26.01.2012 - UNESCO Courier

Egypt: the transition to democracy

© Flickr - Egyptian Revolution 2011

The time for stock-taking has come, one year after the Egyptian revolution. It may be too early to proclaim the victory of democracy, but not to examine recent social, political and economic developments and to try and figure out what the future has in store. UNESCO opened the debate on 24 January.

What has changed in Egypt and in the Arab Region since 25 January 2011? How have the revolutions impacted societies? What is the future of the popular aspiration to democracy? These questions were discussed at the UNESCO Future Forum, “The Arab Spring- One Year Later- Egyptian Perspectives,” by eminent personalities such as: Dominique Baudis, Défenseur des Droits de la France (France’s ombudsman) and former President of the Arab World Institute (Paris); Robert Solé, Egyptian-born French writer and journalist; François Heisbourg, Chairman of The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS, London); and Antoine Basbous, Director of the French Observatoir des pays arabes.

Antoine Basbous, a political scientist of Lebanese origine, speaks of an “Arab tsunami” rather than “spring”, because of the devastating impact of the Arab revolutions on the authoritarian regimes of the region and the after shocks we must expect before democracy is established. “These revolutions have given rise to promises which must now be kept. The first step has been taken, and it is a giant step. But democracy will not take root automatically. When they were in the opposition, the Islamic parties brandished slogans saying, ‘Islam is the solution’. Now these parties are in power. They will have to practice ‘real-Islamism’ [a term inspired by ‘real politik’]. The time has come to move beyond slogans and find solutions,” says the director of the Observatoire des pays arabes (OPA).

“Four essential conditions will have to be met to allow Egypt to become democratic,” adds François Heisbourg: “A governance that allows the country to open to the world and to its neighbours, a new social class structure, the stabilization of relations between democratic government and the army, and the management of cultural and religious diversity. But is this feasible?” wonders Heisbourg. “Of course it is,” he saysn answering his own question: “Everything will depend on the way the Moslem Brotherhood will play their cards. We will soon be able to have a better of idea of the situation, with the adoption of a new Egyptian Constitution.”

“We will have to be very attentive over coming months,” cautions Robert Solé. “The Islamist parties, which until very recently wished to establish a theocratic regime, now declare they have been converted to democracy. They will have to be judged by their actions and not by their contradictory declarations. As to the West, which accommodated the authoritarian regimes of the Arab countries, it should not now accommodate religious obscurantism in the name of a new form of pragmatism.”

The main players in the Arab revolutions – particularly the liberal elites and the young – have valid reasons to feel left out, disappointed and betrayed according to experts. The road to democracy is proving to be much longer than they imagined. But, as says the young Tunisian blogger Maha Issaoui, “it is impossible to build a democratic society in two or three years, especially without foundations to build on.” She was the first to post pictures of the confrontation in her native town of Sidi Bouzid on Facebook. That was in December 2010, the day following the suicide of Mohamed Bouzazi, which sparked off the Tunisian revolution.

“The Arab revolutions of 2011 are the first revolutions of the 21st century in that they were fought with weapons that were not at all the same as those of the previous century. With the exception of Syria, the Kalashnikov has been replaced by the smart phone,” declares Dominique Baudis. “Another characteristic of these revolutions is that they did not have leaders. They formed a horizontal movement,” he adds. “It is on the horizontal structure of revolution, that vertical political authority must now be built.”

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