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Hayat Alvi
Hayat Alvi

Hayat Alvi, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.

Egypt must commit to India-style democracy

Egyptians must be committed to secular democracy as their political safeguard.

A military helicopter flies over protesters walking on a bridge leading to Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, on 26 July 2013. PTI/AP

en Psaki, US State Department spokeswoman, could not keep a straight face during a recent press conference when trying hard not to say the word "coup" in reference to the military-led ouster and detention of President Mohammed Morsi in Egypt. The Obama administration's confusion and fence-sitting concerning the matter are alarming. However, the confusion and ideological entrenchment inside Egypt are deadly. It's one thing for Egypt's long time benefactor, the United States, to be stuck in the fog, but it's quite another dilemma when the Egyptian people themselves resort to divisive violence and intense disunity pertaining to the country's future political direction. Where's the commitment to democracy? We can pose this question to both Egypt and the US, but for now let's focus on Egypt.

I lived in Egypt for four years during the Mubarak era. I taught political science at an American university, and my classes often discussed the issue of democratization in Egypt, as well as the role of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in politics. I polled students, who were mostly Egyptians, asking what they would do if the MB came to power via free and fair elections? Almost always 50% would say, "give them a chance to govern", while the other 50%, consisting of Muslims, Coptics, and at least a few women, said, "that's the day I pack my bags and leave Egypt."

What was clearly missing in these discussions is a diehard commitment to democracy. Egyptian students often omitted the word "secular". This differs entirely from the Congress party's leadership in colonial India. For political scientists, India is an enigma. Given its mind boggling religious, ethnic, and linguistic diversity, India is really not supposed to work as a thriving secular democracy. Yet, it has done so since its birth in 1947, notwithstanding the immensely violent partition communalism. Indians are committed to secular democracy. They know that without it, the fundamental nature of the country and all it has fought for during the independence movement would disintegrate. Egypt must recognise similar circumstances for making a democracy work there, and most importantly, Egyptians collectively must be committed to secular democracy as their political safeguard. Anything less, including military dictatorship and religious political leadership, is political suicide, as recent events have shown.

In December 2004, I interviewed the pro-democracy activist Dr Saad Eddin Ibrahim, head of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development in Cairo. I asked him how he compares India and Egypt and what they can learn from each other. Here is what he said:

He had just written an article called, "Democracy on Indian Elephants". He said, "It was in response to people who debated with me over the last two years against democracy. Again, rejecting democracy because they think democracy is coming on the wings of the phantom planes, or tanks, and frankly I realised that these are fascist, anti-democratic forces looking for any excuse to reject democracy, and using America and the West as an excuse for rejecting democracy.

"So I said, 'all right, fine, let's not have democracy on American tanks or planes. How about Indian elephants?' Here is a country that gained its independence roughly around the same time that most Arab countries gained their independence, but they have had a sustainable democracy since 1947, and comparing the advances of India — slow but cumulative — and, again, just like an elephant: heavy, slow-paced, but determined.' And I was using that analogy first when someone said, 'oh you submit to democracy when you saw American planes.' I said, 'all right, you don't want that, how about an Arab camel, or an Arabian horse?' He said, 'Oh, you're being sarcastic'.

"Actually, Mona Makram Ebeid (Egyptian Member of Parliament) wrote an article or two using the same analogy, talking about Indian democracy. There is a lot of admiration for the Indian experiment, and I have had several occasions to write about it."

Unfortunately, Egyptians are not committed to secular, pluralistic democracy the way Indians have been since 1947. One of the major problems is the MB and its attempts to marry religion with politics. The religious politicians of Egypt end up catering to religious constituents, like the Salafist Nour Party, and in the process undermining secularism. By definition, having MB in power is an affront to secular democracy, and the fact that the Morsi administration promoted Islamist policies also betrays the lack of commitment and understanding of the dire need for secular democracy in Egypt.

Still, the MB won the election in 2012, and the Egyptian masses needed to preserve the integrity of democracy — however feeble it looked — by exacting political change electorally and through political activism. Military intervention, which is nothing but a coup, has killed democracy in Egypt. And the cult of personality that General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi has concocted conjures up the days of Gamal Abdel Nasser. Al-Sisi's loyal followers, with glamorised posters depicting his countenance, have no regard for the integrity of democracy in Egypt. They will invite and most likely contribute to the perpetuation of a military dictatorship led by al-Sisi, or one of his handpicked minions. The al-Sisi loyalists can claim otherwise until they're blue in the face. They'll only be convincing themselves, but the truth is that they are complicit in the murder of Egyptian democracy.

The Morsi loyalists are no better. They also seem willing to die for Egypt's first ever democratically elected President, who was an utter failure. With Morsi followers also entrenched in supporting him, yet another major segment of Egyptian society has stuck a dagger into the already profusely bleeding carcass of democracy.

Egypt will never recover unless the people, en masse, decide that they will embrace and remain committed to a secular democracy and a political system that unequivocally conveys to the military that intervening in politics will never be tolerated by anyone. The gaping holes on all sides of the ideological divide in Egypt illustrate a glaring lack of commitment to democracy. Nothing can be more ominous for Egypt's future.

Hayat Alvi, PhD, is an Associate Professor at the US Naval War College. The views expressed are personal.



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