An ingrained fear of chaos and a yearning for paternalistic leaders make Egypt’s transition to democracy a risky business
Over the past few months popular support for Egypt’s ruling military council (Scaf) has plummeted. While the anti-Scaf sentiment may seem a welcome development to those in the pro-democracy camp, under the surface it reflects a rather disturbing notion of what some Egyptians expect of their rulers.
While some criticise Scaf for its authoritarian attitudes, others criticise it for not being authoritarian enough. The latter faction complain about Scaf’s inability to clamp down on chaos, the erosion of state authority or what is sometimes referred to as the loss of “state prestige”.
Egypt’s fear of chaos defines its yearning for stability and strong leadership. The popular Arabic maxim “Better one hundred years of tyranny than one day of chaos” captures much of the region’s internalised fear of change, and has allowed regional rulers to paint themselves as custodians of stability. Moreover, the leaderless nature of the uprisings has only reinforced the potential for disorder and fuelled anxiety.
In the coming months Egyptians will get a chance to choose their president. How they will base their choice may create challenges for the country’s future. Conventional attitudes towards authority, justice and national identity could undermine democracy and derail the country’s path towards freedom.
In a recent interview, the head of the ultra-conservative Islamist Nour party explained that Egyptians need a man who “can gather the nation around a strong national feeling that can get Egypt out of the crisis it is in”. This thirst for a populist saviour is not only unrealistic but also risks inviting authoritarianism. Populism enables a leader to directly address the masses and speak in their name, thus bypassing representative institutions and opposition parties. Nascent democracies, such as Egypt, that lack the established checks and balances on executive power are particularly vulnerable.
The French sociologist, Émile Durkheim, argued that societies wanted their leaders to be god-like . This allows them to shed responsibility for difficult decisions and scapegoat their leader for any failures. In extreme cases, however, the populist leader acquires a personality cult and is adulated by followers who are incapable of evaluating him based on his actions.
One example was the public reaction to Gamal Abdel Nasser’s resignation in the wake of the 1967 defeat at the hands of Israel. Despite the national humiliation and the massive loss of life, tens of thousands of Egyptians poured into the streets demanding that Nasser remain their leader.
The desire for heroic leadership in a nation where “personal freedom” remains an alien concept makes Egypt’s democratic transition even more risky. In fact, subordination of individual liberties for the sake of national security, economic recovery or some other collective good is one of the reasons why Egyptians have a skewed sense of justice. Crimes such as torture and even murder seem disturbingly acceptable to the public conscience in the face of national threat.
Additionally, the patriarchal nature of society has allowed the regime to franchise repression. As historian Hisham Sharabi described it, the whole of Arab society was built around the “dominance of the father”. Whether it’s at the family level or in politics, paternal will is absolute and “is maintained by a forced consensus based on ritual and coercion”.
As a result, society has sustained certain prejudices about age. The subordination of Egypt’s young adults is seen in all areas of public life and has resulted in what could be termed a gerontocracy. Most Egyptians would regard the youth that brought about change as too immature, not to be trusted to lead the country. This is ironic in a country whose archetypal leader, Nasser, was only 38 when he first came to power.
But more than anything else, religion as a source of national identity has played a defining role in determining the country’s path so far. Arguments about the state’s Islamic identity as stipulated in the constitution have drummed up anxieties towards change and set the stage for an overwhelming Islamist victory. At least two presidential candidates identify themselves as Islamist.
Today if one looks at the make-up of Egypt’s recently elected parliament these concerns immediately come to life. With approximately 60% of the population under the age of 30, Egypt’s parliament is dominated by more senior members, despite having reduced the age of candidacy to 25. Women who were at the forefront of the revolution only managed to secure nine of the 498 seats that were up for grabs. The same applies to Egypt’s Christians who won only two seats.
After decades of oppression, poverty and societal isolation, traditional attitudes are riddled with biases and misconceptions that have frequently been the subject of exploitation by the regime and its propaganda machine. These problems are not unique to Egypt and nascent democracies elsewhere have faced similar challenges.
For democracy to succeed, Egyptians need to focus on creating independent institutions, raising political awareness and creating a constitution that unequivocally protects the rights of citizens and puts tabs on government coercion.
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from Tamer Fouad