Stop whining and do something about it

Daily News Egypt
9 Min Read

I don’t have a voting card.

I need to confess that up front. I am, however, getting one.

I’m very much a product of my generation and social strata. We tend to be well-educated, well-meaning, and largely apathetic.

We have opinions and ideas. We have no shortages of those. We just don’t do anything about them.

And we’re going to pay for it.

The recent political upheavals have whipped up a storm of unease among a huge swathe of the country’s disgruntled moderates.

‘We want a democracy,’ they said. ‘Enough of this de-facto one-party state. We want to exercise our civil rights. We want to matter, we want to vote.’

They bayed for democracy and political change. These are people who have become increasingly disenchanted with the established parties like the ruling National Democratic Party and the Wafd. For many, once they outgrow the first, socially-conscious, leftist flush of their youth, even the once-fiery Taggammu Party seems to have settled into staid ashes. Worse still, generally speaking, emerging parties like El-Ghad have failed to ignite the imagination of this section of the population.

All of this, however, is positively perky compared to the way many feel about the Muslim Brotherhood.

The new gentler, more consumer-friendly, media-savvy Brotherhood isn’t winning over a serious chunk of the population who believe in secular rule and who are terrified about the idea of living in an “Islamic state. Forget their recent, mollifying statements. If the Brotherhood were really serious about winning over more voters, they’d have someone wipe out all news or reference to Saudi Arabia and Iran. We’ve all read ‘Reading Lolita in Teheran,’ you know.

The idea of an Islamic State frankly terrifies many people. I’m still confused as to the necessity of an Islamic state. The last time I read our Constitution, Chapter 1 Section 2 states very clearly that “Islam is the Religion of the State. Arabic is its official language, and the principal source of legislation is Islamic Jurisprudence (Sharia).

Principal. Not sole.

The only good thing about it is that it’s an equal opportunities kind of fear; finally we’ve found a way to unite the country. Moderate Muslims are terrified that they’re going to be forced into observing literal translations of their religion, that they will be questioned about their faith and found wanting. One doesn’t need to be possessed of a particularly active imagination to guess how the country’s approximately 10 million Copts feel about it.

Together, they’ve kept up a steady whine about the Brotherhood. Last month, Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated candidates toppled 88 NDP candidates from their seats in parliament. Considering the violent, trouble-ridden mess that was the elections, that was quite an achievement.

And there you had it. The people expressing their wish in a democratic vote. The Muslim Brotherhood won those seats fairly, because people wanted to vote for them, in many cases despite serious intimidation.

Finally, we had a working example of democracy.

Thousands promptly fell back into their seats, in palpitations, fanning themselves desperately, asking themselves how this could possibly happen.

The answer is easy, they didn’t vote. They sat at home in their comfortable homes, with their hermetically-sealed lives and they whined about democracy, not realizing that they might be entirely unprepared for the results.

At this point, lest anyone thinks that this is column is out to bash those voted for Brotherhood candidates, I’d like to point out that is not the case. I just haven’t heard anyone who supported the Brotherhood whining, because generally speaking, they did their part. They mobilized and went out and voted and they are reaping the political benefits.

The figures are depressing. Of those eligible in Egypt, only a miserable 27 percent or so actually did (and this figure might be inflated.)

This might be partially due to fear of the violence that has been endemic to elections in Egypt, but the trouble-free presidential elections of September should have given people hope. And indeed, the violence that marred the parliamentary elections didn’t start until the second round, when it appeared that the results were not going to be the usual foregone conclusion.

The major reason appears to be voter ignorance and apathy.

One of the reasons tossed about is that while everyone fervently wants to participate in the democratic process, one can’t expect too much of a country where half the population can’t read and write. Oddly enough, it’s the same reason that people use when they say the country isn’t ready for democracy.

Egypt has an official literacy rate of 51 percent. In comparison, the world’s largest democracy, India, has an almost identical literacy rate: 51.2 percent. It also has 620 million registered voters, all of whom are in a computerized database, and almost 60 percent of whom voted in the last elections.

India has significantly greater problems with poverty, social unrest and sectarian strife than we do, but it has its act together on the democratic front. On the government’s side, you can log onto a website that explains the electoral process in minute detail, including where to go and to register and vote for each state.

The process is enormously complicated as over 4 million people were employed to run the elections. But the results speak for themselves; against sizeable odds, India is the world’s largest functioning democracy.

Of course, another of India’s advantages is a growing, politically savvy middle class which has grasped that it has power and is learning to use it.

It isn’t as straightforward in Egypt. I wanted to vote last time and couldn’t figure out how. This time, serious digging around over the internet unearthed a UNDP-associated site that has excellent facts about Egypt’s voting process, but no useful logistics. The government has yet to produce anything similar.

For those of you interested, The Daily Star Egypt will be running a story on voting facts and eligibility just before the Eid.

Democracies, with all their accompanying civil liberties, are not offered up on a silver plate. They are hard-won and must be cherished. Egypt is in a rare position, for the first time in living memory we are being offered an opportunity to help mold and control our political process.

It’s a vicious circle; citizens are apathetic because they feel that they are of little value to the state. The state knows perfectly well that people do not have an intrinsic value, but voters do. How one is treated by one’s country depends on one’s power to elect and maintain governments. Over the past few years, people have not rushed to the voting polls because they felt that there was no point, that the results were a foregone conclusion. The Egypt of today offers an opportunity to re-write those conclusions.

It is said that people get the governments they deserve. True, and if they are careless, if they are willing to give up their rights, they get governments by default and they must be satisfied with those.

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