As the debates rage regarding Egypt’s electoral system, the notion of affirmative action and quota often surfaces as an area of great contention. The legacy resulting from years of discrimination based on age, gender, and religion has not been eliminated. Despite strides made during recent times, some still view that affirmative action is much needed in Egypt.
Past practices aimed at building an inclusive political process in Egypt have fallen short of their objectives. Egypt has experimented with quota systems geared towards the inclusion of women and the labour force into the country’s governance. While the ultimate aim was to promote diversity, the success of these current policies remains questionable at best.
In the midst of those current debates, we aim to understand the moral grounding of affirmative action policies, how much did they change the world of politics and can they really help Egypt?
Affirmative action policies are designed to compliment and often correct some of the known deficits of democratic systems. As great conservative theorist Edmund Burke noted: “In a democracy, the majority of the citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppressions upon the minority.”
Having said this, affirmative action policies are often criticised for causing reverse discrimination; and in the absence of qualified candidates, the policies may very well lead to lowering the bar for those elected. At the same time, others argue that such undesirable effects may be tolerated if affirmative action can compensate for the distortion that discrimination may otherwise impose on the selection of candidates. Kim Forde-Mazrui – Professor of Law at the University of Virginia – argues that potential moral conflict therefore exists between a society’s obligation to avoid reverse discrimination and its duty to correct past discrimination. The moral imperative to remedy past discrimination is seen by some to far outweigh the risk of incorrectly applying affirmative action policies.
A Quick Dipstick of Perception
As I was pondering affirmative action, I decided to gauge the sentiment towards the idea. I asked a group of 80 students on how they perceived the importance of applying affirmative action in Egypt; 76% of the respondents were pro affirmative action, noting that it is the sort of justice needed for minority groups in Egypt, especially Copts and the youth. The rest were against the principle noting that all people should have equal chances and that choices should be based on qualifications regardless of gender, age or religion. The actual idea of affirmative action is therefore positively perceived on the premise that it remediates social injustice. Interesting now is to see if its application supports this premise.
Affirmative Action “in action”
If we were to quickly survey the notion of fair representation worldwide, we will stumble upon some interesting facts. For instance, female representation in the US Congress amounts to 18% and 27% in the French Parliament. The highest female representation in the world exists in Rwanda where females amount to 56% of the Parliament. In South Africa, female representation amounts to 42% and 31% in Algeria. A closer look reveals that all 32 nations, where female representation exceeds 30%, apply a form of quota system geared to guarantee this. In Egypt, where quota systems and affirmative action policies are loosely applied, the situation is much different. Sahar F. Aziz - Associate Professor of Law at Texas A&M – argues that Egyptian elections laws post revolution remain ineffective, fail to produce results reflecting the diversity within Egyptian society. These laws fail to offer all women and Copts an equal opportunity to participate in governance. Admittedly, I agree with Sahar that our laws have not been effective; but does fixing the laws suffice?
Perpetual Affirmative Action?
We must realize that affirmative action is not meant to be permanent. In the most established democracies, affirmative action has been largely replaced by Diversity Management. After years of attempted application, people discovered that preferential treatment does not cure the root cause of the problem. The fact that we want to enforce affirmative action in Egypt will never bring about structural changes to eradicate the reasons for which those minorities were not represented in the first place. People often believe that the right thing to do is support quota systems for one or two parliament terms. Then what? What would the society at large do to rid itself of the problem when this safety net is removed? We never stop to answer those questions. We simply want to create a picture perfect democratic representation of what is otherwise imperfect society.
As noted by James Madison, a nation of factions cannot be unified on any other grounds than the common good. The affirmative action society, if allowed to continue, could lead the country further down the road to fragmentation and schism. If we think hard enough beyond the mere fact of liberty enforcement, we may find possible solutions that guarantee the right to political participation, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all Egyptians regardless of gender, age, or creed. Affirmative action is not the ultimate answer; it is merely the beginning of the journey. Move on.