Transregional Center for Democratic Studies

Letter from Joburg

Updates from Elzbieta Matynia, who is conducting research on a Fulbright Scholar Fellowship in Johannesburg in 2010-2011.

February 10, 2011

Egypt: Squaring the Circle – Furnishing Democracy
A View from Poland and South Africa

The Vice President of Egypt, Omar Suleiman, opened the talks. But talks and concessions behind closed doors may not satisfy the citizens who are cherishing their newly discovered public space in Tahrir Square.

How many of us, including the tourists to Egypt’s pyramids, were really aware that Egypt has been under a state of emergency for 30 years now? That the rights and freedoms of its citizens, guaranteed in the constitution, were indefinitely suspended, including the freedom of association, freedom of movement, and freedom of expression? (Except for family gatherings it is illegal for more than four people to gather, even in private homes.) How many of us knew that censorship was legalized (no freedom of the press) and that tens of thousands have been detained without trial for defying these limitations? That people have lived in fear of the ubiquitous security forces? And that the number of political prisoners in this country of 77 million runs over 30,000,

Just a reminder to those of us who try to make sense of the developments in Egypt, including the recent Day of Rage, and the Day of Departure,

Act One: The Meeting on the Square
The people who gathered on Tahrir Square saw themselves for the first time as citizens, and indeed the square became their newly constituted public space. For Hannah Arendt such a coming into being of a space of appearance is a prerequisite for the formal constitution of a public realm. The accompanying enthusiasm and joy of discovering their own voices could not be stifled, even if interrupted by the attacks launched by undercover police and those who side with the Mubarak regime.

Tahrir Square is hardly a square, as its center is a circle, huge and grassy, now occupied by a tent city. Its shape is additionally confused by construction work, as it spills over into two limbs, one ending at the Egyptian Museum and the other, Al-Tahrir Avenue, ends at a bridge over the Nile, where an army checkpoint is installed.

Act Two: Hope, Speech, Conversation, Nonviolence
Press coverage mentions the extraordinary solidarity of people sitting around bonfires and talking. We all know by now that Tahrir Square means Liberation Square and, though it has been advertised on tourist websites as gay-friendly, only now has its very name gained a performative power. This is where the people regain their dignity, expressing their own yes we can., We hear their freedom chants (horiya, horiya). From the bits of interviews we know that the object of their discussion is above all Mubarak and the regime he embodies, but we also hear them talking about real elections and a new constitution. And they pray. That is the beginning, the beginning of a larger conversation, of the dialogue they need so badly.

Over the past two weeks Tahrir Square has become both site and narrative of a societal hope that centers on the kind of change activated by a newly arisen public realm. Such a realmcould create the conditions for dialogue, engaged conversation, negotiation, and compromise that are deeply invested in the democratic promise. But how to facilitate the transformation of an authoritarian political context into a democratic one? How to prepare the ground for a democratic order to emerge where there was none before?

How to make sure that the change is not just a gloss-over, but that it is inclusive, that it also respects the rights of minorities, and that it takes into account the rights of women? How to ensure that the transformation that aims at creating democratic institutions and practices takes care to nurture the richer texture of democracy?

Finally, how to ensure that the path to a new democracy is not a mere copy of what has worked in other places? We have learned our lessons, and we already know that democracy cannot be imported or imposed from the outside. We know that if limited to its key benchmark, free and fair elections, democracy could legitimately bring to power non-democratic regimes. We know such instances, and they serve as a cautionary reminder not only for democratic missionaries, but also for the citizens of any democracy that has become taken for granted and relies increasingly on experts, electoral campaign managers, bureaucrats, and money.

The transition to a meaningful and enduring democracy, never an easy project, has the best chance to succeed if it is initiated and owned by the local people and takes into account their voices, imbued as they are with their respective histories, cultures, and economies. But since we know this, how can we respond to those who are disappointed that we appear not to support the aspirations of the Egyptian people?

Well, there is a mechanism devised in the last four decades, known as the roundtable that, by taking dialogue between the people and the regime seriously, has facilitated peaceful political transformation from authoritarianism to democracy. The choice is clear: either the use of force or the negotiated settlement.

Act Three: Furniture Needed, a Sizable Round Table
The political mechanism, the roundtable, was introduced in Spain in 1975 and tested in Chile in 1988, and made possible the negotiated transitions in Poland and Hungary in 1989, and in South Africa in 1993. The roundtable institutionalizes dialogue by providing for it a concrete framework in space and time, by authorizing and legitimizing the actors, by necessitating the drafting of a script, and by establishing rules for the conduct of negotiations.

Though in each case it assumes local features, the roundtable seems to transcend geography as well as the varied historical and political circumstances that brought about the varied forms of dictatorship. After all, the cases of Spain, Chile, Poland, and South Africa are hardly analogous. The one thing they had in common was, generally speaking, the ostentatiously non-democratic character of their regimes, which were otherwise very different from each other. What may seem a paradox at first glance is that while in Poland it was the hegemonic communist party that was the ultimate confiscator of civil and human rights, in Spain and in South Africa it was mainly the outlawed communist party that acted against their respective dictatorships of fascism and racial apartheid.
Still, beyond society’s mastering of local ways of social self-organization in Spain under Franco’s aging fascism in the 1970s, in Poland under Jaruzelski’s compromised communism in the 80s, or in South Africa under the desolate Botha-de Klerk apartheid of the 90s, there was also a recognition on both sides of the pressures exerted by the international human rights community and by world public opinion, foreign governments, investment companies, and donor agencies.

• Who is to be the intermediary?
As the launching of a dialogue between enemies is a daunting task, an external third party, serving as promoter, guardian, or intermediary in the process, usually assists it. Interestingly, there emerge often surprising or even unlikely allies. Both in Spain and in Poland the third parties that exhibited considerable initiative in facilitating this experimental path were the ancient if not pre-modern institutions of the monarchy and the Catholic Church, respectively. In South Africa they were the Afrikaner nationalists, or more specifically theverligte wing of the governing National Party, enlightened Afrikaner intellectuals, mostly academics, but still loyal to the nationalist outlook. Who could perform such a role in Egypt?

Who is to furnish the table for the dialogue and negotiations? Who is to authorize and legitimize the participants in the talks? Who is to draft a script for the talks, establish the principles of negotiations, and plan for a contingency infrastructure in which any lack of agreement could be dealt with? In both Poland and South Africa, the roundtable established the grounds for the new order and marked the beginning of the long, tedious, and less thrilling process of building the new, in Adam Michnik’s words, gray democracy.,

Who will act as the intermediary, in Egypt? The military, which is already seen as the quiet protector of the protesters, and is not as hated as the state police are? Or perhaps exiles, who are not known to the larger public but are not tainted, and who bring with them the experience of living in overseas democracies?

• Who might to be sitting at the table?
The roundtable provides tools for institutionalizing a dialogue between those who hold dictatorial power and those social movements which, though still illegal, and often represented by people just back from prison or exile and labeled enemies of the state, are now acknowledged by the regime, however reluctantly, as the only ones able to bring credibility to the proposed dialogue and an eventual contract.

At the roundtable, outside of a few pre-written threads, the rest has to be improvised, or written on stage., That kind of performance requires enormous discipline, continuous research and training, a study of the new language, and a search for fresh ways of encouraging support from, and interaction with, the audience. The key actors have to come from both sides: the regime and the dissenting civil society.

Among those that we know from the media is General Omar Suleiman, former director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, recently named vice-president of the county, who seems to be trying to take charge of the talks. There is a reluctant leader Dr. Mohamed El Baradei, a lawyer and Nobel Peace Prize winner who headed the International Atomic Energy Agency; and there are some political prisoners better known in Egypt, such as Ayman Nour, a lawyer, leader of the Ghad Party, and a presidential candidate who ran against Mubarak in the 2005 elections that, according to international monitors, were rigged. There is, no doubt, the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest and one of the oldest opposition groups, illegal since 1952 but therefore even more influential, though currently holding back from the forefront of the current protest. But of course there are no doubt actors on the ground that we outsiders have not heard of.

• The Benefits of Conducting the Process in Public, a Key to Building Democratic Culture in Egypt
The manifest publicness of the roundtable talks serves an additional purpose in building any democracy: it exposes the larger society to the broad foundations of democratic politics, serving as a tutorial in participation, deliberation, representation, and discussion. Like its great-grandfather the New England town meeting, the roundtable engenders the arts of dialogue and compromise and further underscores the performative dimension of democracy-in-the-making.

The anxious monitoring of the talks by the public, including its frustration over their less-publicized parts, adds its own voices and gestures, expands the size of the theatre of political negotiation, and enables a larger participation in the roundtable talks. At the same time, the very mechanism and performance of the roundtable expands the stock of non-violent settings and political idioms that facilitate democratic change in contexts that lack democratic institutions and processes.

What is most important: the launching of a dialogue is not the result of the good will, of the ruling regime, but a combination of factors, one of them being recognition by the regime of the creative emancipatory invincibility demonstrated by society, the other party to the negotiations. It is important to observe that the invincibility reveals itself in a non-violent way (even if, or especially if, the non-violent approach is a recent one), and that it is not fueled by fear.

It is important to mention that the Spanish, Polish, and South African roundtables were not generated by frightened, atomized societies deprived of any capacity to resist the dictatorial power. Instead they brought together a motivated, hitherto rather unlikely assembly of modern subjects, half of whom at these tables representing the oppressed, were well aware of having been stripped of their basic rights and capabilities as citizens. The other half at the table, the oppressors, have to acknowledge, even if reluctantly, that they are the keepers of a system whose very existence depends on excluding large parts of society from participation in the political decision-making process and therefore from access to the resources and capacities needed to advance the well-being of both community and its individual members. But this is only the beginning.


The New School for Social Research
6 East 16th St., Rm 921, NY, NY 10003
212-229-5100 ext. 3136

Elzbieta Matynia, Director
212-229-5580 ext. 3137

Lala Pop, Program Manager,
PhD Student, Politics
212-229-5100 ext. 3136

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