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A step short of democracy

Lack of political maturity inhibits Egypt from getting off the ground

by Rany Kassab

With election fever yet to hit Lebanon, less than a year ahead of the 2013 parliamentary elections, the eyes of Lebanese and much of the Arab world were turned westward in recent weeks, toward two countries that hold particular geo-political significance on the world stage, and with whom Lebanon has a special historical, cultural, and emotional bond.

Affectionately referred to as Umm el Hanouna and Umm el Dounya, the similarities in the recent presidential campaigns of both France and Egypt, respectively, are to a large extent limited to these terms of endearment.

Though both countries adopt a two-round system of elections, with the top two runners-up in the first round facing each other in a second and final round and the president directly elected by universal suffrage, the fact that France has been honing its democracy for more than 200 years has clearly placed it at an advantage. This was fairly evident when comparing the campaign that led François Holland to the Elysée to the one that saw Ahmad Shafiq squaring off with Mohammed Mursi for the Egyptian presidency.

At face value, and considering that it was the country’s first genuine elections since the 1952 revolution which ended Egypt's multi-party system, the presidential elections in Egypt had nearly all the components to render it a true democratic milestone, one that the revolutionaries of January 25, 2011, many of whom aspired to a “western-style” democracy, had fought for. A presidential oversight commission made up of the country’s highest judges was set up, Egyptians living abroad were given the chance to vote in embassies and consulates, a campaign-spending ceiling was placed and each candidate allocated a number and logo to facilitate identification and recognition and a campaign silence period was promulgated and largely enforced to maintain a “free voting environment.”

Yet despite all these measures, and regardless of the influence of the military in the process and the enactment of tailor-made laws and regulations to prohibit certain candidates from running (or allowing them), the key failure that prevents hailing these elections as a testament to pure democracy is the lack of political maturity.

Missing the point

While it might seem harsh, and may be excused to a certain extent because of a lack of precedent or a deep-rooted democratic culture, the reality of the matter is that the situation resembled one of a completed puzzle with a missing centerpiece.

In fact, little effort was made to make voters aware of their roles and responsibilities as citizens to cast their ballot based on their conviction in the program of their preferred candidate. Nor was there any to drive to highlight the issues at hand that voters would need to consider when choosing who to vote for. Instead, most campaigning prior to the elections focused on the mechanics of the process, failing to trigger the much needed debate on the nation’s post-autocratic agenda.

Moreover, while both candidates in the run-off did publish electoral programs setting their vision for the country, these programs were seldom referred to, debated, challenged, or used as a basis for proposing two distinct options for the country that voters would choose from. Alternatively, the campaigning often centered on the individuals and their personalities and backgrounds, rather than on their ideas and what they have to propose for Egypt.

In France, as in other developed democracies, opposing candidates lay out their strategies for tackling such issues as economic growth, poverty alleviation, investment opportunities, job creation, social security, healthcare, education, etc. In Egypt, all such issues were marginalized and treated as secondary priorities, with the campaigning focused on defamation and hollow accusations of corruption and treason, all the while stressing the past and failing to emphasize the vision for the future.

Though passions and emotions are a staple of any elections, they should be a side effect and not the main drivers of the process, which was certainly not the case in Egypt where ideas and issues took a back seat to instinctive and “populist” discourse.

The result is that whoever is elected will not be held accountable for promises made. Nicholas Sarkozy had promised to lower unemployment to a specific level, and though the European crisis might be blamed for his incapacity to achieve the target set, the majority of the French sanctioned him for it, along with his other unfulfilled pledges, choosing to vote Hollande out of a rejection of Sarkozy. Regarddless of whoever  leads the nation, it seems hard to believe that Egyptians would be able to assess and evaluate them based on tangible and objective criteria.

Social media’s limitations

Another key point to be learned from the Egyptian elections, which is intrinsically linked to the political awareness and maturity of the country, is the extent to which social media has had a role in influencing or even deciding its outcome.

While social media was widely heralded as the catalyst behind Egypt’s revolution, whether rightfully or not (it would be a gross simplification to attribute complex geo-political developments to one medium or platform even if it succeeded in galvanizing demonstrators and breaking the chains of fear), it remains that it did show its limitations during the Egyptian presidential elections campaign.

True, social media was pivotal in mobilizing voters and getting them to take to the streets to express their opinions or cast their vote, but its powers were rather shallow in moving beyond simply calling for action or in succeeding in elevating political maturity to a level that would make a tangible and long-lasting difference.

This conclusion might anger some, particularly among the many bloggers and political pundits whose intentions and motivations were certainly noble, but having closely followed the elections, it is unfortunate to notice that the issues often failed to take center stage. In the United States they say, “It’s the economy, stupid,” to refer to what the elections, more often than not, boil down to. The same could be said about France, the United Kingdom, and other developed nations. 

If we as Lebanese are to move to that stage, knowing that we definitely have what it takes for it, we need to enhance our political maturity and to start voting with our minds, and not simply our hearts.

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