Saad Eddin Ibrahim: «Egypt, a future of political plurality»
An interview by Giancarlo Bosetti 27 January 2011

Some weeks ago, Reset published an article by Larry Diamond in which he deals with the question: ‘Why Are There No Arab Democracies?’. But, surprisingly, the recent events in Tunisia and the demonstrations in Egypt suggest that democracy could be possible in an Arab country. Weren’t you surprised too?

It took some months but it was however quite unexpected. Many people have been talking for the last 10-15 years about an “Arab exceptionalism” while 25 years ago it used to be called the “Islamic exceptionalism” because Muslims were somehow different from the rest of the world and this was the reason why they did not have a democracy. This so-called Islamic exceptionalism is a false proposition because 75% of the Muslim population is actually ruled by democratically elected governments (Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Albania…. without forgetting India with its 165 million Muslims). Let us take Egypt as an example. Egypt created its first Parliament in 1866, that means 4 years before the Italian Unity with capital city in Rome. Egypt has been a democracy for almost 100 years, until Nasser Revolution in 1952 which brought to an end the Egyptian and Arab liberal age. I argue that the cause for its end was the establishment of the State of Israel.

How can you argue to demonstrate this connection?

Because the Arab defeated armies went back home looking for a scapegoat to explain why they lost the first Arab-Israeli war. In spite of realising that there were many reasons for that defeat, they put the blame on the liberally elected governments. Then, only three months after the signing of the armistice treaty with Israel there was the first coup d’état in Syria, followed by Egypt and then Iraq.

The Arab regimes, whether semi- or completely authoritarian ones, present themselves as a protection against the risk of Islamists coming to power. However, what happened in Tunisia was a completely secular set of events. Islamism was absent…

Islamists in the best of circumstances could get between 20 and 30% of the votes in any elected government. No more than that. These results come from research and surveys we have been doing in our center, the Ibn Khaldun Center for Democratic Studies, over the last 30 years. However, in our part of the world, dictators use Islamists as a bogeyman in order to frighten not only the West but also the local middle class.

Do you mean that the situation concerning the Islamists’ voting influence is quite homogeneous in the Arab countries?

I said that Islamists could get between 20 and 30% of votes. It means that in some countries they could get even less than 20% and in some other countries they could get the 30%. Even in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood has existed for 80 years, the result would be the same.

Is there a kind of secularization of society going on even under such regimes? Will the situation change in the next future?

Islamists do exist in Tunisia, like also in Egypt, Morocco and Algeria. They are not the majority but they are well organized. This is why if there were elections, Islamists would get the biggest block. Therefore, they will appear to be the prevailing group.

Islamists tend to present commonalities between Arab Countries as prevailing. Are there important structural differences between these Nations to be considered while talking about a possible future evolution?

Of course. There will always be two dimensions. The first one is the pan-Arab dimension: every Arab person from Iraq to Morocco feels a commonality: they all watch Al-Jazeera, listen to Egyptian and Lebanese songs, watch Egyptian movies. If an Arab country is playing a match with a non-Arab country everyone will cheer the Arab team. But if it is Algeria and Morocco playing soccer, there you may see how country loyalty is strong. It is just as strong as the common pan-Arab feeling.

Is the Mubarak regime as unpopular as Ben Ali’s one?

It is even worse.

What is the geography of opposition parties in Egypt?

If there were free and fair elections in Egypt, Mubarak’s party would get 40% of the votes, the Muslim Brotherhood a 20%. Then, another 20% would be won by al-Wafd party, a party established in 1919 but then outlawed under the Nasser era. It then re-emerged some 20 years ago. It receives a significant grassroots support in the countryside and from middle class. Mubarak’s party would control the biggest block but the balance would be given by smaller parties.

Have you ever thought about going back to political life?

In 2004 I challenged Mubarak when I declared that I was going to run as a candidate for the election and that, if he was sure of himself, he should change the constitution and allow me to run. Until that time, the constitution did not allow for multiple candidates. Under popular pressure, Mubarak agreed to amend the constitution in 2005, one year after I started my campaign. However, he made sure he would do it in such a way that it would be impossible for me to run. The candidate running for the leadership should have been part of a legally recognized party and there was none. Furthermore the candidate should have had only the Egyptian nationality while I had a dual citizenship (Egyptian and American, e.n.).

In an article about the role of Americans in the evolution of the situation of Arab countries, you criticized Obama for his lack of pressure for democracy. Do you still believe that Obama is wrong?

When Obama came to power, he was told that the Arab-Israeli conflict was the main problem in the Middle East and that, in order to do anything there, including dealing with Iran and Afghanistan, he first had to resolve this conflict. This was partly true, however, what he really did was neglecting the promotion of democracy. He failed to understand that democracy and peace are two sides of the same coin and that he should work on both sides simultaneously.

According to some Arab scholars, the role of Turkey in the Arab world is changing. In the past, the Kemalist regime aimed at containing religion but today the country is ruled by an Islamic democratic party.

You are quite right. It is a good role model where you have Islamic-leaning parties which believe in democracy and observe human rights. I always make an analogy with the Christian democratic parties in Europe, including Italy. These parties work within a Christian frame of reference but they believe in democracy and participate in the political game. This is a model to learn from.

May the Countries of the Gulf have a role in the development of Maghreb and Mashreq countries?

Kuwait is a good model. It has a democracy which has been going on for more than 50 years since the independence, with the only interruption of 3 years during the First Gulf War. Kuwait is then followed by Bahrain. Its democracy is not as old as the Kuwaiti one but it is still solid.

What about Al-Jazeera, the pan-Arab tv based in and owned by Qatar and the Arab Democracy Foundation? May they have a role and support the opposition?

I was the First Secretary of the Arab Democratic Foundation and Sheikha Moza, the First Lady of Qatar, was the real figure behind the Foundation. She has always truly believed that Qatar is ready and there is a 10-year plan to fully democratize it. In 2015 there will be full-fledged parliamentary elections.

What will be Saudi Arabia’s role?

Saudi Arabia will be one of the last countries to democratize. They had one experiment of local municipal election in 2005 and it was very dynamic but then the process seems to have slowed down. Saudi Arabia has all it takes to become a viable democracy however the royal family and the religious establishment still think that democracy is a Western imported product which threatens their power.

What would you suggest to the European Union and European governments to make them help the democratization process?

They should work for the promotion of democracy that Americans under Obama have neglected. They should be ready to help any country willing to go ahead with this process and to give favourable treatments and to use membership or association agreement with the EU as a reward for the countries which move forward democracy.