The Arab Spring that swept across North Africa in 2011 brought the promise of democracy within reach of millions of Egyptians. But seven years later this promise hasn’t been fulfilled. That fledgling democracy is now akin to a military dictatorship, where any form of protest or assertion of autonomous thought is constrained.
Since the heady days of the Arab Spring, Egypt has been riddled by political protests, labour strikes, and unprecedented violence in its Sinai Peninsula. There is also a deep mistrust between Muslim-based and other political parties, and tensions between Muslims and Christians in some parts of the country. Attacks on Coptic Christians have also increased and at least four churches have been closed down within the past year.
Given the current state of affairs it has to be asked whether democracy is attainable in Egypt? And if so, what can be done to achieve it?
Based on my research in democratic citizenship education as well as the Islamic philosophy of education, I would argue that democracy in Egypt is possible. Egyptians must, however, begin to engage with politics. This is because the strength of a democratic society is determined by the level and extent of participation and engagement of its citizens.
Although the Arab Spring is proof that Egyptians are tired of their authoritarian and repressive regime, it was wrong to assume that democracy could be entrenched easily. The road to a democratic society was always going to be difficult because Egypt’s political repression was supported by restrictive religious practices, such as the prohibition of any form of dissent. In this regard, opposition to the state continues to be misinterpreted as religious disobedience.
The only way the democratic promises of the Arab Spring can be fulfilled is if citizens contest oppression – political or religious – by becoming socially and politically active. Another condition is that Islamic and democratic principles have to be reconciled. This is possible given that Islam attaches deep value to public participation and engaging in different perspectives.
The religion also supports the idea of a social contract between citizens: an implicit agreement among the members of a society to cooperate with the nation-state for social benefits.
Fixing Egypt’s democracy
There are few things that Egypt can do to achieve a working democracy, and a system of governance that prioritises the public interest.
For starters, Egypt will only democratise in as much as its citizens can engage with public life. This is a view that has been advanced by Muhammad Faour and Marwan Muasher – the former Jordanian foreign minister – in a paper they wrote for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. One of the things this will depend on is their ability to engage with viewpoints different to their own.
But the emergence of democratic citizenship in Egypt will also depend on the disruption of the authoritarian state, and of repressive religious practices. These practices depend on an unquestioning, uncritical and disengaged form of citizenship and so must be dislodged.
In addition, given that Egypt’s dominant identity is based on an Islamic worldview, Egyptians need to revisit their interpretation of the religion. Distinctions must be drawn between what Islam teaches versus how it has been interpreted to retain patriarchy and authoritarianism.
This isn’t hard to do. Islam and the principles and practices of democracy are not mutually exclusive. As a religion Islam has the idea of a social contract woven into its doctrine. It’s a notion that appears in the Qur’an and was also practised by the prophet Muhammad. It’s also present in the social, political, religious, and cultural affairs of Muslims.
And so, viewed through an Islamic lens, social contracts between individuals and the nation-state are a manifestation of democratic citizenship.
Redefining promises of the Arab Spring
For this to be effective Egypt needs to change how Islam is taught, and it needs to restructure its education system so that children are taught how to engage with democratic processes. Only then can they become informed, responsible citizens who think freely and contribute to society.
Ultimately, there has to be a focus on cultivating a citizenship that redefines the promises of the Arab Spring by debunking the assumption that democracy would simply be ushered in without due attention to value of an engaged citizenship.