Fixing Egypt’s Democracy

by Magdy Aziz Tobia

For any follower, Egypt seems to be revolving in a vicious cycle. The same banal scene we have been accustomed to since 1952; security apparati versus theocratic forces. Two years passed in vain.  Has democracy failed us or did we fail democracy?

As far as one is concerned, both are equally true.

Looking backwards at the formation fashion of the constituent assembly that drafted Mursi’s constitution (the first in post-revolutionary Egypt), the composition of it was 70 % Islamists and 30 % Non-Islamists.

First of all, in countries undergoing transitional phases after long decades of despotism, their voters’ attitudes are whimsical and their choices vacillate across the political spectrum. Secondly, query whether the political persuasion is the surest reflection of the myriad nuances of the Egyptian society, given the fact that the term “political persuasion” in Egypt is either sacred religious or devilish liberal?

Could gender, race or age reflect that identity that needs to be mirrored in the constitution? Is institutional affiliation a more reliable parameter for the choice of the constituent assembly?

In fact, all of these parameters are spurious. If the pillars of a building are cracked, the building will crumble. Drafting a constitution is no different. The country needs adept engineers, in other words, luminaries. An extra-ordinary mission and we cannot find an Egyptian Ghandi or Mandela! No way has Egypt (the largest reservoir of brain power in the Arab world) fallen short of philosophers. Only the meritorious specialists, in the related avenues, should be entrusted with such a daunting task in a tumultuous climate.

Thirty million people got onto the streets, because they see the Muslim Brotherhood “unfit to rule”. Its lackadaisical policies and sluggish handling of crises left the vast majority in severe materialistic desperation. One need look no further than a decision to appoint a governor with terror links to the touristic city of Luxor, subverting all the efforts to entice tourists. Or the meeting over a Nile river dam in Ethiopia, in which our credulous politicians shared their surreptitious plans to strike Ethiopia. This is just a sample of many other imprudent actions.

When one compares the qualifications and merits of our parliamentarians to those of their European or Asian counterparts, the picture is very gloomy. In Egypt, all you need to have is an elementary school degree to run for parliamentary elections. Some of the legislations debated over the past year were hilarious; farewell sexual intercourse, banning English in schools, etc.   The issues that concern Egypt’s future are of recondite and abstruse nature, such as IMF loan and its ramifications, to say the least.

Indeed, people voted them in. Yet, with poverty and illiteracy rates of 40 %, people can be swayed easily and there is a high risk of endorsing demagoguery. The remedy is not to offer extra votes for educated, but to introduce higher criteria of selection and election of our politicians. The criteria can be a mélange of academic and public activity.

Merit-based criteria are neither exclusionary, nor dictatorial. To the contrary, they are implementation of rule of law and notions of fairness. Rejection due to lack of qualifications is justifiable and crucial. Voters pay taxes and in return they expect the government to deliver the best goods, services as well as ground-breaking ideas. The mission is impossible if those elected are unqualified. The current leadership has the moral responsibility to offer the best options to the public to choose from, including criteria to filter candidates applying to vacant positions.

Our bureaucracy sanctions power monopolization. Whether Mubarak or Morsi, they found the lacunas in it to expand their mandate from governing to dominating. Their domination attempts often come under slogans of “reform”, thus promoting their loyalists to the top managerial positions in the Egyptian bureaucracy. Meritocracy can limit nepotism, corruption, improve the bureaucratic productivity and would guarantee the impartiality of institutions.

Meritocracy can give way to reduction of social disparities, competitive and scientific oriented society. It is likely to favour the shrinking middle class over the upper class. The Egyptian upper class is already more interested in private entrepreneurships. However, the middle class is the largest investor in schooling and higher education. It represents the collective awareness of Egypt. It was the driving force behind January 25th and June 30th uprisings. Egypt needs expertise informed by exposure to the outside world and careful, reflective thought. Youth will never be integrated in the decision making process or swiftly replace the above-60 generation unless given a relative advantage in the contest. Reversing brain drain of talented and ingenious young people can never be achieved without transparent meritocracies in place.

In the final analysis, democracy and meritocracy need not be mutually exclusive. Without the first a shoe shiner like Lula da Silva can never assume power. Without the latter Lula won’t have superbly succeeded, since he owes much of this success to his meritorious team. Even further, the so called “Western Democracies” are indirectly bolstered by merit-based education.


 Magdy Aziz Tobia is an Egyptian diplomat, member of the Egyptian delegation to the Arab League. He is also a writer and post graduate student of Anthropology at Cairo University.


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