Omar Khashaba graduated from the London School of Economics last year with a Bachelor of Laws degree, and upon returning home to Egypt, helped run the Free Egyptians Party.
SD: What needs to be done to complete the transition to democracy?
OK: Well, as I am sure you’re aware the parliamentary elections have already taken place and the newly elected Parliament has been tasked by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the body which has been governing the country since Mubarak stepped down, with drafting a new constitution. In my opinion this amounts to putting the cart before the horse. How can Parliament draft the constitution when it is in fact the constitution which must determine the powers and prerogatives of Parliament? Likewise, it is the constitution which creates a system of checks and balances and divides power between the executive, the judiciary and the legislature. It also dictates which political system a country adheres to, i.e. whether it is a parliamentary or a presidential democracy, a federal or a unitary state. So conceptually it makes no sense for Parliament, as an organ of the state which itself ought to be governed by the constitution, to have the exclusive right to draft that constitution. More importantly, however, a constitution is meant to be a permanently binding legal document which governs future generations and is either impossible or very difficult to amend. So then why should today’s political majority, which is transient in nature, possess the right to, at least theoretically speaking, bind all future majorities by exclusively drafting the constitution? Finally, to allow the political majority to write the constitution is tantamount to the creation of a utilitarian democracy. In a utilitarian democracy the majority reigns unencumbered by any restrains and the minority is vulnerable to whatever acts are proclaimed to be in the interest of the majority. The constitution is the one document which limits this absolute power of the majority and guarantees the fundamental rights of all citizens which cannot be infringed by any government. Freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and all those rights that are often taken for granted in Western societies essentially derive their power from the constitution. So is therenot a clear conflict of interest in allowing Parliament, and therefore the majority in Parliament, to draft the very document that is meant to constrain that majority’s power?
Ideally, what I would have liked to see is a constitution being written by a panel that comprised all the political factions of Egyptian society. There would have been no voting procedure in this panel (that would lead to the same majority-minority problem outlined above) but instead a provision would only be included if it was the subject of a consensus. The sorts of compromises this setting would have necessitated would, in my opinion, have laid the groundwork for a sound constitutional democracy.
As for the SCAF, ideally they would have handed power over completely to a civilian transitional government. Instead what we ended up with were civilian governments that lacked any kind of prerogatives and were little more than secretaries to the SCAF. The greatest challenge lies in removing power from the military who has been governing Egypt since the military coup of 1952. Opportunistic manoeuvres by the Muslim Brotherhood may mean that the army could retain very broad competences, such as the ability to determine of its own budget or to veto any legislative proposals relating to the military or national security, even before Parliament has had a chance to fully consider such legislation. Essentially, the military would not be subject to any democratic controls.
Religious tensions seem to be growing, and fundamentalist factions appear to have popular support. What can be done to remedy the friction between religious groups?
The marginalization and under-representation of the Coptic population in Egypt is a very real problem. For example, there are numerous regulatory obstacles that must be overcome in order to obtain planning permission for the construction of a new church. In a country where there is an ad-hoc mosque on every street corner there is simply no justification for that. I think it’s also fair to say that there is a rising level of sectarian tension in the country that is further exacerbated by the failure of authorities to protect Copts against acts of violence and terrorism. One example of this is the failure to investigate a church bombing in Alexandria last year. More recently, fundamentalists destroyed a church built by locals in the city of Aswan. To add insult to injury, the Governor of Aswan issued a statement saying that the church had been built without planning permission thus impliedly justifying the attack on the church. This sparked mass outrage not only in the Coptic but also the liberal community in Egypt and led to mass protests in Cairo’s Maspeero Square. During the demonstrations the military clashed with protesters resulting in a large number of fatalities.
It’s important to note at this point that there are extremists on both sides, Muslim and Christian, but the root cause of the problem is, in my opinion, education. Public education in the country is in a deplorable condition. There are schools with up to eighty students in a single classroom and neither the syllabus nor the style of teaching promotes critical thinking. Moreover, the educational system was used by the former regime as a way of planting seeds of blind obedience and adherence to authority at an early age. This mental attitude of uncritical acceptance coupled with a level of religious conservatism, which has been taking hold in Egyptian society over the past two decades, meant that people were highly susceptible to the views and ideologies espoused by religious authorities in their local communities. In fact, most confrontations between Muslims and Christians in Egypt begin with local Imams’ anti-Christian sermons during Friday prayers. Now, I am painting a very bleak picture here but it’s important not to overstate the level of sectarian tension in Egypt. Extremist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafists are of course the main culprits and largely responsible for the international coverage this issue is receiving. However, whilst undeniably there is some level of rising tension average Muslims do not, in my opinion, feel deep hostility towards Christians and vice versa. Islamists are obviously a different story entirely.
That leads me to my next question. Do you think the results of the recent parliamentary elections show Islamists to hold a majority in Egypt?
The short answer to that is: No. The Muslim Brotherhood received over 40% and the Salafists about 25% of votes cast in the elections. No doubt these figures are alarming and both these groups admittedly do command significant followership in Egypt. Nonetheless, in my view, these results are in no way representative of the political landscape in Egypt. Rather, they are a direct reflection of the superior infrastructure Islamist parties have managed to build over the decades. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has been in existence for more than seventy years. Contrast that to all the newly formed liberal parties in Egypt who simply could not have had the time or resources to reach out to voters and explain their propositions, especially in rural areas, which comprise no less than 60% of the country. Liberal parties just need more time to get organized and I think that the presidential elections to be held later this year will attest to this by showing a significant increase of liberal votes. In addition, I believe that the Muslim Brotherhood has been very successful in steering election debates away from issues such as the economy, health care and education and toward religion. Casting the debate in those terms automatically meant that if you voted for a liberal party you were breaching some kind of a religious obligation to vote for the Muslim Brotherhood/Salafists. I think that one of the biggest mistakes the liberals made was to not take ownership of these public debates and draw Islamists out of their comfort zone of religion. The truth of the matter is Islamists had no legislative agenda or campaign platform besides religious indoctrination and not capitalizing on that was a grave error. Nonetheless, once people see the Muslim Brotherhood in action I think that that romantic enchantment with religion will start to dissipate as they realize that the performance of a government truly has nothing to do with how committed to Islam it claims to be. At the end of the day, people want to see results: They want jobs and higher standards of living.
So what can be done about the unemployment and worsening economic situation of the country?
The educated yet unemployed youth taking to the streets in January last year was the main spark that ignited the revolution. Those who first marched towards Tahrir Square weren’t school leavers or illiterates – they were doctors, engineers and lawyers who had spent years at university but upon graduation couldn’t land a job. Many either continued to live with their parents or took jobs as cab drivers, waiters, etc.. Between 2005 and 2008 the international press lauded Egypt’s high rates of economic growth. The IMF sent accolade after accolade; HSBC predicted that by 2050 the country will jump 16 places to become the 19th largest economy in the world. Yet after the revolution it became painfully clear that first of all the growth was driven by the agricultural sector, offering the youth no escape from the economic quagmire that they found themselves in. Secondly, this wealth did not trickle down to them in the form of minimum wages, a good health care system and, in general, improved government services due to a corrupt system of government which allowed only the elite classes of society to reap the rewards.
It’s obvious that whatever political change comes about, the needs of this stratum of society must be addressed. What’s interesting about this is that many of the Islamist political parties, who as I noted above never really presented any clear economic proposals, claim to possess the “magic bullet” for resolving the issues; they promise to tackle unemployment by offering job opportunities in the public sector. Yet, history has shown us time and time again that this is a flawed premise. The only way to combat unemployment is through the private sector. Promoting the establishment of small and medium size business and facilitating both domestic and foreign investment are the only sure-fire ways of generating jobs. The current situation is dire. Small businesses are an integral part of the economy and yet draconian measures are employed to deal with people who default on loans for example. Inevitably, some small businesses will fail; if their owners are sent to prison over such matters then risk-averse behaviour will become entrenched in the collective mindset. Entrepreneurship will die before it has been allowed to live, and the country’s escape route from its economic woes will be blocked.
This doesn’t mean that politicians should remove themselves from matters of the economy; correct government plays a crucial role in cultivating the environment in which industry can prosper. The foremost thing they need to do is maintain a transparent, democratic system that protects the fundamental rights of citizens and upholds the rule of law. A fair and predictable legal system is an essential prerequisite for most investors. After that they can consider commercial measures, tax waivers, and various forms of investment incentives and perhaps trade agreements which would facilitate free trade and open up the market to foreign capital.