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Al-Ahram Weekly Online   21 - 27 June 2012
Issue No. 1103
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Abdel-Moneim Said

Democracy ofthe modern state

While Egypt has long had the foundations of the modern state, it failed in becoming democratic. But perhaps that can change now, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

In the past, we wrote for readers whom we had no way of knowing and, therefore, we trusted that language was sufficient to convey what we wanted to say. Today, we can find out quite a bit about our readers and, more importantly, about the gaps between our understanding of the terms and concepts we use and theirs. Therefore, with my apologies to readers who thought that what I had to say was obvious, it transpires that this did not apply to readers across the board.

The major objection to the term, the "modern civil Egyptian state" is that this state has experienced many disasters and setbacks, which some will always enumerate, and, more importantly, that the state has never been democratic and, hence, never civil and modern. However, the concept did not unfold this way in all human experiences. In those experiences, modernism became associated with a modern mode of governance based on institutionalised laws and regulations and the collective memory of the state, and with industrialisation, which catapulted agrarian societies out of lethargy and stagnation into a vast and dynamic realm of creativity and innovation in the sciences and the arts. Simultaneously, "civil" became intrinsically connected with citizenship rights and equality of all before the law, as well as with the separation between the institutions of religion and the institutions of the state so as to ensure that each could perform its essential function in society without impinging upon the realm of the other.

These were the foundations of the modern civil state. Germany was such a state, even under the Kaiser, as was Italy in the monarchical period, and the same applied throughout the 19th century to a handful of European states that had democratic systems of government.

Perhaps this signifies that democratic rule is something that crowns the maturation of secularism and modernism and that comes only after a long and arduous incubation period. This appears to be the case with Egypt. In spite of the fundamental changes that occurred throughout the latter half of the 19th century and into the 20th century -- the advances in the press and the media, the establishment of public education and the founding of the Egyptian university, the rise of industry and the emergence of political parties -- the democratic system that was established following independence in accordance with the declaration of 28 February 1922 was incomplete. Nor was it accepted by the monarchy, which continued to exercise its despotic grip to the degree that democracy and rule by the majority Wafd Party only managed to assert itself for seven out of the 30 years that are known as Egypt's "liberal period." Then, when the July 1952 Revolution occurred, its leader, Abdel Nasser, and his companions in the Free Officers Movement, included the establishment of true democracy among the six aims of the revolution. Nevertheless, in actual practice it appeared that those revolutionaries did not vest much faith in the people, so rather than democracy they imposed a mandate that lasted six decades. During this period, the course of secularism and modernism occasionally moved forward and occasionally receded, but they have remained the essence of the state. Today, we are experiencing a new beginning. Perhaps we will succeed this time.

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