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Egypt: The Fight for the Right to Shout

Freedom of expression and assembly are becoming much debated rights in Egypt. With the Presidential elections looming, the issue is even more critical. The military violence against protesters such as that seen in Abbaseya at the beginning of May highlights the different actors involved in this discussion. Rights groups claim that it is a constant struggle to keep freedom of expression and assembly alive in Egypt, highlighting the multi-institutional and multi-armed attack on these rights from courts, parliament and military alike.

As Noor Ayman Nour, No Military Trials states: “from January 2011, we were under the impression that things would forever be different. But by February of the same year freedom of assembly was already being attacked and protests dispersed…It is getting much worse.”

Follow the above link to Think Africa Press for my full article discussing the situation of freedom of expression and assembly in Egypt.

It is the eve of the Presidential elections in Egypt. In some ways everything seems so quiet. There is not the flurry of campaigning which I expected. Indeed, campaigning is not very present across  Cairo. It seems to be concentrated in specific areas of the city. Many of the main candidates seem to also be focusing on towns and rural areas outside of the city, where they think there campaign will more easily be able to influence voters and have a bigger impact.

The campaigns make themselves felt in bursts throughout Cairo, a flyer thrust into hands outside of metro stations, a heated debate on a midnight metro between strangers, a group of youths tearing down posters in downtown, passing by coffee shops shouting: “No to Shafik!”

This seems to be a feature of the campaigns. They focus on ‘No’ to certain candidates rather than rally support around one. The 6th April Movement, made a concentrated effort to support boycotting candidates linked to the previous regime. (See Egypt Independent).

This brand new President will have a strong influence over Egypt’s future. Not just in the traditional way, will his political preferences determine national programme and law-making. In Egypt’s current context any President elected will incite reaction from civil society. His religious sway will decide relations with a predominately Islamist Parliament; his political sway will provoke the reactions of determined and strong groups of activists, and his support of the previous regime will assure (or not) willingness of the army to withdraw from power.

With this in mind, it seems that campaigning is not the place where activists and Egyptians are really fighting for their future. It seems this new democracy will be asserted in post-election activism, not pre-election campaigning. For now, Egypt is waiting.

Democracy is the word of the moment in the MENA (Middle East and North Africa). In the past three months elections took place in Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco and calls for democracy were heard from Libya, Syria, Bahrain, Yemen. The EU Development Days also recently delved into the use of democracy in development. This article intends to continue this discussion of democracy in the context of these recent events. Indeed, as development professionals we often advocate for democracy without fully considering its consequences and implications.

To go back to source, democracy is an ancient term, first coined in Ancient Greece. However, it has no specific definition (even its essential terms are disputed), various different facets (elections, freedom and rule of law) and also takes various forms (ex: representative, direct and liberal). Indeed, democracy is not one concept; it is a complex notion. Seen through the eyes of the media democracy is elections. In development terms it is financing elections, rule of law projects and political participation. Yet, the broader issues it encompasses go much wider and much deeper into social fabric.

The recent events in the MENA highlight some of the concerning aspects of democracy as a developmental process. Democracy has been expressed in the MENA in the past month, in terms which can be described as violent. While Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco citizens have proudly shown up to stand in queues, crossed ballot papers and painstakingly counted votes, other incidents have been less peaceful. Some uglier aspects are also clear in unprincipled and unregulated campaigning strategies; propaganda which warned of a fast ticket to hell for supporting other parties; selling votes and smear campaigns against other candidates.

Where previous dictatorships controlled society, emerging from such a regime has required challenging its power and breaking down old structures. In Libya, Syria and Bahrain democracy has been represented as guns fired; attacks on regime buildings; occupations of public spaces and numbers shot down. A frightening side of democracy, this is felt as instability, injury, disintegration and death. Yet this does not mean that this disorder is all negative. While it has some undesirable effects, it also produces some very positive ones. As the old state structures crumble, as the Presidents fall, their ashes create a fertile landscape. On this landscape new ideas, values and movements quickly take root in a disordered, tangled yet healthy growth of something new.

This can be remarked across the region. In the Egyptian and Tunisian elections vast numbers of parties and candidates were on offer to voters. The celebration of individual activists and other individual voices highlights this trend. Movements and regimes disintegrated and once the debris was brushed away, faces and voices took their place. Where there were only a few figureheads, now there are many people, citizens, humans. As Wael Ghonim, Egyptian activist and computer engineer, stated about the Egyptian Revolution: ‘no one was a hero, because everyone was a hero’.

As the different phases of elections and protests continue, the Arab Spring demonstrates a sustained and determined approach to democracy which challenges social and institutional barriers. The Egyptian protests against military governance are one such example; the continued pressure against Al-Assad in Syria is another; the questioning of the Islamist strategies and aims in elections another; the discussions online, in academic and other fora yet another. Indeed, the MENA revolutions remind us that democracy is not a guarantee but a daily practice which must be tended like a garden.

The buds of the Arab Spring have started to appear and as they do they reveal a social situation which both reflects and differs from the old monolithic structures of tyranny and control. Old trends are seen in repression of Egyptian activists or the familiarity of Islam, albeit given a new political form. New trends also emerge in representation, expression, discussion and participation. Indeed, public participation through protest, on and off line debate and social movements has remained a key feature of life in the MENA across the past year.

Democracy in the MENA concerns the actions and decisions of citizens. This is a reminder that the Arab countries gives to development practitioners. The citizens of the MENA demonstrate that democracy is not a vote, neither does it start and end with elections, parliaments, political parties, courts or other state institutions. It demonstrates that power is not granted during elections or renounced in a new term. The democracies being built in the MENA are not an end result, but a constant and sustained social and institutional discussion and renegotiation.

Democracy currently concerns our whole lives as citizens and we have a daily choice to give or deny it the light it requires to grow. The buds of the Arab Spring show promise of societies composed of multi-coloured movements and peoples whose roots are firmly entwined in their demands for freedom. Those gardens must be carefully tended so that these buds may flower. In developmental terms, democracy or elections are an end goal, yet, in the MENA suggests this is not the case. Indeed, democracy, elections and other associated formalities are not an end product for the Arab Spring movements; rather they form only one part of a much bigger project of social growth.

This article was first published in Global South Development Magazine in January 2012.

Zero Hunger or in Spanish, Hambre Cero, is a government programme in Nicaragua designed to secure the right to food through self-sustainable production in rural areas. This programme was set up in 2007 by President Ortega and his Sandinista administration, following similar initiatives to that in Brazil. The current aim of the Nicaraguan programme is to secure 100,000 rural women with the productive parcel (bono productive) which consists of a mixture of livestock, seeds and farming materials which together allow the recipients to practice sustainable farming. The parcel is distributed to women in families with an intention of empowerment.

Article 11 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) requires government programmes to facilitate production, conservation and distribution of food. In this sense Hambre Cero falls directly within the requirements of the right to food. Yet, my own field research on this topic suggests that the right to food is not so easy to achieve.

Indeed, through interviews and other research I identified four main obstacles which hinder the implementation of the right, namely: politicisation; the character of the state; little change in access to food and the lack of an official claim’s process. It became clear that as the right to food in this instance is being administered through the state, it also takes on the many problems associated with the character of the state in Nicaragua such as political bias, corruption and inefficiency.

Furthermore, a right to food administered by the state is a difficult issue to contemplate as it turns a right on its head. A right is usually characterised as an individual entity. However, a right protected through state programme no longer has the quality of an individual guarantee, and neither does it have the empowering or assertive quality of a claim. As such the problems of understanding the right to food through Hambre Cero are complex in terms of the implementation of the programme, the character of the programme and the Article 11 right itself.

(More on my research in Nicaragua to follow).


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