Ben Levitas
Ben Levitas

Egypt needs a Mandela

The tumultuous tides of human protesters on the streets, bridges and squares of Cairo and Istanbul, speak of frustration with the world as it is and a yearning for a better life. A clear and precise vision of that better life as articulated in the Freedom Charter by our visionary Nelson Mandela is what contributed to the success of our aspirations for change. This vision was poignantly conveyed by Mandela in his Inaugural speech in 1994:

“Democracy is based on the majority principle. This is especially true in a country such as ours where the vast majority have been systematically denied their rights. At the same time, democracy also requires that the rights of political and other minorities be safeguarded. In the political order we have established there will be regular, open and free elections, at all levels of government — central, provincial and municipal. There shall also be a social order which respects completely the culture, language and religious rights of all sections of our society and the fundamental rights of the individual.”

While Mandela’s message resonated with the whole South African population and was founded on universalistic human-rights principles, the messages emanating from North Africa and the Middle East are particularistic and inherently discriminatory, out of sync with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Edmund Burke, the great British politician opposed the anarchy and bloodshed borne out of the French Revolution and the subsequent convulsion that spread and desolated Europe. He advocated renovating existing institutions and supported reformers that believed the future will be better than the past as long as the future would be sufficiently different to justify the excesses involved in the transition.

For this reason the “Arab Spring” is dead. The romantic notions that gripped the imagination of the west, of a “people’s revolution” sweeping away decades of dictatorial rule, now stand in stark contrast to the aftermath of death, destruction and doom. Only one year ago there existed real hope that a newly elected government in Egypt, the most populous Arab state and traditional leader of the Arab world, would chart a new course for all the other unstable states in the region.

A year ago another, non-Arab Muslim state, Turkey also appeared to be a contender to demonstrate that Islam and democracy could indeed coexist. Now Turkey too, is embroiled in harshly suppressing its own “people’s revolt”. While Turkey is prosperous and a regional economic superpower, Egypt is impoverished and a failed state — it cannot feed or educate its people. Its reserves and foreign direct investment have dried up and it is now largely dependent on foreign aid and assistance. So economic factors do not fully explain the roots of the revolutionary origins. The commonality of all these revolutions was a popular revolt against the arrogance of powerful leaders that had all overstayed their terms of office.

What these popular uprisings amply demonstrate is that while it is easy to oppose and demonstrate against corrupt leaders and governments, the vision of what is envisaged in the new order is tainted and flawed. While the west hastened in their naivety to embrace these revolts as positive shoots of Arab democracy and reformative processes, they have delivered neither democracy nor freedom. With the effluxion of time, only one year, it is apparent that the Islamic parties failed to deliver on any of the promises to improve the quality of life or freedoms enjoyed by Egyptians.

The Egyptian constitution drafted by President Mahamed Morsi, against the wishes of the Copts and the secularists, was constrained by sharia law, limiting all freedoms that did not conform to Islamic law. In this manner, because democracy and sharia are incompatible, women were not as free as men, Christians were not as free as Muslims and gays and lesbians had no rights. Essentially this is the contradiction that all Arab reformists will need to confront and as long as they insist on the incorporation of Islamic principles barring a reformation of Islam, as occurred in Europe with Christianity during the early 16th century, the inclusion or adoption of any sharia laws, will be problematic for human rights.

The west needs to realise and come to terms with the fact that the voices of liberal democracy in Egypt are in short supply and that they have no chance whatsoever of gaining power, today or for the foreseeable future. Moreover, their opponents are anti-western, particularly anti-American, with many aspiring to reclaim the fascist policies of Egypt’s greatest modern leader Gamal Abdel Nasser.

Being an enemy of the west, as Nasser was, or of seeking the destruction of Israel or the annihilation of the Jews, does not provide a solid foundation on which to build a positive vision. Unfortunately groups like Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and even the rebels fighting against Bashar al-Assad in Syria, are founded on what they oppose, rather than positive visions of what they wish to create.

Only when Arab leaders and societies are ready to grasp the principles enunciated by Mandela during his treason trial in 1963 will the revolutions sweeping across the region deliver the “spring” fruit that its people yearn for.

“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons will live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for. But, my Lord, if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

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    • Tofolux

      @Ben, Madiba also said that there is a little bit of him in all of us. Hence it once again brings to mind this terrible thing called fear. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light and not our darkness that most frightens us”. In this sense, i will say that those who constantly betray humanity should be mindful of how they betray themselves. It should also be noted that it is quite ironical that Cairo should burn when Obama is on an African visit. Was this intentional or fortuitious? I would say that in order for Cairo to burn the world attention had to be re-directed. So clearly, not well done on an obvious and continuous campaign of destabilising Egypt and the Middle East. Also has anyone wondered why Egypt? I would suggest you look at the Suez Canal and the Panama Canal. Any progressive leader on any of the borders of the Panama canal has “died”. And any ”muslim” leader who rejects Israel on any of the borders of the Suez Canal will be certainly be dealt with. Democracy, what democracy when leaders are taken out by undemocratic means through the military. What does this say about this very system of democracy? So, certain people should dis-abuse themselvs from certain practises. It cannot be correct that Madiba is so mis-used to peddle non-sense stories. Not only is it out of order it is downright wrong and most patronising.

    • bernpm

      My first thought when reading your comments on current events in N Africa and Middle East is the decennia difference between similar revolutions happening in Europe and the US as are currently happening in N Africa and Middle East.

      Europe threw off the ages of suppression by revolutions at the time and stabilized over following decennia. The current unrest is (IMHO) routed in a desire of each country (now in turmoil) to establish an independent country not dependent or dictated by previous colonial powers. The European battles nor today’s battles were (and now are) by definition bloody and chaotic.
      Consider how long Europe took….the last serious war in the middle of the 20th century.
      Interventions of UN and NATO will not help these newly formed nations in their growth pains. A mixture of religious powers and economic powers is differently balanced then was in the European growth pains.
      The Western interventions are not given in by humanitarian reasons but plain economic (resources and trade) interests. Humanitarian considerations are just the varnish to get the various approvals from the overseeing bodies.

      In the early days of Europe, the Roman Catholic church was also aggressively involved in state matters (Spanish inquisition). The then ruling power (Romans) tried hard to suppress the movement. The division of religion , judiciary and state was clearly defined and officially accepted after the French revolution. Compulsory education during or late 19th…

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      It is precisely the Witch-hunt in Egypt against Maburak and the previous administration which has caused this, including the support for the army.

      The West and ICC must stop witch-hunting the opposition in the developing world.

      And Nassar was not so much an enemy of the West as a puppet of the Soviets at the very beginning of the Cold War.

    • Hameeda

      Thanks for a great article.

    • Call for Honesty

      I have been accused of an “abusive” comment. (continued)

      However our beliefs and behaviour are linked. Our world view is crucial and should be subject to scrutiny and criticism if it supports bad and hurtful behaviour. This calls for an honest…discussion. Is our behaviour as a result of our beliefs? It may be. Is our behaviour contrary to our beliefs? This could be the case. If our world view leads to hateful and hurtful actions then an honest criticism of this view is certainly not being abusive. To classify it as such is a form of censorship – censorship of the truth.

      We need an honest diagnosis of the real ills of Egypt and not shy away from suggesting the radical treatment needed – a cancer patient needing surgery and chemo will not get far on a food supplement. I am simply not convinced that a Mandela like figure will be able to effectively address the poverty, lack of food and be able to reconcile the many conflicting groups.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The violent revolutions in Europe were all in the Roman Catholic Monarchies; the Protestant Countries evolved slowly and still have monarchies.

      Mubarrak’s supporters are now targeting Morsi’s supporters, because of the Witch Hunt against their leader. These Witch Hunts are a Catholic Inquisition type legacy the world should abandon.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Although I don’t support the International Criminal Court, I do support the International Civil Court, and don’t see why it is not used more often. Both sides were unhappy with this court’s ruling on Venezuela’s expropriation of oil – both sides unhappy is a good judgement!

    • Baz

      Reading this article, not only Egypt, but maybe ,closer to home in our neighbouring country, Zimbawe. Does that country have a future……no more said….

    • Paul Scott

      Nice piece!