Democracy in Egypt

In a two-hour meeting, the country's liberal, leftist, and Islamist leaders discussed best governance for Egypt.

CAIRO--It’s 9:30 on a Tuesday night, and democracy is playing to a standing-room-only crowd at the Egyptian Bar Association.

On stage—actually a half-finished podium with cables hanging down like jungle vines and illuminated by a single fluorescent bulb—are three coordinates on Egypt’s political spectrum: leaders of the country’s liberal, leftist, and Islamist “streams,” as proto-political parties here are often called. Over the course of a two-hour discussion, each will market his particular brand of governance as the best match for a country still reeling from the peaceful revolt that in February ousted President Hosni Mubarak after 30 years of dictatorial rule.

As the proceedings begin, some 200 people have settled into their seats and more chairs are summoned to accommodate late arrivals. It is a diverse audience, with both sexes and age groups represented in roughly equal measure. Each panelist is given 15 minutes to make his pitch, beginning with the liberal. A well-known television personality, he wears a blue blazer and a white shirt opened at the collar. In deliberate fashion and without notes, he rails against the evils of monopoly and privatization. Public utilities should be controlled by the state, he says. Capital markets are founts of corruption, and as such, must be subject to strict regulation.

Next comes the Islamist, a functionary of the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s most prominent fundamentalist group. Having once built vast empires on foundations of lightly regulated commerce—the World Bank, after all, once celebrated the 14th-century Muslim scholar Ibn Khaldun as an apostle of privatization—Islamists are generally free-market minded. This particular specimen, however, is not above trimming his message to suit a crowd where covered women and bearded men are a minority. After treating the audience to three Koranic injunctions—proof, he says, of the reconcilability of Islam and democratic values—he embraces a rigorous regulatory role for the state as the guarantor of social justice. In particular, he prescribes a minimum wage, antitrust legislation, revised subsidies for the poor, and a restoration of the wakf, or charitable trust, to rebuild Egypt’s dilapidated education system.

For the leftist, this is thin gruel indeed. Citing a recent survey by International Republican Institute, a think tank supported by the U.S. Republican Party, he notes that two thirds of the citizens who participated in the revolt against Mubarak did so in opposition to economic injustice in a country where 45 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and 20 percent of the population accounts for 60 percent of national income. (In America, by way of comparison, the top 20 percent of workers accounts for half the country’s wages.) The Egyptian media, he says, is idolatrous of the market-led reforms imposed by the old regime even as income disparity widened, living standards eroded, and the “digital divide” between the Web-empowered and the computer illiterate deepened. To level such iniquity, he says, the new government must redistribute wealth, establish progressive taxation, fortify worker rights, and kill energy subsidies for large corporations. (One wonders what the grand old IRI would have to say about that.)

Question time. A women approaches the microphone and charges the liberal as being a fraud and a poseur who sat out the revolution from the comfort of his perch as a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. (This charge is later contested by a man who actively resisted loyalists forces during the peak of the struggle.) A union organizer condemns the panel for neglecting Egypt’s estimated 25 percent unemployment rate and the fact that 20 percent of laborers work for a monthly wage of 200 Egyptian Pounds, or about $34, on temporary contracts that deny them basic rights and benefits. A young man demands more from the Islamist than Koranic scripture, condemns “neoliberal capitalism,” and proclaims himself a proud socialist and an admirer of Noam Chomsky. For that, he receives the heartiest applause of the night. 

Did Egypt wage a successful revolution against a sclerotic dictatorship only to resurrect the command economics of the Nasser era? Not necessarily. After three decades of corrupt, authoritarian rule and the last half decade of free market reforms that failed to adequately raise living standards, it should come as no surprise that ordinary Egyptians would demand the right to strike, a minimum wage, affordable healthcare, and a heavier tax burden on the rich. While upcoming elections may turn out a parliament hostile to continued privatization, it is unlikely to re-nationalize the banks. What is most striking about Tuesday’s debate is its pugnaciousness, which may come in handy as the revolution matures and illiberal elements conspire to hijack it.