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Dr Johan Franzén Headshot

Egypt: Revolution or Reaction?

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As we approach Egypt's anticipated presidential elections, which are scheduled to take place on 23 and 24 May, an assessment of the 'revolution' that overthrew Hosni Mubarak more than a year ago is in order. The erstwhile optimism expressed by many Western liberal commentators over the democratic nature of the so-called Arab Spring is beginning to recede.

Now the cultural essentialists on the political right are reappearing on the scene to proclaim that they were right all along: Islam is incompatible with democracy. Meanwhile the Algerian Prime Minister recently described the Arab Spring as "a plague".

However, as I have argued in another article, what has been happening in the Middle East over the past year is neither a Western-style democratic revolution that will transform decades of authoritarian rule into institutionalised liberal democracy overnight, nor is it necessarily the prelude to a second Islamic Revolution à la Iran.

Firstly, it is wrong to conceive of Middle Eastern countries as a single monolithic bloc that is essentially the same. Despite having similar cultural and linguistic traits and a shared history, the various countries in the region have been on a different trajectory ever since the Ottoman Empire was carved up by Western powers in the aftermath of World War I.

Secondly, this means that different political systems have developed throughout the region. While all are to some degree authoritarian, this is not enough of a common denominator to lump them all together and expect that when pressured by popular protests these regimes will all behave in the same manner. In other words, Syria is not Jordan, Egypt is not Libya, Tunisia is not Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain is not Kuwait.

Thirdly, even when the protests were successful and managed to displace authoritarian rulers, like Mubarak in Egypt and Ben Ali in Tunisia, the transition to democracy cannot be immediate and without birthing pains. Democratic institutions that are respected by everyone - not least by the military-political class that have been running things for decades - do not just pop up overnight. In the West, it took centuries of hard struggle, numerous setbacks and spells of autocracy and authoritarianism (not to mention two world wars) before liberal democracy became reasonably well rooted.

Thus, to hope that Egypt will become democratic overnight and pave the way for democratisation and liberalisation throughout the region is naïve at best and quite possibly a dangerous illusion. Even if Egypt's presidential elections are held successfully in a few weeks - which is looking increasingly unlikely as the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) are doing their best to put obstacles in the way - the country will still be left with a fundamentally fragmented political landscape which might prove a recipe for disaster.

With the Muslim Brothers and the Salafist al-Nur Party firmly entrenched in parliament, and with their stated intent of reducing the powers of the future president, it looks likely that a battle between a Western-orientated liberal minority and an increasingly illiberal Islamist majority will ensue over the coming years. Already things are getting worse for women, religious minorities and anyone who does not sign up to the Islamists' strict interpretation of morality and religion.

Despite the fact that women were active participants in - and in many cases the driving force behind - the protests that led to the toppling of Mubarak, since his fall, women's representation in the Egyptian parliament has fallen from 12% to a mere 2%. Harassment and persecution of the Coptic minority, while common also under Mubarak, has continued and perhaps intensified with the increased sense of self-importance amongst the Islamist groups following the revolution. A few weeks ago, well-known comedic actor, Adel Imam, was found guilty of having 'insulted Islam' and was sentenced to three months imprisonment. Numerous other cases of newfound Islamist assertiveness abound in the new Egypt.

But this raises the question whether what is happening in Egypt can be seen as a democratic revolution or if we in fact are witnessing a political step backwards? The answer to that question is of course dependent on whom you ask, but nevertheless to my mind a political environment in which people are fearful of expressing their opinions for fear of insulting a religion, or where someone is beaten up for belonging to the 'wrong' religion or where women (and men too) are systematically abused physically and mentally by the police for taking part in peaceful demonstrations, cannot be described as 'democratic' - regardless of the fact that reasonably free and fair elections have been and will be held.

The fight to achieve real democracy in Egypt will undoubtedly be protracted and is certain to last for at least another generation. Holding elections is merely the first step in a long process that requires nothing less than a cultural revolution within Egyptian society, because at the end of the day, there can be no democracy without democrats.