Egypt’s Lessons for Ethiopia

By IndepthAfrica
In Article
Oct 7th, 2013


The current political crisis in Egypt holds important lessons for Ethiopians. It is often said that democracy is not just about elections. Democracy means that people have to agree to live together and by certain rules, as described in a constitution, for example. In order to come to such agreement, people need to be able to negotiate, compromise, and find win-win solutions. That is why it is often also said that democracy, more than rules and institutions, is a mindset. In the absence of a democratic mindset and a negotiated agreement on the basis of the nation, there will always be conflict, as we see in Egypt.

When President Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorial regime was overthrown by the people of Egypt in 2011, it was seen by many as a great step towards democracy in Egypt. A vast majority of Egyptians were never happy being ruled by force and wanted the freedom and justice that dictatorships deny. But for decades, they were unable to put aside their various differences and work together in order to remove the dictatorship. Finally, in 2011, cooperation and unity emerged. Large numbers of people from all sectors of society, including all religions, political parties, and even people from within government, realized democracy was in their common interest, and so they worked together to remove Mubarak. The lesson of this episode for Ethiopia is that one party or one group cannot overturn dictatorship – it takes a grand coalition. Various groups and parties must first understand, that freedom, justice, and democracy is in their common interest, and then put aside their differences in order work together.

Though they could agree on removing Mubarek, the disparate groups in Egypt could not agree on what the future of Egypt – that is, the constitution – should look like. So they ended up having an election before a new constitution. In retrospect, that was a mistake, because after the election, using its slim majority, the Moslem Brotherhood put into law a new constitution that all the opposition parties were vehemently against. Why was this a problem – after all, the Muslim Brotherhood won the election? Was it not their right to create a constitution to their liking?

Well, as I said above, democracy is much more than elections. Consider the following simplified scenario – let us say there is a country whose population is 90% Muslim and 10% Christian. Elections are held, the people happen to vote based on religion, and an ‘Islamist’ party wins. Then the winning party passes a law that all Christians must convert to Islam. Will the Christians obey that law because it was passed by the majority? Not likely, and furthermore, they will struggle against the law – a struggle which will lead to persecution and violence. The only way to prevent this would be to have in the constitution basic rights such as freedom of religion, so that no government can pass such a law – so that there can be no ‘tyranny of the majority’. The other two choices are ‘tyranny’ – to violently force the Christians to convert or to have them live in a separate country.

The point being that a majority by itself cannot write a constitution. A constitution must fairly consider the interests of everyone in the nation, including those not in the majority. Of course, numbers do matter, and perhaps in the case of the above hypothetical country, given the very large Muslim majority, the constitution may be strongly biased towards their wants. For example, it may contain, like the current Egyptian constitution does, a clause that states that the “principles of Islamic Sharia” are the basis of legislation. But if the ratio of Muslim to Christian were 60/40 instead of 90/10, then one can imagine that there would be no such clause.

This simplified illustration is to show that a constitution must be carefully crafted to respect the rights and interests of a very large proportion of the population. As is often said, drafting a constitution is an art. It takes careful examination of all the different constituencies and interests in the country and then carefully balancing these interests so that no citizens or groups feel strongly that they are left out and that they are not equal partners in the country. If a significant number of citizens or groups feel left out, the result will be political and social conflict in the future. In the Egyptian example, opposition parties felt completely left out, and that was a major reason for the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi.

Of course, no constitution will fully satisfy everyone, but no one should feel completely alienated either. The lesson here for Ethiopia is that if the constitution, the rules by which citizens agree to live together, is not agreed upon or if it alienates major portions of the population, conflict is bound to arise.

But knowing all this, why did the Moslem Brotherhood and the other Egyptian political parties not manage to agree on a constitution? The simple answer is that they were not prepared to negotiate and make the necessary compromises. Yes, it is really that simple. Compromise and negotiation is something all of us do an a daily basis in order to live and work with others. For example, take a young adult who lives with roommates. These roommates have different interests and habits, so they have to negotiate everyday to balance these. They may even create some ‘house rules’ about cleaning, maintenance, use of facilities, noise, etc. These house rules – their constitution – have to be jointly created agreed upon. If even one person does not agree with them, then either he has to move out, or he will violate the rules and create a disturbance. So the rules have to be negotiated. In order for the negotiation to be successful, there has to be trust. No one will negotiate with someone they believe cannot be trusted. What’s the use – that person will not respect the rules anyway! Furthermore, once the rules are agreed upon and in place, they will need interpretation and once in a while, they may need revision. This requires trust and good faith, without which even the best set of rules is not enough to guarantee peace!

In the case of Egypt, there is strong distrust between various political factions, especially between ‘secularists’ of various kinds and ‘Islamists’, especially the Muslim Brotherhood. Despite this, the Brotherhood thought that they could get away with establishing a constitution that the opposition was so strongly against. Note that in the constitutional referendum, which the opposition boycotted, 63.8% of the people approved the constitution. But a strong minority of Egyptians who distrust and are very frightened of the Brotherhood remained opposed and got together and overthrew the government. The Muslim Brotherhood had made a grave miscalculation.

In retrospect, clearly the Brotherhood should have been much more careful. They were the most powerful individual party in Egypt, and they were expected to grow and become more powerful since they were no longer being repressed. At the same time, they were and are the most feared party in Egypt, because of their size and strength and potential to grow, and because of their perceived ideology. In their position, they should have been more conciliatory and inclusive, and compromised perhaps even more than required. They should have followed the model of Turkey’s AKP party. With patience, it was likely that over several years, they would have gained in power and popularity. But they could not see past the short term. They could not see past their fear and distrust of the previous regime, the military and security establishment, the industrialists, and other opposing factions. They thought they had to move quickly to consolidate power, and in the end they moved too quickly and frightened too many.

Of course, the opposition, too, should have negotiated better. It knew the challenge of the Muslim Brotherhood from the beginning, but did not deal with it. They too engaged in confrontation rather than dialogue. A major reason is that the opposition itself was too fragmented to engage the Brotherhood. Not being able to negotiate and compromise amongst themselves, it was difficult for them to do so with the Brotherhood. The lesson for Ethiopians here is simple, but fundamental. Let alone for large groups of people, even for individuals to live or work together, compromise and trust are necessary conditions.

So, as a result of the Muslim Brotherhood and other parties’ inability to work together, the military has again ascended into power in Egypt, re-assuming the role it has played in Egypt for the past fifty years. What is this role? To rule Egypt by force, playing different political factions against each other, religions against each other, taking advantage of the divisions inherent in Egyptian society. In its defence, the military will argue that without its dictatorship, there will be conflict between the various factions in Egypt since they do not have the ability to negotiate a peaceful future. They do not have the ability to work together. Recent evidence proves their point.

But does this not remind you of the political situation in Ethiopia? One of the mantras of the EPRDF is that it is the sole guarantor of peace and stability in Ethiopia. It claims that without it, there would be conflict between Ethiopian nationalists and ethnic nationalists, between moderate and hardline ethnic nationalists, between Muslims and Christians, between political parties with the same ideologies, between economic classes, etc. The EPRDF plays to the fears and weaknesses of Ethiopians. It cozies up to nationalists and suggests to them that without the EPRDF, hardline ethnic nationalists such as the OLF will cause chaos. Then it goes to ethnic nationalists and tells them that without the EPRDF, there will be a return to ‘Amhara hegemony’. It tells Muslims that all the new mosques that have been built during its rule would not have been possible with another ‘Christian government’. Then, it goes to Christians and tells them that it is the only party capable of protecting them against impending Islamic fundamentalism. It tells Protestant Christians that it is on their side! It tells farmers that it has always protected their rights and that the opposition are urbanites bent on taking their land. And so on. The point is that the EPRDF plays to existing fears and weaknesses – it has not created these messages of fear out of thin air.

One has to admit that there is some truth in what the EPRDF says. Unlike Egypt, the Ethiopian opposition have been unable to unite even just for the purpose of struggling against the EPRDF. Their inability to negotiate, compromise, and trust prevented them from coming together for decades, until just a few years ago, with the groundbreaking formation of Andinet. Even opposition parties with the same ideology and constituency have repeatedly been in conflict with each other over the past decades. Indeed, the Kinijit conflict of 2007 has been perhaps the greatest setback for democracy in Ethiopia. It is only recently that there has been welcome rapprochement between Ethiopian nationalists and ethnic nationalists. On the religious front, though there has been minimal overt religious conflict, there is a fear among Christians of a supposed growth in Islam. There is distrust between Orthodox Christians and Protestants. There is simply not enough trust and not enough of a democratic mindset. Needless to say, the ability to cast a ballot does not imply a democratic mindset.

This lack of a democratic mindset is not only an elite problem. It is time to admit that in the long run, elites reflect the people at large. Though politicians cannot resist the urge to idealize the masses and curse the elites, the fact is that there is fear, distrust, and inability to work together among the population at large. As in Egypt, this is the fundamental barrier to peace, freedom, justice, and democracy. The fundamental political problem in Ethiopia is not the EPRDF. In Egypt, it is not the military. These are mere symptoms of a population without enough of a democratic mindset. And once the disease of authoritarian mindset is cured, the symptoms easily disappear. Ethiopian opposition politicians should learn from what has happened in Egypt and work on curing this disease, rather than lamenting about the symptoms.

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