Young Egyptians don’t believe in politics. This striking argument should not surprise any political analyst, whose concern is centered on our country’s public affairs.
Last week, I lectured a politically diverse group of Egyptian youth in a workshop organized by Liberal Youth Federation. In my talk, I tried to build an argument is that democratic countries run politics on the basis of the majority rule, but in the name of majority, minority rights should not be oppressed.
In other words, democracy operates by the consensus of the majority of voters, but not every majority-based government is democratic. Modern history tells us that most of autocratic leaders came to power through free elections. However, their deeds were utterly totalitarian, oppressive and brutal. This means that the balance between majority rule and minority rights is a paramount indicator of a functioning democracy.
One of the participants, belongs to the ruling National Democratic Party contested my view on the basis that democracy is a mere farce, having no truth or reliability in itself. In the United States today, the young participant continued, there is a big farce; the two dominant political parties have reached a deal that democrat Obama runs in the presidential race, but that republican McCain will win.
In his view, this American “political play is only to deceive Arabs and Muslims that democracy accommodates different colors, races, religions, etc. The conclusion will definitely be different, as democracy exists neither in the West nor in the East.
I tried to convince the attendees that democracy is not a false process, and there is no real political party all over the globe ready to sacrifice money, time and reputation for the sake of a political game, which would have no impact on its progress.
It was not the first time I hear skeptical views on democracy. Being an ill-defined and highly manipulated concept, democracy is sometimes negatively perceived by ordinary people. But, this time I was surprised when some participants supported the young participants’ skeptical comments. The situation raised a question: Why do young Egyptians misperceive democracy to that extent?
Following 1952 revolution, successive governments have shown a strong sense of hatred towards politics, simply because most of them have a military or bureaucratic background. Influential figures in the ruling elite had never joined a political party or even secured a seat in a political conference. This anti-politics tendency has consequently enveloped school curricula and media programs, which are considered the most important socialization mechanisms in modern society. If you ask a regular Egyptian student on the perception of the Liberal era, which lasted from 1923-1952, he or she would say that it was a period of political decay, corruption, and foreign occupation. Nothing would be said about the democratic nature of this politically rich period of Egyptian history; the multiparty system, relatively fair elections and free media.
Where does this totalitarian perception emerge from? The answer is simple; media and education.
Both of them include programs shaped and colored in accordance with the political will of the ruling elite. No matter how much political life has tilted towards economic and political liberalization over the last three decades, the authoritarian seeds are still well grounded in the common mentality of the younger generation due to the politicization of education and media.
Egypt adopted an economic open door policy and a multi-party system in the mid-1970, topped with a constitutional amendment in 2005 that makes presidential elections competitive. However, these changes have very little impact on political life.
The political interactions is very restrictive, and citizens themselves have no interest in making it more democratic and less exclusive. For this reason, some outspoken opponents always say that Egyptians don’t deserve democracy because they don’t want to pay the price.
Yes, a slim portion of Egyptians are willing to pay a political price for making society more democratic. The majority, by contrast, are waiting for democracy to descend from an ivory tower of the ruling elite. Not surprisingly, intellectuals who preach democracy all the time, are the same faces always seen supporting and defending the regime. In a country like Egypt, being a writer or an intellectual is only a job, nothing more.
One shouldn’t blame the skeptical participant for his pessimistic remarks on democracy. He derives his judgment from the world he lives in, having no ability to see beyond the local perspective.
Indeed, politicians, opponents and loyalists, bear responsibility for this negative perception of democracy because they both exercise exclusionary policies under the pretext of democracy, a process that always leads to a widespread confusion among the populace, not only towards democracy itself but more importantly towards public life in general.
Sameh Fawzy is an Egyptian journalist, PhD researcher, and specialist on governance and citizenship.