international analysis and commentary

Change in Egypt, interview with Ahmed Zahran

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Ahmed Zahran is an Egyptian political activist. He is credited as being a key organizer of the January 25th Revolution and is currently working to establish a political party which would represent some of the youth who participated in the revolution. Aspenia online contributor Valeria Giannotta spoke with him about the evolving situation in Egypt.

How would you describe the current popular mood in your country?

There is an incredible state of dynamism within society. For the first time in our modern history neighbors and colleagues are talking about constitutional changes and how they are intending to vote. I see this dynamism taking us into new levels of political awareness. In concrete terms, the very fact that the referendum was held enhanced the public debate that is currently taking place about the next steps that country should take. I see Egyptians at the moment establishing the foundations for a democratic society. Despite all the uncertainties, citizens are learning new political skills that are crucial to a functioning and open society.

What was your own choice on the constitutional referendum?

I voted no to the amendments because I wanted a new constitution to be written now instead of waiting for the election of a new parliament which would then work on formulating a new constitution. It turned out at the end of the day, that there was no practical difference between voting yes and voting no, and this was not clear until after the referendum. It turned out that in both cases the military would suspend the 1971 constitution and do a constitutional declaration. Thus, whether one voted yes or a no, we are working towards a new constitution but now we have to wait for the new parliament to do it.

What about the constitutional debate itself?

The debate on the constitution is indeed active but it is still naive. People are still not aware of all the political terms and options. But overall a healthy dynamic process is taking place and people are starting to learn how to form opinions. Even the military council is learning the process as we go. Sometimes they insist on certain positions but later they change their stance and so on. It is a whole society starting to learn how to rule itself.

Many Western diplomats were afraid of Egypt falling into chaos with the fall of the Mubarak regime. This did not happen.  

Chaos did not happen because Egyptians by nature are inclined towards stability. Stability is, in a way, part of group psychology and it is one of the reasons Egyptians opt for choices that enforce that stability. The revolution started precisely because Mubarak was viewed as a threat to that stability – with his continuous disregard for public opinion and his insistence to install his son as his successor. Also, the impression that Egypt would fall into chaos without Mubarak was more or less propagated by Mubarak himself in order to assert his importance to the West as the guarantor of stability in the region.

What could be the role of the military in the foreseeable future?

The military has always played a role in Egypt’s political and economic life. This role was indirect and discrete during the Mubarak era and it is now becoming more pivotal and public. I think that over the coming period, the role of the military will increase significantly even with the installment of a new government. The new government will have legitimacy, but it will lack many of the tools to ensure its very existence and to enforce the rule of law: here, I think it will be the military playing this role some way or another.

Do you think the revolution is over, or are there still many things to be changed in order for Egypt to steadily move towards a full democratic system?

The revolution is not over yet, it still has a lot to achieve. For example, we are currently working on transferring the basic principals of the revolution to the various economic and bureaucratic-technical sectors of society. Many of the country’s economic and technical institutions are still managed in the old ways, many of the workers are still not organized and it is time now to literally revolutionize those areas as well. The strikes that hit Egypt during the past period in different factories and institutions are one of the reasons why the revolution should spread more broadly: strong trade unions representing workers have other means at their disposal to better guarantee their rights and defend their interests.

Elections are coming and many candidates are considering running. Do you see some candidates as stronger than others or is it still too early to tell?

I see candidates who ran for the previous elections as having an advantage over those who never participated. Parliamentary elections are a very complicated process in Egypt and you need to know how to campaign and how to talk to the people. Also, shanty towns in many places intermingle with posh areas, which means those who are running need to learn a lot about dealing with mixed and multi-class constituencies. This naturally gives an advantage to those who have more experience.

How would you describe Egypt’s future model?

You can say we are creating the “Egyptian Model”. Things so far have gone in a very Egyptian way and I am expecting that our model will be different from what you have seen so far in Turkey or Malaysia. With the revolution, we proved that we are creative and we will also be creative in developing our democracy.

How did the revolution in Tunisia impact Egypt’s own revolution?

The Tunisian revolution had a fundamental effect for two reasons:
First, it made us realize that a police apparatus that was more resilient and tougher than the Egyptian police apparatus was dismantled and collapsed in 24 days. It gave us hope that we could do the same.

Second, it made us feel bad that it was not us who did it first. We felt we had to do something… and we did.