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Two Misconceptions Concerning Egyptians 

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ByTarek Heggy

Two properties falsely, and unfairly, attributed to Egypt and Egyptians by ordinary people and by experts, by foreigners and  by the Egyptians themselves have been repeated so often that they have come to be regarded as incontrovertible truths.  The first is that the country and its people are capable of producing only one form of government: a highly centralized  political organization dominated by an oligarchy wielding absolute power. The common belief is that throughout its long  history, Egypt managed to transform all alternative forms of government into this uniquely Egyptian formula in which  centralization attained its most extreme form. The second property that conventional wisdom attributes to Egyptians is that  they are not ready for democracy on the grounds that the level of education and culture of a high percentage among them  is below the minimum required for such a proactive form of political participation.

The first allegation is easily refuted. For a start, we know very little about the political life and form of government that  prevailed in Ancient Egypt, a period stretching from approximately 3000 BC to 300 BC. We are not in possession of any  scientific data on how the mechanisms of government functioned for close on three thousand years. Even if folk legends  about the extreme centralization of Pharaonic rule are true, the practices of that far-off time cannot be extrapolated onto  the present. Moving on to a less remote, better documented, past, we find that from 300 BC until the middle of the twentieth  century, the Egyptians were ruled by foreigners. If they were kept in check by means of an extremely centralized form of  government, it was neither by their choice nor of their making. In other words, it was a formula imposed on them by their  foreign rulers. The years following the end of the British protectorate saw Egypt experiment with representative government,  the antithesis of centralization. While it is difficult to claim that during the heyday of modern parliamentary life, which  flourished from 1924 to 1952, true democracy prevailed, it is also difficult to deny the existence of a dynamic Egyptian  nationalist movement which waged a tireless struggle against centralization. The majority party at the time, the Wafd,  participated actively in the struggle, as did the minority parties. A striking example of the unified front presented by all the  opposition parties in this connection is the stand adopted by the Liberal Constitutionalist Party towards the attempts made  by King Fuad and Ismail Sidqi Pasha in the first three years of the nineteen thirties to strengthen the powers of the  monarch and curtail those of parliament. If Egypt�s experiment with liberalism was marred by many mistakes, its greatest  achievement was the promotion and development of a vibrant national movement which fought valiantly to end a system of  rule based on the absolute centralization of power. Despite a number of setbacks, its efforts were beginning to bear fruit.  After 1952, however, the drive towards decentralization was replaced by a drive towards even greater centralization, as the  new order sought to tighten its political control over the country. This is best illustrated by what happened to the institutions  of the omda and sheikh el balad (the village headman and his deputy). Traditionally performing the function of local  governments or local security agencies in Egypt�s villages, they went about their business without reverting to the central  government. Left pretty much to their own devices, they stood as a symbol of the decentralized exercise of power. When  this system was abolished and replaced by a system in which the occupants of these posts were appointed by the central  government, this brought to an end one of the most prominent aspects of Egyptian decentralization. 

Thus the allegation that throughout their history Egyptians produced only a highly centralized form of government is  groundless. For twenty-two centuries, centralization, assuming it existed, was imposed on them by foreign rulers.  Throughout the years of Egypt�s early experiment with democracy (1924-1952), the Egyptian national movement fought for  a more decentralized form of government. After 1952, greater centralization was the natural objective of a regime that did  not hide its allegiance to the one-party system.

There is no doubt that historically Egypt has produced excessive centralization at the superstructural level, that is, at the  pinnacle of power. But this did not apply at all levels. Otherwise we would not have known the form of local government that  existed when the omda and the sheikh el balad performed the function they did for decades before they became  government-appointed employees.

As to the second allegation, which is that Egyptians are not ready for democracy because of their low level of education  and culture, that can be even more easily refuted. History proves that democracy took root in England at the beginning of  the nineteenth century when illiteracy rates were extremely high. And, despite the fact that the ordinary American citizen  receives a higher level of education than his Egyptian counterpart, he is often incapable of making a considered choice  between various options, not to mention the fact that his knowledge of the outside world is practically non-existent.  Democracy in all its contemporary forms is based on the choices made by the elected representatives of the people who  conduct political life on their behalf. Thus democracy in and of itself is not above reproach. As it can be an engine for good,  so too can it lead to disastrous mistakes. A flagrant example of democracy gone awry is the case of Adolph Hitler, who was  elected to power in Germany by due democratic process. Thus the essence of democracy is not the high level of education  of the people but the mechanisms of change and rotation of power. This means that democracy does not represent the  acme of perfection, for there is no absolute perfection in any human endeavour. Rather, it is a better system than others.  Its relative superiority derives from the fact that it does not lead to the emergence of the biggest defect in human nature,  which is the continued presence of people in power without a time limit. The availability of a mechanism for the rotation of  power acts as a check on the human defect that allows people to believe they can remain in power for as long as they  live. 

It is clear from all the above that those who claim that Egyptians are congenitally disposed to a centralized form of  government and that they are not ready for democracy are way off the mark. These false allegations serve only those who  would deprive us of the finest achievement of humankind, democracy, which brought about a fundamental transformation in  the concept of governance in the interests of the citizen.


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