“The problem is not just how to achieve democracy, but how to achieve democracy and how to lead a country. You will encounter rigid positions from opponents of democracy, who will put forth nationalist arguments. The way around this obstacle is not through anti-democratic measures against them, but in adopting a slightly nationalist and populist narrative in order to win over opponents’ hearts. When the (democratic) opposition reaches power, the opponents of democracy will be forced to join it. Nor do I recommend building coalitions among opposition movements. From my experience in Egypt and Tunisia, such partnerships are doomed to come undone. An alliance must be made with the mechanism of government, the bureaucracy, with those who are supposed to implement policy.”
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The speaker is Amr Hamzawy, who gave his advice a year ago at a conference about democracy in Belarus. Hamzawy is one of the most eloquent and interesting intellectuals to work in Egypt, whence he has recently returned, following a six-year voluntary exile.
Over a decade ago the political scientist was considered the Arab Spring’s intellectual voice, and was twice offered a ministerial portfolio, following the 2011 toppling of Hosni Mubarak’s regime. He refused these offers due to his opposition to the regime appointing ministers without elections. He was elected in the first parliamentary election after the revolution, serving from January to June 2012.
Educated in Egypt, the Netherlands and Germany, he later served as a research director at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Beirut. In 2014 the regime blocked him from leaving Egypt, fearing that he would spread his anti-regime positions. Hamzawy appealed, and in 2016 went into self-exile in California. He continued to publish books and articles in which he pointedly analyzed the failure of the Arab Spring, which caused Egypt to slide back into a dictatorship akin to that of Mubarak, this time under President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.
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Six years ago, in an interview with the BBC, he described Egypt as the “republic of fear,” whose regime violates human rights and is far from implementing democratic values. “[The regime] offers the citizens bread and security in exchange for their rights. It’s an illusion. In the end, this regime provides no bread, no security and of course no rights.” Since 2011 he has amassed some 4.6 million followers on Twitter.
But in June Hamzawy decided to return to Egypt, which he “missed each day he was away,” as he put it. It is doubtful whether he could have returned had the regime not invited him to participate in one of the committees currently running the national dialogue, initiated by Sissi. Suddenly he began singing a new tune. In a long interview he explained to the interviewer, Diaa Rashwan, that “the new Egyptian Republic is fair, seeking to return the power to the state’s institutions, and whoever wishes to create Egypt’s future must live within it and not outside of it.” This was an infuriating interview, especially since Rashwan – president of the Egyptian Press Syndicate since 2013 and the chair of Egypt’s State Information Service, was selected in June to head a new council that has been tasked with conducting a national dialogue. Meaning that the host, a veteran establishment man, is the one who paved Hamzawy’s way back to Egypt, to an official post, and he expects him to drum up public support for the national dialogue.
Sissi’s initiative is not truly intended to listen to the public and to implement the recommendations and demands that surfaced in the dialogue committees. Absent a target date to conclude the dialogue and submit recommendations for legislative change, and absent a true commitment to adopt the recommendations, it looks for now like another trick to ease American pressure to strengthen democracy in the country. Some opposition parties have already announced that they will boycott the dialogue, along with the Muslim Brotherhood, which is barred. Hence the importance the regime ascribes to the participation in the dialogue of intellectuals such as Hamzawy, who is identified with the ideas of the Arab Spring. His name is needed to win public legitimacy for the very holding of the dialogue.
“It is sad that you, who were forced into exile due to your positions toward the regime and out of fear for your freedom, come back to the country with a discourse rooted in this very regime,” responded political activist Abd al-Rahman Fares in an interview with the magazine Daraj. “How can we speak of a new republic, that arrests more and more people, when at the same time you say it releases prisoners. And what of the thousands of prisoners still incarcerated?”
It is true that Sissi recently ordered the release of 700 prisoners as a gesture, and according to official figures there are only seven journalists left in prison, whose names have been published. But an examination of the list indicates a narrow definition of the journalistic occupation, as many of bloggers and journalists active on social media aren’t included, even though they are still in pretrial detention or serving prison sentences.
Hamzawy is expected to join a long list of figures who have earned the derogatory title of “state intellectuals,” who for years served the regimes of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak, bestowing ideological luster on their tyranny. Hamzawy is correct in his argument that change can only come from those living in Egypt and not outside it. But when even someone coming from the outside, like him, is allowed to return only if he throws his support behind a government project, it is doubtful that the “change from within” he calls for can become a reality.