In A Grain of Sand – Pretend Democracy

Dahlia Rizk

On one of the many occasions of my wanderings in downtown Cairo during our lengthy winter break, I saw this banner hanging from a building in Ataturk Square:

ONE YEAR PRISONER OF FREEDOM. FREE AYMAN NOUR.

The fact that this enormous big banner displayed in such a public space in the first place shocked me.

For those of you less than familiar with the ongoings of Egyptian domestic politics (that still includes me, by the way), Ayman Nour is the head of the Al-Ghad (Tomorrow) party, a main opposition party to the National Democratic Party (NDP), which has been ruling for the past, um, forever, under Hosni Mubarak. 2005 marked Egypt’s first-ever multi-candidate presidential election, in which Ayman Nour ended up with the second biggest amount of votes after, you guessed it, Hosni Mubarak.

However, Nour will be the first to tell you that having the guts to stand up to the country’s pseudo-dictator also means getting yourself put in jail. In January 2006 Nour was imprisoned for allegedly forged signatures that were required to authorize his party prior to the elections. You’d think that a candidate winning enough votes to be runner up didn’t need to forge signatures. But that’s just one idea.

The National Democratic Party won this past election on the platform of reforming the constitution. According to the major press outlets, at least 20 articles are up for amendment. In a widely publicized speech on Nov. 19 of last year, the president claimed that this parliamentary session would witness “the widest range of constitutional amendments since 1980”. The President also promises that a number of seats will be reserved for women and the Christian minority, and that the current emergency law, in place since 1981, will be replaced with a series of more lenient anti-terror laws.

Methinks this sounds like the winds of change a-blowing. After more than a quarter-century the NDP is finally willing to reach out in reconciliation with the bitter opposition that has been shun out of most decision-making power. Perhaps. But to continue with the postulation, it could also be little more than cover for covert plots to hand Mubarak’s 43-year old son the presidency. Actually, most analysts and members of the opposition agree with the latter point.

While these reforms could have some impact in the future, the debate surrounding these decisions is controlled by the NDP. To date there is still little information on what the proposed changes are and the timetable under which they will take place.

I don’t know if there’s ever been a situation termed “dictated democracy”, but this is just what it looks like. I can just see the President waving his magic wand and proclaiming “There will be democracy now”. True reform doesn’t happen without civic participation.

So this is Egypt entering Round 2 of Pretend Democracy. To tell you the truth, I’d rather play Monopoly. And I don’t even like Monopoly.