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The Three Pretexts for Saying No

Voices from Islam /1. The case of Egypt: what is the current state of democratic values and human rights in official culture and popular culture? Prior to being a political mechanism or a juridical fact, democracy concerns the values of the members of the community.

Last update: 2018-06-11 17:05:47

What is the present state of democratic and human values in our official and popular culture? A sincere, objective and correct answer to this question might contribute to shedding some light on the path to be taken to eliminate certain obstacles that hinder the application of democracy in Egyptian society and other Arab societies. This presupposes that, before being a building block for the ordering of government and the administration of society, or a legal fact relating to the laws which regulate the behaviour of both individuals and the representatives of the public power, democracy should be a cultural fact, in that it concerns the values of the members of the community, their habits, and the form of their education in short, everything that shapes the cultural models that prevail in a society. Without a true democratic culture one cannot reasonable imagine that democratic behaviour will predominate, at an official level, at a legal level or at a popular and customary level. Today there are various cultural, political or official excuses in Arab countries that seek to minimise the importance of democracy to the advantage of other social objectives considered more worthwhile and more socially useful1. These official excuses made in order to reject liberal democracy can be grouped under three different headings. The first group of arguments is of a religious nature and claims that liberal democracy contradicts our religious heritage, given that this heritage commands us to obey our leaders within the limits prescribed by God and his Prophet. It is also claimed that the most important right established by Islam for political participation is the principle of consultation (shura) which, in the eyes of the Muslim rulers who support this idea, is non-binding for rulers who put God's precepts into practice. The second type of argument is ideological and dons a revolutionary and libertarian disguise. It revives and repeats the nationalistic theories of the 1960s according to which the freedom of the people cannot be enjoyed by the enemies of the people, the liberation of the homeland is more important than the freedom of the individual, and a free piece of bread comes before the freedom of speech and expression. The economic argument is also connected to this in that it invites us to give priority to the implementation of economic development at the expense of democratic reform, the latter being considered dangerous for stability, on which economic development hinges. What are the social strata in our society whose interests are linked to democratic values? The obvious answer indicates a certain category of intellectuals who consider freedom of opinion and expression to be a necessary condition for the performance of a person's social role in cultural production and creation. In our society, however, it is not possible to rely on intellectuals for the creation of a strong democratic tendency that could transform the supporters of democracy into a social movement with influence on the social life of the country. This is due to a number of reasons. The first reason is that intellectuals do not represent a specific social layer whose aims are different from those of other (political and social) categories. The official regime, in fact, has its own intellectuals whose social and professional interests are linked to it. For these intellectuals, democracy and respect for human rights mean nothing, except insofar as the regime allows these concepts for reasons which obviously do not include the influence of intellectuals on their rulers. The various political parties and movements have their own intellectuals who are their subordinates rather than their leaders or the providers of democratic directives. Which of our political intellectuals today on display in the Arab cultural panorama has ever paid the price paid by many Islamic and Western intellectuals who defended their cultural opinions against the forces of repression and despotism? Socialism and Nationalism Let us now examine the political and cultural alternatives offered to Egyptian and Arab intellectuals. The first is that of the Left, with all its past and modern ramifications, which is united in accepting certain indisputable social and cultural theories which, nevertheless, are continually repeated. In fact, the transformation of socialism from a coherent philosophical system into a utopian value, following the dramatic collapse of the orthodox socialist experience at an international level, has contributed to a weakening of the dogmatism of socialist intellectuals. Some of these have fled towards a universe of social nihilism; others are still living in the temple of the traditional Left. Only a few have opted for revision and renewal. The same may be said of the nationalist intellectuals in their various loyalties. The earth has quaked many times under the feet of nationalist ideologies and utopias because of great defeats, huge international changes and various failures. Much water has passed under the bridge but these nationalist intellectuals are still standing on their shaky scaffolding, talking of 'one nation with an eternal mission', without being bothered about either the new reality or past experiences, therefore adding to the political conservatism of their left-wing colleagues. With respect to many radical Islamist political tendencies, the equation between religious and political reality leads very quickly to a transformation of the latter into a holy and indisputable truth. Political divergence becomes religious divergence and opposition becomes faithlessness, apostasy and heresy. This does not mean that there do not exist growing trends of innovation among these political ideologies towards the acceptance of the democratic values. But these innovative trends are still modest and of little influence on the ideological mainstream. I do not think the state of democratic culture at the level of the masses is better than that of the intellectual and political elites. A number of empirical studies bear witness to the loss of importance of democracy as a priority in terms of political values in the popular mind in general. If we observe the values on which the institutions of civil society are based - the family, schools, religious institutions, professional associations, clubs and trade unions - we find associations that are generally based on the acceptance of orders and loyalty to those in power, to clans and to tribes, they are based, that is to say, on the culture of despotism within a paternalistic society. At the same time, we must ensure that democratic values, which involve the concepts of tolerance, the acceptance of others, and a deep belief in pluralism, find their roots in our cultural heritage. On the other hand, they need more dissemination and development, at the level of both the elites and the masses. An Absent Democratic Culture It is inevitable that this should be reflected, in one way or another, in the political behaviour of our masses. Their political decisions, expressed at elections or at referendum times (let us put to one side, for the moment, the problem of direct or indirect manipulation of the results) are supposed to be an operation directed by a well-considered choice between different alternatives. Yet, I do not think that in most cases these political choices are directed by reasonableness. Their choices are directed by a series of reasons in which there is little space for rational reflection. They are either governed by conservative religious slogans or by ethnic membership of a clan or a tribe, independently of considerations about good government or the common good. This explains the results of the studies carried out on the political behaviour of the Egyptians (which are also valid for many Third-World societies): these studies indicate that the turnout of voters in the countryside and in Southern Egypt, as well as in the voting centres of industrial factories, is much higher than that in urban districts where the Egyptian intellectuals live2. This does not mean that peasants and workers are better at complying with the exercise of the right to a democratic choice than intellectuals and town-dwellers. It means, instead, that clan, tribal, religious and professional loyalties play an important role in traditional societies in leading the electorate towards collective voting, where the will of the individual is absorbed by that of the community as expressed by traditional leaders. The consequence of this reality is that the democratic principles and human rights which sanction the right to political participation are transformed into instruments that consecrate a non-democratic reality. The present situation can be explained by the fact that in the absence of a democratic culture democratic mechanisms are being used for the production of non-democratic facts. This, however, should not lead us to despair. The practice of democracy at a popular level is the path to educating people In the advantages and qualities of democracy. Resistance to the culture of despotism will not be achieved through the exercise of more despotism but through the dissemination of democratic principles and teaching people about the advantages of democratic practice. ------------------ 1. Cf. 'Izzat Qarni, 'Ishkaliyyat al-Hurriyya' (the ambiguity of freedom), ´Alam al-fikr, Nov.-Dec. 1993, 183-184. 2. Cf. the study of the ´Al-Ahram Center for Political Studies, published in the daily newspaper of 26.9.1998.