Democracy With Fangs And Claws And Its Effects On Egyptian Political Culture

 Democracy With Fangs And Claws And Its Effects On Egyptian Political Culture – Statistical Data Included
Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ),  Summer, 2001  by Joshua A. Stacher

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SINCE HOSNI MUBARAK BECAME Egyptian president in October 1981 numerous critics, observers, and governments amongst others have been insistent on calling for further democracy in Egypt while denouncing the ’slow pace’ at which this has proceeded. However, the President has alluded to his fear of democratizing too quickly. In April 1987, Mubarak stated, “we are providing doses of democracy in proportion to our ability to absorb them. We are forging ahead but we need time for our democracy to fully develop.” [1] This appears to indicate that an ’overdose’ would likely be harmful to Egyptian stability. Moreover, this statement implies that the Egyptian people are the key factor determining the amount of democracy to be injected into society. Judging from the substantial political deliberalization the country witnessed in the 1990s, [2] it would appear that Egyptian citizens are judged as still unprepared for democracy.

Such perceptions are reinforced by the views of citizens as reflected a week before Mubarak’s fourth successful presidential referendum in September, 1999. Adli Ayyad a 67-year-old jewelry shop owner, for example, stated, “I’ll say ’yes’ to Mubarak because nobody has done as much as he has. I want him to carry on. He is an excellent president. I don’t mind having him as president for life.” [3] As this comment indicates, political culture in Egypt does not appear to be particularly conducive to democracy.

The main argument in this article, however, is that far from having an “anti-democratic” political culture, there appears to be a prevalence of an apathetic political culture in Egypt. This, as will be illustrated, is more a consequence of the anti-democratic nature of the institutions, actors, and intellectual political culture that formally profess a desire for democracy, than a consequence of the nature of mass political culture in contemporary Egypt.


Democracy and cultural compatibility have provided an ocean of information and points of view. The reasons for this are cited by many distinguished academics in their works. Nazih N. Ayubi, for example, states, “Democracy is simply not a form of government; it is also a cultural and intellectual tradition.” [4] Sami Zubaida asserts that the explanation is easier, but is also rooted in a cultural context — one that does not pit Arabs against the West. Rather, Zubaida notes that it is possible to see several different patterns that all differ from Western state development in parts of the world such as Latin American, Asia, and the Middle East. He states, “It is quite clear that the implementation of Western models of the modern nation state in the Middle East, as well as in any other parts of the world, have led to very different patterns of formation, different from the West and different from each other. They are for the most part modern nation states, in terms of organization, administration and rule, but they are not modern Western states.” [5] While the endless debate continues on whether Western liberal democracy is culturally specific or universal, Zubaida’s point of view appears persuasive. In short, it is possible to institute Western democracy in non-Western culture. Its adaptation within a non-Western culture however, and the unique form it may take does not necessarily mean that it is non-democratic.

While it seems easier to place Islam and Arabs into the “undemocratic” camp because of “historical or religious roots”, the bridge that divides people and governments from being democratic or non-democratic is perhaps not that distinct. Indeed, one can argue that people are not innately or culturally democratic or non-democratic because, in fact, democracy is a learned behavior. As Diamond states, “Just as Latin American countries overcame what was once thought to be their indelibly authoritarian Catholic heritage, Asia cannot be condemned to authoritarian rule by their Confucian or Buddhists cultures, or Middle Eastern countries by the predominance of Islam.” [6] In relation to the Middle East, Elbaki Hermassi, in a paper presented in 1991, argued that neither Islam nor Arab cultural patterns are inherently hostile to liberalism and democracy and that democratic norms may be gaining importance as a source of political legitimacy in the Arab world. [7] Instead, he maintains that the major obstacle Arab gover nments must overcome is the legacy of colonialism. [8] The fact that Islam is one of the world’s largest and most complex belief systems and contains multiple and contradictory political messages, partly a consequence of interpretation, seems to discredit those who flatly perceive Islam as ’undemocratic.’ [9]

Nevertheless few topics appear to have proven as controversial as Arab political culture. Underdeveloped and misused by our predecessors as a concept, it has largely been dismissed because of its inherent flaws. Some of these flaws include flagrant overgeneralizations, Orientalism, ethnocentrism, and a reductionist approach that leads to stereotyping an entire people. [10] In fact, the approach is so detested by some, such as Lisa Anderson, who finds that “political culture analysis can be very seductive, particularly to policy-makers looking for short, neat explanations of the complexities they face but, at least as it is currently done, it is unusually susceptible to distortion and bias.” [11] Instead, she argues that it is necessary to know more of institutional basis, political economy, state-society relations, governmental policy and “a host of other things” before the gravity of political attitudes is considered. [12] On this basis, it is best to turn to what constitutes political culture.


Whilst political culture, thaqafa siyasiyah is obviously a broad concept, it can be summarized as: “the beliefs and values concerning politics that prevail in both the elite and the mass.” [13] This definition takes into account citizens’ perceptions and attitudes towards many phenomena that are vital aspects of democratic systems such as the legitimacy accorded to democratic ideals, tolerance of opposition parties, willingness to compromise and cooperate, and trust in the political environment. [14] Economics and political structures cannot alone explain independent variables such as “legitimacy and stability, trust and effectiveness, authoritarianism and despotism, liberalism and democracy.” [15] As Diamond argues, political culture is being taken seriously anew and it should not be disregarded in any effort to understand the expansion. [16] Moreover as Hudson points out in relation to the Middle East: of democracy. “a new generation of Arab world political scientists is indeed rightly guided in its rejection of reductionist-based and ethnocentric readings of what Said called Orientalist political culture, but we should be careful not to throw out the political culture baby with the Orientalist bath water.” [17]

Indeed, Hudson’s earlier work Arab Politics highlights the need to be aware of political culture. This is because he believes that what can be regarded as the superstition of “traditional” people should be understood less as a cultural phenomenon and more as a rational decision, by the people, derived from previous negative experiences with the “authorities.” [18] Moreover Hudson further claims that: “even those aspects of culture which may not seem directly political — such as mans s view of human nature and time, as well as his relation to nature and to his fellow man — influence political behavior.” [19]

Before discussing the issue at hand, I would like to note that this paper serves as an introduction to political culture in Egypt and therefore should not be read as an all-encompassing assessment. One must be aware of the fact that Egyptian political culture is multifarious [20], and given the brevity of this paper it would be illogical to attempt to fully examine every part of society. Therefore, I have chosen two large groups upon whom to focus my attention. The first are the ’masses’, which is used to mean the ’popular’ sector, ’man in the street’, or the ’silent majority.’ The second test group are intellectuals, defined for the sake of this argument as educated individuals who are frequently writing or publicly commenting on political events or trends in contemporary Egypt.

Continued from page 1.

In response to the 1977 bread riots Sadat claimed that “Democracy has fangs and claws” (Al-dimuqratiya laha anyaab wa azafer). [21] The President reiterated this point during the September 1981 crackdown on approximately 1,500 Egyptians from all sectors of society, such as intellectuals, Islamists, and others. Sadat explained to the people that they had to “understand that democracy has its own teeth. The next time is going to be ten times as ruthless.” [22] Ibrahim explains, “September 1981 was unique. Never before has so many, from such widely diverse ideological and political backgrounds, found themselves together in the same jail.” [23] This provides insight into the complexity and layers of groups that produce political culture in Egyptian society. In this respect, to say that something is an Egyptian phenomenon is an overstatement, and as such, it is necessary to first evaluate some of the sectors in Egyptian society.

Some of the major sectors, not in any specific order, are those striving for democracy, consolidation of Egyptian independence, Arabism, economic development, social justice, cultural-Islamic authenticity [24] and those who are against normalizing relations with the state of Israel. There are also many smaller, more concentrated sectors within Egyptian society, which when added to the larger ones, make it difficult to organize consensus leaving discord in society. In a society constructed as such, the ability to assemble a majority, much less something that remotely resembles unanimity appears impossible. The inability of contemporary Egyptian leaders to create a common unity to initiate a sustainable cause often hinders political culture from developing into a desire for democracy from below. Whether this type of atmosphere may be the intention of Egyptian authorities can only be speculated. Nevertheless, to assess the political culture of Egypt, one must first look at the mass sub-culture.


In a country that is suffering from less than successful economic reforms, as well as reversal of the political liberalization experience in the 1980s the mass political culture appears to have been greatly sapped to such a level that it is now marked by apathy, isolation, and alienation. As an Egyptian journalist explains, “people are suffering from hard economic circumstances from years and years of being alienated and isolated in the political game and they have become more interested in a piece of bread.” [25] The masses have become largely apathetic to the political decisions that concern them due to the economic strains they face in their daily life, as well as the constraints imposed by the existence of the emergency laws, which have been in force since 1981. The intense media campaigns that the government has directed at human rights activists such as Hafez Abu Saada [26], democratic activists such as Saadeddin Ibrahim [27], and even opposition party leaders such as Labor’s Adel Hussein and Ibrahim S urkri, [28] appear to also encourage mass apathy within society. Negad Boraai, the former director of the defunct Group for Democratic Development (GDD), for example, agrees that political culture among the masses in Egypt has largely been shaped by the continual renewal of the emergency laws and the misuse of the media to deter participation in the political sphere. [29] Moreover, it is the media campaigns against the Human Rights activists that he believes to have caused the most damage. As he states:

Media campaigns always give negative ideas about the people working in these fields (activists). Everyone is talking now that people working in human rights and democratic fields are immoral, thieves, and taking money from abroad. We lose all credibility and the people are scared to work with us. All these elements convince the common people to step away from participating. The government is controlling everything, especially those who are very active and have a direct connection to the man in the street. [30]

Yet government constraints do not stop there. The masses have in some cases been overtly penalized in what appears to be an effort to block participation or cooperation with these civil society groups. In the summer of 1999, for example, the Group for Democratic Development (GDD) organized a workshop for Upper-Egyptian teachers to instruct them in the use of democratic tools in their classrooms. The result was that nearly 30 participants in the workshop were detained for up to 24 hours in the State Security Office. The Ministry of Education then docked all those who participated 15 days of their monthly pay. Boraai explains the aim and the unfortunate conclusion of this project:

It was part, or at least we thought at the time, of the Minister of Education’s platform. The Minister of Education, Hussein Kamel Bahaeddin, is always talking about democracy and we need to help the teachers to use more democratic ways with the students. We sent the finding to the Education Ministry along with the offer to help them in more training sessions. What happened? The Minister of Education punished those teachers who attended the conference and took 15 days of pay off their salaries. Then the Minister proceeded to conduct an interview with Akhr Saa’a magazine and told them “Negad Boraai is a liar and that this organization took the Upper-Egyptians and tried to teach them freedom of sexuality and Atheism.” If you are a common person and you read this, what would your impression about these types of groups be? And furthermore, if you are a poor schoolteacher from Upper Egypt and I come and invite you to attend this type of course, would you accept? [31]

Boraai and others like him are thwarted by the hand of a government looking to further exclude and isolate the members of society from politics. Even when the official line appears to be in favor of an activity it appears, in contemporary Egypt, that the official line often serves as a line of demarcation which is not expected to be crossed by those looking to be included in the already limited political space. One can argue that such tactics do little to encourage a more democratic mass political culture.

Another more widely publicized example deals with the incarceration of human rights activist Hafez Abu Saada in December, 1998. This incident appears to serve as another attempt to contain groups in civil society while driving a wedge between the common people and NGOs. Abu Saada was held under emergency law for six days in December 1998 and charged with accepting $25,000 in foreign funds without the approval of the Ministry of Social Affairs, and with the intent to harm Egypt’s reputation. [32] The case against Abu Saada was finally dropped due to a lack of evidence as well as a considerable amount of international pressure and speculation over the case in March, 2000. Yet, it appears that the government was not concerned with any substantial violation of the law in this case. Rather the government used the case as an attempt to sway public opinion against foreign funding and NGOs as well as against those involved with human rights in general. Abu Saada explains:

The government used my case to give the appearance to the public that these human rights activists are fighting this country and working as an agent for Western countries and our work was an effort to get $25,000 and money. This has really harmed public opinion towards organizations such as the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR) because the people think that getting the foreign funds means that people are getting rich and stealing this money. What can you say really? What do you think the poor people, who make 200LE/ month, in this country think about how these NGOs that are supposedly making millions?

While Abu Saada may have escaped prison, the real aim of the case appears to have been to warn people to stay away from troublesome NGOs as well as dissuade common people from wanting to participate in politically relevant activities for fear of punishment or simply governmental hassle. Through the use of emergency laws and the media tools, it appears that people have been discouraged from being politically motivated. [34] In this light, it seems to be more logical for a common Egyptian struggling to make ends meet economically, to orientate himself towards monetary survival rather than to become concerned with political gains or space.

Political parties, and especially opposition parties, also remain a factor that appears to have contributed to this aspect of contemporary Egyptian mass political culture. Due to the elitist nature of opposition parties and their misuse of ideologies, [35] the masses appear to have withdrawn from utilizing them as a means of entering the formal political scene. While Egypt maintains 14 political parties, in reality only approximately 3 legal opposition parties can be viewed with any type of seriousness due to the constricted field in which they operate. The Neo-Wafd, the Arab Democratic Nasserist Party, and the Tagammu’ have maintained their legal status. But they have become highly personalized organizations [36] that fail to carry any substantial weight or represent diverse choice in society. Indicative of this is the number of prominent opposition parties that have shrunk in the past two years. The Liberal Party (Al-Ahrar) has been temporarily disbanded following infighting over party leadership after the death of Mustapha Kamel Murad in 1998. More recently, the Political Parties Committee decided to freeze the activities of the Labor Party in May, 2000, as well as ban the publication of its newspaper Al-Shaab. The fact that the public appears unconcerned by the dwindling numbers of the opposition indicates their lack of mass appeal within contemporary Egyptian society. Some observers suggest that there are no substantial differences between the opposition parties and the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). Gasser Abdel Rassek, director of the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center, states bluntly, “the actual opposition leaders are as autocratic as the government.” [37] On another level, this is perhaps not entirely the fault of the parties, which operate under tight circumstances that provide them “no way of testing whether they have any widespread popular following.” [38] The division between younger members and the old guard that remain the driving force behind the parties seems to continue to widen with time. A ccording to recent figures, only 4.1% of those in the 18 to 25 year old category are members of political parties, compared to a national average of David Hirst states, “there is an extraordinary apathy about politics, partly traditional no doubt, but also a consequence of the system itself and the seeming futility in trying to influence it. It is strongest among the young.” [40]

Governmental interference in the administration of the opposition parties has also widened the divide between the masses and the parties. By using methods, such as financial obstacles, the government limits the parties’ role in society. A telling example was given during the fourth Presidential Referendum of Hosni Mubarak in September 1999. The Nasserists’ party publicly put forth a ’no’ response to the choice of Mubarak. After challenging Mubarak directly, Al-Arabi, the mouthpiece of the party, was asked to pay a large amount of fees owed to the government-controlled Al-Ahram Publishing House for the publishing of the paper. [41] The opposition paper was forced, through this indirect economic pressure, to go from being a daily to a weekly. This appears to have served the purpose of limiting the influence and voice of the party for its failure to support the President. Thus, through indirect means, such as this, as well as Sadat’s constraining law 40/1977 which, in effect, prevents an opposition party from e stablishing links with any widespread audience in terms of regional, religious, or working-class basis, [42] the state preserves a system of dependency with its official opposition. The effect of this type of a system on mass political culture seems detrimental. People, who may be looking for a chance to participate through formal channels, such as a legal party, can become disenchanted and frustrated while being pushed into further alienation from the state. As this process occurs, it seems that an apathetic political atmosphere becomes further reinforced and correspondingly apathetic behavior becomes institutionalized as normatively correct.

While mass political culture appears to remain at a level of stagnation, the willingness to accept authoritarianism becomes an easier choice and as a consequence, emerges as the normal and acceptable behavior. As one Egyptian journalist argues:

If you look at the opposition parties, they all complain about democracy in Egypt and demand free elections and constitutional reform but the main question is why don’t they have free elections in their own parties. The dinosaurs are still running the parties. There is no real difference between an opposition party and the NDP. As for the opposition, they don’t have any experience in ruling this country. Maybe the NDP is the only qualified party which has a long experience in running the policies of this country. Besides, it does not matter, if I say ’no’ or ’yes’ to Mubarak, it makes no difference [43]

With respect to mass political culture and opposition parties, this kind of response strongly illustrates why citizens in general may appear resigned to the status quo.

This view appears further reinforced by two opinion polls that highlight the suffocating mass political culture in contemporary Egypt. The first general public opinion poll was conducted by Al-Ahram Weekly, in January 1995. [44] It sampled the views of 1,505 men and women of different ages and educational levels. According to Al-Ahram, the respondents were chosen randomly from Cairo’s two main railway stations in Ramses and Giza and guaranteed anonymity. The data concerning the domestic political issues and, specifically, the Egyptian multi-party system appears highly divided about the pluralist experiment Sadat launched in 1976. On one hand, positive answers were given when 73 percent of the respondents cited the multi-party as beneficial, while 14 percent disagreed, and the remaining 13 percent had no opinion towards the question. Yet, these responses were contradicted when respondents answered that the current multi-party system under Mubarak was considered useful by only 36 percent of the people. This wa s counterbalanced by a majority of 48 percent who replied that it was not. [45]

The sense of political alienation was further reconfirmed by those surveyed when only 36 percent could identify a political party or tendency as representing them, while a massive 40 percent claimed no political party in the country represented them. [46] Al-Ahram Weekly concluded that, “the answers to this question seemed to confirm in a dramatic way what many political analysts have been suggesting for sometime, namely the existence of a large ’silent majority’ standing largely outside the arena of struggle between political parties and tendencies, and viewing it with a high degree of indifference or cynicism.” [47] While this is what Egyptian political observers may have been saying, Al-Ahram’s recorded poll not only shows the divided nature of the people’s perception of political game, it also alludes to their desire to remain outside the political system.

A second more in-depth study was conducted and published by the GDD, whose opinion pail began on 1 October 1996 and ended in March, 1997. The poll included a total of 5,100 respondents in the seven electoral districts of Dar Al-Salam (Cairo Governate), Tarawat (Cairo Governate), Imbaba district (Giza), Al-Saff district (Giza), Shibeen Al-Kom district (Menofeya), Belqas district (Al-Dakahlya), and Senouras district (Al-Fayoum). The GDD claims to have used a random sampling method, yet it also attempted to sample a “real representation of all social groupings and sectors, so as to reflect the overall way of thinking in society concerning the issues under study.” [48] The main criteria that had to be met was that one had to be over the age of 18, which is the legal voting age, so accurate figures on participation could be attained. [49]

When one looks at the responses regarding politics in general the results seem to lend weight to the argument that the nurturing of an isolated, apathetic polity is working. Indeed, 88 percent of those surveyed claimed not to be affiliated with a political party, The majority (66.69 percent) did not care for politics, and a huge 94.32 percent were not participating or affiliated with a civil society organization. [50] Furthermore, while 47.36 percent of those polled were registered to vote on electoral lists, 38.56 percent were unaware of how to register, and 22.66 percent cited a lack of trust in the election process. [51] In addition, and demonstrating a lack of tolerance which further weakens the vital component to a democratic political culture, 33.96 percent of the respondents felt that some groups, such as the Akhwan il-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), should be excluded from political participation. [52] While no practical survey can substantially stand as the sole representation of a nation of 65 mill ion people, it can provide a foundation of tendencies and patterns that can be used in assessing political culture. Thus, it is reasonably sound to assume that mass political culture is largely divided, uninterested, and unmotivated to push the politicians who rule them for a more open system. Without the motivation to insist on a change in the system, the status quo has a better chance to remain in force.

In this respect, one can argue, demonstrations in Egypt, such as the 1977 bread riots, usually have more to do with concern for economic hardship than with corruption, misrepresentation, or the lack of democracy. [53] In other words, as Mustapha K. Sayyid has written, “The Arab masses have largely been absent from movements urging greater political participation. Perhaps these masses yearn for a political order that guarantees decent living conditions and a measure for their dignity and national values, be it democratic or authoritarian.” [54] Under these circumstances it appears to be nearly impossible to develop a grass-roots movement towards democracy.


Turning to the trends that form the intellectual political culture, they would appear to be formed as a result of a complex and highly divided array of ideas, commitments, and approaches to governance in contemporary Egypt. The various sub-groups, within the Egyptian intellectual field, appear to have been unable to reach a consensus regarding what acceptable government constitutes. Due to the vast amounts of superficial political and economic changes that have marked Egypt since the July 1952 revolution, it is possible to suggest that the lack of a concise vision by the Egyptian intellectuals has further reinforced the mass culture of political alienation and immobilization. Thus, it is not only governmental tactics that contribute to the masses’ sense of alienation and apathy. As one Egyptian intellectual explains, “The mainstream in Egyptian intellectual society is still largely left over from the 1960s generation. This is the same generation that still believes Nasser is everything. They are still defend ing him in one way or another.” [55] Yet while these intellectuals cannot be solely blamed, it appears many remain caught between the ideology of the 1960s and more contemporary ideologies.

One can argue that Nasserism, which was largely discredited after the June 1967 military catastrophe, appears to have been a major factor affecting intellectual political culture. For instance, it seems to have made intellectuals less likely to commit to any ideology as a universal answer for prosperity. As one author explains,

An example that seems to illustrate this trait was the 1992 annual Cairo International Book Fair which took place two-weeks after the 26 December 1991 Algerian elections, in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) won the majority. Appalled at the notion of an Islamic-based party in Egypt, intellectuals appealed to President Mubarak not to allow an “Algerian Scenario” to occur in their country. As Saadeddin Ibrahim recalls, “intellectuals advised the President to be ’extra careful’ in expanding or expediting Egypt’s democracy for fear of either chaos, as in the former Soviet Union, or an Islamic takeover as in Algeria.” [57] Some even went as far as to admit that they had been “wrong” in their previous criticism against Mubarak’s ’slow pace’ of introducing further democracy. [58] As Ibrahim explains:

. . . changes in the institutional structure of society, new modes of education, exposure to mass media, encounters with the international environment, and other concomitants to modernization that involve a transformation and expansion of individuals’ environments, all generate significant confusion at the intellectual level. Individuals often find it difficult to understand their new environment let alone adjust or enjoy it, given that the world view provided by their society no longer is adequate to the task. Unable to understand, they are often unable to function; they drift into anxiety and crisis. [56]

These expressions of panic revealed the thin veneer of the Egyptian intellectual’s commitment to the cause of democracy. All of a sudden they remembered that the ’masses’ (once glorified by the same intellectuals) are mostly ’illiterate’ and easily ’manipulated’. Hence democracy will be exploited, in their view, by ’non-democratic forces’. The bottom line in such argumentation was reminiscent of the objective of all despotic regimes to genuine political participation. [59]

Clearly, this retreat by some of the very same intellectuals who earlier voiced belief in the legitimacy of democracy gives support to the notion that intellectual political culture is still uncertain and divided. The abandonment of democratic values by many Egyptian intellectuals was not an isolated event of the early 1990s. Hafez Abu Saada, the current Secretary General of the EOHR remarks that, “The intellectuals are still scared of democracy because of the elections and the instability that war has brought Algeria.” [60] Nearly 10 years after the infamous Algerian elections and subsequent coup, Egyptian intellectuals remained mired in doubt over the democratic process. Abu Saada agrees with the government’s position regarding democratization in the heightened atmosphere of Islamist movements. He states, “I agree that the danger of democracy is the Islamists, I know that. The Islamists will use the democratic ways to come to power and then they will cancel the democratic process.” [61] The surprising aspec t of this comment is that it comes from one of Egypt’s leading human rights activist. From this, it is obvious even intellectuals whose bent is basically in favor of liberal democratic values sometimes vacillate when focusing on Egypt’s political life. It is evident that this can lead to a desire by intellectuals to exclude members of Egyptian society from any democratic experiment. This intellectual orientation appears to reflect the views held by the current Egyptian regime.

In fact it is possible to suggest that the battle between the Islamists and the Egyptian government in the 1990s has further fragmented intellectual political culture:

As the Islamist movement gradually occupies a prominent place among opposition forces, Arab intellectuals divided into two camps, with supporters of an Islamist political and social platform on one side and supporters of a secularist, liberal, Marxist, or nationalist alternatives on the other side. [62]

Another example of these fickle commitments made by intellectuals was at the annual “Call for Democracy” conference, which was organized by the Committee for Coordination between Political Parties (CCPP). The third such conference took place on 5 December 1999 and brought together intellectuals and members of political parties intending to request greater measures of democracy from the regime. Yet as was noticed, “The event was a far cry from the first democracy conference in 1997. During the three-day conference, all political parties and forces came together to an agreement on a minimum agenda for political reform.” [63] While the general discussion hovered around ideas of mobilization and organization, as well as the notion of democracy being unsuitable for the people, the meeting lacked plans for action. In fact, one of the participants cited the glaring contradiction between the intellectuals’ ideas and their inaction. Yousri Abdel-Fadil, a member of the Liberal Party, states, “All this sounds very nice . I have been active in politics for five years and in those years I have taken part in many conferences and listened to a lot of talk. But this talk is always confined to four walls.” [64] Dr. Essam EI-Eryian, a prominent member in the outlawed-but tolerated Akhwan Il-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood), notes the contradiction expressed in this conference and feels that the problem in Egyptian intellectual political culture is a result of intellectual class that pretends to be more liberal than is the reality. [65]

Intellectuals, much like the leaders of Egypt’s opposition political parties, appear much more interested in calling for democracy than actually making substantial attempts at realizing it. A plethora of intellectual rhetorical invitations for greater democracy is present, but it appears that only the ’democracy’ that will stand to benefit their personal status is welcome. [66] In that sense, one need only look at the notion of an “Arab Concept” of democracy, which some Egyptian intellectuals favor over a more Western approach, “For some, this implies a powerful ruling elite capable of mobilizing mass participation, but not subject to the checks and balances characteristic of Western democracy. Others equate democracy with social justice, while still others believe that democracy requires first of all a unified pan-Arab nation.” [67] These substantial divisions in Egyptian intellectual circles have done very little to promote a political culture conducive to a democratization process. While debate remains at the very core of intellectualism, as a result of the absence of an intellectual consensus on democratic principles in an Egyptian context, any talk of further democratization appears to be without any navigational map for the future. Thus, Egyptian intellectual political culture, and its lack of direction or unity, appears to have been unable to lay a democratic base capable of forcing the Egyptian regime to move on this issue.


Egypt appears to differ from conceptual Western democracy considerably and the authoritarian nature of the system created by the July 1952 Revolution has been strengthened under the presidencies of Nasser, Sadat, and Mubarak. This helps explain the apathetic, alienated, and immobile state of mass political culture, in combination, with the ambivalent behavior and schizophrenic attitudes of the intellectual-elite sub-group who appear to be becoming more entrenched in the system. In turn, this stagnated Egyptian political culture appears to allow the prevailing political system in Egypt to continue. Thus, as Egypt’s government appears to be ’muddling along’ from one crisis to another, [68] Egyptian political culture contributes to this outcome by seemingly floating with no clear direction or aim.

Political culture nevertheless is characterized by dynamic energy and possibilities because it “is not destiny.” Rather, “Cultural patterns and beliefs do change in response to new institutional incentives, socioeconomic development, and historical experience. Clearly, the experience of a brutal dictatorship, repression, and torture has given Latin American elite and mass publics a renewed appreciation of the virtues of representative government, however flawed.” [69] While political apathy exists on the mass level in contemporary Egypt, it cannot be confused with a “non-democratic” political culture. And as such, the chances of establishing and maintaining a democratic framework, in such a context, would not, as claimed above, necessarily bring instability.

Joshua A. Stacher is a Sasakawa Fellow in the Political Science Department at American University in Cairo. The author is indebted to Drs. Dan Tschirgi and Maye Kassem for constantly challenging and editing this work.


(1.) BBC SWB, 7 April 1987. Taken from Maye Kassem, In the Guise of Democracy. London: Ithaca Press, 1999, P. 54.

(2.) Argument in Eberhard Kienle, “More than a Response to Islamism: The Political Deliberalization of Egypt in the 12 990s, Middle East Journal, Volume 52, no. 2, Spring 1998, pp. 219-235.

(3.) Nadia Abu El-Magd, “The Word on the Street,” Al-Ahram Weekly 23-29 September 1999, no. 448, p. 4.

(4.) Nazih Ayubi, Over-stating the Arab State. London; I.B. Taruis, 1995, p. 397.

(5.) Sami Zubaida, Islam, The People and The State, London; I.B. Tauris, 1989, p. 145.

(6.) Larry Diamond, Politics in Developing Countries, Boulder Co: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1995, p. 21.

(7.) Elbaki Hermassi, “Political Culture and Democratization in the Middle East,” paper presented at the Conference on Democratization in the Middle East, Antalya, Turkey, 14-16 November 1991. Taken from Michael Hudson in “The Political Culture Approach to Arab Democratization”.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) Diamond, Politics in Developing Countries, p. 21.

(10.) Michael Hudson, “The Political Culture Approach to Arab Democratization,” in Bahgat Korany, Rex Brynen, and Paul Noble (eds.), Political Liberalization and Democratization in the Arab World, Vol. 1, p. 61.

(11.) Lisa Anderson, “Democracy in the Arab World: A Critique of the Political Culture Approach,” in Korany, Brynen, and Noble, Vol. 1, p. 90.

(12.) Ibid.

(13.) Diamond, Politics in Developing Countries, p. 19.

(14.) Ibid.

(15.) Hudson, “The Political Culture Approach to Arab Democratization,” p. 74.

(16.) Larry Diamond, “Introduction: Political Culture and Democracy,” in Diamond (eds.), Political Culture and Democracy in Developing Countries, Boulder Co: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994.

(17.) Hudson, “The Political Culture Approach to Arab Democratization,” p. 65.

(18.) Michael Hudson, Arab Politics, New Haven, CN: Yale UP, 1977, p.3.

(19.) Ibid, p. 33.

(20.) Saadeddin Ibrahim, “Political Culture and Development in Modern Egypt,” in Dan Tschirgi (ed.) Development in the Age of Liberalization, Cairo: AUC Press, 1996, p. 256.

(21.) Personal Interview with Adel Abdel Moneim, 29 July 2000.

(22.) Bill and Springborg, Politics in the Middle East, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1994, p. 224.

(23.) Saadeddin Ibrahim, “Political Culture and Development in Modern Egypt,” p. 256.

(24.) Ibid, pp. 256-257.

(25.) Interview with an Egyptian journalist.

(26.) Hafez Abu Saada is the Secretary General of the Egyptian Organization of Human Rights and was imprisoned for 6 days under emergency law in December 1998. The case was thrown out due to lack of evidence in March 2000.

(27.) Saadeddin Ibrahim is the director of the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies and professor at the American University in Cairo. He was imprisoned for 45 days from 30 June 2000 to 12 August 2000 on a number of charges ranging from Spying to forging election ballots. Because of a lack of evidence, he has been released but the investigation continues.

(28.) The Labor Party’s activities were frozen in May 2000 because of leadership disputes and as a result two of its prominent members Hussein and Shurki have been referred to military courts.

(29.) Interview conducted with Negad Boraai, 30 July 2000.

(30.) Ibid.

(31.) Ibid, Negad is referring to Akhr Saa’a, 5 April 2000.

(32.) The sentence for accepting foreign funds under the Nasserist Association law 32/1964 states that accepting foreign funds without permission warrants 6 months in prison. However, it is worth noting that this crime was updated by law 4/1992, which permits military courts to be used in a decision of such cases and carries with it a sentence of 7-15 years for such an offense.

(33.) Interview with Hafez Abu Saada, 3 August 2000.

(34.) According to Abu Saada, in December 1998, there were 265 articles published in Egyptian newspapers that were against him.

(35.) Mustapha K. Sayyid, “Slow Thaw in the Arab World”, World Policy Journal, Fall 1991, Vol. 8, p. 721.

(36.) Bahgat Korany, “Restricted Democracy From Above: Egypt,” p. 63.

(37.) Interview with Gasser Abdel Rassek, director of the Hisham Mubarak Legal Center.

38.) Owen, “Socio-Economic Change and Political Mobilization” in Salame, Democracy without Democrats, London: I.B. Tauris, 1994, p. 188.

(39.) Hirst, “Egypt Stands on Feet of Clay”, LeMonde Diplomatique, English Internet Edition, October 1999, p. 6.

(40.) Ibid.

(41.) Interview with an Egyptian Journalist.

(42.) Owen, “Socio-Economic Change and Mobilization”, p. 185.

(43.) Interview with Egyptian Journalist, Summer 2000.

(44.) Public Opinion Poll, “Yes to Pluralism, no to Violence”, Al-Ahram Weekly, 29 December 1994-4 January 1995, Issue Number 201.

(45.) Ibid.

(46.) Ibid.

(47.) Ibid.

(48.) Public Opinion Poll, The Group for Democratic Development, prepared by Hafez Abu Saada, Before It’s Too Late; Field Study on Political Participation in Egypt. Cairo: GDD, 1997, p. 17.

(49.) Appendix 1 at the back

(50.) Ibid, p. 25.

(51.) Ibid, p. 32.

(52.) Ibid, p. 49.

(53.) Mustapha K. Sayyid, “Slow Thaw in the Arab World,” p. 724.

(54.) Mustapha K. Sayyid, “The Third Wave of Democratization in the Arab World” in Dan Tschirgi (ed.) The Arab World Today. Boulder CO; Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1994, pp. 185-186.

(55.) Interview with Adel Abdel Moneim, an instructor of Arabic language, culture, and literature.

(56.) Paul Salem, Bitter Legacy; Ideology and Politics in the Arab World. Syracuse NY; Syracuse UP, 1994, p. 20.

(57.) Saadeddin Ibrahim, “Betrayal of Democracy by Intellectuals,” AlAhram Weekly, 6 February 1992.

(58.) Ibid.

(59.) Ibid.

(60.) Interview with Hafez Abu Saada.

(61.) Ibid.

(62.) Mustapha Al-Sayyid, :The Third Wave of Arab Democratization”, p. 185.

(63.) Fatemah Farag, “Democracy between Four Walls,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 9-15 December 1999, no. 459.

(64.) Ibid.

(65.) Interview with Essam El-Eryian, a prominent member of the Muslim Brotherhood, 8 August 2000.

(66.) Interview with Gasser Abdel Rassek.

(67.) Mustapha Al-Sayyid, “Slow Thaw in the Arab World,” p. 722.

(68.) Tim Sullivan, “Women and Development in Egypt,” in Dan Tschirgi (ed.), Development in the Age of Liberalization, Cairo: AUC Press, 1996, p. 226

(69.) Diamond, Politics in Developing Countries, p. 19.


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Below is a chart of the social make-up of participants
in the GDD’s survey (p.18):
ITEMS                     GENERAL  %
Males                      2854    57.08
Females                    2164    42.92
Above 25 to 40             2321    46.42
Less than 25               1364    27.28
Above 40                   1103    22.06
University Post-Grad        61      1.22
University Grad             858    17.16
Diploma                    1738    34.76
Post-Diploma                518    10.36
Below-Middle Certificate    711    14.22
Illiterate                 1114    22.82
Social Status (Single)     1869    37.38
Social Status (Married)    3131    62.62
Government Employee        1141    22.82
Working in Public Sector    507    10.14
Work in Private Sector      895    17.90
Self-Employed               376     7.52
Unemployed                 1617    32.34
Low-Income                 1285    25.70
Good-Income                 750     15.0
Average-Income             1809    36.18
Excellent-Income            97      1.94