Egyptian civil society organizations keep the faith in democracy

Now that the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Mohammed Morsi has become Egypt’s new president, some fear the end of the revolution and the beginning of an Arab winter. Voices among Oxfam’s partners in Egypt, however, remain optimistic.

Two of Oxfam’s partners, themselves prominent figures in Egyptian civil society, say Morsi’s election represents another important turning point in Egypt’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. This is not to say Oxfam’s partners welcome Morsi’s presidency with open arms. Neither of the presidential candidates who made it to the second-round, run-off election, reflected the aspirations for true democracy, built on pluralism and non-discrimination, social justice and human dignity voiced by the protesters in Egypt last year.

The struggle against poverty and for the rights of women, the rights of minorities and the establishment of the rule of law, remain clear objectives for Oxfam’s partners in Egypt. And they plan to keep a close eye on the new authorities and monitor their observance of human rights and women's rights and their attention to issues of the poor.

Looking toward positive change

But Oxfam’s partners have confidence that those involved in sparking the revolution will continue to exert their influence over developments in Egypt.

"If you look at the results of the first round of the elections, Morsi and Shafik [the candidates who made it through to the second round] together only gained 47 percent of the votes," says Alaa Shukrallah, founder and principle consultant of Development Support Center. "More than half of the votes went to other candidates, people who were neither Muslim brotherhood nor old regime. So there is another force in Egyptian society, a force that represents the aspirations of millions of young people and workers and people who began the revolt."

Maher Bushra, executive director of Better Life Association in Minya in Upper Egypt, agrees. "Morsi was elected in a free and fair vote. But in fact he won by just a small percentage." If you add to the small margin of victory the fact that only 51 percent of eligible voters cast their ballot in the run-off election, you see Bushra’s point: Morsi’s popular mandate is less than overwhelming.

Civil society is mobilizing

At any rate, the success or failure of the uprising should not be measured only at the ballot box. Since the uprising began one and a half years ago, people have been taking more control of their own lives. Shukrallah points to the trade union movement as evidence. "The movement was monopolised by the old authoritarian regime for more than half a century. Now there are up to 800 independent trade unions." And the movement is still growing. Shukrallah says new political parties are cropping up even today, and people are challenging those allied with the former regime at the local level by forming popular committees.

The plethora of local initiatives can be difficult to channel into a meaningful national voice. Bushra says the reformist movement needs more unity. "Only by working together can we be more powerful." He advocates one broad coalition to represent the reformists. He says A Better Life will support the new government, since it was chosen democratically. "But we will protest if they don’t live up to their promises.’ In this way, civil society will remain active in defending women’s rights and issues that concern people living in poverty. ‘We will keep a close eye on the new authorities and monitor their observance of human rights and women’s rights."

Bushra adds that civil society groups will also insist on establishing a civil state. After decades of military dictatorship, Bushra does not want to see a religiously identified authority emerge. He advocates a state based on the rule of law, with justice and equality guaranteed for all.

International solidarity

Reform-minded Egyptians realize that the transition to democracy is a process, and it is far from over. Local initiatives are important to this process, but so are regional and international developments. International organizations such as Oxfam have a role to play in supporting the transition to democracy. Alaa Shukrallah says Oxfam can help create international solidarity with Egyptians simply by showing a realistic image of the country, with all its diversity.

See a larger image of Tahrir Square after the recent elections. Photo: Abdel Rahman Youssef/Hoqook.com

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