Winston P. Nagan: Transformation to democracy in Egypt


Published: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 3:11 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 31, 2011 at 3:11 p.m.

Recently, news outlets are saturated with ongoing demonstrations in Egypt. The demonstrators’ call for Mubarak’s resignation, as an initial step toward democracy. A dramatic change has occurred with the recognition of Dr. Mohamed ElBaradei as a leader of the diverse groups that have coalesced to promote the replacement of President Muhammad Hosni Sayyid Mubarak.

ElBaradei was an outstanding diplomat who served as the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.’s nuclear energy watch-dog program. ElBaradei was a distinguished

scientist and a highly creditable leader. ElBaradei also received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005. It is a comment on Mubarak’s government that ElBaradei did not return to Egypt where his talents would have been important to progress in Egypt. This inability or lack of desire to use Egyptian talent in advancing ElBaradei’s return to Egypt is a serious, but typical, weakness in the current regime.

I had the opportunity to spent time in Egypt in under the auspices of the U.S. Information Agency. At that time, the agency was attached to the U.S. Embassy in Cairo, the American University in Cairo, and a civil society group, which was organizing a conference between Israeli and Egyptian psychologists and psychiatrists. During my stay, I got a reasonably good insight into Egypt’s problems. The first day I was there, a small crowd had gathered in a square near my lodgings. In short order the group was surrounded by Egyptian security forces. The security force quickly dispersed the group. Prior to this observation, I had only heard about the legendary efficiency of security personnel in Egypt. Their rapid response confirmed what I had previously been told.

While on the ground in Egypt, the American University provided me with a student guide. As we traversed the city together, our first stop was the City of the Dead. At this time, the City was inhabited by the poor and homeless of Egypt. With no other place to go, the living poor and downtrodden took refuge in the City of the Dead. I asked my guide about government assistance available to them, he looked at me incredulously, and noted that in Egypt, the reach of the government stops well before coming close to the poorest of the poor.

Cairo is a city famous for its distinguished medieval Islamic architectural buildings. Certainly, these buildings are a treasury and a heritage of all mankind. Among these buildings were the great

medieval mosques. These buildings were showing the wear of time. I asked my guide whether there was a program to preserve and restore these monuments, and indeed, there was. Apparently, millions of U.S. dollars were provided by Saudi funding to restore these cultural treasures. However, I saw no actual activity in and around the buildings.

My guide then took me for a walk around the complex and eventually, in a remote corner of the building, there was one single man with a hammer and a few tools. I asked my guide whether with

the Saudi money this worker was the highest paid Egyptian in Cairo. He responded that this worker’s salary was a pittance, even by Egyptian standards. I then asked him where all the millions of the

Saudi money went. Apparently, it had been digested in the non-transparent bureaucracies of the state.

While attending a conference during my stay in Cario, I met with professionals from Egypt and Israel, and eventually became friendly with an Egyptian educationalist and a physician. The educationalist

pointed out that in countless villages the schools were so underfunded that they lacked even the basic necessities such as chalk to be used on the black-boards. And the teachers had not been paid for months. I asked him what the students did and he responded that they went to another school organized by the religious leaders and funded from largely external charities. There these Egyptian students could attend school free, receive meals, and school supplies, and their teachers had all been paid. From the student’s perspective, the stress on studying the Koran was a small sacrifice for the experience of an education.

When I queried the physician about health care services in the villages, a roughly similar story emerged. The clinics had no medicines. The personnel had not been paid. As an alternative to the neglected state program, the patients went to a clinic organized by religious leaders which provided free service and paid the medical staff. Although sufficient funding had been allocated in the state budget, as it moves down the chain of bureaucratic decision-making, funds were depleted prior to reaching the ground. Both of these professionals were essentially secularly trained and although pious Muslims, they expressed concern that some elements of their religious establishment were exploiting the vacuum left by state malfeasance.

At a reception given by one of the Embassy personnel, I met a number of professional leaders from different disciplines. They echoed similar concerns. More than that, they expressed frustration that the state seemed to be suspicious of professionals and intellectuals, and that there role in the constructive governance of the state was extremely limited.

At this time, my sense was that the Embassy in general had a keen understanding of the on-the-ground problems in Egypt. The Embassy, in effect, had to facilitate two objectives which were not easily compatible. Egypt was an important political force in stabilizing the Middle East security situation. Here, Mubarak was an important figure. However, the corruption and internal discontent were factors that U.S. acknowledged out of the political reality that exists in the region. Since strategic factors were dominant, the effort to provide pressure to improve governance, strengthen democracy, and facilitate the development of civil society was certainly matters that the Embassy supported, but with a concern that it not alienate the ruling establishment.

I was introduced to a small institution concerned with efforts to develop and strengthen civil society. The director told me that although they received funding from the U.S., his mandate was difficult because the intense scrutiny the state vested in his institution. I suspect that the small but important effort to reach out to Egyptian society by enlightened diplomats may have had a role in enlarging the

expectations of democratic entitlement in Egypt. It seems to me that Egypt has reached a point where some innovative policies might constructively influence the evolution to democratic governance. Modern transitional governments have experimented with institutions to facilitate democratic transformation from authoritarian to democratic culture, yet within this context two impotent impediments must be accounted for.

First, authoritarians will not give in easily. In part they fear post-authoritarian retribution. Authoritarian rule creates a closet which hides the skeletons of great injustices. The pragmatic response to this is to secure a voluntary removal with a guarantee of an amnesty for past wrongs, subject to the proviso that the wrongs were done with an ostensible public purpose, and that the testimonies of past wrongs are complete. When the officials have fully testified, their cases are past onto a committee of jurists to determine whether they are entitled to amnesty. Amnesty is an internal prohibition on future prosecutions. This process is often supplemented by a committee on reparations which provides some state compensation for victims or their survivors. Yet, this paradigm has not been experienced in an Islamic state.

But Egypt has a great deal of legal and administrative talent to develop a process of transitional justice toward democracy. This process is better than a deteriorating long-term internal conflict, which could be a reality. It would be useful if the U.S. were to promote such a solution diplomatically and would be willing to fund it. Should the U.S. promote some form of transitional justice seriously, it would be placing itself on the right side of history.

Winston P. Nagan is the Sam T. Dell Research Professor of Law at the University of Florida

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