implemented. [There was a] complete backsliding on political freedoms and freedoms of association and expression. [There were] disastrous elections for the Shura Council and People’s Assembly. We had growing rates of economic development but they never trickled down. So this was a bleak picture, and add to that the illness of an ailing president who was no longer in charge. The arrogance of the regime reached a point where even an opposition representation in the People’s Assembly was no longer tolerated. This pushing out socioeconomically and politically meant ultimately pushing them out to the street.

CAIRO REVIEW: What was the spark?

AMR HAMZAWY: Even if you go to the young members of the protest who organized January 25, no one of them expected to see that turnout, no one of them expected to see fifty thousand Egyptians demonstrating. They expected much more modest numbers. So there was an element of surprise, which was definitely related to Tunisia, the discovery by many citizens of Egypt of how weak those authoritarian, autocratic regimes are.

CAIRO REVIEW: Was there a leader of this revolution?

AMR HAMZAWY: No. This is something I increasingly find frustrating in our public debate. [People] are trying to substitute the question of institutions and mechanisms with leaders, which is why you are seeing now an increased debate about [Nobel laureate] Ahmed Zewail, and [Arab League Secretary General] Amr Moussa. What is really key as of now is to agree on what is going to happen not only to the constitution but to the political reengineering of Egypt. To open up the system, to create and sustain competitive elections. What will happen in terms of rebuilding and reforming state institutions, rebuilding the security apparatus, reforming state media. What does it take? The right mix of procedures, mechanisms, institutions, structures, institutional traditions, precedents. This is not being discussed.

CAIRO REVIEW: Who started the protest on January 25?

AMR HAMZAWY: There were six groups, which are known, and all of them are now in the January 25 Revolution Youth Coalition, coming from different party affiliations: Al-Ghad (Tomorrow), El-Gabha (Democratic Front), Ikhwan (Brotherhood), and other groups that are liberal or leftist, the April 6 Movement. They coordinated. There was an unorganized segment which in fact starting on January 28 became even more crucial. [Without them] it would have failed. Then the last week, the decisive turning point was the industrial workers and professional associations, the railways, public transportation, basically on strike and [performing] civil disobedience. They were the ones who really pushed the military establishment to force Mubarak to resign.

CAIRO REVIEW: That was the push?

AMR HAMZAWY: Right. If he would have delegated ten days after the beginning of the revolution, he would have gotten away with the delegation formula. It was accepted. He always gave too little and too late. This has been Mubarak’s recipe in the last five years. Basically, we would have had him as an honorary president and [Vice President] Omar Suleiman would have continued to manage what he was starting to get into: national dialogue, opening up. I was in Tahrir every day. It would have been accepted, to my mind. People would have wished to keep the military establishment out of the direct management of Egyptian politics. After all, we had the 1952 experience, and we had these two years between 1952 and 1954 where democracy was promised and we ended up going in a completely different direction.

CAIRO REVIEW: What happened on February 10 and 11?

AMR HAMZAWY: This was a country feeling as if it was going to disintegrate very soon. The army had been out in the streets trying to police a country, but not policing it effectively. The collective psychology by Thursday was expecting only “I resign.” What happened was a massive escalation, once again. The march to the [presidential palace] Qasr Al-Oruba, different marches elsewhere, this was really like a country falling apart. So the military had to push him. That’s what they did. We don’t know much. We know that they gave him the chance to see how the delegation scenario will work out. Since it did not work out, they resorted back to the originally preferred [option] I guess on Thursday, which was for him to step down. And then they pushed him to step down.

CAIRO REVIEW: How does the youth movement translate the revolution into an actual political system where they have a role?

AMR HAMZAWY: That’s one of the key challenges. Countries which undergo democratic transitions after citizens’ revolutions have a very hard time the first years trying to get the right mix of processes, institutions, mechanisms, and safeguards. [These must] ensure the rule of law, the creation of democratic institutions, peaceful competition in the formal political sphere, citizens’ participation. Basically, to transfer the protesting and striking citizen from being a protesting and striking citizen into a participating citizen. The key objective is to ensure having fair and competitive parliamentary and presidential elections and safeguarding the competitive and transparent nature of the elections. A whole new set of challenges [is] coming up.


AMR HAMZAWY: How to organize in a meaningful way that gives citizens a chance to participate. One, you go into political parties, you create effective political parties which can claim to represent, which reach out in constituency-building activities, and lobby around platforms and create interest for citizens. Or you depend on civil society. The challenge is key because Egyptians took out to the streets, were out in the streets for three weeks, and now no one knows if they will come back when there are elections. The second challenge: is the constitution, after the amendments, enough to secure peaceful transition to democracy in Egypt? My answer is no. This is a presidential constitution, which gives a president so many prerogatives, does not make him accountable, and would create an autocratic ruler of sorts out of every Egyptian president. I do not believe that presidential systems are best equipped to manage transition periods to democracy. Parliamentary systems are much, much better. This is based on comparative experience. You look at Latin America, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and Spain, Greece, Portugal. The elected parliament will have to start a new discussion about the constitution and whether we can push successfully to a parliamentary system. A parliamentary system will ensure to my mind higher degrees of citizens’ participation in parties and would activate the citizenry of Egypt.

CAIRO REVIEW: What other challenges do you see?

AMR HAMZAWY: How to let democracy, as an organizing principle for the Egyptian polity, trickle down to other arenas in society. To really influence each vital sector of society. Be it civil society, education, state institutions, the security apparatus, media, and so on. I mean, how to institutionalize democracy with its key procedures and values not only in formal politics but beyond. The next challenge is, what are you going to do with the military establishment? I mean they are managing Egyptian politics as of now. But if we are going to build a democratic and civil polity, they will have to be pushed out. Of course, it will be misleading to imagine they will give up and say “you guys do it now.” Of course, they would like to retain some role in politics. I’m increasingly convinced that one way to manage it is to go in a similar direction like Turkey and give them a national security council or a similar body, a safeguarding role. In Turkey, they safeguard the republican values. In Egypt, they would have to safeguard democratic values and would have to ensure the civil nature of Egyptian polity, not only against an active role of the military, but also an Islamization of Egyptian politics. I guess they would like to retain that role, but how to devise the mechanism is going to be challenging.

CAIRO REVIEW: How can you have parliamentary elections when the party system is discredited, you have no or few real political parties?

AMR HAMZAWY: Existing parties are discredited as part of the autocratic formula of Mubarak. They were domesticated, they fought for minor shares and small gains. They are stagnant and decaying in their structures. They will have to work out a model and strategy to energize and reach out and do some constituency building. There are some active parties as well. Al-Ghad and El-Gabha, of Ayman Nour and Osama Ghazaly Harb, have young members. New parties will be established as well. Just today, the Islamist Al-Wasat party got finally its license. Ultimately, not a single society which transitioned from autocracy to democracy got it right in the first election. Look at what happened in Eastern European countries, you had communists reassembling and coming back.

CAIRO REVIEW: How strong is the staying power of the remnants of the Mubarak regime?

AMR HAMZAWY: They were so interwoven with the state institutions, probably one cannot discard the possibility of them reorganizing, reassembling under a new banner. They have the advantage of having representation everywhere in the country. This was a state party and the state party was represented everywhere. I do not expect them to do well in the elections. They will be discredited very soon, once you see the same figures who are well known to Egyptians. I have some good reasons to believe the military establishment does not like them and would really like to do away with that party and its legacy. They might let it participate, reassembled under a new banner, but will not favor it over its competitors.

CAIRO REVIEW: What is the Muslim Brotherhood’s future?

AMR HAMZAWY: I guess they will have similar troubles like everyone else in the old opposition spectrum. You have real tensions between their young members and the old guard. They will have to come to a choice if they would like to participate, and establish a political party, they would have to separate institutionally between the dawa (religious call) and the political component, which is not easy. This movement has sustained itself since 1928 by being two in one, a social/religious movement and a political arm. Separating will not be easy. On the other hand, they are an organized movement, they have a constituency, and they have a network similar to the NDP, branches which exist everywhere. Probably they will do well, but I do not see them getting a majority. Maybe they will take 20–30 percent if they contest that many seats. Even if they would run candidates for each seat, I don’t see them getting a majority.

CAIRO REVIEW: Is there an unreasonable fear about the Islamization of Egypt, an Islamist takeover?

AMR HAMZAWY: The ‘Islamist takeover’ stuff is based on a wrong framing of what happened. It was not an Islamist revolution. There is not a risk of hijacking, but the risk of them being the only organized movement and lobbying democratically to get citizens to join them. If they do it democratically, I cannot say hijacking. They don’t command the strategic majority, but if you leave the ground for them, and you do a poor job in organizing, you do not do your homework in terms of constituency building and getting out a convincing platform, then you never know what will happen. Not in the next elections, but in the one after. They are good at constituency building, we know it.

Amr Hamzawy is research director and a senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, and a political science professor at Cairo University. He also serves on the Middle East Advisory Council of Human Rights Watch. He is the author of the recent books Between Religion and Politics and The Arab Future: Contemporary Debates on Democracy, Political Islam, and Resistance. Cairo Review Managing Editor Scott MacLeod interviewed Hamzawy in Cairo on February 19, 2011.

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