How to Strengthen Egyptian Secular Democrats

This post contains three basic suggestions to help strengthen Egyptian secular democrats.  First, you should tackle poverty in a serious and focused fashion.  Second, you should build political organizations that work from the ground up instead of from the top down.  Third, you should keep challenging the military’s practice of trying civilians in military courts.

The underlying cause of the protests remains economic discontent.  The economic situation in Egypt is catastrophic with a 25% unemployment rate.  Muhammad, who works in the tourism industry, is now underemployed.  His employment has fallen from 4 days a week to 4 days a  month.  He added,”My best year was 2010.  I was saving money to buy a house.  Now I have lost one third of my savings.  My dreams have been crushed.”  Muhammad’s economic situation has grown so desperate that he would welcome the return of the Mubarak regime.  The secular democrats will not succeed politically if they do not address the concrete economic concerns of ordinary Egyptians like Muhammad, whose story was told by. Deroy Murdock in Egypt on the Brink, an opinion article in the New York Post on June 29, 2013, page 17.  Economic issues are front and center in the minds of ordinary Egyptians and must become a high priority of secular Egyptian democrats.

Second, one persistent problem in Egyptian politics has been the historical tendency of political parties of all stripes to operate from the top down rather than the ground up.  A recent Wall Street Journal story about the Muslim Brotherhood noted that one follower of this organization refused to think for himself but instead waited for orders from above to make his decisions.  I spoke with a leading scholar of Middle Eastern studies about the Wafd party, which was criticized for sending orders to its followers instead of inviting their participation in the political process.  This scholar said all the political parties in Egypt function in this authoritarian fashion.

But building internally democratic organizations is a key step in working toward the broader creation of democratic political processes in a country with a weak history of developing democratic political institutions.  Giving political activists a voice in the operation of their parties will help to develop democratic habits among Egyptian grass-roots leaders and to expand overall opportunities for political participation.

In this respect, the story about how the Tamarod movement developed from the ground up is highly encouraging.  Opposition activist Mohammed Abdul Aziz said,”In the beginning all we wanted to do was gather petitions to renounce Morsi,” he said. But the group soon got a name, Tamarod (Rebel). Within weeks it had also gained a momentum that propelled it to centre stage of a defining period in Egypt’s modern history – the ousting of the country’s first democratically elected leader. I was sure by the number of petitions flowing that Tamarod was going to transform the Egyptian political scene.”

The fact that the Tamarod movement operated from the bottom up and not the top down is extremely significant for several reasons.  First, the Tamarod movement has created a precedent of a successful political outcome that was based on ground-up and not top down organizing.  This development will hopefully encourage other political groups to develop greater degrees of internal democracy.  And it may also make Egyptian citizens realize that they have a voice in their political process, thus reducing their tendency to act in a powerless and apathetic fashion.

Finally, secular democrats should continue challenging the military’s practice of subjecting civilians to military tribunals. Heba Yassin, media coordinator of Al-Tayar Al-Sha’aby, requested clarity on the issue of the military’s right to try civilians.  The Egyptian Social Democratic Party said they wish to see Article 19 modified to ensure an end to the military’s practice of trying civilians in military courts.  This policy represents a grave challenge to the Egyptian democratic process because it allows the military to suppress not only pacifists like Maikel Nabil who directly challenge the military rule but also any political groups who experience a dispute with the military.  No democracy can function properly with this policy in place because it allows the military to persecute its political opponents and to strangle the the democratic process.  Thus, secular democrats must place an immediate priority upon ending this policy in its all its forms.

Tackling the issue of poverty, creating bottom up political organizations, and challenging the military’s trial of civilians can empower Egyptian secular democrats to work toward the creation of a pluralistic culture which allows ideological differences to be resolved peacefully without military intervention in the political process.   These approaches can gradually transform the political process from a pincer struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood into a more democratic, open, and humane system.



About the Author
Rachel's educational background includes a B.A. in international relations from Brown University; she has been an independent scholar, analyst, and researcher about Middle Eastern affairs for 12 years; Her focus has been on Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt.