- December 13, 2008
- 24 minutes read
Digital Democracy in Chile and Egypt
In the United States social media tools have impacted presidential campaigns since the Presidential Election in 2000. Philip Howard points out on his book New Media Campaigns and the Managed Citizen that after the election in 2000, exit polls showed that “a third of the electorate had used the internet to learn about the campaigns. After the 2004 election, surveys revealed that over half the electorate had gone online to get news or information about the campaigns.” According to Howard, Tim Vickey from George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign, stated that he saw this type of work as “improving the quality of democratic deliberation” (pp 45). It is also argued that communication technology could be used to promote democratic value by making information available to the public, which can be done easily through the different social media tools available now. In addition in the book The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, the author, Joe Trippi takes the reader throughout the changes that social media tools had made in political campaigns in the United States. Trippi states that what Barack Obama and his campaign achieved in 2008 “qualifies as yet another quantum leap in campaigning, in the use of the Internet, and in our democratic history.” Social media tools have brought to the United States a sense of true democracy in which the people have a voice. Now it’s not a one way communication as it was before, today is a two way communication where people can talk, share, organize, and mobilize politically.
In other democratic countries, social media tools have started to make an impact as well. Chile in South America and Egypt in the Middle East (part of the African Continent) are using some of these tools as part of their democratic right. However, due to political and cultural history, these tools are not being used with the same purpose as in the United States.
Digital Democracy in Chile & Egypt
Historically, Chile has been a political divided country since General Augusto Pinochet took over the country by displacing the president Salvador Allende. Pinochet was the president of Chile from 1973 to 1990 when democracy went back to Chile. This historical event divided the country in two groups, the group that was against Pinochet and the group that supported Pinochet. After Pinochet left the presidency of Chile, the country remained divided and it became very difficult for people to express their political opinion without getting in trouble with neighbors, friends, co-workers and family members. After Pinochet, two coalitions were created; these coalitions were integrated from different political parties. Each party has its own candidate, but only one is chosen to represent the coalition. Since 1990 a candidate from the same coalition has been elected as a president.
Chile has a total population 16,284,741 million. Currently, 11.7 million of people are eligible to vote (over 18 years old), however, only 8.1 million are registered to vote and during the last municipal elections only 6.2 million voted. This means that about 3.1 million of voters (less than 27% of the population eligible to vote) is needed to elect the next President of Chile (in Chile, a president is elected with a 50% + 1 of the voters). Out of the 8.1 million who are eligible to vote, 85% is older than 35 years old. This means that only 15% of the current voters are younger than 35 years old. This shows a lack of interest in voting of younger people.
This means that younger generations are not interested in voting, first because in order to avoid confrontation from neighbors, co-workers and family members, they prefer not to talk about politics at all. In addition, due to the Chilean constitution, an ex-president can run again after one term which last four years (this means that the former president from 2001-2005 can run again for presidency in 2009). As a result, the majority of the candidates from one of the coalitions are former presidents of Chile.
Younger people just don’t want to be involved in a system that is not working for them. However, now younger generations have found a way to talk about politics in social platforms like Facebook, which is the most used platform in Chile. Chile is among the ten countries that use Facebook the most. They use Facebook and blogs to express their opinion about presidential candidates. The way that younger Chileans are using social media now is bringing a new hope for younger generations to achieve democracy in this particular political system of Chile.
Currently there are government informative websites and blogs for citizens of Chile to be informed about current government issues and to exchange their thoughts. Chile has one of the strongest economies in Latin-America with only a 2% of unemployment rate. About 32% of Chile’s population has access to the internet. Social media tools are being used by current candidates as part of their political campaigns, but so far none of the candidates have had the effect that Obama had in United States. This is the result of the political division caused by Chlile’s political history. Due to this division, the vast majority of younger generations doesn’t want to vote and doesn’t want to get involved in a presidential election campaign.
In the Arab Republic of Egypt, the relationship between society and state has long been a controversial issue. The relationship between society and state in Egypt has long been a controversial issue. Many questions have been raised concerning the current political situation in Egypt and how does this affect Egyptians negatively? How does the nature of the Egyptian government shape the society? If democracy is one of the Egyptians’ simple rights, then what are the real reasons for preventing democracy? Is the state responsible for lack of democracy or is there other external power? Does democracy in Egypt aggravate the crisis in the Middle East?
Before diving into these interesting findings, providing brief description of how the modern political system in Egypt has been transformed during the times of Nasser, Sadat and Mubarak’s regimes since 1956 until now is critical in understanding the role of democracy in the Egyptian land. The political party system has transformed from a weak single-party to an equally weak multi-party system under Sadat 1970-1981. According to the Egyptian Constitution, approved on September 11, 1971, the political system is divided into executive, legislative and judicial branches.
The Executive Branch of the Presidency and the Cabinet
The executive branch is composed of the Presidency and the Cabinet, which was initiated by Nasser in 1956. Also, “he established rights to appoint and dismiss the Prime Minister, the Cabinet, the Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces and senior officers.” The President has legislative powers, and “he is the arbitrator between the three branches.” He also has the right to “veto bills passed by the National Assembly.” Under Sadat 1970-1981, “the President was empowered with even more rights” such as the power to issue laws in economic matters. “Sadat removed the limit on the number of times any one could serve as President.” “The President is the head of the government party, the National Democratic Party and the High Commander of the Armed Forces”, (Fahmy, 2002). The Cabinet is headed by the Prime Minister as he implements the public policies of the state.
Legislative Authority, Advisory and People’s Assembly
In 1979, the first legislative elections were held in Egypt within the framework of a multi-party system, in which many political parties participated. The legislative bicameral system consists of the People’s Assembly (Majlis al-Sha’b) with legislative powers, and the Advisory Council (Majlis al-Shura) which functions only as a consultative role. The People’s Assembly has 454 seats, 444 elected by popular vote and 10 appointed by the President. Half of the members must be peasants and workers with the same conditions. “People’s Assembly is empowered with legislative authority and must approve the public policies of the state, the economic and social development plan and the general budget”, (Fahmy, 2002). Not only that, but the People’s Assembly has wide control over the executive branch, for example, questioning the Prime Minister or any of his cabinet ministers. The Advisory Council has 264 seats, 176 members are elected by popular vote and 88 are appointed by the President, members serve six-year terms, mid-term elections for half of the elected members, this council was established in 1980.
Under the 1971 Constitution, “Egypt has a Republican form of government and in theory a limited democratic system… In reality, however, it is the President who wields the most power and who appoints key officials to serve in all areas of government. Islam is the official state religion and at least indirectly it guides the direction of most decisions and policies”, (Sriramesh & Vercic, 2003).
The Judicial System
Egypt’s Permanent Constitution supports a democratic parliamentary system, encourages the power of law, asserts the independence of the judiciary and urges pluralism. “The 1971 constitution declares that the judiciary is independent of other state powers and that judges are independent and not subject to enforced retirement.” “The Supreme Constitutional Court is responsible for enforcing adherence to laws and regulations and for interpreting legislation and the Constitution.” The Office of the Socialist Public Prosecutor is responsible to the People’s Assembly for the security of the people’s rights, the integrity of the political system, and other matters”, (Encyclopedia of the Nations, Africa, Egypt).
Mubarak’s Era and Electoral System
In October 1981, following the assassination of Sadat, Mubarak was elected to be the President of the Arab Republic of Egypt. He has been the President since then. In every presidential election, Mubarak wins with at least 78 percent to 88.5 percent of votes. Egyptians are frustrated since the country’s economics is very far from satisfactory, even though they don’t dare to elect another president. There is a joke said by Egyptians, a man votes against the current government in a parliamentary election. On his way home, he starts to think about all the terrible things that might happen to him and his family members if the authorities find out, so he returns back to the polling station and says to the officer in charge “I am very sorry, but I think I made a mistake on my ballot paper”, the officer says “yes, you did, but not to worry, fortunately we spotted your mistake and have already corrected it, please be more careful next time.”
Last presidential election in Egypt, Mubarak won a huge majority with 88.5% for a fifth six-year term. “There were the usual complaints of vote-buying, block voting by government employees and other irregularities”, (Whitaker, 2008). Sadly to say, but Egyptians always say “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know” and they constantly remark that Mubarak is bound to win, whether or not the majority actually voted for him. Recently, Mubarak has promoted his son “Gamal Mubarak” to be the next president of Egypt.
Society and Economy
“Egypt is the most populous country in the Middle East; it has a population of 78,887,007 (2006 est.), 90% of Muslims, 9% of Coptic Orthodox and 1% of other Christians”, (Wiki, 2008). Economically, Egyptians have been striving to maintain a stable financial status but with a population growth rate of 1.75% and the limited sources of income, there is a dramatic decrease of the country’s economy. This decrease led to a series of outcomes such as unemployment, lack of education, poverty, immigration, famine, spread of diseases, violence, drugs, crimes and child labor and abuse. In some cases, many Egyptians have developed a sense of cold feelings, hopelessness and apathy as a result of the financial status and/or the extensive use of cheap drugs; a lot of Egyptians, especially younger generation, use chemicals to feel drugged such as coughing syrup and other cold medicines that have DXM “Dextromethorphan”. In other cases, Egyptians have found other ways to escape this democratic drama by comedy. Recently, MBC channel has released a documentary regarding the connection between low economic level of the country and comedy in Egypt; Egyptians have the greatest sense of homer among other Arabs, they could spend hours sharing jokes with friends and family members. In addition, they have the largest business of comedy movies and theatre in the Middle East. Psychologists say that Egyptian’s comedy is a way to escape economic reality.
On the other hand, many Egyptians have recently protested against their government. Demonstrators are asking Mubarak to step down and calling for elections rejecting a 5th term for the president that has been ruling the country with emergency law since 1981 after the assassination of President Anwar Sadat, or to introduce significant democratic reforms. The slogan held by the demonstrators was “Kifayah”, which means “enough is enough”, is a grassroots reform initiative, but this Egyptian movement for change is now suffering from a loss of membership and momentum. Social media now is playing a significant role in opposing the current regime and bringing together more activists online. Facebook, Flickr and Twitter accounts have been created to speak up and protest digitally in addition to other online communities. But, the tyrant government of Egypt acts against digital democracy whether by blocking many political websites such as “Kifayah” or imprisoning bloggers and online activists for free speech and demanding human rights such as the famous case of “Kareem Amer’s imprisonment”.
In addition, Egyptians know very few things about Mubarak- the person. He is a mystery to his own people as he always appears in state ceremonies and public events only; Egyptians hear that he is a fan and a good player of squash, but he has never played in public. But, lack of clarity of politicians’ characteristics is very common in the Middle East.
Presidents and kings of the Middle East have agreements with the United States to ensure the region’s safety, not to aggravate the Israel-Palestinian conflict and to secure Israel. Most of the democratic claimers/ demanders are extremely religious such as the “Muslim Brotherhood” in Egypt and “Hizb Allah” in Lebanon. These groups have different standards of democracy, and they want to elect a President who shares the same views and beliefs. But, before granting them democracy, they need to learn about “Real” democracy since it is very easy to abuse. Regardless of that, there are innocent people who are dying every day because of inefficient and unqualified leaders. Egyptians seek “Change” for their simple rights of having food, education and security. Nothing will change overnight, but the hope of having a genuine multi-party system is not far from reach. This battle between state and democracy will remain for not a short period of time. According to history, Egyptians are not only fighters but winning fighters.
Social media tools are being used in other democratic countries in the world with the purpose of increasing their democratic right to have a voice. Not only different cultures required different tools, but also the way and purpose of each culture uses social media tools are different. While in Chile, it’s being used by young people to express their political opinion freely without any judgment or criticism from others, in Egypt, it’s being used to bring political change.