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Turning social justice into a reality

The forces of opposition in Egypt should abandon the policy of negative participation and engage instead in one of positive contribution

Image Credit: REUTERS
A protester opposing Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi throws stones at riot police during clashes, along Qasr Al Nil bridge which leads to Tahrir Square, in Cairo January 27, 2013. Police fired teargas at dozens of stone-throwing protesters in Cairo on Sunday in a fourth day of street clashes that have killed at least 42 people and compounded the challenges facing President Mohamed Mursi.
Gulf News

Last week marked the second anniversary of the January 25 Egyptian revolution. Thousands of people gathered in Tahrir Square in Cairo and in other places around the country, but there was no celebration. Many people carried posters with slogans that evoked the demands the protesters had made two years ago, which, in the space of 18 days, brought down an authoritarian regime that had been entrenched for 30 years. This was overshadowed by the deaths of at least 32 people in Port Said in clashes following a court ruling in Cairo awarding the death sentence to 21 men in connection with last year’s football riots in Port Said, which left 74 dead.

Meanwhile, there were demands for the cancellation of the referendum on the constitution, demands for bread, freedom and social justice and even demands for the fall of the current regime. Various forces of the opposition joined the demonstrations, but the Muslim Brotherhood was careful to instruct its activists to stay away to avoid the bloody factional confrontations that marked recent anti-government demonstrations to protest the draft constitution. Even then, violence erupted in various places around the country and offices of the Brotherhood were attacked by unidentified groups.

On the whole, it was a disappointing event, made all the more unfortunate by the fact that it was marked by appalling violence and obvious lack of coherent and purposeful leadership.

It could have been an occasion to take stock of what the revolution accomplished and what remained to be achieved — an opportunity to identify urgent priorities and how to tackle them; an incentive for establishing an on-going national dialogue that would reflect the interests and vision of various political tendencies and social groups; the beginning of new ethics of politics that would clearly and unhesitatingly place the national interest of Egypt above the factional interests of the party.

The second anniversary of the Egyptian revolution could have been all of the above. However, that was not to be. The country today is deeply divided and the revolutionaries of yesterday are taking instructions from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to implement unpopular austerity measures. The revolution has brought economic hardship, some complained, so why celebrate its anniversary?

The revolution was more of a protest that started out as a demonstration to denounce police brutalities that resulted in the death of Khalid Saeed at the hands of the Alexandria Police in June 2010. The massive response to the call for protest both astonished the organisers and radicalised the protesters whose demands grew by the day until they decided that they would settle for nothing less than the fall of the regime. Hundreds of thousands joined the protest movement in all major cities in Egypt. Abandoned by the military and the ruling elites at home and unable to find support among friends and patrons abroad, the Hosni Mubarak regime collapsed with astounding speed.

Beyond the demand for “bread, freedom and social justice”, the revolutionary leaders — and it was not easy to identify who they were — had no agreed-upon agenda and much less of a strategy. The only institutions in Egypt that were well-established and enjoyed broad popular support were the army and the Muslim Brotherhood. The army managed the transition period with success as far as saving the country from civil war; but with less success in overseeing the preparation of the draft constitution and in its attempt at enhancing its own power. The Brotherhood, better organised than its competitors, won legislative and executive control of the reins of power in a new Egypt. President Mohammad Mursi’s faux pas in temporarily shielding himself from judicial checks brought him under unprecedented criticism and triggered bloody factional clashes.

None of the major protagonists — the youth groups, the army, the Brotherhood — and the various political groupings had expected the Mubarak regime to collapse so rapidly and had to improvise positions and policies as events unfolded unpredictably and power seemed to be up for grabs.

This state of improvisation is all the more taxing. The country and its people need urgent solutions to long-festering problems — political, economic and social. It was perhaps inevitable that the collapse of 30 years of authoritarian and repressive rule would give rise to unending hopes and gratifying dreams about fundamental freedoms, rule of law and social justice. While much remains to be done in these areas, it is beyond argument that the values and the procedures of democratic governance are being built and in the process they are transforming the relationship between the government and the citizens in shaping the future identity of Egypt. This in itself is an important accomplishment of the revolution worthy of celebration.

Secondly, the competition for power and the absence of political experience in democratic governance if not wisely managed can lead to the kind of divisions and polarisation that are the prominent features of Egyptian political life today. The call of the protesters for the fall of the regime that is democratically elected suggests political immaturity and unsettling impatience. The refusal of various political coalitions to become part of a national dialogue before their demands are met is self-defeating and unworthy of the constructive and responsible role the opposition is expected to play in a democracy.

Consider the position of the forces of opposition that decided to mark the second anniversary of the revolution with another protest march.

Contrast this with the decision of the Brotherhood to work with the Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) to celebrate the anniversary with a campaign of civil service to the people of Egypt titled ‘Together We Build Egypt,’ which entails renovating schools, offering free ambulatory health care to all citizens and alleviating the burden of the rising cost of living by organising street markets where staple food items are sold at wholesale prices.

The forces of opposition should abandon the policy of negative participation and engage instead in one of positive contribution. The Brotherhood and the FJP are showing readiness to turn the slogan “Bread, Freedom and Social Justice” into a tangible reality. The same cannot be said of the various forces of opposition that seem to think they come closer to the people when they you meet each other at a demonstration.

— Adel Safty is distinguished professor adjunct at the Siberian Academy of Public Administration, Russia. His new book, Might Over Right, is endorsed by Noam Chomsky, and published in England by Garnet, 2009.