For years the Arab world has been searching for the perfect Arab democratic model. Progressive young Arabs want a Western-style democratic model, but older democrats argue that we have to discover our own model, not copy and paste models from this or that country.
Islam, of course, confused this search. Islamists appeared to want an Islamic model that no one could explain or point to an existing example. Iran was not seen as a successful model and neither was Afghanistan. Turkey was touted by some as a model, although the country is totally secular even if its current leader has an Islamic approach.
Egypt is poised in the coming months and years to provide all of us with a unique example. Egypt’s revolution that brought down decades-long Mubarak regime was made possible by non-ideological young Egyptians who wanted to participate in the political process. For a while, especially after the parliamentary elections, the Ikhwan (Muslim Brotherhood) seemed to have hijacked the revolution from the young people who had brought down the regime. Being the main opposition group for years and having had to organise underground gave the Brotherhood an advantage over the others, especially since the Tahrir Square revolutionaries were unable to turn their street power into parliamentary seats.
The presidential campaign has been a breath of fresh air for the democratic future of Egypt. While the 13 candidates represent a healthy plurality of ideas and programmes, the discussions and debates that have focused on the future of Egypt have been amazing.
While discussions and public scrutiny of candidates has been inspirational, the Arab world’s first-ever televised debate produced an unprecedented public involvement in Egypt’s future.
The television debate featuring the two leading candidates at the time went on for a whopping four hours and featured a robust and unprecedented political discussion that was followed by millions. As one would expect, the debate — even though it had many deficiencies — caused dramatic changes in polling results, proving that people do care about a sincere discussion of political differences between candidates.
Economic and foreign policy issues, along with citizen rights have dominated the general discussion up to election day in Egypt. Statements made by candidates are regularly challenged and they have been forced to explain issues and how they would handle a particular problem that might arise under their leadership.
Hardline Islamic presidential candidates have not performed as well despite the impressive gains made in the parliamentary elections, which weakens the argument that if given a chance Egyptians and other Arabs would overwhelmingly elect radical Islamists.
The presidential election has forced candidates to fine tune their position regarding local and international issues with local politics and the economy position grabbing the lion’s share of the public’s interest.
Of course democracy is not only about elections. Separation of powers, the independence of the judiciary and freedom of expression are all necessary elements for a comprehensive approach to democracy whatever the governing model that people eventually choose.
Post-Mubarak Egypt has witnessed vibrant freedom of expression and media. Egyptians are demonstrating and protesting about all issues, sometimes to their own short-term detriment.
Newspapers have been able to operate without any interference and privately-run satellite television stations have become the leading source of information for an Egyptian public yearning for change. Ironically no solution has been found for the state-run radio and television with its 40,000 plus employees and no regulatory framework established for independent or community radio.
Egypt’s presidential elections are being watched very closely by friend and foe alike. The emerging democratic model that Egyptians will produce will most likely become a model for an Arab world longing for an end to autocratic rule that has left Arabs lagging behind the rest of the world. So long as the new model includes genuine power-sharing systems and a bottom-up approach to solving problems, the future will most certainly be much prettier than the past. Any attempts at reversing the gains made by the people of Egypt will not be tolerated by Egyptians who have started to taste freedom and democracy. The genie of democracy is out and it will not be forced back into the bottle any time soon.