Mediterranean Quarterly 17.3 (2006) 1-11
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Egypt's Unwavering Path to Democratic Reform
All over the world, the mention of Egypt typically evokes images of an ancient land with a civilization rooted in seven thousand years of history. But beyond evoking the splendor of the pharaohs, this rich heritage also means that a deep-rooted civilization has continued to influence its surroundings and indeed the entire world through its contributions to the sciences and the arts, to governance and spirituality, as well as to society and culture.
Be it during the Roman or the Byzantine eras or later as part of the Islamic empire, Egypt's contributions have consistently shaped events and influenced culture in its region and beyond. This has continued to be the case even in more modern times, as Egypt led the independence movement of developing countries throughout the better part of the twentieth century and more recently leads the Middle East toward peace.
A range of factors has contributed to Egypt's naturally assuming this unique role of influence in its part of the world: a central geographical location at the heart of humanity's ancient civilizations, its people's moderate temperament and natural disposition to interact with and embrace foreign cultures, as well as its sizable population relative to all of its neighbors.
Even today, when some of its neighbors have achieved greater economic prosperity, the ancient land of Egypt continues to be the logical best hope for progressive societal, cultural, and political change in the Middle East.
The flip side of this prominent regional standing has been an expectation that when the Middle East confronts challenges or goes through a turbulent time, it is Egypt that is expected to step up to redress the situation, even if that means carrying more than its fair share of the region's burdens. In the [End Page 1] aftermath of the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States the pursuit of democracy in the Middle East emerged as the supposed remedy for the threat of global terrorism. I do not agree with this proposition. The link between terrorism and the perceived absence of democracy in many Arab countries is tenuous at best and, in any event, serves no practical purpose. Looking back just a few decades we find that the presence of democratic societies and systems of government did not prevent the emergence of terror organizations such as the German Baader-Meinhof Group, Spain's ETA, the Red Brigades in Italy, and the Red Army in Japan. Conversely, the absence of democracy and democratic values in a number of other countries did not have the supposed automatic consequence of producing terror groups in those undemocratic societies. Regrettably, this link between the nature of a given society and its inclination to produce terror groups continues to define the call for greater democracy in the Arab-Moslem world, with the effect of creating an unnecessarily confrontational environment around the debate.
Democracy should be pursued as a fundamental objective in the Middle East, including Egypt, not as a response to terrorism but as a worthy objective in itself, serving the interests of the peoples of the region first and foremost, while terrorism as a global scourge needs to be combated globally with increased vigor and heightened coordination.
This difference in perception notwithstanding, successfully constructing the road forward regarding political reform requires a sincere attempt to understand the roots of the current state of affairs in Egypt and the real challenges its society faces in its pursuit of more open, democratic governance.
Throughout the first half of the twentieth century and up to the 1952 revolution, Egypt had a mixed experience with parliamentary democracy. During that period Egypt witnessed an energetic and vibrant political process but one marred by the domination by a societal elite and the continued influence and interference of the British occupiers.
After the 1952 revolution and the replacement of the monarchy with a republican system, focus shifted away from the pursuit of pluralistic governance toward the realization of independence, social justice, and national pride. While...